Saturday, 31 January 2009

The Dispossessed - Ursula Le Guin

This is a Sci Fi experience read.

I have no idea where I read a review of Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed but a review I must have read as, even though I have absolutely no recollection of ordering it, it arrived, along with books I do recall ordering, a couple of weeks ago. Which was quite handy as I was beginning to wonder if only boys write Sci-Fi... The only previous work by Ursula Le Guin I've read was The Earthsea Quartet* and I did not realise that she was also famous for being such a prolific Sci-Fi author.

The Dispossessed centres on the life of brilliant physicist Shevek and the chapters alternate between his experiences on his home moon, Annares, and it's twin planet Urras. This alternation also means that narrative moves between time and the book ends just before the first chapter. Which might sound a bit confusing in theory but really isn't in practice! Annares was settled a couple of centuries before the story starts by revolutionaries from Urras who wanted to create a more equal society and since that point it has cut itself off from Annares and, by default, the rest of the Universe.

The people of Annares are cash poor but rich in the sense that they all understand the role they play in society and work towards a shared, idealistic, goal. Urras is the seat of capitalism and the nation of A-Io (who sponsor Shevek when he throws over tradition and leaves Annares) flaunts all that is bad about material wealth under the dawning gaze of Shevek. This is not to say that Shevek is blind to the flaws of the ostensibly non-political Utopian ideal present on his home planet of Annares but that Shevek as the outsider is able to see the system more clearly than those living within in.

The Dispossessed was published in 1975 and won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in that year. The ideas so clearly illustrated in this book are what makes it special and it certainly makes the point that no political system is without flaws well. I took a course in political thought then I was at University and it was interesting to contrast this book with the nuggets of knowledge that I have managed to retain from those dim and distant days!

I digress. If you fancy a taster, Harper Collins have the first chapter online.

* Which reminds me - should I see the Studio Ghibli film "Tales from Earthsea" or not? I've read mixed reviews and just can't decide...

January Reading List

So the first month of the year is over and what a cold end! I've been dreadfully disorganised this year and am half way through four book reviews but I will finish writing these over the next couple of days and update this post to link in to them.

This is also the end of my first month participating in the Year of Readers project and I've donated £10 to Book Aid to cover my self-imposed "fine" of £1 per book for this month. Feel free to join in and/or donate!

I've really enjoyed the books I've read this month - it's (unusually) pretty heavily weighted towards Sci-Fi books as I am taking part in the Sci-Fi experience. I think I have been really lucky so far in that I've really enjoyed every single new author I have read and have certainly got some pretty good wishlist ideas as I start to catch up on some of the other books these guys (and it was mainly guys) have written! The only remaining question is where I would put them all but there is a wall in our dining room that I call dibs on... I've got a large stack of books to keep me busy on the Sci-Fi front throughout Febuary as well - although there are so many in the TBR pile that I think it might turn into a 2009 Sci-Fi experience! Erp...

January Reading List:
Snow Crash - Neal Stephenson
The Bookshop - Penelope Fitzgerald
The Gates of Ivory - Margaret Drabble
Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card
Clockwork Heart - Dru Pagliassotti
Glasshouse - Charles Stross
Aunts Aren't Gentlemen - P.G. Wodehouse
Gridlinked - Neal Asher
Daughter of the Forest - Juliette Marillier
The Dispossessed - Ursula Le Guin

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Daughter of the Forest - Juliette Marillier

This is a (loosely interpreted!) Sci Fi experience read.

Daughter of the Forest is the stand alone first book of the Sevenwaters Trilogy by Juliet Mariller. First published in 1999, it's loosely based on the old story of The Six Swans which has been written about in Grimm's Fairy Tales and by Hans Christian Anderson. As I had only the faintest recollection of the story, I was not quite sure what to expect and I think that this allowed me to enjoy the unravelling of the tale more.

The blurb: "Lord Colum of Sevenwaters is blessed with six sons: Liam, a natural leader; Diarmid, with his passion for adventure; twins Cormack and Conor, each with a different calling; rebellious Finbar, grown old before his time by his gift of Sight; and the young, compassionate Padraic.

But it is Sorcha, the seventh child and only daughter, too young to have known her mother, who alone is destined to defend her family and protect her land from the Britons and the clan known as Northwoods. For her father has been bewitched, and her brothers bound by a spell that only Sorcha can lift..."

Living in Ireland, and against the backdrop of fierce hatred of the invading Britons, Sorcha was raised almost entirely by her six elder brothers and their sense of being a unit is absolute until their father brings home a new bride...

I quite honestly read this book into the night until my eyes burned as I could not put it down. It's a story of love, friendship, loss, fear, tragedy, betrayal and steadfast commitment to family. Although at times surprisingly harrowing, this is at heart a historical romance/fantasy that's really quite heart warming and great fun. Reading this book made me realise that there is not nearly enough romance in my reading matter and I shall have to rectify that soon as I really enjoyed myself. Oh. Except for the bits where I blubbed into my pillow like a teenage girl!

Juliet Marillier was born in New Zealand and now lives in a rural area outside Perth in Western Australia. She set Sevenwaters in County Armagh and has some photos she took up on her site which help to bring the area alive. I think that she did a great job of emersing herself in the Irish and English countryside and look forward to reading more of her work.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Gridlinked - Neal Asher

This is a Sci Fi experience read.

Gridlinked was Neal Asher's first full-length SF novel and is an accomplished fast-paced action thriller crammed with intriguing technology, fascinating characters and packed with weapons. The central character is long-time Polity agent Ian Cormac who, in the early stages of the book, is struggling to deal with the realisation that he has been dehumanised by thirty years of being plugged into the AI network - also known as being Gridlinked.

The Blurb: "In outer space you can never feel sure that your adversary is altogether human. The runcible buffers on Samarkand have been mysteriously sabotaged, killing many thousands and destroying a terraforming project. Agent Ian Cormac must reach it by ship to begin an investigation. But Cormac has incurred the wrath of a vicious psychopath called Pelter, who is prepared to follow him across the galaxy with a terrifying android in tow. Despite the sub-zero temperature of Samarkand, Cormac discovers signs of life: they are two 'dracomen', alien beasts contrived by an extra-galactic entity calling itself 'Dragon', which is a huge creature consisting of four conjoined spheres of flesh each a kilometre in diameter. Caught between the byzantine wiles of the Dragon and the lethal fury of Pelter, Cormac needs to skip very nimbly indeed to rescue the Samarkand project and protect his own life."

Generally, I find that copying a book's blurb helps to explain what the story is about but I really don't think that's the case in this instance! In summary, it's in space, there's a clever secret agent, sneaky weaponry, an evil psychotic villain complete with android sidekick (the fabulously intriguing Mr Crane) a mystery and a hint of a romance. What's not to like? I liked the character development and the tech featured in the book was really well thought through although I'd have liked to see more about the ethics of creating superhuman "Golem" androids and whether, like Mr Crane, they are capable of operating outside of their programing. Like The Culture, from the books by Iain M Banks, this future is controlled by omnipotent AIs rather than the humans and I rather like that premise and I suspect the "Earth Central" computer is playing a very long-view game.

I gather that Ian Cormack stars in subsequent books and I'd be interested in finding out what happens to him next as the book's ending was intriguing. Neal Asher is definitely an author I am really pleased to have "discovered" - which, I suspect, is the benefit of taking part in something like the Sci-Fi experience and expanding your reading horizons!

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Glasshouse - Charles Stross

This is a Sci Fi experience read.

The blurb: "When Robin wakes up in a clinic with most of his memories missing, it doesn't take him long to discover that someone is trying to kill him.

It's the twenty-seventh century, when interstellar travel is by teleport gate and conflicts are fought by network worms that censor refugees' personalities and target historians. The civil war is over and Robin has been demobilized, but someone wants him out of the picture because of something his earlier self knew.

On the run from a ruthless pursuer and searching for a place to hide, he volunteers to participate in a unique experimental polity, the Glasshouse. Constructed to simulate a pre-accelerated culture, participants are assigned anonymized identities: it looks like the ideal hiding place for a post-human on the run. But in this escape-proof environment Robin will undergo an even more radical change, placing him at the mercy of the experimenters, and of his own unbalanced psyche ..."

Set several hundred years in the future, humanity has abandoned Urth to live in artificial habitats scattered throughout space. These are linked by T-Gates which transfer matter, and people, instantly however are subject to one fatal flaw - the civil war referred to in the blurb was triggered by a dormant virus called Curious Yellow that was smuggled into the gates that infected people passing through...

The Glasshouse that Robin signs up for is a sociological experiment that puts small groups of volunteers into a late 20th century inspired closed environment for up to three years. Participants earn social points for their groups by conforming to social norms from that era and it's particularly sinister to see how important "winning" becomes for some participants and how extremely easy it is to manipulate a group of people into doing things that they would have previously not considered.

With a strong plotline, great characters and a couple of nice twists, this is a really enjoyable thriller and another great Sci-Fi experience read for me. It's a compelling depiction of society in the future and an interesting take on humanity in the 20th century that made me also realise how utterly illogical some of our cultural habits will seem to future generations.

Glasshouse was the first book by Charles Stross that I have read and he is definitely another author I need to explore further and, luckily for me, he has a fairly large back catalogue to catch up on!

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Clockwork Heart - Dru Pagliassotti

This is a Sci Fi experience read.

Published by Juno Books, I first saw the steampunk fantasy romance Clockwork Heart mentioned on The Book Smugglers' most excellent blog and then, when it made Thea's Top 10 books for 2008 I knew I had to sneak it into an amazon basket.

Clockwork Heart is Dru Pagliassotti's debut novel and was actually written in 2004 for NaNoWriMo - proof that the process can work! The lead character is Taya who works as an Icarus (essentially a metal-winged courier) who can travel freely across the city of Ondinium's sectors and mingle indiscriminately among its rigid caste structure. A daring mid-air wireferry rescue by Taya leads to involvement with two members of an Exhalted family - the handsome and charming Alister Forlore as well as his outcast clockmaker brother Cristof. She then becomes entangled in a web of terrorism, loyalty, murder, and secrets and gets closer

I described this book in my first sentence as a "steampunk fantasy romance" but I am not sure that really explains it. It is absolutely all those things but they are more of a background to the story itself and the interaction between the large cast of characters takes centre stage along with a murder-mystery. This book was thoroughly good fun and I look forward to the sequel. In notice that over on Dru's website is a pdf of the first chapter if you fancy a sneak peek.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card

This is a Sci Fi experience read.

Orson Scott Card won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards for Ender's Game and, a year later, for a sequel called Speaker for the Dead. I admit that I have resisted reading any of Orson Scott Card's work for some time now as I find some of his personal views unappealing. For me, that opens up an interesting debate - should you actively boycott an author whose work you enjoy but whose politics you don't? A few months ago I was very adamant that I was never going to read a book by Orson Scott Card and therefore, by default, support him. Then, when I joined in with the Sci-Fi Experience, I had a think about what that really meant as this is definitely one of "the" books that everyone who is into Sci-Fi should read at some point...

Am I saying that because someone stands up and states their views in public and if I don't agree then I refuse to engage with them? I would hope not. Also, does disagreeing with someone mean that I can't enjoy their work? I then thought about other books I enjoy and I have absolutely no idea what the political, or religious, beliefs of my favourite authors are and, to be honest, have very little interest either. I seem to have veered rather off topic on this one. I think I have decided to keep the pleasure of reading and author politics/actions separate as, although I am happy to engage in debate in the right forum, I suspect this is not it.

Erm - tangental rant over. So. I decided to read Ender's Game as it seemed like the perfect time to do so!

What's this book all about then?
From the blurb: "Ender Wiggin is Battle School's latest recruit. His teachers reckon he could become a great leader. And they need one. A vast alien force is headed for Earth: its mission, the annihilation of all human life. Ender could be our only hope. But first he must survive the most brutal military training programme in the galaxy..."

Ender is six years old when he is taken away from his family and recruited into Battle School. As a Third he is already a unique child (most people living on the very cramped Earth are only allowed to have two children) as his parents received special dispensation to be allowed to have another child as their previous two were so promising. This is something of a poisoned blessing as his jealous, and competitive, elder brother makes life very difficult for him and it's his relationship with his sister that keeps him grounded. The story follows Ender as he quickly has to grow up and deal with fighting for recognition in Battle School and struggling against the deliberately engineered sense of isolation from his peers. We also keep abreast of developments in his family and I gather that sequels touch on them too.

I really, really enjoyed this book. I am so glad that I read it as it's what accessible Sci-Fi is all about. A great story (that I literally could not put down), a well imagined future, a skewed political system and some interesting ethical choices. If you think you could be tempted into Sci-Fi then definitely try this book. Or Old Man's War by John Scalzi.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

The Gates of Ivory, Margaret Drabble

In a stroke of genius, it was only after I finished The Gates of Ivory that I realised that it was the concluding volume in a trilogy following the same group of friends during the 1980s . Given I did not realise this whilst enjoying the book I'm either dimmer than I thought or the characters were perfectly formed in their own right. Clearly, I am plumping for the latter option...

Two years ago - or was it more? - novelist Stephen Cox vanished to the east. There had been postcards, then silence: now Liz has received a strange parcel of jottings, bills, pictures and bones. Enlisting the help of another of Stephen's friends, Hattie Osborne, Liz begins to decipher his trail.

Stephen has left the UK with the intention of contacting the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and has made only the vaguest contact whilst he has been away. Whilst at first Liz and Hattie are not sure what to make of the parcel, they soon begin to worry that something has happened to Stephen and start to investigate his movements and speak to people who saw him.

The narrative of this story swaps between character points of view and also weaves between the Far East and England and, to cap it all, features a fractured chronology but this is not nearly as confusing as it sounds! Each voice is unique and it's easy to work out who has taken over the reins. This book is incredibly detailed, clearly thoroughly researched and gripping. I'd absolutely recommend it and fully intend to catch up on the first two books in the trilogy as I am confident that reading them in order would add another layer of depth to the characters that I missed this time around. Or rather, did not miss at all but would enjoy none the less...

Random bonus fact: Margaret Drabble and I share the same birthday. Hurrah.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Sci-Fi Experience 2009

I'm slowly working through my backlog of reader feeds and I've just come across this post from Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings. He is hosting a Sci-Fi Experience challenge and, as I enjoyed his R.I.P. challenge so much I am definitely up for it. In explaining the challenge, Carl says "this is an experience and not a challenge. There are no reading lists, book requirements, etc. I do not argue about what is or is not considered ’science fiction’"

Sounds fab! The Sci-Fi Experience is running from January 1st until February 28th, 2009 and it sounds to me like the perfect excuse to curl up and explore new authors, re-visit old favourites and to acquire new books. Or borrow some from the library...

Sunday, 4 January 2009

The Bookshop - Penelope Fitzgerald

A confession. I've never read anything that Penelope Fitzgerald has written. She came to writing late in life and was short-listed for the Booker prize three times, winning it eventually with Offshore. Her collected letters have recently been published and seeing some of the blogger buzz about that I decided that I really needed to read at least one of her works this year.

Set in the small, claustrophobic and almost cut off seaside East Anglian village of Hardborough, The Bookshop was Penelope Fitzgerald's second book and was one of those three short-listed for the Booker Prize.

Florence Green is a middle aged widow living in the village and she decides to use what's left of her savings, along with a bank loan, to buy an unused building in the village and open a bookshop - a venture that's against viciously polite local opinion. Florence encounters both opposition and support from other villages but throughout the book you get the feeling that this is a commercial venture that nobody actually requires. Florence battles on regardless and invests not only her life savings but also a lot of emotional commitment into the bookshop.

This is a short, haunting and beautiful work where Fitzgerald's sparing use of words and understated observation tells a much bigger story than the one on paper. I thought that this was a really good introduction to her work and I look forward to reading more of her books this year.

Saturday, 3 January 2009


Over New Year, Mr B and I packed up what seemed like half the house, as well as the dogs, and spent a week in a lovely cottage in Tynemouth, Northumbria. My brother and his girlfriend live nearby so we had a very relaxing break spending time with them and walking the dogs on the nearby beaches. Being in a cottage with no internet access and the tiniest TV known to man meant that I had plenty of time to read the papers and several books. What luxury!

On NYE we went into Newcastle to admire their excellent firework display and then it was back to their place for a delicious meal and several rounds of Scattergories. I suspect this is a sign that we are all getting old but I don't really care.

I've only just downloaded the photos from my camera but here's one of a poppet enjoying the view near Tynemouth Priory:

Friday, 2 January 2009

Snow Crash - Neal Stephenson

This is a Sci Fi experience read.

Having looked back to see what the first book I read in 2008 was, and discovered that it was Maggot Pie by Michael Lawrence, I felt under considerably less pressure to make my first read of 2009 a thoughtful one... My choice was also limited as I took all five (yes - just FIVE) of my books-I-got-for-Christmas pile to Tynemouth with me and given I'd already finished the Janice Cross's Temple Dragon Saga, I just put the remaining two under the duvet and picked one at random!

So out came Snow Crash which was published in 1992 and was Neal Stephenson's breakthrough novel. It is set in a not-too-distant future California where the United States has become a patchwork of corporate-owned city states. People now live in “Burbclaves” or franchised citizen groups (such as Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong) which are run as independent legal entities and the Internet has now become a realised virtual reality called the Metaverse.

One of the early coders for the Metaverse is Hiro Protagonist - hacker, samurai swordsman and (initially) pizza-delivery driver for the Mafia. One of his fellow hackers, Da5id, falls victim to a dose of Snow Crash which is a virus capable of crashing both computers and people. Hiro joins forces with Y.T. a very likable fifteen year old skateboard kourier to investigate the virus and uncover who is responsible for the spread.

This book's future setting feels strangely plausible and I loved the idea of major corporations providing services previously supplied by government - such as competing highway agencies and security services. What is particularly impressive is that the book was published in 1992 which is well before much of what is mentioned became real such as the use of online Avatars and MMORPGs. The ideas expressed are really creative and certainly makes you wonder what would happen if the FBI became a general service supplier!

A trait I noticed when I read Cryptonomicon last year was that Stephenson is very good at imparting vast amounts of information in a (usually) interesting manner. I say usually as sometimes the data-dump about Sumerian mythology and culture, archaeology and the Tower of Babel was a little intrusive and I felt it halted the flow of the story unnecessarily. Having said that, it was mostly relevant and interesting although I must confess I did skim short chunks later in the book to get back to the story. Which could be viewed as a compliment!

Stephenson's style is clever, enjoyable, unique and this is an enjoyable story that does not take itself too seriously whilst also managing to make some serious points. Based on the two books I have read, this is definitely an author that could make my "Top 10" list and I really need to go on a long (warm) holiday so that I can read his huge Baroque cycle! Well. That's my excuse anyway.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

The Year of Readers

As 2009 rolls in, it's time to mention that I am participating in The Year of Readers challenge. This initiative is the brainchild of Jodie Barker and aims to link the enjoyment of blogging and reading with raising money for literacy charities. All of the money raised between 1st January 2009 and 31st December 2009 will go towards each reader's nominated charity, helping someone else to develop a love of reading. If you are interested in learning more about the scheme then do visit the blog and feel free to sign up yourself!

My chosen charity is Book Aid International who work to increase access to books and information to support literacy, education and development in Sub Saharan Africa. I've set up a fund-raising page and will be self-sponsoring on a monthly basis at £1 for each book I read in 2009. I should probably mention to anyone who is also thinking about supporting Book Aid per book I read that this year's final tally was 133 so do your sums around that one! One off donations to Book Aid International are, of course, more than welcome too.

Wishing you all a happy and healthy 2009!

Peta x