Sunday, 22 February 2009

A(nother) Georgette Heyer Binge

After all the "macho sci-fi" I've been reading it was definitely time for a spot of regency romance and who better to fill this need than the Recency Queen, Georgette Heyer?

Rather conveniently, a few days ago I walked past a second hand shop and bought six books for something like £1.30. This bargain collection included three classic Heyer's and I binge read them over this weekend. I honestly just can't stop at one and I think it's an addiction...

The Convenient Marriage. Set in 1776 and the first romantic novel I have read that features a stuttering heroine - the self assured Horatia Winwood. Horry offers herself to the Earl of Rule, who is (of course) much more worldly wise than herself, as a replacement bride in place of her sister who is already in love and he accepts. Not entirely clear why a wealthy 35 year old man about town would accept a random proposal from a stuttering and plain 17 year old but I'll cite suspension of disbelief clause one. Again unusually for a Heyer, this novel starts with the marriage of our hero and heroine and then love develops. Hopefully I've not ruined the ending for anyone with that shocking plot revalation!

The Nonesuch. The titular Nonesuch is Sir Waldo Hawkridge who is wealthy, handsome, eligible, illustrious and known as the nonesuch for his athletic prowess. He believes he is past the age of falling in love until he travels north to inspect Broom Hall (a recent inheritance) and makes the aquaintance of governess Miss Trent. Again, with a couple of bumps along the way, love blossoms between the two. This book is also notable for the character of the beautiful and wealthy Tiffany Wield (to whom Ancilla Trent is companion/governess) who is the most ghastly anti-heroine that I suspect was great fun to write!

Faros Daughter. Our hero, the rich and powerful Max Ravenscar, learns that his young cousin Adrian is bent on marrying Deborah Grantham, who works in her aunt's gaming house. Assuming initially that he can buy her off, he learns that Deborah is spirited (as well as beautiful) and he learns that she is a worthy opponent who seeks to teach him a much-needed lesson. Our heroine is compassionate and clever and our hero is strong and arrogant. Not quite one of my favourite Heyer pairings (bit too much plot to-ing and fro-ing for that) but good fun all the same.

I'll be honest - I didn't enjoy these three as much as I enjoyed the three I read back to back last summer but they were a quick, escapist read that hit the spot. I'm already wondering where I will get my next Heyer-fix from and have been scouring ebay for cheap editions. There's just something about those fabulous pan covers that I find so much more appealing than the tasteful re-issued editions.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

The Android's Dream - John Scalzi

This is a Sci Fi experience read.

The Android's Dream by John Scalzi is the first of his books I have read that's outside his "Old Man's War" universe which I really enjoyed "discovering" last year. It's a comedy that reminded me slightly of a hybrid Tom Holt/Tom Sharpe or even Douglas Adams but still remains convincingly rooted in a future where Earth is finding its feet as a minor galactic power.

And on to the plot: "A human diplomat kills his alien counterpart. Earth is on the verge of war with a vastly superior alien race. A lone man races against time and a host of enemies to find the one object that can save our planet and our people from alien enslavement... A sheep.
For Harry Creek, it's quickly becoming a nightmare. All he wants is to do his uncomplicated mid-level diplomatic job with Earth's State Department. But his past training and skills get him tapped to save the planet--and to protect pet store owner Robin Baker, whose own past holds the key to the whereabouts of that lost sheep."

This is not a serious book which is clear from the outset as it opens with what is essentially a lengthy fart gag. The character of Harry Creek is very likable and he's both clever and capable so good hero material. It's clearly aimed to entertain its audience and it certainly achieved that as at its heart it is a nicely paced and straightforward adventure novel - just one set in the future with inter-galactic politics replacing the cold war!

For a free taster of what you might expect, here's an excerpt from Chapter 1.

Monday, 16 February 2009

The Gone-Away World - Nick Harkaway

This is a Sci Fi experience read.

The Gone-away World is an almost unclassifiable debut novel by Nick Harkaway and, before I go too much further I feel that I should mention that it's a belter.

From the blurb: "The Jorgmund Pipe is the backbone of the world, and it's on fire. Gonzo Lubitsch, professional hero and troubleshooter, is hired to put it out - but there's more to the fire, and the Pipe itself, than meets the eye. The job will take Gonzo and his best friend, our narrator, back to their own beginnings and into the dark heart of the Jorgmund Company itself. Equal parts raucous adventure, comic odyssey and Romantic Epic, "The Gone-Away World" is a story of - among other things - love and loss; of ninjas, pirates, politics; of curious heroism in strange and dangerous places; and, of a friendship stretched beyond its limits. But it also the story of a world, not unlike our own, in desperate need of heroes - however unlikely they may seem."

This is hugely ambitious and epic novel that is sheer pleasure to read and I honestly don’t think that you need be a fan of the Science Fiction genre to enjoy the almost geeky exuberance of the plot.

I approached this book with absolutely no understanding of the sheer scale of what Harkaway was looking to achieve – and that’s possibly just as well as, looking back, it’s a dauntingly sprawling book to get into! I hasten to add that it didn’t feel like that at the time however a hell of a lot of ground is covered in this book and it’s to Nick Harkaway’s credit that this is the case. I should also warn that he also has no qualms about abruptly changing direction and after a thrilling first chapter, which genuinely had me gripped, we’re ripped back in time to the very beginning and it takes around half the book to make our way back to see what happens!

Set in a in a future where the remnants of humanity are struggling to survive, the story is told from the viewpoint of an anonymous narrator who, together with his childhood best friend, end up forming part of a group of talented mercenaries. Quite how Harkaway also manages to plausibly cram into this grim post-apocalyptic world pirates, ninjas, and a troupe of mimes is beyond me!

What makes the book so enjoyable is a great combination of exuberant silliness and daring boys own style adventuring. Chuck into the mix some romance, a great cast of characters and a thrilling storyline and it’s a winner.

He’s a talented author who has hopefully not used up all his ideas in his first book – as I’m already looking forward to reading his second. Which I don’t think he’s actually written yet!

If you want to learn more about him, he has a blog and is also to be found lurking over on twitter.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Little Love...

What a clever Mr B. Introducing the newest member of our poppet family which is growing at a pretty impressive rate!

Monday, 9 February 2009

Stranger in a Strange Land - Robert A. Heinlein

This is a Sci Fi experience read. That I did not finish. That I abandoned around 3/4 of the way in...

Stranger in a Strange Land is the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a young human who has been raised by Martians and is then brought to visit Earth. Having learned (from the Martian Old Ones) more about controlling his body than anyone else on Earth realises there was the potential to achieve, he has almost supernatural abilities.

This is really intriguing idea for a story - an innocent who is effectively from another culture who is not limited by human constraints. Initially there is great mileage from his initial interactions with people, with his very trusting and naive approach to relationships and his failure to grasp the principles of religion, money or to understand politics.

So, why did I not finish...? Well. There are a couple of things I really didn't like about this book. Firstly, it's badly in need of a good, hard edit. The edition I read was Heinlein's 220,000 word original submission (published by his widow in 1991) against the originally published version with just 160,000. I should mention that the first version received the Hugo Award for the Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year. The preface indicates this is because "...the editors required some cutting and removals of a few scenes that might then (1961) been offensive to public taste". I'll come onto public taste shortly but I'd say that excuse really can't account for the 60,000 word difference and I would have frankly welcomed a shorter version. Some of the painful conversational set pieces, especially around religion or sexual relationships, deserved (and received) a speedy skim read.

I began to really flag when the part played by the Fosterite church began to increase and then crumbled a bit more as I felt that there was a pretty misogynistic attitude developing towards the female characters. I got to a point where I no longer cared about any of the characters and then I read these words from a central female character who has taken up a career as a show girl and who has just spent four pages describing how her new "Martian honesty" allowed her to admit that she enjoyed being looked at by men. Telling Michael not to get involved unless she was in danger: "...I was coping with wolves when you were still on Mars. Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it's at least partly her own fault. The tenth time - well, all right."

Hrmmm. For fairly obvious reasons, I decided life is far too short to continue to read this book - especially when I have discovered so many great other Sci-Fi authors are out there during this challenge.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

My Wildlife Garden

A couple of weeks ago I chanced upon an episode of the BBC's Wild About Your Garden... What a fabulously inspirational programme it is. The basic premise is that presenter Nick Knowles, garden designer Chris Beardshaw and wildlife specialist Ellie Harrison transfer ordinary garden's into wildlife havens and so far they've managed to attract water voles, badgers and red squirrels. Although I am pretty sure that our garden is not in an area where it will attract much more than birds and insects, I've found the series so far really useful. There are six episodes in total and the BBC seem to be cycling them on a permanent rotation so it should be easy to catch them if you are interested.

Reading through some reference materials online, I've been amazed at the difference adding in some really easy to obtain plants are and will be implementing several of the suggestions I've seen. I've added a short list of the sites I have found most useful at the bottom but I am sure there are plenty more out there. I have plans for adding a(t least one) small native tree to our terraced garden as well as planting some shrubs/climbers specifically to provide a food source for insects which will, I hope, entice more birds in my direction. I'm really excited about this as I was wondering what to do as the garden was due a refresh this spring following some building work leaving a couple of muddy patches that need filling.

Useful Links:
BBC Breathing Places -They've got a range of really simple ideas that would make a huge difference to even the smallest space.
RSPB's A-Z of a Wildlife Garden - This was the most useful site I found in terms of identifying specific plants to support bird and insect life.
My Wildlife Friendly Garden - This site really inspired me as Sheila has a courtyard that's even smaller than my garden yet manages to attract a great range of wildlife into her space.
Natural England - They provide (free) useful pdf documents on a range of topics. They also provide a massive online database of creatures and the plants they rely on that helped to narrow down my list of plants!

Now that I am the proud possessor of every type of bird food and dispenser known to (wo)man, I await delivery of a copy of Collins Complete Guide to British Wildlife and the arrival of some more little friends...

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Wildwood Dancing - Juliet Marillier

After reading, and enjoying, Daughter of the Forest so much I could not resist picking up another of Juliet Marillier's books when I "chanced" upon it in the library last week. Whilst accidentally-on-purpose seeing if they had any of her other books for me to borrow as I really, really, really can not justify any more book purchases right now given the state of my TBR shelves...

From the blurb: "The Wildwood holds many mysteries. Jena and her sisters share the biggest of all, a fantastic secret that enables them to escape the confines of their everyday life in rural Transylvania. When their father falls ill and must leave their forest home over the winter, Jena and her older sister Tati are left in charge.

All goes well until a tragic accident allows their overbearing cousin Cezar to take control. The appearance of a mysterious young man in a black coat divides sister from sister, and suddenly Jena finds herself fighting to save all she holds dear. With her constant companion, Gogu, by her side, she must venture to realms dark and perilous in her quest to preserve, not just those she loves, but her own independence as well."

Wildwood Dancing is a really delightful fairytale and I enjoyed reading it immensely. It's not that long so I sadly I finished it in a day but I did have fun doing so. I loved the imaginative depiction of the fairy side of the Wildwood and the stark contrast of the increasingly difficult everyday lives of the sisters worked very effectively.

Although it has a large cast of characters, each one feels quite unique and gets enough book-time to establish a clear personality which was something I also noticed whilst reading Daughter of the Forest. It was only after finishing the book that I realised that this book was written specifically for a Young Adult audience which could explain why characters were generally painted in fairly black and white terms - my only gripe with the book. Should I confess that I had no idea I was reading, and enjoying, yet another book designed for the YA market? Nah...

Doh. I've just noticed that rather like Daughter of the Forest this is also the first of a planned trilogy but I was quite happy reading it as a stand alone book.

Honourable review mention should also go to Kinuko Y. Craft who created the artwork for this book. It's a fabulous piece of work that really comes to life as you read through the book. With her commission pieces starting at $50,000 I suspect that the book cover is the only piece of her work I will be acquainted with!