Sunday 28 February 2010

The Hearts of Horses - Molly Gloss

In the winter of 1917, nineteen-year-old Martha Lessen saddles her horses and heads for a remote county in eastern Oregon looking for work "gentling" wild horses. Many of the regular hands are off fighting the war, and though the ranchers are sceptical of Martha's quiet, unconventional methods, it is clear that she has a serious knowledge of horses. Over the long, hard winter, the townsfolk witness Martha talking in low, sweet tones to horses believed beyond repair - and getting miraculous, almost immediate results. Ultimately, her gifts will earn her the respect of the men, the friendship of the women, and an indispensable place in the community.

The Hearts of Horses is a beautiful tale told in a simple manner. The prose is no-nonsense and yet somehow poetic at the same time. It is well worth picking up, even if you have little interest in Westerns or horses.

For me, the particular joy came from individual chapters that seemed to be almost short stories in their own right, telling tales about the ranchers on Martha's 'horse-circle'. Particular tales that touched my heart included Ruth and Tom Kandel (concerning Tom's fight against cancer) and the Thiede's, who are German-born, which becomes an issue as the shadow of World War 1 falls over the county.

Glass writes effectively and without sentiment about the hard lives of the ranchers, many of whom flocked to Oregon in the hopes of making their fortunes. There is heartache, and pathos, and engaging characters on every page.

Glass also offers us a perspective on the world outside the quiet Western county that Martha plies her trade in - Martha finds work because many of the young men have already been drafted into the army. She covers such sensitive topics as racism, terminal illness, and environmental destruction with grace and quiet commentary.

The overwhelming impression of this novel is peace: we drift into the tale with Martha's arrival in the county, spend some time with her as the shy young girl falls into a new life, and then drift away. It is an uncomplicated and ephemeral look at a long-gone time from history.

Friday 26 February 2010

Female Characters in Fantasy Literature

Recently I have both read an interesting topic on the role of female characters in fantasy literature, and had a couple of discussions with a friend concerning whether female characters are portrayed ‘realistically’. I want to jot down some thoughts on this – I do not have a feminist agenda, but it is a subject that interests me, and I would invite you to share in a discussion on the subject.

When looking back over fantasy literature, including the original fairytales that most modern fantasy is descended from, it is clear that women started very much in the damsel in distress role. Women were relegated to the sidelines, waiting for a man in shining armour to rescue them from the jaws of dragons. Realistic? Maybe for the time in which these tales were written. After all, for every Eleanor of Aquitaine (seriously, if you do not know of this celebrated Queen of England, I would invite you to read some of the amazing tales of her life), there was a submissive noblewoman whose role in life was to please her man. Even back then, though, there were certain female characters in fiction that became more than a bit part in these stories: Morgan le Fay is often represented as a powerful woman in her own right.

Since the early days of fantasy fiction, we have seen an ever-increasing number of female protagonists – in fact, the whole realm of urban fantasy is now populated by sassy heroines! But how many of these women are portrayed in a realistic light? And who is to judge realistic? Can such a sweeping generalisation ever be applied to the many different female characters who now stride through fantasy fiction?

Let’s open the floor with a comment found on the SFF World forums made by Kat G (I sincerely hope she doesn’t mind me taking her words!): “And actual women would be what exactly? Never bitchy? Never bossy? Never whiny? Someone who's tough when it's acceptable, like in a fight, but not with a guy? You like certain kinds of women, but those aren't the real women and the rest are fake. The range of kinds of women characters and female behaviors readers accept and are interested in tend to still be much narrower than the range of kinds of male characters, because readers are often uncomfortable with women acting in certain ways, especially nagging, worrying, anger, rudeness, cruelty, selfishness, aggressive behavior -- all things that women quite frequently do, but which society says proper women don't do or don't show, and certainly don't do with a male. And unfortunately, in SFF, this is particularly still a problem, and one that needs to be challenged sometimes, not coddled.

The quote above resonated with me. It does strike me that there are few examples of women realistically portrayed in fantasy – I would love you to disagree with me! I see the female characters in David Eddings’ work: collectively smug and condescending towards their menfolk. I see the female characters in Laurell K Hamilton’s work: almost too-kick-arse, wanting to be better than the men. I see the female characters in The Wheel of Time: seriously, did Robert Jordan not speak to any women? At all?

I say few examples because there are some decently-written female characters around. GRRM portrays women with all their foibles – nagging, tempers, fear for their men, incapability. Somehow they have some of the worst characteristics yet remain interesting and, above all, real.

One suggestion made in the same discussion is that strong women are automatically portrayed as bitchy and/or ruthless, with few redeeming characteristics; that unless they have this approach to life, they are not deemed to be as strong as their male counterparts.

Another thought put forward is that female characters are currently put in a box marked “ultra-positive, nice, spunky heroines”, because this is how people want to read their women. And then the writers are criticized for producing bland, uninteresting clich├ęs of women. Those female writers who seem especially guilty of this are then condemned for not producing good, gritty fiction such as the Abercrombie’s of this world.

Lastly, I want to consider the idea of Mary Sue characters (this is defined as being a female character without flaws, who is often considered a wish fulfillment fantasy of the author who created them). There are a number of examples I can provide for this (Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake character is too easy to target here!), but I shall go with Ayla from Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear and subsequent novels in the Earth’s Children series. We (or at least I!) read with incredulous disbelief as Ayla single-handedly developed horse-riding, spear throwing, using flint to create fire, taming animals for pets, sewing up wounds, and many more. All this as well as being unbelievably beautiful and generally talented at everything she turns her hand to. Men rarely suffer in the same way from being presented as Gary Stus, which seems to lend them a greater realism.

In conclusion, I would say that we cannot apply a sweeping generalization and say that all female characters suffer from a lack of realism in fantasy literature – but I would state that women are struggling in comparison to their male counterparts. I would welcome your thoughts – please leave a comment!

Wednesday 24 February 2010

Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson

"After nearly two decades in Britain, Bill Bryson took the decision to move back to the States for a while, to let his kids experience life in another country, to give his wife the chance to shop until 10 p.m. seven nights a week, and, most of all, because he had read that 3.7 million Americans believed that they had been abducted by aliens at one time or another, and it was thus clear to him that his people needed him.

But before leaving his much-loved home in North Yorkshire, Bryson insisted on taking one last trip around Britain, a sort of valedictory tour of the green and kindly island that had so long been his home. His aim was to take stock of the nation's public face and private parts (as it were), and to analyse what precisely it was he loved so much about a country that had produced Marmite, a military hero whose dying wish was to be kissed by a fellow named Hardy, place names like Farleigh Wallop, Titsey and Shellow Bowells, people who said 'Mustn't grumble', and Gardeners' Question Time."

Please permit me a short aside to explain picking up this book. For the last week or so I have been travelling - first to the States and then to France. On my flight out to the States I read Bill Bryson's Notes From a Big Country, helping to immerse myself in the culture of the country I was visiting. To celebrate my return home, I decided to book-end my trip with his Notes From a Small Island to prepare myself for coming back to our green and pleasant land.

As you can no doubt tell from the publisher's blurb on the back of the book, Bill Bryson takes a very irreverent look at England and the people who inhabit it. The humour is of a gentle teasing nature, however, and it is clear that Bryson has an enormous fondness for the country he is leaving.

The nature of the book is distinctly episodic, as Bryson uses public transport to take him to various locations around the country. Some of the places he visits are very personal to him (the only reason for some of them featuring in a book supposedly meant to represent England). These interludes are interesting and often funny, but don't add a great deal for someone who is reading this book to gain an impression of England. He skips some regions entirely - the Midlands really don't get a look in, which is sad considering there are such lovely towns and cities littering the middle of England.

I would also take issue with some of his complaints. If he tells us once, he tells us one hundred times that he feels the town centres have not been developed with any sensitivity to the original buildings. I happen to agree with his point, but sometimes this is all he mentions about a couple of the locations he visits. I would have liked to hear more about the special features of these places - this is loosely supposed to be a travel guide after all! And Bryson's mood on the day that he arrives does tend to influence his opinion of the city unduly.

If you take on board these criticisms, then the book is a very pleasant, easy read with some wonderful flashes of humour. In fact, the parts of the book I liked especially were where Bryson interjected his wry observations on matters as diverse as train spotters, the creation of chopsticks (why?!), and a little flirtation with some sexist commentary on the difference in the sexes as they shop.

It was exactly what I needed as I returned home, especially the following quote: "It looked so peaceful and wonderful that I could almost have cried, and yet it was only a tiny part of this small, enchanted island. Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realised what it was that I loved about Britain - which is to say, all of it. Every last bit of it, good and bad - Marmite, village fetes, country lanes, people saying 'I'm terribly sorry but', people apologizing to me when I conk them with a careless elbow, milk in bottles, beans on toast, haymaking in June, stinging nettles, seaside piers, Ordnance Survey maps, crumpets, hot-water bottles as a necessity, drizzly Sundays - every bit of it.

What a wondrous place this was - crazy as fuck, of course, but adorable to the tiniest degree."

Seriously, makes me proud to be British!

Thursday 18 February 2010

The Left Hand of God - Paul Hoffman

“The Sanctuary of the Redeemers is a vast and desolate place without joy or hope. Most of its occupants were taken there as boys and for years have endured the brutal regime of the Lord Redeemers whose cruelty and violence have one singular purpose – to serve in the name of the One True Faith.
In one of the Sanctuary’s vast and twisting maze of corridors stands a boy. He is perhaps fourteen or fifteen years old – he is not sure and neither is anyone else. He has long-forgotten his real name, but now they call him Thomas Cale.”

The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman has been held up to be one of the great fantasy debuts of 2010 and received rave reviews from other authors as well as more conventional reviewers. It received an extensive marketing campaign and was generally hailed before its release as one of those books that everyone MUST read. Unfortunately, since its release, many people have stepped forward to list the numerous ways in which it does not live up to the hype – and I’m afraid I must join their ranks.
There was some part of me almost determined to like The Left Hand of God, being as so many other people had declaimed the turgid prose, the stilted characterisation and the slightly baffling plot that leaves you wondering at the end why you have bothered to read four hundred odd pages when the main protagonist finds himself back where he started. However, this is a hard book to love – or even like very much.
Usually when writing a negative review I like to offer the points from the book that I did, at least, enjoy. Here I’m struggling to remember anything that moved my emotions. If all else fails and I can’t find any positive elements to focus on I will retreat to the comfort of mentioning the cover art – but here we have the much-derided hooded man (and I still remain childishly amused by the fact that the book is called The Left Hand of God but the character on the front is carrying that honking great sword in his right hand! Still just me? Well, alright then...)
My most damning comment on this book is one of apathy: I could very easily have put The Left Hand of God down at any point and not felt too dismayed at never knowing what happens at the end. Let me put this into context – I can count on one hand the books I have not finished. I feel that if the author has gone to the trouble of writing a novel, then I should respect their effort and give it a fair chance. With Paul Hoffman’s book it was only pig-headed stubbornness that had me turning the last page.
I did not enjoy the crazy mixed-up world building that had Memphis and York right next to each other. I do not know what Hoffman was trying to achieve: was he so lazy as to not be able to make up names for his cities? Or was he going for the truly symbolic and I just missed it? My over-riding impression is that Hoffman felt he was doing something ultra clever but it just came across as pretentious.
There have been a couple of books in recent times that I have read, wondering if he author (while writing the novel) had half an eye on the screenplay of the movie that would be made: The Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows spring to mind. This book can now join their ranks. There are panoramic sweeping shots of the countryside described lovingly (a la The Lord of the Rings films); some market shots that bring to mind Tatooine; and some truly awful training montages that I can hear the inspirational 80s power chords for.
I hated the way that Hoffman dealt with women, including one cringe-making passage:
“Our skin must be without flaw, our hair shiny and manageable [which sounds like a hair care advert], we must have wide bright eyes, our cheeks pink, our breasts round and large, our buttocks large and smooth and between our legs, under our arms, nor anywhere else except our heads were we to permit the growth of a single hair. We must be always interested and charming and always smell of flowers. We must never be angry or scold or be critical of other people, but kind and affectionate and always ready with kisses and tenderness.”
“How,” asked Vipond, “did you practise your... tenderness? If you had no men?”
“On each other, sir.”
Oh come on, Mr Hoffman! Let’s first objectify women as sex objects and then throw in a little casual titillation. Way to go!
And I leave you with another quote that caught my eye: “As for smoking – it is a childish affectation: a habit loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, causes the breath to stink and makes any man who takes it for long enough effeminate.” That’s right, kids: smoking is BAD. Hoffman’s message here is extremely clumsy and almost shoe-horned into the plot for no good reason.
Harry Sidebottom (author of the Warrior of Rome series of books) states on the back of The Left Hand of God: “If you do not enjoy this book something has died in your soul.” Well, I’m proud to say that my soul is completely dead – and Paul Hoffman killed it. Avoid this book.

Wednesday 17 February 2010

Notes From A Big Country - Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson has the rare knack of being out of his depth wherever he goes - even (perhaps especially) in the land of his birth. This became all too apparent when, after nearly two decades in England, the world's best-loved travel writer upped sticks with Mrs Bryson, little Jimmy et al. and returned to live in the country he had left as a youth.

Whether discussing the dazzling efficiency of the garbage disposal unit, the exoticism of having your groceries bagged for you, the jaw-slackening direness of American TV or the smug pleasure of being able to eat your beef without having to wonder if when you rise from the table you will walk sideways into the wall, Bill Bryson brings his inimitable brand of bemused wit to bear on that strangest of phenomena - the American way of life.

So, I was between books and facing a long haul flight to the States from good old Blighty and needed a book that would enable me to dip in and out and keep me relatively sane in what is essentially a glorified bus! Because of my destination I decided to tackle Notes From a Big Country (for the umpteenth time, I might add) by Bill Bryson. Being written in the form of short articles - originally written for one of the English Sunday papers - it is perfect fodder for a person who is facing severe jet-lag and finding it hard to concentrate on the plot of a regular book.

Obviously, since it is a series of articles, it will be hit or miss. Some of the articles seem to be tossed out with little thought or relevance. There is an additional problem with timeliness - some of the events Bryson talks about date the book horribly.

On the whole, though, this book is tremendous fun, with a series of sparkling and very amusing essays on matters as diverse as the British vs. US postal system; whether Thanksgiving truly is the best holiday; and the art of shopping in the States. Some of the articles even manage to tug on the heart strings - the one in particular that springs to mind here is when Bryson talks about his first son flying the nest.

I adore the irreverent humour and sense of wonder that Bryson brings to many of his articles, whether talking about the enormous variety of breakfast cereals on offer or the fact that Christmas lights NEVER EVER work. His humour works for me because it often springs from nowhere and leaves you giggling in surprise.

I would warn that, if you're anything like me, this book might be a little tough on your neighbours while on public transport thanks to the unattractive snorts of laughter you will be emitting at regular intervals!

Well worth picking up for light entertainment and a joyous observational journey on the differences between the States and, well, everywhere else.

Saturday 13 February 2010

Wife, Interrupted by Amy Molloy

'My story begins where most women hope theirs will end - with a big, white wedding. After all, isn't that how every good fairy tale finishes? I thought so. And at 23, in love and engaged, it seemed my happy ever after was secure... That is until the man of my dreams died three weeks after our wedding. Look at me now: a 23-year-old widow. You'd never guess. I've learnt to hide it well. Because the way I saw it, there were only two options:

a) Dress in black, become a recluse and watch my wedding video on a loop


b) Decide falling in love again is out of the questions and choose an easy, uncomplicated alternative - sex.'

This book is amazing. Full stop. Wife, Interrupted is one of those books that stays with you long after closing the last page. When a book manages to bypass your mind and hit you right in your emotions - when you feel pain and sorrow right alongside a grieving widow, you know you are reading something deeply special.

It felt very much as though Amy Molloy was opening the personal journal to her life, and saying 'Here. This is what happened." She is never less than painfully honest about her life with Eoghan - and her life without him. I ran the full gamut of emotions while reading Molloy's stunning account of dealing with bereavement: sadness (yes, I cried - there is a funeral scene where I would defy anyone to keep dry eyes); anger (it seemed so unreasonable that Molloy had to deal with something so painful), and even humour (some of her accounts had me laughing out loud). Ultimately, what you take from this book is hope: that, even if your happy ending does not exist the way you wish it, you can be strong enough to make your own.

The prose is both stark and memorable. Molloy does not mince her words, even when dealing with dark sexual encounters and the horrible events that occur when a loved one is tackling the issues that crop up during cancer treatment. I think it is this bleak honesty that gives the book its sensational impact - if Molloy had softened her account, it would have been less meaningful.

I do think that this book should be read by anyone who recognises Amy Molloy's situation - that of caring for a loved one during the advanced stages of cancer. I genuinely believe it will do good in allowing people to realise that they are not alone in the event that they start resenting their role and feel genuinely relieved when their partner passes on. Molloy has written about her particular way of dealing with grief, which opens up the idea that ANY way of coping with grief is the "right" way for individuals.

I think my only complaint is that some of the men that Molloy turned to for casual sex were represented in a rather stereotypical manner - but I guess that even here Molloy was extremely honest about the fact that she rather picked the losers in order that they didn't become more to her than just a one night stand. Tyler, in particular, defied belief in a number of situations, but I think most women have had their own Tyler to deal with. I was rather pleased by the resolution to the Tyler storyline - once again, it expressed hope for the future.

I could wax lyrical about this book endlessly! I wouldn't say I enjoyed it, but that I absorbed it avidly. The story was sometimes very hard to enjoy, but the messages within the pages were powerful. Wife, Interrupted is as far from the generic fluff written in the chick lit as is possible to imagine, so don't be put off by the pastel cover! I recommend this without hesitation.

Friday 12 February 2010

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin

Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky - a palace above the clouds where the lives of gods and mortals intertwine. There, to her shock, Yeine is named one of the potential heirs to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle with a pair of cousins she never knew she had. As she fights for her life, she draws ever closer to the secrets of her mother's death and her family's bloody history.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin is listed across the blogosphere as one of the most hotly-anticipated debuts of 2010, and, as a consequence, I bumped it to the top of my reading list. Well, I tried to. I actually started this book a couple of times before, but put it down to deal with other books that I felt more interested in. It took an effort to finish the book, which I felt very surprised by considering the almost-universally warm reviews it has been receiving.

Now that I have finally finished The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, my overwhelming impression is that this book is well-written, with some memorable characters, but I am not left yearning to read any more in the world created by N. K. Jemisin.

I am not sure whether the unbelievable hype that this book is garnering left me unable to read it without thinking that it *should* be the best book ever. If so, then that is a fault of mine rather than the book - I do know that it didn't grip me in the same way that other reviewers have indicated. I did like it. I just didn't love it. I didn't feel that this novel would be going straight onto my 'keeper' shelf.

The parts of the book that I did enjoy included the warm manner in which Jemisin wrote about the characters - her prose was smooth and delicious, with truly lovely descriptive passages (particularly about Nahadoth - with whom I think most female readers will be just a little in love).

I felt that the gods were written in a compelling manner - in fact, the whole mythology was handled in a skilful way that left it feeling very 'real'. All three major gods - and all minor gods - had extremely distinct characters and roles that leapt from the page.

What I didn't enjoy was the jumping around of the narrative. I hate this type of foreshadowing (used extensively in The Book Thief as well, a book I also enjoyed but didn't love); it really doesn't agree with me. Give me anytime a coherent and linear timeline without a character self-consciously telling me that she's forgotten something and really needs to interject it NOW.

And that brings me, finally, to my other big issue. I didn't actually like Yeine, which is always going to make loving the book written in first person perspective a big ask. I cannot even clearly tell you why I didn't like her, which indicates to me that, once again, this is more a fault of mine than the book itself. I know that other reviewers have adored Yeine's rather scattershot approach to narrating the story - it just wasn't for me.

In conclusion: I'm pleased to have read this book and consider it a very solid debut, but I suspect it will not be my personal favourite of 2010.

Wednesday 10 February 2010

Mid Week Link Round Up

Here we are, people, for a quick look at some of the articles and reviews that have been catching my eye just lately on the blogosphere.

Because it's topical with regards to the weekend of love ahead of us, let's kick off with Stomping on Yeti's look at what to buy your loved one from the speculative fiction arena. From the choices he offers up, I would concur with The Time Traveler's Wife and Outlander (called Cross Stitch here in the UK): both are very lovely books that your partner will definitely appreciate. Also, look out for the film version of The Time Traveler's Wife on DVD this weekend - it was a competent effort at putting the book on screen.

Next we head to a distinctly unromantic gent! The extremely scary Sam Sykes is turning the tables on the bloggers, and inviting them in for interview on various topical matters. The first interview is with The Book Smugglers and a grand account they give of themselves, too.

Now to catch up with the Speculative Scot! On his site this week we find an excellent review of Horns by Joe Hill. After a week or two of Niall providing controversy thanks to his damning review of The left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman, it is nice to see him getting down with some good ole reviewing again!

A quick canter over to my sister site for a cute picture of a baby - one of my fellow reviewers has successfully brought a beautiful new reader into the world. Welcome to Kayla - when can we get her reading The Hobbit? *grin*

Look here for something both hopeful and disappointing at the same time: GRRM is progressing A Dance with Dragons, but isn't done yet. Hurry up already, with the greatest respect!

Heading away from books briefly and into other media, over at Temple Library Reviews Harry Markov has been catching up with some of the Sci Fi movies that passed him by on original release. I agree wholeheartedly with his thoughts on District 9.

Graeme (the guy who obviously never sleeps, looking at the amount of books he marches through!) offers us his thoughts on The World House by Guy Adams, one of a slew of new titles Angry Robot is pushing this year. Based on Graeme's review, I do believe I'll be giving this one a look!

And just to pander to Aidan's ego in showing how important he is to the blogosphere in general (*grin*) here is a link to the exclusive excerpt he managed to grab of Tad William's latest, Shadowrise.

I'm a little late on this one, from Book Chick City, but I wanted to give a shout out to a regular series of articles she plans on running that I, personally, find fascinating. She invited Molly Harper in to discuss Where Stories Are Made, a feature in which authors lead us through their writing process and location. I look forward to more in this series.

I'm sure I've missed an absolute ton of excellent posts, but these are some of the blogs that have been catching my eye. Go visit them! And look out for semi-regular link-backs to the blogosphere in the future.

Monday 8 February 2010

Take a Chance on Me - Jill Mansell

This book follows the lives of two sisters, Cleo and Abbie. Cleo believes she has found her Mister Right in the form of Will Newman, but is distracted by the charms of Johnny LaVenture (despite him being her personal childhood nemesis). Abbie is concerned about her husband Tom, who has become moody and sullen - when she finds out the reason her life is turned upside down...

Jill Mansell is onto her 21st novel with Take a Chance on Me, and follows a tried and trusted formula in this book. There are no real shocks: in the end, the right people end up together and there is a happy ever after. The difference in Mansell's books from others in the genre is the way in which she reaches the destination - sure, the book is frothy and there are few deep messages, but it flows easily with lovely touches of humour.

The sweetest storyline belonged to Fia and Ash. Mansell did sort of thrust the idea of not judging a book by its cover front and centre, but it was pleasant to read about a gent in one of these types of books who is not completely buff and gorgeous!

I particularly enjoyed Abbie's story as well - Mansell got right to the heart of the way a woman might feel when told she is unable to have children. Abbie's panic and pain was well-written - although her solution to the problem was more far-fetched.

In fact, that is the biggest issue with this book: you need to suspend your disbelief a fair bit! It isn't a huge problem, but you do find yourself thinking 'That would NEVER happen!' about some of the happenings.

My summary is that this book, as with much of Jill Mansell's work, is perfect fodder for a lazy bath with lots of bubbles and a glass of wine. Enjoyable, but never memorable.

Sunday 7 February 2010

How do bloggers buy books?

Howdy all, and welcome to Sunday! I've just been for a very pleasant shopping excursion and purchased the following (the first two were brand spanking new; the third one was a lovely charity shop find - which means an absolute bargain and I gave to charity at the same time!)

This got me to thinking a little. As you know (and as you can probably tell by the mismatched placement of the pictures in this blog post!) I am pretty new to this whole blogging lark.

I especially am new to the magic of receiving free books through the post (never getting old, that one!) These last two weeks I have received 16 books, which is unutterably lovely - and somewhat scary as well (I didn't have the room for all the books I owned anyway, let alone these new arrivals!)

However, on my shopping trip today I was left with something of a quandary. There are always new books coming out that I wish to buy - always. On this trip alone I scribbled down the following titles that I would quite happily have picked up, had I the money, space and time to read them:

  • Frostbitten - Kelley Armstrong
  • The Many Deaths of the Black Company - Glen Cook
  • Flirt - Laurell K Hamilton (yes, I somehow can't stop buying this series *sigh*)
  • Spindle's End - Robin McKinley
  • The Cardinal's Blade - Pierre Pevel
  • Gateway - Sharon Shinn
  • The World House - Guy Adams
  • The Hero of Ages - Brandon Sanderson
  • Gods of Manhattan - Scott Mebus
And those above are only those books that I *actively* wanted! I could have casually picked up loads more.

BUT - and I'm getting to the point now, I promise - I no longer know which books will be arriving as gifts through the post, and which I have to buy off my own back! It's a happy quandary, to be sure, but I don't want to be wasting money buying books that will suddenly arrive. I was going to buy Black and White by Jackie Kessler and Caitlin Kittredge anyway, based on some very good reviews including over on Graeme's site, and last week it arrived out of the blue.

So I'm asking my fellow bloggers: how do you buy books now?

Do you just go ahead and buy everything you're interested in?

Do you wait until you're absolutely certain you won't be issued with a book before heading out and buying it off your own back?

I'd be interested in all opinions. Just to add into the discussion, let's pose the following questions as well:

What do you do with unwanted ARCs (those you have read and reviewed but no longer wish to keep - broken spines and all)?

*tongue in cheek* Does it EVER become a problem, the sheer number of books that come into the house when you take up this blogging lark properly?

Have a restful Sunday, whatever you are up to, and look out for some bona fide reviews of books next week on this site!

Friday 5 February 2010

A Quick Friday Round Up!

It's Friday everyone! Happy, happy, happy! I have grand plans for my weekend, including some hockey, some dancing, some drinking, rugby watching, football watching - well, it's just a busy one all round. Hopefully I'll manage to fit in some reading as well, because the kind folk at Angry Robot have sent through the following:

On the streets of Indianapolis, the ancient Arthurian cycle is replaying in the lives of rival street gangs. Told through the eyes of King, as he gathers like-minded friends and warriors around him to venture into the fastness of Dred, the notorious crime lord, this is a stunning mix of myth and harsh reality. A truly remarkable novel.

Looking forward to trying this one for a few reasons, not least of which because it prompted Patrick at Stomping on Yeti to post this article which I found interesting (and not just because I was a featured blogger for it - don't make rude suggestions :-p)

Angry Robot Books also sent me 'White Tiger' by Kylie Chan: "Emma moves to Hong Kong to become a nanny to John Chen's daughter. When she falls for her employer, she discovers John's world is very different from her own. For he is no ordinary businessman - and all the gods, demons and dragons of Hell want him dead."

It sounds like a fun little read, and is the first in a trilogy. Look out for reviews of both these books sometime in February!

Excitingly - for all of you guys, rather than me - Headline books have also sent through a whole heap of copies of Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan L Howard. I gave it a rather glowing review, which can be read here. This means GIVEAWAY time! However, the giveaway will be done through the wonderful site
I will pop an announcement up here and give links once it all goes live.

I will leave you with a quick picture of the books I have recently received from kindly publishers this week and last. February is going to be a GREAT month for reading!

Wednesday 3 February 2010

Interview! Interview! Interview! I talk with Sam Sykes!

Gather round, people – Floor to Ceiling Books is slightly nervous but proud to present its first author interview. Sam Sykes – self-styled ‘Angriest Man Alive’ and debut author of Tome of the Undergates (to be released by Gollancz in April 2010 in the UK) – has kindly agreed to be my guinea pig and take the hot seat for this first attempt. Sam has already conducted an interview with Aidan Moher, over at A Dribble of Ink where they discussed.... well, video games and cover art and other such boy things. I wanted to try and draw out a little more about the man behind the book and how he went about writing the death and mayhem that fills the pages of Tome. So, without further ado...

Welcome to Floor to Ceiling, Sam! How are you today?

Suitably irritated and full of meat, thank you.

That’s, ah, good to hear... Let’s kick off gently and ask first about what constitutes a typical day in the life of Sam Sykes!

Assuming I'm lucky enough to have made it home last night, I typically pull myself out of wherever I fell on the floor. There are many soft things on the floor. Some of them are moist. I avoid those. I quickly pull down the blinds and peer through; the sunlight usually burns my eyes, so I try to sleep until five or six in the evening. Frequently, I find the police out there, looking for me. They've caught onto the fact that I laid a false trail in the woods where they chased me. They are persistent. They have hounds with them today, sniffing the earth. I am not worried. I evaded hounds before. Hounds, bullets, the shrill cries of the enemy, the hushed whisper of their gun barrels brushing against the leaves as they leveled their weapons at me, and took aim and--


No, that's not the story to Rambo. That's my life! Rambo copied ME!

Just a normal everyday life then! Seriously, what gives with calling yourself the ‘Angriest Man Alive’?

You'd be angry, too, if you'd seen what I'd seen, if you'd smelled what I smelled.

Ha, so much for getting the inside scoop on the man who parades as a ninja in most of his author photos! Let’s try this: part of your reputation comes from your lively banter on the Internet with your readers. How do you feel about the greater interaction between authors and readers these days? Does it help or hinder? Is it something you enjoy?

It's a treat for me, really, because I love attention. That may come off as crass and shallow, but it's basically true. I like it when people are interested in my book and myself. And I like helping them find out whatever they want to know about it. It's just an immense treat to have someone interested enough in you to seek you out and ask questions, so naturally, I'm happy to answer them. These days, one doesn't sell just a book, they sell the author with it. This has created, in my opinion, one of the best and most accessible network of authors ever.

I'm not sure an aspiring author can even go without a web presence because of it. The internet has been the de facto form of communication, hype and delivery for ages now. If there was an author out there who got by solely on verbal word of mouth, I'd very much like to read his book.

I honestly can’t think of an author these days that doesn’t have at least a website (even if they don’t mouth off, starting feuds all over Twitter with other authors). Two questions there: fancy giving us some hype about your new website and extended plans with it? And exactly how many authors do you now have on your black list?

Well to address the feuding, and I could get in severe trouble with my publishers for telling you this, it's not so much personal as professional trash talk. You see, the publishing world is not unlike the movie HIGHLANDER, with various authors competing with each other for the spot of supremacy. However, as a lot, we tend to be pasty, underexercised and apathetic, so our sword-slinging duels to the death tend to rage in semi-polite insults over email and twitter that occasionally degenerate into "yo mama" contests.

Feuds are divided into "blood," "formal," and "spit." Blood feuds are soul-deep contests of anger that rage between myself and other people who probably wonder what the strange man sending them angry emails are about. Formal feuds are undeclared states of perpetual aggression based on envy and spite that I have running with currently every other author in existence. The sole spit feud is pretty much me and Adam Roberts trying to spit in each others' mouths while yawning.

As to the site, you might notice that, at a glance, it looks like any other jerk's website, save for that little button up there saying: "LORE." This is the solution I came up with for a professional quandary: I have a lot of world to share, but I don't necessarily want to shove it down the readers' throats in prose form (not that they wouldn't appreciate it, but I find it can be a little irritating for readers to discover a history lecture in their fantasy). So, the lore tab is there for me to offer little tidbits, incentives and extras from the book without actively forcing it on other people.

You’re keeping busy, for sure. But I guess you’re also busy at work on a follow up to Tome of the Undergates – how is the writing going?

Not bad, actually! At the moment, the book resembles the chubby, unpopular girl from one of those teen Cinderella stories. Right now, she's laughed at, what with her pimply face, love handles and paint-covered overalls. But we will embark on a joyous 80's montage, (set to something catchy, like "I Ran So Far Away," I think) and we will make her lose weight, wear nicer clothes, put on make-up and maybe pad her bra a little and soon, the captain of the football team (you, the reading public), will fall desperately in love with her and you'll realize perhaps she was this beautiful all along and the way she gorges her food and snorts when she laughs and covertly farts in your mouth when you yawn is just part of her charm.

Tempted yet?

I think with a response like that, you’re rather lucky I’ve already read the first book and have therefore been sucked into *needing* to read the second! Since we’re indirectly talking about girls, let’s deal with this question. What do you think your debut novel offers to the female readership of SFF books? Did you think about a target audience as you were writing it?

This is kind of a tricky question, isn't it? Women, I think, are pretty discerning in their reading and want interesting plots that affect them. The typical fantasy female character usually has two routes to go: either she's totally head-over-heels in love with the male protagonist or she's out to prove male society wrong and usually becomes something of an unintentional parody in the process. Hell, for those who also read YA (as the readership tends to blend a little), the new trend has become for females to not only be upstaged, but totally irrelevant in their own stories, being a sort of passive disease caught by the male characters.

I don't really subscribe to that theory. I don't particularly subscribe to the idea that women and men are all that different, actually, in terms of conflict. We handle our problems differently, maybe, and we react to them differently, but we have the same desires: to be loved, to have purpose, to not fail. In short: girls fart. Men fart, too. We're all embarrassed by it, but we move on.

The female characters in TOME do exemplify this attitude, I think. One is a strong, confident woman convinced by her racial creed that her personal feelings are a symptom of a disease...who farts. Another is a woman questioning her role in society and whether she even makes a difference, while at the same time wondering if she can actually do good through the typical fantasy problem solution of "kill stuff." And another is seven feet tall, purple and has a fondness for ripping off limbs.

None of those really factor in all that much, though. As I said, I think we all want the same thing out of a story: conflict, relationships, plot and probably one or two dismemberings. I've got that in spades.

Having read Tome – my review will follow shortly – I agree with the fact that you are definitely writing in some strong female characters there! I think my favourite character in the book is Kataria – did you have a favourite while you were writing?

I know it's kind of a cliche to suggest this, but I really do love all of them and I think that by having fun with each of them, the reader will also be in a position where a different point of view is something to love as opposed to moaning "oh jeez, another chapter with this character." I think what made them fun to write was the fact that none of them are easily categorized, in my mind.

Lenk appears brave and practical, but is occasionally willing to sacrifice it all for someone else. Kataria is tough-as-nails and excruciatingly violent, but possesses a vulnerability that disgusts her. Asper's strength is buried under a mountain of doubt and dread while Denaos has secrets one wouldn't expect of a coward. Gariath, naturally, was one of the most fun because he simply doesn't give a crap. And Dreadaeleon...well, I suppose if you combine the ability to spew fire and lightning with a self-loathing, insecure, annoying seventeen-year-old nerd, you can't help but have fun.

And I certainly did have fun! While I read about the dismembering and crotch-stomping, it did occur to me to wonder where your ideas come from? Did the book spring fully formed? Did you have any issues with the characters taking you in directions you weren’t expecting?

Well, most of my characters are mentally disturbed, so...

I mean, of course characters surprise you frequently. If they didn't, why would anyone want to read them? If the hero always did the right thing all the time, no one would ever wonder what he was going to do when the village was burning and he had to save the orphanage or the bank. If the villain was out to do evil for evil's sake, no one would ever watch what he was doing because he was obviously about to steal an orphaned kitten's college fund or something similar.

Granted, it'd be really easy if they could follow that set pattern, but if it was really easy, there'd be no reason to read it.

Writing scenes is equally tricky and for less logical reasons. On occasion, I'll have an idea that's fully fleshed-out and meets all the criteria I need it to meet and is just exquisite in my head, then I'll put it on paper and see it's absolute trash. At that point, it's fairly difficult to move forward, so I sometimes need to abandon it if it's really giving me trouble and move onto something else. Other times, it'll weigh heavily on my conscience for awhile and then I'll get something out of the blue that totally inspires me and changes the entire course of the story.

There's a scene, for example, where the character of Denaos, a cowardly thief with particularly black secrets, really came to life for me and probably for a lot of readers. That scene, originally, was totally clownish and stupid with vague, childish threats being made that only served to make the character even more of a parody than he pretends to be. Then I saw a torture scene on the HBO show ROME and thought: "fuck, that looks painful." From there, the scene, even the character of Denaos, came clear as day to me.

Just goes to show how tricky, and utterly whimsical, this whole process can be.

You seem pretty comfortable with being a full-time writer. Have you always wanted to be a writer, or did you dabble with other career paths first?

For a long time, I was actually a writer of a specific kind of romance subgenre known as "Presidents in Lust." You can find my opus: "Coolidge on the Brink" under my pen name of Mavis Bernard. Before that, I bottled my urine and sold it to French-Polynesian Witch Doctors (if you're reading this, Pierre, you owe me sixty francs).

Truthfully, I didn't know if I always wanted to be a writer, but I did know I was too lazy and incompetent to do anything else.

Well, since you mentioned laziness, do you find it easy to get up and write every day or do you suffer from procrastination? What leads you astray?

Pretty much everything. I've got this lovely situation in which I'm an author cursed with a short attention span. I'm frequently twittering, facebooking, farting about...wait, shit, is my editor going to read this?


So, moving rapidly on from the writing process before you get yourself in trouble (!), we’ve all had a chance to see the cover art of your book and I know you and Aidan chatted about it. What is your take on the differing opinions that have cropped up?

The cover's a fun source of debate. Girls seem to like it, men seem to hate it. Perhaps our problems are quite different, after all? To me, it's pretty hilarious. Griping over cover art is a time-honored pastime, right up there with arguing over whether urban fantasy is real fantasy and complaining about George R.R. Martin. I don't even have a hooded figure on the cover and I still get lumped in with that oft-maligned (perhaps unjustly so) crowd. I truly look forward to the day where I set a trend and "wet, shadowy figure" becomes the hated grudge.

I don't begrudge people their God-given right to complain, really. With absolutely no offense intended to the various bloggers out there, the ones that are typically the most vocal in their scorn, they are a very small percentage of the people we'd like to have read the book. Chances are, they'd read it, anyway, and just have some fun bemoaning it. So, I mean, it's really a choice: do we try to attract 80% of the population or do we tailor it so that we aren't crucified by Aidan Moher again?

One of these days, though, I'll make a Special Bloggers Edition of TOME. Its cover will be a grizzly bear at a tea party with a robot. It'll be meta as hell and I will finally achieve the love of the reviewers I so desperately crave.

Well, that’s one way to deal with the detractors! It isn’t too long now until the release of the book in the UK. How excited are you and do you have plans for the book launch?

I actually have no idea what happens. I have placed myself at the beck and call of my publishers, who I hope are plotting to both expose me to a lot of media and keeping me out of jail for exposing myself to the media.

I will be at Eastercon, though, to pimp the book a little and get to know the British as much as I'd like to.

Okay, last question: acknowledging the fact that SFF readers rarely buy just one book, tell us why everyone should rush out and buy yours?

It underscores a lot of familiarity with a lot of new and innovative stuff. It takes a neat look at a lot of fantasy tropes and does new and interesting things with them, really. It goes deep into the psychology and philosophy of an adventurer and dregs out the really nasty, unpleasant stuff in a really fun way. I think a lot of people who are bored of fantasy political thrillers and fantasy boys with uncommon destinies will enjoy it.

You may notice that sounded a lot like the response I gave at A Dribble of Ink. Well, there are two key differences! For one, this one is far more condensed and for two, I didn't threaten to weld peoples' anuses shut in the last one!

And I think that is an…unusual note to leave the interview on… Thanks so much for your time, Sam. Remember, people, Tome of the Undergates is out in April in the UK. Most of us have had sneak peeks and excerpts now, and I can guarantee that the book itself is just as depraved, aggressive and downright mad as the man himself – make sure it’s first on your list come April!

Monday 1 February 2010

UK vs. US covers - The Revenge

Here we are again people - another crazy edition of Spot the Best Cover. The previous one focused on fantasy, this one covers both styles of speculative fiction - sci-fi AND fantasy.

Again, pick the one you like the best, and find out if your tastes are as American as pie, or as English as disappointment.

(Pressing the reset button at the bottom will clear your answers.)

1. Pandora's Star by Peter F. Hamilton

2. The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson

3. Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

4. Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan

5. Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard

6. Voyager by Diana Gabaldon

7. Nation by Terry Pratchett

8. Spellwright by Blake Charlton

9. Makers by Cory Doctorow

10. Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Post a comment below with your score! Even better, suggest a theme for my third quiz so I can whap out more review posts while I finish reading an actual book (rather than looking at pictures of their covers).