Friday, 17 December 2010

Another Book Challenge for 2011...

The 2011 Stephen King Challenge!
Hosted by BookChickCity
Welcome to The 2011 Stephen King Challenge! I love horror, and I've loved every Stephen King book I've read. Unfortunately that's not that many. I really want to read more books written by this amazing author, which is why I created this challenge. So, if like me you want to delve further into the dark imagination of Stephen King, then join me in my quest!
This time to read a minimum of 6 Stephen King books in 2011. I can do that! The Stand is long overdue a re-read and I also have the entire Dark Tower series sitting neatly on the shelf. OK, that's 8 so far. And I still haven't read Under the Dome, On Writing or Full Dark No Stars yet. One more to choose and that gives me 12. Will have to think about that... I haven't read either It or The Tommyknockers, are they worth reading? Or what would you recommend instead? Let me know what Stephen King book should make the list in the comments.




Reviews will be published on this site so watch out for the first one in January. 
All reviews will be tagged with #SKChallenge2011

Thursday, 16 December 2010

2010: the year of the book

I think I can safely say that 2010 has been the best year of my life in terms of reading and books in general. Hyperbole? I don't think so... I have found a host of new authors (old and new) to read; made friends with some lovely and talented people; reviewed over 60 books; attended 2 conferences; had my name published in the acknowledgements section of a forthcoming book; had quotes from my reviews used in book trailers and on book websites; attended book signings; learned a lot about the speculative fiction genre; set up a personal blog and joined a group review blog... this has been the year when I immersed myself into my passion. Books, reading and writing about what I have read. And I have loved every minute of it!

It's a big wide multiverse out there


My Best of 2010 has been published at Speculative Book Review along with the other collaborators' lists. It makes for interesting reading as our tastes vary considerably within the speculative fiction genre. Read the post here.
What I realised when compiling my list was that I had read less new releases than I thought. Some of the books I loved best were first published in the 70's and 80's. I have been discovering a rich seam of unmined gems in the form of classic SF and Fantasy.
[Picture from www.digitalblasphemy.com]

I reviewed books by:
  • Octavia Butler
  • Sheri S. Tepper
  • Christopher Priest
  • Joanna Russ. 
I read short stories by:
  • Howard Walthrop
  • Pamela Sargent
  • Avram Davidson
  • Tanith Lee. 
I sought out books by:
  • Gwyneth Jones
  • Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Elizabeth Bear
  • Charles de Lint.
What about the new and shiny? Well, I can be distracted by 'the next big thing' as much as the next person and have discovered some excellent new authors, most of whom had their publishing debut in 2010. There is some incredible new talent out there, and many of these are women, which always pleases me. Of the guys, these are names to watch:
  • Mark Charan Newton
  • Blake Charlton
  • Adam Neville
  • M.D. Lachlan
  • Stephen Deas
  • Scott Harrison
  • Gary McMahon
  • Sam Sykes
  • Mike Shevdon
  • J.C. Marino
There has been a lot of debate on a range of blogs and forums about women writing speculative fiction. All I will say on the subject is more, more, more! There are not enough women being published, partularly in science fiction yet some of the best new talent out there is female, especially in the realm of Fantasy. Here are my recommendations:
  • N.K. Jemisin
  • Catherynne M. Valente
  • Aliette de Bodard
  • Lauren Beukes
  • Kaaron Warren
  • Seanan McGuire
  • Kim Lakin-Smith
  • Jaine Fenn
  • Suzanne McLeod
  • Elizabeth Bear


And to all the new friends I have made: from bloggers, to authors, to tweeters and beyond, a very big thank you to you all, I couldn't have come this far without you. You know who you are and I appreciate every one of you. 

A few special mentions: Yagiz, Ty, Peter and Victoria at Speculative Book Review, Harry at Temple Library Reviews; Gav, ex of Nextreads for Short Story Month; Jason and Amanda for Eastercon; Mark CN for keeping me up to date with environmental issues. And to Kev, I have only one word to say to you... "Olives!"


[Cover of City of Hope and Despair by Ian Whates (released early 2011?)]

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Taking up the Speculative Reading Challenge 2011

One of my (many) New Year's resolutions is to read those classic Science Fiction and Fantasy novels I have bought but never actually got round to reading. Amanda at Floor to Ceiling Books is hosting the Speculative Reading Challenge for 2011 and so I have decided I will join in this time.

My aim is to read and review at least two books per month (one female and one male author) here on this site and the provisional list is as follows:

  • The Earthsea Quartet by Ursula Le Guin
  • Replay by Ken Grimwood
  • Daggerspell by Katherine Kerr
  • Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay
  • Lost Souls by Poppy Z. Brite
  • Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Transformation by Carol Berg
  • A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
  • Bold as Love by Gwyneth Jones
  • Life During Wartime by Lucius Shepard
  • Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle
  • The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
  • The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Keeping it Real by Justina Robson
  • The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
  • Deerskin by Robin McKinley
  • Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delaney
  • Sacrifice by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
  • The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams
  • Snake Agent by Liz Williams
  • The Wild Wood by Charles de Lint
  • Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
  • Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart
An ambitious list perhaps, but as I already own all of these books, this is a good opportunity to read them and to find out what makes them firm favourites with many of my fellow bloggers and reviewers. 

Monday, 1 November 2010

Sir Terry Pratchett's Official Coat of Arms

"Illustrated left are the Armorial Bearings granted to Sir Terence David John PRATCHETT of Broad Chalke, Wiltshire, Knight, OBE by Letters Patent of Garter and Clarenceux Kings of Arms dated 28 April 2010.

The Arms are blazoned: Sable an ankh between four Roundels in saltire each issuing Argent.

The Crest is Upon a Helm with a Wreath Argent and Sable On Water Barry wavy Sable Argent and Sable an Owl affronty wings displayed and inverted Or supporting thereby two closed Books erect Gules.

College reference: Grants 175/35."

source: http://www.college-of-arms.gov.uk/Newsletter/026.htm

CONJOUR 2011: Science Fiction and Fantasy comes to Leeds

--- PRESS RELEASE ---

On Saturday March 12th 2011, Leeds will be hosting its first Science Fiction and Fantasy event in many years - ConJour.

The one day event is being sponsored by Tor UK and SFF fans will have the opportunity to attend guest talks and panels, and meet some of their favourite authors at signing sessions taking place throughout the day.

Confirmed guests attending the event are Mike Carey, Kate Griffin, Mark Charan Newton, Justina Robson, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Freda Warrington.

The venue is the Leeds Park Plaza hotel which is set in the heart of Leeds city centre, with nearby bus and train transport links, and it is very close to a host of shops, bars and places to eat.
“I’ve been to many conventions and events over the years,” said Stephen Aryan, one of the event organisers. “But the majority of them tend to be in the south, which is a long way to travel for some people. So I’m hoping that by setting ConJour in Yorkshire it will attract fans from all over the country.
“I also appreciate that full weekend events can be a bit intimidating, especially if it’s your first time or you’re attending on your own. This way, by running a one day convention fans can enjoy the event, maybe make some new friends, and they won’t miss out on anything.”
For more information about ConJour visit the website www.conjureevents.co.uk or email conjour@hotmail.co.uk or follow on twitter conjour1

--- END OF PRESS RELEASE ---

A one-day conference, with a very good line-up of guests has my vote! One for the calendar I think :-)

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Halloween Horrors


So it's Halloween today, the day the veil between the worlds of human and spirits is at it's weakest and Google makes me the star of it's special logo. Go Velma!!!

As Halloween is special to all Speculative Fiction fans, today I will be doing a round up of horror books worth taking a look at, along with some interesting bits and pieces that are relevant to All Hallows Eve.

Books
Yesterday I went to a book signing at Forbidden Planet, London for N.K.Jemisin's second book in The Inheritance Trilogy, The Broken Kingdoms and Karen Miller's The Reluctant Mage. While I was there, I picked up some new books, one of which is The Child Thief by Brom. This is a beautiful edition, larger than a trade paperback, with black and white full page illustrations of characters at the beginning of each chapter and a glossy insert of 8 colour paintings of the main characters. Brom is known for his artwork and graphic novels, and this is his first foray into fiction. I have read the first couple of chapters already (I just couldn't help myself) and I think I am going to enjoy it, a lot! The Child Thief is the story of Peter Pan, but not as Disney portrayed him...
"Peter is quick, daring, and full of mischief—and like all boys, he loves to play, though his games often end in blood. His eyes are sparkling gold, and when he graces you with his smile you are his friend for life. He appears to lonely, lost children—the broken, hopeless, and sexually abused—promising to take them to a secret place of great adventure, where magic is alive, and you never grow old. But his promised land is not Neverland. . . ."
Goodreads describes the book as follows:
"With this haunting, provocative, relentlessly thrilling reconsideration of a timeless children's classic, the acclaimed artist Brom dramatically displays another side of his extraordinary talent. Exploring the stygian blackness that gathers at the root of the beloved Peter Pan legend, he carries readers into a faerieland at once magically wondrous and deeply disturbing."
From my initial reading of the first couple of chapters yesterday, this is a deliciously dark take on the Peter Pan legend, written in a rich and luscious prose with descriptions that reflect Brom's background as an artist. I will be reviewing the book in full soon, at Speculative Book Review as I think this will be a book to savour.
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I also bought Mr Shivers by Robert Jackson Bennett. This has been on my radar for some time and promises to be a dark and frightening read...
"It is the time of the Great Depression and thousands have left their homes seeking a better life. But Marcus Connelly is not one of them. He searches for one thing only: revenge. For somewhere out there - riding the rails, stalking the camps - is the mysterious, scarred vagrant who murdered his daughter. No, Marcus Connelly seeks not a life, but a death. The question is: how much is he willing to sacrifice to get it?"
I have read some very good reviews of Mr Shivers and long winter nights seems, to me, to be the best time of year to read this.
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Another recent purchase is of a book that was published in 2002, but The Tooth Fairy by Graham Joyce was recommended to my by a friend and so I am looking forward to reliving some old childhood nightmares!
"The disquietude in Graham Joyce's coming-of-age tale is that of having too much power as a child--the kind of power that turns your slightest wishes into mayhem. This power is granted to the rather ordinary and fearful member (neither the smartest nor the strongest) of a trio of friends growing up in small-town England by his stinky and enigmatic night visitor, the Tooth Fairy. The charm of this British Fantasy Award-winning novel is in his subtle and unsentimental portrait of a supernaturally benighted childhood. As Ellen Datlow writes in Omni, "Joyce immediately hooks his readers from the very first page with a small sharp shock and holds the reader with engaging characters and an air of menace. This tooth fairy is ... mischievous and destructive, representing our own worst aspects.""
 I love the cover for The Tooth Fairy and the summary and reviews I have read lead me to think this book may just frighten the life out of me, especially with my phobia of dentists and all things tooth related. For reading wrapped up in a warm duvet with all the lights on, I fear!
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A recent short story anthology caught my eye and found it's way into my TBR pile, and that book is Sympathy For The Devil, edited by Tim Pratt.
"The Devil is known by many names: Serpent, Tempter, Beast, Adversary, Wanderer, Dragon, Rebel. His traps and machinations are the stuff of legends. His faces are legion. No matter what face the devil wears, Sympathy for the Devil has them all. Edited by Tim Pratt, Sympathy for the Devil collects the best Satanic short stories by Neil Gaiman, Holly Black, Stephen King, Kage Baker, Charles Stross, Elizabeth Bear, Jay Lake, Kelly Link, China Mieville, Michael Chabon, and many others, revealing His Grand Infernal Majesty, in all his forms. Thirty-five stories, from classics to the cutting edge, exploring the many sides of Satan, Lucifer, the Lord of the Flies, the Father of Lies, the Prince of the Powers of the Air and Darkness, the First of the Fallen... and a Man of Wealth and Taste. Sit down and spend a little time with the Devil."
With the Devil as the theme, this anthology of 35 stories from authors across the range of speculative fiction genres will no doubt revive some of the lingering legacies of an Irish-Catholic upbringing! This is a book where I will read one story a day before reviewing it on completion... I don't want to scare myself too much all at once.
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The final book I will highlight today is one first I read many years ago, but it triggered a love of supernatural horror fiction that remains today. This book is Edgar Allan Poe's Selected Tales, a classic author of the horror genre. I had just seen (and been terrified by) the Vincent Price movie The Pit and the Pendulum and found a collection of Poe's stories on my parents bookshelves. Knowing they would disapprove, I hid the book under the mattress until I had read every word. To this day I don't think they ever realised that the spate of nightmares their 10-year old child experienced was brought on by me reading Edgar Allan Poe for the first time!
"Since their first publication in the 1830s and 1840s, Edgar Allan Poe's extraordinary Gothic tales have established themselves as classics of horror fiction and have also created many of the conventions which still dominate the genre of detective fiction. As well as being highly enjoyable, Poe's tales are works of very real intellectual exploration. Attentive to the historical and political dimensions of these very American tales, this new selection places the most popular - "The Fall of the House of Usher", "The Masque of the Red Death", "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"; and "The Purloined Letter" - alongside less well-known travel narratives, metaphysical essays and political satires."
Of all Poe's stories, The Pit and the Pendulum remains my favourite and even now, many years after my first encounter with it, the story still sends shivers down my spine when I read it.

Websites and Blogs
On Wednesday I posted the press release for a new site, Dark Fiction Magazine, which launches tonight with 4 audio horror short stories. This is a site I will visit regularly as the idea of listening to a short story whilst travelling on the tube or a bus holds a lot of appeal for me. With the advent of podcasts and eReaders, the advantages of short stories come into their own, and I, for one, will be embracing this trend wholeheartedly.

My friend Jason at Kamvision is running a series of posts about Halloween, but more specifically Samhain, the ancient pagan end of year festival, from which Halloween derives many of it's 'traditions'.
Both articles are well researched and give us more insight into how our ancestors celebrated the time we now call Halloween. Needless to say, trick or treat was not part of the tradition! I highly recommend these articles for anyone who is interested in celtic/pagan mythology.

Film
As it is Halloween tonight, I will be curling up with a big mug of hot chocolate to watch Let The Right One In. I have been saving this DVD for a while and tonight is the perfect opportunity to watch this Swedish film.
"A well-crafted horror film in the tradition of Guillermo del Toro's THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE, Swedish import LET THE RIGHT ONE IN ably blends genre chills with genuine feeling. Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) is a 12-year-old outcast who is frequently picked on by his classmates. He dreams of getting his revenge, but he never stands up to the boys. With the arrival of his new next-door neighbour, 12-year-old Eli (Lina Leandersson), Oskar may finally have found a friend, ally, and first love. But Eli is no ordinary girl: she must keep her pale skin out of the sunlight, she can perform inhuman physical feats, and she has thirst for blood. The bodies begin to pile up, but Oskar can't stay away from the girl who has finally given him courage.

Based on the novel by John Ajvide Linqvist (who also wrote the script), LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is the best kind of horror film: one that transcends the tropes of the genre to become something new. This is director Tomas Alfredson's first foray into horror, and he doesn't hesitate to include bits of vampire mythology. But his background making comedies and dramas gives the film a surprising depth; the relationship between Oskar and Eli is tentative and sweet, even though their interactions may be surrounded by blood and violence. Composer Johan Soderqvist and the sound department create a fascinating palette of music and sounds that add to the film's perfectly chilly mood, and setting the film in a snowy Swedish suburb gives director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema a starkly beautiful environment for shooting. Though LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is ostensibly about a pair of children, this is a horror film for adults. There are plenty of scares, but it remains moving and intelligent, a rare feat for the genre."
So, a Happy Halloween to you all, and may "the ghoulies and ghosties and things that go bump in the night" come out to play!

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Excellent new cover for paperback of City of Ruin

Mark Charan Newton released the cover image for the forthcoming paperback of City of Ruin. This is the second book in his Legends of the Red Sun series. And isn't it lovely? Much better than the slightly 'Manga-like' image of Brynd used on the hardback. Here it is, full-size...


The artwork is by Richard Jones, and a fine job it is too. 
I have reviewed City of Ruin here: http://speculativebookreview.blogspot.com/2010/05/review-city-of-ruin-by-mark-charan.html I gave it 10/10 as it was absolutely brilliant! Yes, I loved it and am eagerly awaiting book three.
I also reviewed the first book in the series, Nights of Villjamur on Amazon UK (I wasn't blogging then) here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/cdp/member-reviews/A1G8UCH5J9J5PG/ref=cm_cr_pr_auth_rev?ie=UTF8&sort_by=MostRecentReview I gave it 5 stars.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

The thrill of the thriller

Long before he became the ‘most popular author on the planet’ (sic) I read some Dan Brown novels. No, they weren’t particularly well written or even original, but he told a good story and I enjoyed the religious aspect of the plotlines. Nowadays, the general fiction shelves in bookshops are groaning under the weight of religious, mythological and legend based thrillers of mixed quality. I have to admit, I enjoy reading this type of novel especially when the plot involves subjects such as Atlantis, Tibet, Nostradamus, Mayan prophecies, and of course the Bible. However, while there are long established authors who have been writing this type of thriller for years, the Dan Brown phenomena has opened the proverbial floodgates. How to sort out the good from the also-rans is becoming tricky as the choice available now is huge. Here I will share some of my favourites. Will you agree with my choices?

Clive Cussler has written over 40 bestselling novels, most reflecting his love of marine archaeology. They have been described as techno-thrillers as advanced technology tends to be a recurring theme in his adventures. My favourite book (and the first one I read) is Inca Gold, and Atlantis Found is another enjoyable novel, both featuring Dirk Pitt of NUMA [National Underwater and Marine Agency].

James Rollins also writes fantasy as James Clemens (The Banned and the Banished and the Godslayer series). I enjoyed both Last Oracle, set in Tibet with links to Nazi Germany, and Amazonia and have several more of his novels on my TBR pile.

Mario Reading wrote The Nostradamus Prophecies, set in France and involving the Roma (or gypsy) people. I am currently reading the sequel, The Mayan Codex, where the action moves to the Americas. The first book was very detailed, involving lost prophecies of Nostradamus, and I am thoroughly enjoying the continuation of the story in the second book of a trilogy.

The Atlantis trilogy by Thomas Greanias (Raising Atlantis, The Atlantis Prophecy and The Atlantis Revelation) was another well plotted and interesting read, especially the second book which included detail about the American founding fathers and their Masonic associations.

Other books I have enjoyed are:
  • The Last Secret of the Temple – Paul Sussman
  • The First Apostle – James Becker
  • The Atlantis Code – James Brokaw
  • The Last Templar – Raymond Khoury
  • Temple – Matthew Reilly

Friday, 4 June 2010

Gollancz SF and F Masterworks series - lists

@yetistomper is planning to review the entire Gollancz SF and F Masterworks series - 123 books in total - on his blog Stomping on Yeti in collaboration with other reviewers. An ambitious project, but possibly a very worthwhile one as each book is a classic in it's own right. Several years ago I decided to start collecting both series... I didn't get very far, but I did create a full list of each series. I am posting these here as a reference for myself, but if others find it useful, well, that's good, isn't it?!

Titles marked in bold I either own or have read (or both!)

GOLLANCZ SCIENCE FICTION MASTERWORKS SERIES
  1. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
  2. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
  3. Cities in Flight by James Blish
  4. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
  5. The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
  6. Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
  7. Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
  8. The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe
  9. Gateway by Frederik Pohl
  10. The Rediscovery of Man by Cordwainer Smith
  11. Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon
  12. Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
  13. Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick
  14. The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
  15. Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
  16. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
  17. The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard
  18. The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
  19. Emphyrio by Jack Vance
  20. A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick
  21. Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon
  22. Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock
  23. The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg
  24. The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells
  25. Flowers for Algernon Daniel Keyes
  26. Ubik by Philip K. Dick
  27. Timescape by Gregory Benford
  28. More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon
  29. Man Plus by Frederik Pohl
  30. A Case of Conscience by James Blish
  31. The Centauri Device by M. JohnHarrison
  32. Dr. Bloodmoney by Philip K. Dick
  33. Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss
  34. The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke
  35. Pavane by Keith Roberts
  36. Now Wait for Last Year by Philip K. Dick
  37. Nova by Samuel R. Delany
  38. The First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells
  39. The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke 
  40. Blood Music by Greg Bear
  41. Jem by Frederik Pohl
  42. Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore
  43. VALIS by Philip K. Dick
  44. The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin
  45. The Complete Roderick by John Sladek
  46. Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick
  47. The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells
  48. Grass by Sheri S. Tepper
  49. A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke
  50. Eon by Greg Bear
  51. The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson
  52. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick
  53. The Dancers at the End of Time by Michael Moorcock
  54. The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth
  55. Time Out of Joint by Philip K. Dick
  56. Downward to the Earth by Robert Silverberg
  57. The Simulacra by Philip K.Dick
  58. The Penultimate Truth by by Philip K. Dick
  59. Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg
  60. Ringworld by Larry Niven
  61. The Child Garden by Geoff Ryman
  62. Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement
  63. A Maze of Death by Philip K. Dick
  64. Tau Zero by Poul Anderson
  65. Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C.Clarke
  66. Life During Wartime by Lucius Shepard
  67. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm
  68. Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
  69. Dark Benediction by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  70. Mockingbird by Walter Tevis
  71. Dune by Frank Herbert
  72. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
  73. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
GOLLANCZ FANTASY MASTERWORKS SERIES
  1. The Conan Chronicles: Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle by Robert E. Howard
  2. The Book of the New Sun. Volume 1 by Gene Wolfe
  3. Little, Big by John Crowley
  4. King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany
  5. Tales of the Dying Earth by Jack Vance
  6. Time and the Gods by Lord Dunsany
  7. The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson
  8. Elric by Michael Moorcock
  9. The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny
  10. Replay by Ken Grimwood
  11. The Book of the New Sun. Volume 2 by Gene Wolfe
  12. Lyonesse: Suldrun's Garden by Jack Vance
  13. The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers
  14. Lyonesse: The Green Pearl and Madouc by Jack Vance
  15. Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin
  16. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
  17. The First Book of Lankhmar by Fritz Leiber
  18. The Land of Laughs by Jonathan Carroll
  19. The Worm Ouroboros by Eric Rücker Eddison
  20. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip
  21. Darker Than You Think by Jack Williamson
  22. The Compleat Enchanter by L. Sprague de Camp
  23. Hour Of The Dragon by Robert E. Howard
  24. Voice of Our Shadow by Jonathan Carroll
  25. The Emperor of Dreams by Clark Ashton Smith
  26. The Riddle-Master's Game by Patricia A. McKillip
  27. A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay
  28. The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick
  29. Corum: The Prince in the Scarlet Robe by Michael Moorcock
  30. The History of the Runestaff by Michael Moorcock
  31. The House on the Border Land and Other Stories by William Hope Hodgson
  32. Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson
  33. Viriconium by M. John Harrison
  34. Lud-In-The-Mist by Hope Mirrlees
  35. Beauty by Sheri S. Tepper
  36. Time and Again by Jack Finney
  37. Mistress of Mistresses by Eric Rücker
  38. Gloriana by Michael Moorcock
  39. The Well of the Unicorn by Fletcher Pratt
  40. Swords Against Death by Fritz Leiber
  41. Peace by Gene Wolfe
  42. The Dragon Waiting : A Masque of History by John M. Ford
  43. Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams by Catherine Lucille Moore
  44. The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers
  45. The Mabinogion by Evangeline Walton
  46. Grendel by John Champlin Gardner Jr.
  47. Was by Geoff Ryman
  48. Song of Kali by Dan Simmons
  49. Sea Kings of Mars and Otherwordly Stories by Leigh Brackett
  50. The Mark Of The Beast And Other Fantastical Tales by Rudyard Kipling
Both series first appeared in 1999/2000 and seem pretty dated now. Personally I think there should be no more than one book per author in each list, but, as it is a published series of books, it may be that gollancz did not have the rights to publish other authors I think should be included e.g. Asimov.

So what do you think? Which books would you include on a 'best of' science fiction or fantasy? Add your choices using the comments.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

She Sells Seashells On The Seashore...

REVIEW: Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Harper (1 April 2010)
ISBN-10: 0007178387
ISBN-13: 978-0007178384
Copy: Bought in local bookshop

On the back of the book:
On a windswept English beach in the early 19th century, two women make discoveries that change the world. And in doing so find friendship, pride – and trouble.

From the moment she’s struck by lightning as a baby, it is clear Mary Anning is different. Her discovery of strange fossilized creatures in the cliffs of Lyme Regis sets the world alight. But Mary must face powerful prejudice from a male scientific establishment, not to mention vicious gossip and the heartbreak of forbidden love. The – in prickly, clever Elizabeth Philpot, a fossil-obsessed middle-class spinster – she finds a champion, and a rival. Despite their differences in class and age, Mary and Elizabeth’s loyalty and passion for the truth must win out…


Remarkable Creatures is a fictionalised account of the life of Mary Anning (1799 – 1847), a woman from Lyme Regis whose fossil hunting skills produced specimens that would revolutionise the world of science and question the religious view of creation itself. Now a highly respected figure in Palaeontology, she never received the full recognition she deserved for her discoveries in her lifetime. The Natural History Museum in London displays many of the fossils she uncovered in the cliffs around Lyme Regis, now correctly attributed to her.

The development of Geology as a science is an integral part of the story in Remarkable Creatures. Many distinguished scholars owe a considerable debt to Mary Anning as she provided such luminaries as Henry De La Beche, Louis Agassiz, William Buckland and William Conybeare with the fossils on which they built their scientific reputations.
(C) Natural History Museum

The story focuses on the friendship between Mary and Elizabeth Philpot (1780 – 1857), how they met when Mary was still a child and how their shared love of fossils created a strong bond between the pair. Mary is the girl in the tongue-twister nursery rhyme “She sells seashells…”. Elizabeth Philpot was something of a mentor to Mary, encouraging her to read about geology and to follow a scientific method in recording and documenting her finds. A strong theme throughout the book is how, because of their gender, their lives were severely restricted by the social mores of their era.

The narration of events switches between Mary and Elizabeth, told in the first person. For me, this worked well as we get to see both sides of the friendship and gain insight into each woman’s life. Despite the difference in age and class, they eventually found a balance with each other. Elizabeth, a middle-class, middle-aged spinster, sent away to live with her 2 unmarried sisters by her married brother, is the dominant voice and it is through her we see the constraints placed on women, especially unmarried ones, in this period of history.


“Mary Anning and I are hunting fossils on the beach, she her creatures, I my fish. Our eyes are fastened to the sand and rocks as we make our way along the shore at different paces, first one in front, then the other. Mary stops to split open a nodule and find what may be lodged within. I dig through clay, searching for something new and miraculous. We say very little, for we do not need to. We are silent together, each in her own world, knowing the other is just at her back.”


While I thoroughly enjoyed reading Remarkable Creatures, I was irritated by the romance between Mary and Colonel Birch. It seemed contrived to me, and not necessarily in keeping with the rest of the book. That aside, the detail of everyday life in early 19th century England showed Tracy Chevalier’s commitment to research and it made the personalities shine through. Mary and Elizabeth are strong, likeable characters who make the most of the world in which they find themselves. Despite differing levels of education, Mary being mainly self-taught, the women have keen intellects and questioning minds that try to make sense of Mary’s finds in the context of their religious teachings and the nature of God. This was a period where the Biblical Creation myth was largely unquestioned until the discoveries by Mary Anning and others. I enjoyed this side of the book knowing that ideas that were discussed contributed to Charles Darwin’s thinking on evolution.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

THE BOOK HABITS MEME

I first read about the book habits meme on Amanda’s blog at Floor to Ceiling Books where she states
I have seen this on Genre Reader and the original post is hosted on The World in the Satin Bag.
Having read (and enjoyed) Amanda’s answers I decided to do this myself, so here goes…

Do you snack while you read? If so, favourite reading snack:
Yes, I snack while reading. Often it is chocolate or sweets, but nuts (raw, honey-roasted, salted, whatever), crisps, rice cakes, or biscuits can also help the reading process. A sign of a really engrossing book is that the snacks do not get eaten!

What is your favourite drink while reading?
Generally it is water, I drink a lot of water! Sometimes I’ll make a cup of herbal tea or mug of hot chocolate, but water is the default.

Do you tend to mark your books as you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you?
I rarely write notes in a fiction book but I have come to rely on post-its when reading a book for review. I use little coloured index tabs to flag interesting quotes etc.
Text books, however, are often heavily marked with highlighter pen, a habit picked up many years ago when at college. Now the only text books I read are on computing (Java anyone?) and these tend to be a riot of fluorescent ink.

How do you keep your place while reading a book? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Laying the book flat open?
I generally use bookmarks, mostly those free advertising ones available at the cash desk in bookshops. If I haven’t got one to hand, I’ll use postcards, train tickets, receipts or anything I find in the black hole that is my handbag! My last resort is to dog-ear the corner, though I will use the cover flap of a hardback to keep my place. The only time I lay a book flat open is when I’m reading in bed… I often wake up in the morning to find the light still on and my book lying face down beside me.

Fiction, nonfiction, or both?
Predominantly fiction. But I read popular science, environment/green politics, history, rock biographies, new age/spirituality/Buddhism too. I’m eclectic! I’d say 5 fiction books to 1 non-fiction.

Are you a person who tends to read to the end of a chapter, or can you stop anywhere?
I try to stop at the end of a chapter or section, but this doesn’t always work out. I can pick up from where I left off though, even in the middle of a paragraph.

Are you the type of person to throw a book across the room or on the floor if the author irritates you?
No, never. I will abandon a book if I don’t like it though. I have no qualms about NOT finishing a book… life is too short to waste time reading something you dislike!

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop and look it up right away?
It is rare that I find an unfamiliar word, and I can generally work out the meaning from the context. It is only with recent technological advances i.e. my iPhone that I have the ability to look up a word when reading on the move, so it’s something I learned to deal with years ago!

What are you currently reading?
  • Angelology by Danielle Trussoni
  • Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier (book club)
  • The Mammoth Book of SF Alternate Histories ed. Ian Watson and Ian Whates
  • Dante’s Journey by J.C.Marino
What is the last book you bought?
All in one order from Amazon:
  • The Photographer’s Eye by Michael Freeman
  • The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
  • Apartment 16 by Adam Neville
  • The Marks of Cain by Tom Knox
  • Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
  • The Magician’s Apprentice by Trudi Canavan
Are you the type of person that reads one book at a time, or can you read more than one?
I read more than one at a time. There’s one in my handbag for train/tube trips or when an opportunity presents itself. Another is for bedtime reading and then I’ll allocate time for specific books, usually those I am going to review.

Do you have a favourite time/place to read?
Anytime, any place, anywhere! If I have a spare few minutes, I’ll fill that time by reading. But reading in bed is my favourite.

Do you prefer series books or stand alones?
Both! But I can get impatient for the next in a series to be published.

Is there a specific book or author you find yourself recommending over and over?
Yes, there are several. Stephen Baxter, Jacqueline Carey, Mark Charan Newton, Jaine Fenn to name a few.

How do you organize your books?(by genre, title, author’s last name, etc.)
By size, then author’s name and publication date. I have different genres in separate locations…

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Not all books are fantasy...

Much as I love speculative fiction, there is another genre that will always attract me and that is Rock Autobiography/Biography. I am currently reading Just Kids: From Brooklyn to the Chelsea Hotel, a Life of Art and Friendship by Patti Smith, the story of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe and their lives in 70's New York and beyond. I have long been enthralled by Patti Smith and so far I have not been disappointed in her writing.

There are some classic rock biographies, one which got me into the genre was No-one Gets Out Of Here Alive by Jerry Hopkins and Daniel Sugerman. The life story of Jim Morrison, poet, shaman and outrageous lead singer of The Doors, did not have a happy ending, but man, that guy lived! The life of Bob Marley was protrayed in the excellent Catch A Fire by Timothy White. Other recommended reads are:
  • Sweet Scars of Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin by Alice Echols
  • Scar Tissue: The Autobiography by Anthony Kiedis and Larry Sloman
  • White Line Fever: Lemmy - The Autobiography by Lemmy Kilmister
  • The Dirt - Motley Crue: Confessions of the World's Most Notorious Rock Band by Neil Strauss, Tommy Lee, Vince Neil, and Mick Mars
  • Slash: The Autobiography by Slash and Anthony Bozza
  • Bit of a Blur by Alex James
  • When Giants Walked the Earth: A Biography of Led Zeppelin by Mick Wall
  • Hammer of the Gods: Led Zeppelin Unauthorised by Stephen Davis
  • Sex and Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll: The Life of Ian Dury by Richard Balls
  • Long Hard Road Out of Hell by Marilyn Manson and Neil Strauss
So what is the attraction of a rock biography? Personally speaking, it is to understand the person behind the music, away from the headlines and scandals. What drives their creativity and how they deal with the excesses of the rock business fascinates me, especially as so many are tortured souls in one way or another. The hedonistic lifestyle that surrounds rock superstars destroys that it claims to worship, and is a monster in its own right. But the music always triumphs in the end even if the artist does not survive.

There are some quality rock writers around today, many of whom cut their teeth on UK music weeklies like the NME, Melody Maker or Sounds. Collections of their writings are available and provide a wealth of interviews and articles on the music of the day. Some favourites are listed below:
  • Shots from the Hip (Penguin originals) by Charles Shaar Murray
  • The Dark Stuff: Selected Writings on Rock Music 1972-1993 by Nick Kent
  • England's Dreaming by Jon Savage
  • The North Will Rise Again: Manchester Music City 1976-1996 by John Robb
Many music journalists go on to pen biographies, and I have found the quality of the writing to be of a consistently high standard. A good biography, especially on a controversial figure, can add dimension to the music itself. After reading Torn Apart: The Life of Ian Curtis by Mick Middles and Lindsay Reade I gained a deeper appreciation of Joy Division lyrics and the darkness that enveloped the singer.

So, if you like music and want a little break from fiction, check out the music section in your local bookstore. You might be surprised at what you find there.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Are bookstores killing themselves?

There is an excellent article in the Guardian bookblogs section on this year's Hugo Award nominations "Hugo awards 2010: the shortlist"
China Miéville excepted, the finalists for this year's best SF novel have one thing in common: mainstream invisibility
Sadly this statement is very true. Where are the displays containing the 6 shortlisted books in mainstream bookstores? Most booksellers highlight mainstream awards such as the Man Booker or Orange Prize for Fiction with a showcase of the nominees. Even the Richard and Judy Book Club (now The TV Book Club on Channel 4) gets pride of place positioning in Waterstones and WHSmiths. Sadly, with the demise of Borders, the mainstream has a stranglehold on book selling in the UK, leaving little room for 'outsiders' such as the Hugo Awards or the Arthur C Clarke's. Is this symptomatic of the disdain in which Science Fiction and Fantasy, as a genre, is held? Probably, yet, given the slightly obsessive book-buying nature of many SFF fans, are the big UK chains losing a potentially lucrative market by ignoring major genre awards?

Well, if I am indicative of an average SFF fan, the answer is a resounding YES! I spend most of my monthly book-buying budget online now. I can't remember the last time I ventured into my local Waterstones, mainly because whoever is in charge of the SFF section just does not appear to know the genre particularly well. The table-top display is OK, but if I understand correctly [see Mark Charan Newton's blog for more discussion on book selling techniques], this space is paid for by publishers wanting to promote their latest releases. The shelving, on the other hand, tends to be a mixture of TV tie-ins, urban fantasy, paranormal romance and 'standards' such as Pratchett, Rankin, Jordan, Eddings and Gemmell. Very similar to what WHSmiths offer in their larger stores. No innovative or cutting-edge titles to be seen. Not even any China Miéville...

I choose to shop online because of the range of authors and titles available to me. They make it easy to click and buy, the wishlist facility is a very useful tool, and customer reviews, lists and recommendations etc. are really helpful. And the books arrive quickly, without the strain of carrying them home yourself! But I miss browsing in a bookstore... the thrill of spotting an intriguing title or enticing cover and physically picking the book up to find out more. It is not the same online. More convenient, I agree, but soulless.

Personally speaking, I miss the local independent bookshops. Even Borders was an improvement on the WHSmiths/Waterstones monopoly, as at least their staff were interested in the sections they managed. Sadly, my local Waterstones have lost their once excellent and informed staff, to be replaced by shop assistants who 'might read a bit'. I may be doing them a disservice here, but hey, they lost my business some time ago. If I want some trashy pulp, mainstream bestsellers or even literary fiction, then I'll go to my local charity shop as there is plenty of choice and the occasional gem can be found hidden amongst the Nora Roberts and Dan Brown. However, if I'm after the latest Chris Wooding or Jacqueline Carey I will just boot up my netbook and click my way to my electronic shopping basket. And often as not, 2 or 3 other books will accompany them, as one site in particular is rather good at presenting you titles that compliment those you have just purchased. You gotta love their algorithms!

It is the range of titles available online that appeals to me. In the evening I can read a review on a blog, check online and have the book waiting on my doorstep by the time I get home from work the following day. Bookstores, of course, cannot physically stock the same amount of books as an online store, but they could improve their ordering and online services. They could also return to a branch-based stock policy rather than a centralised distribution system that ignores regional variations and local culture.

Waterstones, when it first started, was a pleasure to shop in. Their large store in Kingston was a haven in the madness of the Bentall Centre on a Saturday afternoon... and they had a huge SFF section! But over the years the section shrank and became full of 'standards'. The offbeat and unusual books were out and tie-ins became the norm. I checked out the new Borders when it opened and was impressed that they had researched the local area and had a huge Manga section - there is a large South Korean community in the Kingston area and the kids love their Manga, it was always busy. Waterstones had, by this time, become more 'corporate' and lost out on this high-spending customer base by not being in tune with their local customers.

So, are bookstores killing themselves? I really hope not. There is something very soothing about mooching around a well stocked SFF section, where new authors are promoted via staff reviews and the stock has been selected by someone who actually knows the genre. It's not that difficult, but I fear that the 'hard-core' book buyer (and I include myself in this group) has long gone to the vast emporium that is online. With the advent of eBooks and the iPad/iBooks physical bookstores are further under threat. Will the big chains stop and re-evaluate their business model in a fight to survive? Or are we watching the death throes of the hidebound bookstore chains?

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Murf's Wishlist - March additions

I tend to use my amazon wishlist as a way of listing books I want to read. I know I should be using GoodReads or LibraryThing, but I have been browsing amazon and trawling through Listmania for new titles for years now and it's a hard habit to break.  Now that I read a lot of book reviews - see the list of Blogs I follow in the sidebar - I have new sources of reading material, recommended by reviewers whose opinions I respect.

At the beginning of every month I will post a list of the books I have added, be they pre-orders, new titles or classics. If it is crossed through, then I have bought it!

MARCH ADDITIONS
  • Guardians of Paradise by Jaine Fenn
  • Dead Souls by Ramsey Campbell, et al.
  • Horns by Joe Hill
  • Mina: the Dracula Story Continues by Marie Kiraly
  • The Alchemist and the Angel by Joanne Owen
  • Riddle Master by Patricia A. McKillip
  • The Demon King by Cinda Williams Chima
  • The Convent by Panos Karnezis
  • A Matter Of Blood: The Dog-Faced Gods Trilogy by Sarah Pinborough
  • The World House by Guy Adams
  • Spellwright by Blake Charlton
  • The Dragonbone Chair (Memory, Sorrow & Thorn) by Tad Williams
  • Mr Shivers by Robert Jackson Bennett

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Eastercon, Odyssey 2010 - or Murf's big day out!

61st BNSF Convention, Heathrow, London 2 – 5 April 2010

Saturday 3rd April 2010: First I must admit I had never been to a convention before and was slightly nervous as I approached the hotel near Heathrow airport. I need not have worried as I was immediately greeted by a group of fellow bloggers and tweeters in the foyer. It was at this point, at the start of the day, where I was introduced to Mark Charan Newton and the man next to him, Joe. This turned out to be Joe Abercrombie of Before They Are Hanged fame, and to my later embarrassment I did not recognise him at all. Introductions over, I collected my day pass and was handed a goodie bag. Now that was a pleasant surprise! Along with a mug, pen and assorted bumf, was a free book; D.B.Shan’s Procession of the Dead, no less, his first foray into adult fiction.

Then it was off to the first panel discussion: “Female Superheroes – WhyAren’t There More of Them?” It was a shame this was scheduled so early (9am) as there were few people present. A larger audience would have provided more debate and possibly challenged the panellists. These included Sam Sykes, author of the forthcoming fantasy adventure Tome of the Undergates and Paul Cornell, double Hugo Award nominee and future Guest of Honour at Eastercon 2012, alongside Esther Friesner and Roz Kaveney. I am not a comic/graphic novel fan, and while some salient points were made about how the genre is improving, I was not really convinced that the negative female stereotypes no longer predominate…

Panel over, it was off to the treasure trove that is the Dealer’s room. Books, books, shiny silver trinkets and more books! In amongst the stalls were some amazing and friendly people. I spoke to Jaine Fenn, author of Principles of Angels and Consorts of Heaven, about how I am eagerly anticipating the release of the third in the Hidden Empire series in September 2010. I was introduced to Aliette de Bodard, who wrote Servant of the Underworld (which I reviewed here), by Lee Harris of Angry Robot Books, currently the hottest book imprint in the UK at the moment.

And I chatted about which Doctor Who was the best with Rob Shearman, who wrote “Daleks” for the Christopher Eccleston Doctor (my own favourite was Jon Pertwee, closely followed by Colin Baker). He was at the British Science Fiction stall with a group of guys who persuaded me to buy 2 short story collections after we all agreed that K9 was a mistake! The collections are both edited by Ian Whates; Celebration, including stories from Stephen Baxter, Jon Courtenay Grimwood and Alastair Reynolds; the other is Myth – Understandings, a collection of stories by women including Storm Constantine, Sarah Pinborough and Gwyneth Jones. Other books I picked up throughout the day, as I just couldn’t resist popping back to the Dealers room, were The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, Bone Song by John Meaney, Slights by Kaaron Warren and The Wild Wood by Charles de Lint.

The afternoon panels I attended were both internet related. The first was "Writers and the Web" and the panellists were Joe Abercrombie, Mark Charan Newton, John Meaney and Maura McHugh. This was a lively debate where the power of the web to promote both authors and books was discussed. The role of book bloggers in particular was highlighted alongside the ability of the internet to bring authors closer to their readership through their personal websites.

The third and last panel was "Bridging the Gap: SF/F and Social Media". It was recorded and broadcast as #livecon and the panellists were Paul Cornell, Loudmouthman, and David Devereaux and chaired by the excellent Danie Ware from Forbidden Planet. Twitter was particularly relevant to the debate as it transpired that around 70% of the people in the room were actively tweeting throughout.

When not at panels or browsing the bookstalls, a group of book bloggers held court in the Polo Lounge bar. This, for me, was the best part of the whole experience. I had arranged to link up with two fellow convention novices: Amanda from Floor to Ceiling Books and Jason from Kamvision [left]. Having conversed via Twitter for a while, it was great to meet them in person. They are part of the team behind the very useful new resource Scrying the Fantastic, which posts “forthcoming releases in the field of speculative fiction”, and they are both very passionate and knowledgeable about books! As were Adrian (@Figures) and Adam (@Ghostfinder) [below right] with whom I had some fascinating discussions. I also got to meet @Nextread at last, Gav being one of the first people I ‘met’ on Twitter and through his Nextread website I discovered the world of book blogging.

The biggest revelation to me, as a convention novice, was how approachable and friendly the authors were. I was in awe at the breadth of talent contained within one hotel. While I admit I did not recognise many faces other than those I have encountered through Twitter, my wishlist has suddenly lengthened as a direct result of meeting so many gifted and interesting writers. It’s not everyday you find yourself discussing Java in a bar with Tony Ballantyne, or admiring Alex Bell’s new shoes!

Having time to reflect on the bus home, I found myself admiring a friendly and open community, filled with intelligent and thoughtful people, all with a shared love of books and speculative fiction. For me, Eastercon opened my eyes to a whole new world, one where I can indulge my reading habits and have discussions on the merits, or lack thereof, of Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant character. I have caught the convention bug…I’ll be back!

Monday, 29 March 2010

New home for Murf!

Welcome to my new residence!
So I've moved from Posterous... and this will now be my personal blog for the time being.

Why the move?
The simple answer is that I want to add images to my posts and I cannot do that on Posterous. I find I write a lot in one post, so having images to break up the blocks of text makes for easier reading on screen. I do like to consider my readers you know! Plus I want you to come back again and again.

Will there be changes?
Other than the addition of images, the overall content will remain the same. I will blog about books, music and anything else that crosses my mind when I am in the mood to write. As books are my passion, it figures that the majority of posts will involve reading in some form or other. I will also post links to book reviews I have written for Temple Library Reviews and Speculative Book Reviews

Is there a plan?
Well, no, not really! If I want to focus on something specific in the future, I'll set up another blog, but for now this is a work in progress, a journal with space to evolve and grow. I have only recently rediscovered writing for pleasure and this will be where I practice and experiment.

So what is next?
I have been sorting out my non-fiction books which means it is very likely I am going to write about them! There is a curious mix of science, mythology, history, spirituality, and rock biographies. I wonder what an analyst would make of my non-fiction collection ? *ponders*
Next weekend I am off to Eastercon Odyssey 2010 where I am meeting up with a group of bloggers I met through Twitter. I will write my personal take on the event, which should be interesting as it's my first ever convention.
Watch this space guys. And of course your comments are always welcome :-)

A Murf Abroad... New Zealand, December 2009

Anyone who knows me is well aware of my obsession with books, but there is another side to me, and that is my love of nature and spectacular scenery. There is not much of that round London, so I save my pennies and escape abroad as often as I can to see some of the natural wonders our little blue planet has to offer.

I am lucky in that my sister lives in New Zealand and I get to visit her every 4 or 5 years. She lives in the South Island, on the Pacific coast in Dunedin, but we always go away to the mountains when I’m there, a holiday within a holiday, if you like! My last visit was Christmas 2009, midsummer in the southern hemisphere… hot sunny weather, and exactly what I needed after the disastrous year 2009 turned out to be.

Early morning in The Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, 25 December 2009

Dunedin is famous for the only mainland albatross breeding colony situated at the far end of the Otago Peninsula, some 30 minutes drive from the city. These awesome birds are endangered thanks to longline tuna fishing, amongst other things, and the Royal Albatross Colony is working hard to protect and preserve the species. Royal Albatrosses have a wingspan of up to 6 feet, and to watch them soar over the seacliffs at Taiaroa Head is a very special feeling indeed. Their chicks are the size of turkeys, and are all fluffy… cute in an ugly kind of way, but when you see what they mature into, it takes your breath away. Albatrosses glide, using thermals and wind currents to keep them aloft, they don’t flap their huge wings. They can, and do, spend months out at sea, only coming to land to breed. I felt privileged to watch these magnificent birds in the sky, seeing their clumsy landings and feeding their young.

Royal Albatrosses, Dunedin, New Zealand

The Christmas period was spent in Central Otago, at Lake Ohau – real Lord of the Rings country [yes, parts of the film were shot around here]! The average daily temperature was 30 degrees and we were camped beside a small kettle lake, Lake Middleton, sheltered away from the strong winds that race down Lake Ohau from the mountains. The lupins were in full bloom, snow still capped the mountains all around and the beautiful New Zealand birdsong completed the idyllic location. This was our base, and other than messing around in the lake with canoes and paddle boards, it was where we relaxed. Trips to the nearest town (for a shower!) were a major undertaking, especially with PSP-starved nephews, so it really was back to nature.

View from the campsite, Lake Middleton, New Zealand

The Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is a harsh land of ice and rock, even at the height of summer. Glaciers cover 40% of it. There are 19 peaks over 3,000 metres, including Mount Cook, the highest peak in New Zealand at 3754 metres. [I think this is the highest mountain I’ve ever seen, but Everest is 8850m… over twice the height!]
“The glaciers that have helped shape the park's landscape include five major valley systems: Godley, Murchison, Tasman, Hooker and Mueller. The Tasman Glacier, New Zealand's largest and longest glacier, is clearly visible from the main highway at the entrance of the park”
We came here on Christmas morning to walk up to the foot of the Hooker Glacier, a 4-hour round hike. I saw my first avalanche while still in the car park, but as there was one every 3 or 4 minutes, the novelty soon wore off. I could see the huge cracks in the snow as the sun’s warmth destabilised the previous winter’s fall. The walk itself took us across the Hooker River, a fast glacial run-off flow rendered opaque by the quantities of rock dust carried within the water, and along the side of the valley where the glacier has retreated.

Crossing the Hooker River, it was very windy!

I was hoping to see some Keas, alpine parrots unique to New Zealand and famous for their cheeky antics, however, they had moved further up the slopes to avoid the summer heat. So I made do with admiring the ice-bergs in the moraine-dammed lake at the foot of the Hooker Glacier… they were very blue, and while not Antarctic sized, I was suitably impressed – this was ice, 1000’s of years old yet melting in the summer sun as part of the glacial retreat caused by rising temperatures planet-wide.

A long and lonely road...

I have been to New Zealand 5 times now, and never tire of visiting. The South Island is so very beautiful, with awe-inspiring scenery, dense temperate rain forest, and unique wildlife. It is sad that so many of the native creatures are in decline, mainly due to the interference of humans who brought cats, dogs, rats, stoats, rabbits and all kinds of other animals from ‘home’. These animals are now destroying the unique bird population, many of which are flightless. The Kakapo, a flightless parrot, last seen on TV with Stephen Fry and Mark Carwardine, is critically endangered and can only be found on a protected small island off the main NZ coast. The Kiwi, the national emblem, is also under pressure, with introduced small mammals feeding on their eggs. I find it shocking that these islands maintained a rich and thriving ecosystem for millennia, yet since the arrival of the first humans, some 600 years ago, began a destructive process that is getting harder each year to counteract. 

Enjoying the summer sunshine - December 2009


But it is difficult to think of the destruction of species and habitats when you are watching a Kahu (Australasian Harrier) wheel above the plains, circling around and then diving at some poor possum or rabbit in the distance. When the sun sets behind a range of snow-capped mountains, casting fiery streaks across the sky to reflect in the lakes below, I feel insignificant in comparison to the natural beauty all around me. Amazing landscapes, such as those in New Zealand, engender a feeling of peace within me, yet help me put my own issues and problems into perspective. 

How to spend Christmas 2009

As much as I love my books, and the worlds I inhabit within their pages, nothing compares to the feeling I get when surrounded by the power of nature. Whether it is the Irish Atlantic coast, with giant waves crashing against the cliffs, or India with it's deep red soil and white sandy beaches, or New Zealand in the clean mountain air, I will always have a deep respect for the beautyand richness our planet offers us. I only wish others felt the same way, instead of destroying our natural resources in the pursuit of profit.

Sunset over Lake Ohau
Credit: All photos were taken by my sister, Bronagh Quinn. I wonder has she read this yet?!

The Joy of the Omnibus

[First posted 21 March 2010]

There is little more pleasure in the world than settling down in a comfortable setting (a hammock on a tropical beach is ideal), with plenty of on hand sustenance (chocolate, salted pistachios or trail mix...), drink of choice and an omnibus edition of a favourite author. This is a format I hope will increase in popularity as it is a great way to read a trilogy. No more waiting for the author to complete the last book in the series; perfect for a range of speculative fiction. Win/win.

One of my favourite authors is Mark Chadbourn. I discovered his "Age of Misrule" trilogy when browsing through my local Waterstones 2 or 3 years ago. I had never heard of him nor seen any reviews of his book, but was reeled in by the first line of the blurb
All over the country, the ancient gods of Celtic mythology are returning to the land from which they were banished millennia ago.
What followed was 1350 pages of modern fantasy at it's finest. With white-knuckle action interspersed with passion, betrayal, tragedy and despair, the entire trilogy was a blast of fresh air into my stale reading life. With the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons I travelled the length and breadth of Britain, through the lands of the Tuatha de Danaan to a dramatic conclusion that spoke of much more to come. The Age of Misrule is the first of 3 trilogies by Mark Chadbourn, The Dark Age and Kingdom of the Serpent completing the set. He released The Silver Skull, the first of an Elizabethan trilogy in November 2009.

I found another favourite author in 2005 by way of an omnibus edition of the first 3 books in her Black Jewels series. Anne Bishop has created a three-tier world populated with different races... the long-lived Hayllians, Eyrians; dark magic, demon-dead, witches, and of course, The Blood. The darker the jewel, the more powerful the magic the holder possesses.
Ancient prophecies have foretold the coming of a powerful witch, one who would in reality be not a mere human female but "dreams made flesh," nothing short of Witch herself.
This is adult fantasy, exploring the evil of sexual abuse is not usual fantasy fare, however, it is very sensitively handled here. And in a society where women are the ruling Queens and men of The Blood serve, there is no shortage of violence, revenge and corruption. Jaenelle is the focus of the trilogy and is a sympathetic and well constructed character. I am currently reading number 7 in the series, Shalador's Lady, and am still not tiring of Anne Bishop's Black Jewels world.

At last Anne Rice's The Vampire Chronicles is released in omnibus format and it is in my shopping basket as an easter treat to myself. Less calories than a Lindt Lindor easter egg too! I first read Interview with a Vampire in the early 80's, during my Goth phase, and both loved and loathed Lestat in equal measures. I read all her subsequent novels too, my favourites being Queen of the Damned and The Witching Hour. The first line of Queen of the Damned sums up the central character
I'm the Vampire Lestat. Remember me? The vampire who became a super rock star, the one who wrote the autobiography? The one with the blond hair and the blue eyes, and the insatiable desire for visibility and fame? You remember.
Some of Anne Rice's best writing is contained within The Vampire Chronicles and she brought fresh blood to an ailing horror standard. Anyone who likes Twilight should read this... real vampires are NOT vegetarian. They are devious, totally self-centred and morally corrupt, as befits the legend handed down from Bram Stoker.

So *publishers take note* an omnibus edition could be a way to revitalise a back catalogue. The SF and Fantasy Masterworks series were lovely and worth collecting, but many of those books are available in several reprints. Let's face it, your target audience has got most of them anyway, so why not look back on what you have in single book format and create an omnibus edition series or imprint? A few suggestions off the top of my head that I think would be suitable for publishing as an omnibus are:
  • Kim Stanley Robinson - Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, Sixty Days of Counting
  • Raymond E. Feist & Janny Wurts - The Empire trilogy (Servant of the Empire, Daughter of the Empire, Mistress of the Empire)
  • Faith Hunter - Rogue Mage novels (Bloodring, Seraphs, Host)
  • Anne Bishop - Tir Alainn series (The Pillars of the World, The Shadows and the Light, The House of Gaian)
  • Maria V. Snyder - The Study trilogy (Poison Study, Magic Study, Fire Study)
Thanks to Victoria Rogers for giving me the idea for this post... omnibus editions are the way to go.

Books and Me!

[Posted 28 February 2010]

I always carry a book with me wherever I go. You never know when you might need one! On the tube, waiting around, eating lunch in the park (weather permitting)... there are opportunities to read everywhere. And I like to make the most of any opportunities that arise.

So when did this reading habit begin? To be honest, I cannot remember NOT reading by myself. I was a competent reader before I started school, and, much to the dismay of the teacher, was unwilling to accept books with large pictures and only 4 or 5 words per page. Janet & John did not go down well with me - I preferred mythical heroes and dark fairy stories! I think I read the entire set of Andrew Lang's Fairy Books before the age of 8 or 9 and Celtic, Norse or Greek myths were also firm favourites. Then I discovered Narnia... a life-long love of Fantasy was born.

Through my teens I read Anne McCaffrey: The Ship Who Sang, the Pern novels and the Talents series. A firm favourite was Z for Zachariah by Robert O'Brien, through which I discovered post-apocalyptic fiction. Granted I also had an Enid Blyton and Elinor M. Brent-Dyer boarding school phase, but given I grew up in Northern Ireland during the troubles, that was a fantasy world too! Many of the books I read back then were considered 'boy's books' and so I had 'issues' with most of the books selected for study at school. Some, like To Kill A Mockingbird and The Diary of Anne Frank became firm favourites but the majority I can barely remember what they were.

The one area where my convent education has fallen down is with regard to classic literature. The set texts chosen for O Level English Literature included 'Villette' by Charlotte Bronte, 'The Trumpet Major' by Thomas Hardy and Shakespeare's 'The Taming of the Shrew'. I hated them all and got a grade U (unclassified) for slagging them off in the exam! The net result being that now I avoid 'classic' literature wherever possible... no, I haven't read Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights or Tess of the D'Urbervilles. The TV series versions suit me just fine! And I don't feel like I am missing out either... overly descriptive writing getting in the way of a good story, in my view.

It was at college that I was introduced to science fiction proper. I was reading a lot of Stephen King, James Herbert and Clive Barker at the time, when a boyfriend gave me a copy of Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A Heinlein, mainly because I was a massive U2 fan, and the title was a favourite track on the October album. I loved it, and still have that original copy today. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale and The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham soon followed. These books could be considered dystopian fantasy rather than sci-fi per se, and this is the direction I have followed ever since. I don't like 'hard' sci-fi with overly complex technology or space battles. I didn't get on with Larry Niven's Ringworld or The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. Cyberpunk passed me by in favour of more feminist writers like Ursula Le Guin, Sherry Tepper, and Octavia Butler. I chose to read Marion Zimmer Bradley, Joan D Vinge and Katherine Kerr over Neal Stephenson, Iain M Banks or William Gibson. And these trends continue today.

While I admit to a preference for female authors such as Jacqueline Carey and Anne Bishop (and a guilty love of urban fantasy and paranormal romance!), there are new male writers coming through today that appeal to me and my taste in reading. Mark Chadbourn's Age of Misrule trilogy and Chris Wooding's The Braided Path are two fairly recent examples. Towards the end of 2009 I read Mark Charon Newton's Nights of Villjamur, it being highly recommended by various book bloggers (and the author himself!) who I 'met' through Twitter. This, combined with meeting lots of similar 'book people' on Twitter, has opened a new world of up and coming writers of quality fantasy for me. A new publishing house, Angry Robot Books, has released a wave of new talent in the world of speculative fiction and horror.

I have a TBR pile that currently has some 50 books in it, plus a list of pre-orders on amazon that would scare my bank manager! New male authors like Blake Charlton, Sam Sykes, and Stephen Deas are battling for shelfspace with new female writers such as Kaaron Warren, Aliette de Bodard and N.K. Jeminsin. I no longer wander round the Kingston branch of Waterstones (huge SFF section!) selecting books on the basis of the blurb on the back cover, but instead am more informed by reading book blogs written by friendly people who share my tastes. Sadly it is all too easy to use the "One-Day 1- Click" button on amazon and find the book(s) discussed on Twitter on my doorstep when I get home from work the next day!

Some great book review blogs (in no particular order)