Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Absolute Sandman Vol 1

This is both a Once Upon a Time IV & Graphic Novels Challenge 2010 read.

I think it might be time to tell all about a little book buying "accident" that happened earlier this month. I bought (on impulse) volumes one to four of Neil Gaiman's Absolute Sandmans... I've never even read them (which I feel perhaps I should have done to splash out just over £50 per book!) but in my defence I've known that I neeeeeeeeed to own them for at least two years and a couple of weeks ago I had what we shall call a "whoops".

Yes, dear Reader. I bought all four leather bound, hardbacked, slip-cased, digitally re-coloured and generally utterly gorgeous volumes. Whoops indeed! And even had the courage to 'fess up to Mr B before the arrival of the first package. Who kindly didn't point out that we will be moving house in the next few weeks and have to pay for boring things like stamp duty and solicitors fees and removal men and woodworm and damp and render and oh ye Gods what have I done...? Oh well - too late for regrets. :)

Volume One collects the first twenty issues of The Sandman series of comics, written by Neil Gaiman, with the story focusing on the character of Dream – one of the seven Endless - and so covers the trade paperback editions of Preludes & Nocturnes, The Doll’s House, and Dream Country. With guest characters from the DC universe, this books weaves mythology, folk-lore and history together to create something really rather special. What stood, not entirely unexpectedly, out for me about this series is the quality of writing. To be fair, I’ve not read a huge number of comics but some of these stories were so beautiful and I can’t imagine that many series have the guts to include whole episodes that are so self-contained (although do fit into the wider story)

Extras include an introduction, Gaiman’s original series pitch (with outline plot and concept art) and, my favourite inclusion of all, the complete script and Charles Vess’s draft sketches for the 'Midsummer's Night Dream'. As I was reading, I was thinking about the creation process between the story writer, the penciller, the colourist, the inker and the letterer so it was absolutely wonderful to get this insight and I spent ages pouring over this section.

When searching for images to use to illustrate this post I came across the following picture collected on on this blog showing just what a difference the re-colouring has made.
I know some have complained about the "cartoonish" quality of the above but me? Love it. Plus it justifies my purchase. *cough cough*

Genuinely, I am so very pleased that I splashed out as this book is really, really lovely and fantastic quality. It's massive with leather(ish) embossed cover with silver lettering and a black silk bookmark. I felt almost guilty just opening it (eek – cracking the spine! What if I rip a page?) and the dogs were most put out that I was reading a book that was so large there was no room for them and it on my lap. I have even kept the box it was packaged in so that it can be adequately protected during the house move (!) I think I might just be coming across as weird now but in my defence, a great deal of care and attention has obviously been lavished on its production. I can’t wait to read on to the next set of stories although naturally, other than this one, the only volume that’s actually arrived so far is the fourth one so some self-discipline is required of me… Never my strong point!

Monday, 29 March 2010

The Thief & The Queen of Attolia & The King of Attolia - Megan Whalen Turner

Gulp! Gulp! Gulp!The above is pretty much how I read Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief, , The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia* (up-to-page-260-of-which-more-in-the-footnotes) this weekend. I have now managed to finish the third book so whilst I wait for my library to get hold of a copy of the final book in the series, A Conspiracy of Kings, I figure now is about a good a time as any to post about the experience.

This was going to be my first Once Upon a Time read but I don’t fell that these books are fantasy enough to count as they are set in a sort-of Greek alternative past but there’s no magic or elves or dragons, etc. Plus I am pretty sure I don’t need to scrabble for enough qualifying reads before the deadline!

Eugenides (Gen) is the titular thief and, after some wine shop bragging where he boasts that he can steal anything, he purloins the King of Sounis’ seal. In an unexpected opener, The Thief starts with him suffering in a dungeon cell having been caught and imprisoned for that crime. In return for his freedom, the King’s Magus offers him a deal – he has to steal the fabled “Hamiathes's Gift” without which the Queen of Eddis, another country will not marry the King of Sounis. Only one problem. Nobody is quite sure that it actually exists.

Humorously narrated in the first person, this is the story of an expedition into the neighbouring Kingdom of Attolia to locate the jewel and the attempt to pull off the ultimate theft that will cement Gen’s reputation as the greatest thief and win him his freedom.

What makes this book (and indeed series) for me is the character of Gen. At the start, he is cocky, lying, feckless, lazy, irresponsible and untrustworthy with questionable personal hygiene. However, as the story unfolds, we gradually realise (along with the rest of the party) that we might just have seriously underestimated his intelligence and that there is much more to him than meets the eye. I have to admit that I am not entirely unbiased as whilst reading these books, part of me fell a little bit in love with him…

Taken by itself, The Thief is a quick, easy and enjoyable adventure story but when read back to back with the next two books it becomes part of a larger and rather delightful experience. As the stakes start to rise, we are introduced to other central characters and in particular the Queens of Eddis and Attolia are all you could wish for as strong, intelligent and capable females.

There is understated but wonderful romance (swoon! swoon!), adventure, daring thefts, unexpected plot twists, some tough decisions and plenty of political intrigue. Nothing is ever quite as it seems and (you may have already guessed) I really, really enjoyed myself on this journey. For pure fun and a spot of escapism these books are be hard to beat.

It is worth mentioning, however, that these books are aimed at young adult audience. Harper Collins have samples available online but to avoid spoilers I would suggest starting with the first few chapters of The Thief and not even reading the blurbs for the later books!

* So - what happened to my race through The King of Attolia? Picture the scene. I'm snuggled in bed and I'm reading page 260. All very exciting and Stuff is Kicking Off. I move my eyes to the top of the next page. What? That can't be right. I've already read this. Oh. Instead of pages 261-292, I have pages 117-148. Again. Bah. Amazon tell me they are very sorry and send out a replacement on the same day. But it meant I had to WAIT! Arghhhhhh...

Friday, 26 March 2010

Ark - Stephen Baxter

After a productive day off, I have just finished reading Ark, which is the sequel to Flood which I read in Febuary, and all I can say is what a journey!

At this point, please imagine me with beard, pipe and possibly a parrot on my shoulder saying (in a very authentic nautical manner) whilst pointing "Argggghh. Thar be spoilers ahead" and consider that to be due warning if you have not read Flood. Not too many give-aways but enough to perhaps spoil some of the suspense of the previous book...

From the blurb: "As the waters rose, high in the Colorado mountains the US government was building an ark. Not an ark to ride the waves but an ark that would take a select few hundred people out into space to start a new future for mankind. Sent out into deep space on an epic journey centuries, generations of crew members carry the hope of a new beginning on a new, incredibly distant, planet. But as the decades pass knowledge and purpose is lost and division and madness grows. And back on earth life, and man, find a new way."

So. To quickly recap. In the previous book the water level steadily rises and, as the earth is gradually covered, humanity struggles to adapt and survive. At the start of Ark, the water level is rising and the earth is gradually covered...and do you know what? It really didn't feel like I was covering old ground. Which is pretty impressive as there was a lot of ground covered in Flood (Those last words were not supposed to be a joke but now I read it I think I'll pretend it was intentional) and the impact of the rising water level was covered extensively in that book on both an individual and epic level.

The first third of this book largely follow a similar formula in that we see events on Earth through the eyes of several individuals (only a few of whom also appear in Flood) as the flood waters rise. Hinted at in the first book, these are the people who are directly involved in one of the handful of desperate plans that are in motion to try to save the wealthiest, or most influential, people left on the planet.

What makes it different is that we’re following the Candidates for a place in the Ark which, as can probably be gathered from the blurb, is the attempt to build a spaceship that can take a (genetically diverse) chosen few to another habitable planet in an attempt to ensure the survival of humanity. I rather liked the different perspective as here we are viewing the Flood through the eyes of characters who are insulated from the fight for survival that much of the human race is facing which means that all we see here is their reaction to witnessing events that actually happen largely to other people.

What I found most interesting about this book was the, very pessimistic, exploration of how society might develop under extreme pressure. I do have to say that Baxter paints a rather bleak view of life in claustrophobic living conditions with a small circle of other people – most of whom have been or are competing against each other for survival. At heart, it seemed to me that this is a book about the inability of people to get along and “play nicely” no matter what the stakes. Repeatedly self-government turned into despotic dictatorship and people (mainly men) seem to do some very awful things to other people that

I do have a couple of plot gripes – for example with so much emphasis being placed on the importance of selecting a genetically diverse crew why train up a crew of equal male and females? Surely it would be easier to fill a freezer with sperm and give a female crew some turkey basters? In crew training, there also seemed to be a focus on specialisation over diversification which didn’t feel very risk-averse to me but probably only there to assure some of the more interesting characters places on the programme! I am so picky.

Despite those grumbles I liked this book more than Flood - the story did absolutely need this second book and it was a great end to the duology.

I've found it really hard to write anything about this reading experience that doesn't give away too much plot so for a proper review I am going to direct you towards Thea from The Book Smugglers. I think it's safe to say that she's a fan - this book was her top read of 2009. I also really enjoyed this dual review from Strange Horizons which is well worth a read.

Once Upon A Time IV - The Shortlist

Hip Hooray! Spring has officially Sprung! At last...

As I look out of the window I can see blue skies and bright sunshine, snowdrops are giving way to hellebores and primroses, my daffodils are nearly in bud, the crocuses are fading and there are tiny shoots starting to form on the roses and clematis. It won't be long now before I can enjoy walking through the woods carpeted in bluebells. I think this might be my favourite time of year in the garden - so much promise of what's to come.

My desk at work has no line of sight to the outside so I've only enjoyed the much needed sunshine we've been having this week on the walk there and back but as I've taken today off as holiday, I intend to spend it enjoying guilt-free blogging, reading and taking the dogs out to enjoy the gorgeous weather with me. If he's very good I might take Mr B out too but he's working on an epic cine-film transfer in a dark room with the curtains drawn and the black-out blind down so perhaps I had better not tell him how lovely it is outside...

I meant to put this list up last weekend but somehow time got away from me - actually I was feeling a little "under the weather" after a great birthday party for a friend - so now seems as good a time as any. This list is in absolutely no order whatsoever, is only made up of unread books I have to hand and is subject to whim.

Absolute Sandman - Neil Gaiman
Goblin Market - Christina Rossetti
Biting the Sun - Tanith Lee
Winter's Tale - Mark Helprin
The Night of Kerberos - Mike Wild
The Rain Wild Chronicles - Robin Hobb
The Crown Conspiracy - Michael J. Sullivan
The Thief - Megan Whalen Turner

As ever, half the fun is seeing what other people choose and I absolutely can't wait to start this challenge properly.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Howard's End is on the Landing - Susan Hill

Credit (or perhaps blame...) for the impulsive purchase of this book has to go to Simon from stuck-in-a-book who thought so highly of it when he blogged about it last year that he even gave it a coveted place in his "50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About" list!

I thought the book sounded very much "up my street" when I read Simon's post but what clinched it for me was that stunning cover by Peter Dyer. Isn't it just to die for? When I saw it I knew that I *had* to buy it at once - and in hardback as I could not bear to risk that it'd be issued in a differently designed cover when released in paperback... I know. It's a condition, OK?

Having bought it on impulse it then sat forgotten and unloved on the downstairs non-fiction shelves until I chanced upon it whilst dusting.

On her inspiration, Susan Hill writes, "Early one autumn afternoon in pursuit of an elusive book on my shelves, I encountered dozens of others that I had never read, or forgotten I owned, or wanted to read for a second time. The discovery inspired me to embark on a year-long voyage through my books, forsaking new purchases in order to get to know my own collection again."

On her meandering journey through her shelves, Hill writes chapters dedicated to genres such as classics, 20th century fiction, travel, diaries/memoirs, children's books and even manages to cover pop-up books too. She also writes (among other things) about whether editions of books matter, the importance of a good title, how books end up huddled together, fonts and the memories a book can evoke.

As you can probably gather, this is quite wide-ranging and personal account of her years spent with books - reading, writing, reviewing, publishing and also reminiscing about some of the authors she's met. As a journey through her home and shelves I could not have asked for anything more from this very personal book which is written in an informal, chatty style by someone who has lived in and around books for most of her life.

Hill does have a manner of asserting her opinion allowing no rational alternative which I found irritating at times - for example I don't agree with her views on book blogging, e-readers or the entire Sci-Fi genre - but largely what she says about the pleasure of owning, and reading, a huge range of books hit so many right notes that I can't quibble about the occasional (for me) wrong one.

I fear Hill would look down on the semblance of order that my books reside in - far too organised for her taste! Upstairs in the "study" is Sci Fi & Fantasy, on the landing is contemporary fiction and children's, in the bedroom is imminent TBR (although honesty forces me to admit that there is a TBR overflow on the landing too...) whilst downstairs in the dining room is classics, plays, poetry, reference, travel, history, science, auto-biography and biography. Only the classics are arranged in alphabetical order by author but I can't promise things will remain this organised once we move house.

The book leads up to a "Final Forty" selection that Hill decides are her essential can-no-do-without books. I won't reveal it here as that would spoil the journey but Ido find it endlessly fascinating how people's reading tastes can differ (Hill hearts Hardy & Dickens, I heart Austen but at we both agree on Trollope) and I can't imagine how long it would take me to whittle down my books to a final selection of ones I love. Just thinking about doing it makes me a bit anxious to be honest and I commend her for putting it out there as well as I gather she's received some criticism for not having a wider choice. I rather liked her list myself, although should say that it would largely differ from my own final selection, and reading her memoir has certainly encouraged me to seek out some of the books she loves. Although I am still not sure about Hardy...

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

The Enchanted April - Elizabeth von Arnim

I bought The Enchanted April several years ago in an Oxfam because I liked the title (so shallow!) and it's sat on my bookshelf ever since. Last week I read a fab review by Nymeth that started with the following quote:

"To Those who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine. Small medieval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times."

It's this advert that inspires Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Artbuthnot to throw caution to the wind and, along with Lady Caroline Dexter and Mrs Fisher, they spend April in Italy. I'm not going to do a proper review so direct interested parties towards Nymeth's recent, very thoughtful one, instead. Like her I enjoyed the developing characterisations, the gorgeous nature descriptions and the gentle plot. Go read!

I will mention that, having read this delightful book, there is nothing I would like to do more than spend April in Italy right now! Mind you - not sure my budget could extend far enough to hire the castle in Portofino (see above nestled on headland) which was where Elizabeth con Arnim spent her own April and was inspired to write this book. Slightly offputting it's also where Rod Stuart/Penny Lancaster and Wayne/Colleen got hitched. Still trying to get over that and recover the magic of the story!

Friday, 19 March 2010

Once Upon A Time IV

Yay! It's time for Carl from Stainless Steel Dropping's Once Upon A Time again.

Now in its fourth year, this reading challenge is all about the story. In this case the kind that fits roughly under our own personal definition of four categories: fantasy, folklore, fairy tale and mythology. The challenge officially begins on Sunday, March 21st and ends June 20th.

There are several levels of participation and I have chosen "Quest the First" which is to read at least 5 books that fit somewhere within the Once Upon a Time IV 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.

"Quest the Second" is to read at least one book from each genre and I'll try to do that but suspect I might get a bit tangled up with my definitions!

Glancing over my shelves there are so many books I have to choose from that I'm itching to start right away but after seeing this post by Nymeth , I'll be reading The Enchanted April first which should take me nicely through to the official start date.

In closing, I should also mention that I absolutely love the image that's been chosen for this year - the artist is Melissa Nucera and she also has a horribly tempting etsy site.

Monday, 15 March 2010

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie - Alan Bradley

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is another “quick read” borrowed on impulse from my Library which I picked up when I went in to collect the first Mistborn book. I faintly remembered reading a positive review of this book somewhere and rather liked the first line of the blurb

(Cue the blurb): “
For very-nearly-eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, the discovery of a dead snipe on the doorstep of Buckshaw, the crumbling de Luce country seat, was a marvellous mystery - especially since this particular snipe had a rather rare stamp neatly impaled on its beak. Even more astonishing was the effect of the dead bird on her stamp-collector father, who appeared to be genuinely frightened. Soon Flavia discovers something even more shocking in the cucumber patch and it's clear that the snipe was a bird of very ill omen indeed.

As the police descend on Buckshaw, Flavia decides it is up to her to piece together the clues and solve the puzzle. Who was the man she heard her father arguing with? What was the snipe doing in England at all? Who or what is the Ulster Avenger? And, most peculiar of all, who took a slice of Mrs Mullet's unspeakable custard pie that had been cooling by the window...?

I would say that the blurb gives a pretty good feeling for what this book is like. Our heroine, Flavia de Luce, has a deep passion for Chemistry and her motherless, unusual upbringing in the home she shares with two older sisters, a mostly absent father, the housekeeper and the groundsman, allows her to indulge her interests. I am quite sure that in real life Flavia would be utterly foul however when confined to the written page she makes an absolutely delightful heroine and this murder mystery was great fun to read.

I should say that the one gripe that I had with this book was that it is very clear that Alan Bradley is Canadian and although he is a self-confessed anglophile he’s not lived in the UK – and this meant that there were several glaring errors that escaped the editing process. Hopefully the next in the series will receive more attention as it was such a shame to see such obvious (to me anyway) errors sitting so jarringly out of context with the otherwise lovingly described rural 1950s English setting.

When I searched my blog roll to work out where I'd heard of the book from I realised that Carl had listed it as one of his books of the 2000s and you can read his (rather more thorough) review here.