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)

My Top 40 Female SFF Writers

[First posted 14 February 2010]

Never being one to shy away from a challenge, I have responded to @hagelrat's suggestion that I make my own list by creating this... My Top 40 Female SFF Writers!
This is a personal list, based on books and authors I have encountered over the years (yes, I have read every one listed here) and is not a comprehensive list of female authors in the SFF genre. There may be what some consider to be 'glaring omissions', but this is MY list. If a particular author is not included it is for 2 reasons:
  • I have never read any of her books e.g. Carol Berg
  • I have read at least one of her books but didn't enjoy it e.g. Robin Hobbs
Of course there are some real favourites in there, authors that I would read every word they ever committed to paper. Jacqueline Carey and Anne Bishop fit in that category, Sherri Tepper and Anne Rice to a lesser extent. Some new authors are included too; Kaaron Warren, N K Jemisin and Aliette de Bodard are 3 writers I have discovered in the last 2 months and are worthy of inclusion. Others are what I consider 'comfort' reads... I know exactly what to expect but enjoy the worldbuilding or lead characters e.g. Kelley Armstrong, Sherrilyn Kenyon or Michelle Sagara.
So, here it is, in no particular order: 

My Top 40 Female SFF Writers 

1. Sherri Tepper – Grass
2. Jacqueline Carey – Kushiel’s Dart
3. Anne Bishop – The Black Jewels trilogy (one volume)
4. Anne Rice – The Mayfair Witches
5. Octavia Butler – The Parable of the Sower
6. Marian Zimmer Bradley – The Mists of Avalon
7. Katherine Kerr – Palace
8. Joan D Vinge – The Snow Queen
9. Ursula le Guin – The Left Hand of Darkness
10. Kaaron Warren – Walking the Tree
11. Jaine Fenn – Principles of Angels
12. Margaret Atwood – A Handmaid’s Tale
13. Elizabeth Moon – The Speed of Dark
14. Angela Carter – Nights at the Circus
15. Storm Constantine – Storm for the Sacred
16. Anne McCaffrey – The Ship Who Sang
17. Catherynne M Valente – Palimpsest
18. Juliet Marillier – Daughter of the Forest
19. Sara Douglass – Battleaxe
20. Connie Willis – Doomsday Book
21. Tanith Lee – The Secret Books of Paradys
22. Nancy Kress – Beggars in Spain
23. N.K.Jemisin – The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
24. Karen Miller – Empress
25. Jennifer Fallon – Medalon
26. Sherrilyn Kenyon – Acheron
27. Mary Doria Russell – The Sparrow
28. Starhawk – The Spiral Dance
29. Maria V Snyder – Poison Study
30. Julian May – The Many-coloured Land
31. Faith Hunter – Bloodring
32. P D James – Children of Men
33. Michelle Sagara – Cast in Secret
34. Aliette de Bodard – Servant of the Underworld
35. Alex Bell – The Ninth Circle
36. Elizabeth Haydon – Prophecy
37. Celia Friedman – Black Sun Rising
38. Wendy Alec – The Fall of Lucifer
39. Kelley Armstrong – Bitten
40. Justina Robson – Living Next Door to the God of Love

What do you think? Have I missed any you consider to be conspicuous by their absence? Feel free to comment, but remember, this is my own personal selection! I am, however, very open to suggestions for new authors to try...

NextRead and Hagelrat's Top 50 SFF Book List: my response...

[First posted 14 February 2010] 

Today @nextread and @hagelrat posted their combined list of Top 50 SFF reads: see the full list on either Unbound! or NextRead blogs... and a very eclectic list it is too! Both classics and very recent books are included and the list covers pretty much every SFF sub-genre and then some. What came as a surprise to me was the number [15] that I had never heard of before... could they be children's or YA? I tend to skip that section when looking for a new read, so maybe I should pay more attention there!  

An even bigger shock came when I counted the number I had read myself... 19. Only 19 out of 50!!?? I have some serious catching up to do and lots more books to add to my amazon wishlist. So I began thinking... what are my Top favourites from the list? How many do I own but haven't read yet? What have I started but abandoned? 

Let us deal with my Top 10 from Hagelrat and Nextread's list... in no particular order:  

1. Queen of the Damned - Anne Rice  
2. Farenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury  
3. Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
4. World's End - Mark Chadbourn  
5. Nights of Villjamur - Mark Charan Newton  
6. The Hobbit - J.R.R.Tolkien  
7. Bitten - Kelley Armstrong  
8. A Bloody Chamber - Angela Carter  
9. Dracula - Bram Stoker   
10. Mythago Wood - Robert Holdstock  

There are a few books listed that are in my TBR pile, namely:  

1. Spanky - Christopher Fowler  
2. Dead Witch Walking - Kim Harrison  
3. Blood Ties - Pamela Freeman  
4. A Madness of Angels - Kate Griffin  
5. Midnight Never Come - Marie Brennan  
6. The World House - Guy Adams  

And some I've started but put aside for various reasons... (must go back to these!)  

1. Seeds of Earth - Michael Cobley
2. Under the Dome - Stephen King 
3. Greywalker - Kat Richardson  

Overall, I was genuinely intrigued by this list. I have read a number of reviews by both Next Read and Hagelrat, so know that I have broadly similar tastes to them. I now have several new authors to investigate, some books to revisit and others to be read for the first time. My ever-growing TBR pile needs to be re-ordered! I think I am getting to like this list business, maybe I should create my own list of Top 50 SFF reads? Now there's a thought...

Music: the soundtrack of my life

[First posted 16 February 2010]
Today I rediscovered how large a role music plays in my life, and it was refreshing. Using blipfm I posted a lot of my favourite tracks to Twitter. Many were from the 80's, my punky/goth/alternative phase! Dressed mainly in black, with spiky hennaed hair, I had a surprisingly fun time. Preston was a good town to be a student and the Warehouse was a great club despite the metallic dancefloor. With occasional trips to Manchester and Liverpool for bigger gigs, most of the bands I saw during this period were in either Preston or Ireland. I was lucky enough to be around when Killing Joke, Southern Death Cult, Theatre of Hate and Teardrop Explodes played the Students Union... thanks MB, you had very good taste, with hindsight. 

I find I can recall specific places, people and events when hearing familiar songs. A good example is 'The Rite of Spring' by Stravinsky; this was the music played as Siouxsie & The Banshees came on stage at Manchester Apollo during the Kiss in the Dreamhouse tour. First time seeing Siouxsie live, I was blown away. I can even remember where I was seated... to the left of the stage, about 1/3 way back. And everytime I hear that particular piece of music I am transported straight back there, in my long black lace dress and pointy boots wafting patchouli oil with every step... and yes, I had the silver bangle habit even then! 
Strangely I didn't embrace the grunge scene in the 90's at the time, that came later. I was more into the britpop and indie dance scene then. The influence of MS, I suppose. Though Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers, Oasis, Elastica were all quality acts, however, I still found myself drawn to darker, heavier guitar bands like Therapy?, Skunk Anansie and Green Day. I also discovered Led Zeppelin around this time, as, apart from the TOTP theme and Stairway to Heaven, I had never listened to them before. One double Remastered CD later (the one with the crop circle cover) and I was hooked! Kashmir, The Immigrant Song, Heartbreaker... these were all new to me. And there is something very special about hearing a classic rock band like Led Zeppelin for the very first time. It wasn't until the late 90's that I embraced grunge. 

New influence, PC, made me a mix tape (remember them?!) with Soundgarden, Screaming Trees and early Nirvana on. There is something about the grunge sound that reaches deep inside me. I love the soaring vocals, driving guitars and heavy rhythyms combined with dark angst-ridden lyrics.For the last decade, grunge and rock have dominated my listening, mainly via PC's love of all things dark and heavy. Korn, Monster Magnet, Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails remain firm favourites today. 

So despite my punk rock roots, I am now unashamedly a rock fan. New bands like Kings of Leon, Muse, The Arctic Monkeys and Kasabian are great, and sit well with classic acts like Thin Lizzy, The Doors, Pink Floyd and AC/DC. The iPod has changed how I listen to music, and to have tracks from the last 40-odd years nestling together, waiting their turn in the shuffle, is bliss. I can indulge my love of music, which began under the covers listening to Radio Luxemburg, then Dave Fanning/John Peel, by allowing me to choose from 1000's of songs, or by letting the machine choose for me. My own personal, portable playlist, available anywhere, at any time. This is the future, and I like it!