Saturday, 31 December 2011

100 Books in 2011 challenge: Reflections

I read 86 books in 2011. Not quite the 100 I was aiming for, but not an insignificant number.

Out of those books 50 were by male authors and 36 by female authors. That's a slightly more even split than I expected. I tend to read types of fiction dominated by male authors and while I have thought that I should make a point of seeking out female authors in these genres, I haven't yet done so. Next year I plan to prioritise female writers.

Genres:
Sci-fi - 7
Fantasy - 12
Horror - 5
Romance - 7
Literary - 5
Classic - 9
Historical - 2
Thriller - 6

I read 32 non-fiction books, which is more than I thought, and makes me feel like I should break that down a bit.

Self-help/Psychology - 5
Philosophy - 1
History - 5
Current affairs/Politics - 4
Feminist thought - 5
Comedy - 3
Auto-biography - 2
Writing craft - 4
Paganism - 1
Science - 2

I noticed at points during the year that I was actively choosing to read books I perceived to be short and easy in order to achieve the goal of 100 books in a year. Whereas, if I hadn't been trying to reach that goal I might have gone for a more challenging, edifying, (and for me, more satisfying) reading experience. It's a bit like dieting, in that it drives bad behaviour. Books are chosen for being low-calorie (short/easy) rather than healthy (quality) and so the choices you make are not the ones that are best for you but the ones that will satisfy an arbitrary number.

On reflection, I have quite enjoyed doing the 100 Books in 2011 challenge but I won't be doing a reading challenge again next year. I still have 166 books on book mountain and I think I can make more space by focussing on reading the really big ones. My reading intentions for next year are to read more female authors and get through the large hardcovers on book mountain. I did like keeping a list of everything I've read though, so I think I will maintain that.

Finally, my favourite books of the year. In non-fiction, my favourite was Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine, with an honourable mention for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. In fiction, it's very close but I think Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks was the best novel I read all year. There are a few others that were very close: All the Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear; Gridlinked by Neal Asher, The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie and A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin.

And that's the end of 2011. Happy New Year everyone!

Thursday, 29 December 2011

100 Books in 2011: Line of Polity

Line of Polity is the second in the Ian Cormac series by Neal Asher, which is sci-fi spy thriller, basically James Bond in space.

A rogue scientist is experimenting with ancient alien technology far more advanced than that of the Polity, and his intention is to use that technology to make himself all-powerful.

The outlink station Miranda has been destroyed by a fungus that appears to have been deployed by Dragon, a mysterious alien being. The refugees from Miranda are picked up by a ship from Masada, a world outside the Polity which is ruled by a theocracy and keeps most of its population as slave labour. There is a rebellion on Masada led by Lellan Stanton, the sister of John Stanton, an arms dealer.

Because of Dragon's involvement, Ian Cormac is sent to investigate.

Describing this as James Bond in space is not doing it justice as Neal Asher's books are much richer and more complex than Ian Fleming's were. Cormac is a more rounded creation and the supporting characters are much more real as well.

Gant is back. He was killed in the first book but it turns out he had himself backed up and so was downloaded into a golem body. Gant and Thorn were my favourite characters from the first book and I was happy to have Gant back. He spends a lot of time wondering whether he is still the same person as he was. When he is reunited with Thorn, who had not known Gant was backed up and so had grieved for the loss of his friend, there is some awkwardness in the relationship. The way Asher uses this relationship to explore what constitutes a person is really well handled and he portrays a deep, intimate friendship between these two men.

Many of the central characters are from the first book, allowing much development. Cormac is much less centre stage than he had been, but he is still struggling with being disconnected. As well as excellent characterisation, and the great dialogue that goes along with that, Line of Polity has plenty of plot. This is an action driven novel as Cormac chases both Dragon and Skellor about the universe. The ending is a bit of a shock. Cormac pulls off a clever trick, forcing Skellor to choose between destroying Masada and killing Cormac. Skellor chooses Cormac and runs into an outpost world run by arms dealers, who Cormac fools into thinking he is attacking. Their defence system is the only thing that can destroy Skellor at this point and it does so. It also seems that Cormac dies in the process. Right up to the last page I was waiting for Asher to reveal how Cormac survived, but he didn't. Which leaves me desperate to read the next one. Genius. (There are currently three more Ian Cormac novels, so he has to have survived, right?)

I thoroughly enjoyed this. If you like space opera, particularly Iain M. Banks, then you'll enjoy this. It's exciting, entertaining and well written.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

100 Books in 2011: Surface Detail

Continuing on with wrapping up the last few book reviews for the 100 books in 2011 challenge we have Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks.

Lededje Ybreq is an indentured servant who is killed by her owner. She is revived on board a Culture ship, courtesy of a neural lace given to her by a passing eccentric ship when she was younger. Once she is used to the idea of being alive again, she seeks to return home to kill him.

Meanwhile, several lesser civilisations are engaged in a virtual war over the right to have virtual hells. The Culture is profoundly anti-Hell but felt that it shouldn't participate. The war has been raging for decades and the anti-Hell side is losing. Because of this it is about to break out in the Real.

Lededje finds herself travelling home with the warship Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints, a delightfully psychotic mind created to be a weapon but knowing it will almost certainly never get the chance to show its full capability.

Lededje's journey home takes her right into the middle of the outbreak of war in the Real, giving Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints the opportunity it never thought it would get.

I love the Culture and I want to live in it. With Surface Detail, Banks has created a new Culture novel that is possibly one of the best. I love the ideological discussions presented by the existence of virtual Heavens and Hells and what that means for civilization. One hell world is explored through the POV of two activist characters who voluntarily go to their world's Hell to support the anti-Hell movement. The pain, despair and hopelessness is vividly brought to life. I found myself profoundly anti-Hell.

Characterisation is excellent, and my favourite of the many memorable characters was Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints. I love ship minds in the Culture novels; they're so very entertaining. FONMC was wonderful. It is the mind of a ship created to be the ultimate deterent and loves destruction and mayhem, but is aware that it may never get to truly express itself. So it's avatars are cruel, mean, spiteful and sadistic, and charming, elegant and manipulative, like the psychopath that the ship really is. And when FONMC gets to destroy an entire fleet of warships all by itself, it is so joyful that it is hard not to be happy for it.

In Surface Detail, Banks does not disappoint. It is full of interesting characters, sparkling dialogue, and rich with intellectual concept. It will make you think, and laugh, and cry. Highly recommended. This is a contender for best book of the year.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

100 Books in 2011: Heart of Darkness

I've not read many classics this year, due to a perception that they take longer to read that modern novels of the same length, and I've been conscious of having a target. Towards the end of the year I stopped picking short books in order to meet the target because I wanted to read books I could get my teeth into. One of those was Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.

It's the story of a man, Marlow, who takes up an ivory trading post in the Congo. While there he accepts a commission to travel into the jungle to find and return Kurtz. Kurtz was a trader, like Marlow, but has been in the jungle for a long time and there are disturbing reports.

Marlow is confronted with the venality of his fellow Europeans and dismayed with their treatment of Africans. When he sets off to find Kurtz he is deeply conflicted about what he is doing. His inner turmoil is increased when he finds Kurtz, who he experiences as a very charismatic man, and discovers that Kurtz has set himself up as a King. His hold over the Africans is derived from his willingness to present himself as a supernatural being; he encourages them to worship him by participating in their rites.

Kurtz is ill, so Marlow is able to take him from the tribe, to the great distress of the woman who was his mistress, but he dies on the way back down-river. Back in Europe, Marlow is sought out by people who knew Kurtz and has to decide what he will say about the man's final years.

I found this surprisingly easy to read. Surprising, because I picked it up a few years ago and had trouble getting into it. That's the benefit of a long commute - you have time to get into books that require a bit of time and effort. Once I got going, I found it quite hard to put down. It uses the frame narrative technique, a story within a story, which I find quite tedious. It's a slow way of getting into a story and I'm glad it's fallen out of fashion.

I liked the sense of oppression. The world Conrad describes is indeed dark, things happen at night, inside dark buildings and under the canopy of the jungle where the light rarely penetrates. He shows European colonists as small and greedy as they claim the Africans they're enslaving are. The European characters, including Kurtz, talk about the civilising influence that empires bring to Africa while demonstrating behaviour that belies the claim. Conrad doesn't pull any punches about the nature of colonialism. Marlow's confusion and disillusionment is well drawn.

This is a book with a big reputation and is definitely one of those books you should have read. Fortunately, it's pretty good and I really enjoyed it.

Monday, 26 December 2011

100 Books in 2011: Worth Dying For

Ah, Jack Reacher, I just can't stay away from you. And in Worth Dying For, Lee Child's taciturn alpha male itinerant troubleshooter/maker is on good form.


Reacher is hitching across the US, as is his wont, and is dropped off in the middle of the desolate plains of Nebraska. He finds a motel and walks into a village terrorised by the Duncans, a family of thugs who deal in human trafficking.

The battered wife of the youngest Duncan calls the drunken doctor drinking at the motel bar and Reacher, having a chivalric moment, drags the unwilling doctor to assist, then tracks down the husband and breaks his nose. As things start unravelling, Reacher discovers that the Duncan's are implicated in a thirty-year old case of a missing girl.

Meanwhile, the Duncan's are waiting for a shipment that is late. The buyers have sent a couple of guys to find out where it is. There are further buyers in the chain, who also send thugs to expedite the process.

After much chasing around windy, flat farms and the grisly, violent deaths of many a criminal, Reacher solves the case and the bad guys get their just desserts. 

I think Lee Child is getting better as a writer, Reacher seems a more complex character than when I first picked up one of these books, and as he gets more complex he gets more likeable, which was definitely missing at the start.

I also appreciate the short time span the novel is set in. All the action happens over a few days, maybe a week. With Reacher able to have many adventures in a short space of time, he doesn't age at the same rate as the reader. Which can be a problem with your action hero. Worth Dying For has all the strengths and weakness I've come to expect from Lee Child. What's good is the plotting, the pace, and the creation of a insulated little world wrapped up in its own problems. Not so good is the dialogue and Reacher's god-like powers. Still, all in all, it was fun and if you're looking for an easy, relaxing read, you could do worse.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

100 Books in 2011: Definitely Dead

The sixth in the Sookie Stackhouse series, Definitely Dead by Charlaine Harris, is a bit of a return to form.

Sookie is left an inheritance by her cousin Hadley, former ghoul of the Queen of Louisiana. She has to go to New Orleans to collect.

At the same time, Eric Northman wants her to go to the Queen's wedding to use her telepathic powers for him. She's dating the were-tiger Quinn and they are attacked by werewolves.

So, there's quite a bit of plot here, which has been lacking in the last couple of Sookie stories. The Queen's marriage is a political one and her fiance is looking for an excuse to kill her. Such an excuse might be provided if a jewellery gift if missing - and the Queen asks Sookie to find it for her. Hadley stole it in a fit of pique and it's hidden amongst her belongings. Meanwhile the werewolf attacks turn out to be the revenge of relatives of Debbie Pelt, killed by Sookie in a previous book. It was nice to have some action going on and Definitely Dead is a return to the style of the first two books.

The sexual tension between Sookie and Quinn is pretty hot, which I liked. The relationships between Sookie and the other characters has developed a bit and they were more real. In previous books the supporting characters have been a bit flat, with Sookie the only one with real personality. This has been addressed a little and so the book was a bit more satisfying.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

100 Books in 2011: The Post Office Girl

The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig was the last Book Club book of 2011. I didn't think I would enjoy it, but actually I loved it.

Christine is a young woman living in Austria in the years after the first world war. Life is hard, there's not enough money and the rooms she lives in with her mother are permanently damp.

Her aunt, who emigrated to the US before the war, is touring Europe and invites Christine to join her in a ski resort for a week or so. Her mother is too ill to go, so Christine goes instead. Her aunt and her husband are very rich and Christine is catapulted into a world of luxury.

But it comes to an abrupt end when gossip starts that Christine is not wealthy and is in fact a poor girl dressed up in her aunt's clothes. Christine returns home to find her mother has died and everything seems so much grimmer now.

Life goes on and Christine feels ever more estranged from the village. She decides to spend weekends in Vienna to try to recapture the glamour of her holiday. While she is there she visits with her sister and brother-in-law, Franz. On one occasion her brother-in-law runs into Ferdinand, who he had known in the war. In a quirk of fate, Franz got sent home and Ferdinand spent two years as a POW in Siberia. Ferdinand is bitter and disappointed at the arbitrariness of life and Christine finds her soul mate in him.

Their affair is made grim and joyless by their consciousness of their poverty and eventually begins to fizzle out. Then, unexpectedly, Ferdinand comes to see Christine in the post office because he has been laid off. He has a plan for them to commit suicide together and Christine agrees, but then Ferdinand discovers how much money is kept at the post office and hatches a new plan to steal the money ad flee to France. The book ends with him presenting his plan to Christine and asking if she wants to go along with it.

From a slightly slow start, this develops into a really fast-paced book. The pace is achieved by a POV tight into the head of the POV character resulting a stream of consciousness type narrative that is quite breathless. The emotion is ramped right up and it borders on melodrama at points. For me, that worked brilliantly. The swirl and joy and freedom of the two weeks Christine has in an environment where money appears to be limitless leave the reader as giddy as Christine. And then the plunge back into the grim, grinding, drabness of her life without money is just as all-consuming.

I liked the depiction of the relationship between Christine and Ferdinand. They didn't seem to like each other much, but the fact that they understood each other in a way no one else could bound them together. They shared despair and a sense of unfairness.

The ending was a bit strange, and lost the tone of the rest of the book. I suspect this is due to it having been published post-humously. Despite that, I really enjoyed this. It was difficult to put down, moving and the social commentary is still, tragically, relevant.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

A Read of A Dance with Dragons - Part 52

Chapter 51 - Theon

Winterfell is still hearing horns and drums but there is no sign of the enemy. Theon remembers Old Nan's tales of storms that lasted for years. Roose Bolton's wife, Fat Walda, is pregnant. Ramsay is in a bad mood and Theon is afraid he'll know what he has planned. He tells Abel that Ramsay will use his women as prey. Ramsay and Roose are arguing. Walda is looking fearful.

The plan is to steal Arya. He almost told the truth but didn't want to ruin his chance to get away.

Little Walder is the latest casualty and it is not one of Abel's murders. The Frey's accuse the White Harbor men. Manderly says he's lucky to be dead because if he'd lived he'd have grown up a Frey. There is a scuffle, Manderly is cut and others are injured. Bolton stops it and says Stannis' host is three days march

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

100 Books in 2011: Watchers

Watchers by Dean Koontz is a story about the consequences of genetic engineering. A little bit. Mostly its a creepy horror story of nice people being stalked by horrible things.

Travis Cornell is hiking when he meets a dog. The dog is quite keen to get him away from the woods and he realises they are being stalked by something large and dangerous. They get away and Travis takes the dog home. Later they meet Nora Devon who's being stalked by a sexual predator. The dog convinces Travis they should go to her house at the moment her stalker attacks her, and they are able to save Nora. A relationship develops and they become a family of sorts.

Vince Nasco is a hitman who has been hired to kill several scientists who were working on projects to genetically engineer a super-intelligent dog and a super-soldier baboon. He gets the idea that if he can find the dog he can get a lot of money in ransom for it. So he starts searching for Travis and his family.

National Security are searching for the baboon creature and the creature is searching for the dog, because it hates the dog.

I liked this quite a lot. It's tense, well-paced and compelling. The section at the start with Nora and her assailant is toe-curling. The mystery of what the scientists have been creating is revealed carefully. Characterisation is good, dialogue is good. This is evidence that best-selling pulp fiction can be really well written. It's the third of Dean Koontz's novels that I've read and easily the best. He's a prolific author and that can sometimes mean that some of his books aren't up to the same standard as others. This one though, is definitely worth reading.

If I had a criticism, it would be that the wholesome, god-fearing, family values American ideal is a little heavy-handed. But that is taken in balance with the way that he portrays the creature. To start with it is the stuff of nightmares, a relentless killing machine driven by irrational hate. But over the course of the book we learn how it was created, what was done to it, and how it became aware of what it was and how it experienced the digust of the people who had created it. It's quite heartbreaking and at the end, I cried for the monster. It's an achievement to create a chilling horror story and make your audience empathise with the monster. Highly recommended.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

A Read of A Dance with Dragons - Part 51

Chapter 50 - Daenerys

Hixdahr zo Loraq has invited the Yunkai to a feast to celebrate and sign the peace pact. Daenerys wonders why it feels like a defeat. He assures her the Yunkish will go soon. The fighting pits will open the next day.

The four sellsword companies have representatives at the feast. Daenerys has sent hostages to the Yunkai camp, including Daario. Hizdahr has sacked Skahaz and Daario is behaving like a child.

After the feast Daenerys goes to a balcony for some air and finds Ben Plumm. He says that he had to pick the winning side because gold's no good if you're dead. Daenerys asks Barristan Selmy whether they might turn the mercenaries. Selmy says he's no good at that sort of thing but he will bring them to her.

Then she takes Quentyn Martell to meet Viserion and Rhaegal, telling her servants to tell Hizdahr that she's in the privy, if he asks. Quentyn is frightened of the dragons and Daenerys says that she is too. He asks if she means to ride them and she says yes. She says the dragon has three heads and her marriage is not the end of his hopes.

Later she goes to bed with Hizdahr. His lovemaking is perfunctory and afterwards he hopes that they have conceived a child. Daenerys can't sleep and Missandei comes to give her comfort.

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It feels like defeat because that's what it is. Daenerys has made no gains and plenty of concessions. We can only hope that the tide turns.

How can she use her dragons? She has had no ideas about training them and using them will just result in total destruction at this stage. These are the responsibilities of power and it seems like it is crushing her.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

100 Books in 2011: No Place for a Lady

Somewhat disturbingly, I rather enjoyed No Place for a Lady by Louise Allen. I've grown so used to not enjoying Mills & Boon that at first I wondered if my critical faculties were on the fritz.

Bree Mallory runs a stagecoach company. She has aristocratic relations but has to make her own living which she does quite well. One night a driver lets her down and rather than cancel the coach, Bree drives it herself. On the way she is caught up in a race between members of a gentlemen's club. One of the racers is Max Dysart, a handsome, rich and eligible aristocrat.

Rather nicely, the conflict in their relationship is not driven by internal insecurities, but by the differences in their social status and by Max's uncertainty over whether his first wife is dead. Unfortunately, the plot twist at the end where someone pretends to be his dead wife is rushed and never really becomes a threat to the inevitable wedding.

Well, I sort of enjoyed most of it, because Louise Allen gets right something that really bugs me about Mills & Boon. She provides her romantic leads with context. There are lots of other characters, several of whom are well drawn and rounded, and the Regency set in London is brought to life quite effectively. Bree is genuinely an independent woman and that's quite refreshing.

Obviously, I'm not really recommending this as it's still a romance and not really my thing, but it was ok.

Monday, 14 November 2011

A Read of A Dance with Dragons - Part 50

Chapter 49 - Jon

They're having a wedding at the Wall. Alys Karstark iss marrying Sigorn, Magnar of Thenn. This marriage is blessed by Rh'llor. Cregan Karstark was only a day behind Alys. Jon met him on the road and took him prisoner.

A raven has gone to Deepwood Motte to warn of Arnolf Karstark's treachery. The boats are still at Eastwatch. Melisandre says all she sees in her flames is Snow.

Jon goes to see Cregan in the ice cell. He tells him Alys is wed and Arnolf had no right to make a marriage. He says some of Cregan's men have gone over to the Magnar. And anyone who wishes to can take the black. Cregan refuses.

There is a wedding feast. Axell Florent again enquires about Val and complains that she and Alys should be disposed of to southern lords not to wildlings. Some of the mountain clan lords have turned up. Then there are two blasts of the horn which means wildlings. Jon assumes it is Tormund Giantsbane.

Jon talks to Alys and says that when her stores run low to send him the men and boys. He receives a message saying the boats have left Eastwatch and he is not thrilled by Cotter Pyke's choice of garrison commander.

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Axell Florent is such a sleaze. I think Alys and Sigorn was a good match. I hope that it is Tormund at the Wall and not anything more sinister. Seems like things are looking up for Jon.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

100 Books in 2011: The Left Hand of God

The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman is the first of a trilogy following the life of Thomas Cale, a strange boy with a dent in his head and the uncanny ability to anticipate an opponent's moves.

We meet Cale in the Sanctuary, a sort of monastery/training school for boys who are to become Redeemers. The faith expressed by Redeemers is a thinly veiled version of the Abrahamic religions and the Sanctuary is a brutal environment where the boys are treated with such violence and neglect that many of them don't survive. Cale is a survivor and what that makes of him is delicately handled, for the most part.

Cale discovers one of the Redeemers dissecting a girl while another girl is tied up waiting for it to be her turn. He kills the Redeemer and then has to escape. He takes with him two associates (friendship is an offence punishable by being beaten to death) because he believes they will suffer once he is discovered missing.

Against the odds, they evade the Redeemers sent to capture them and end up in Memphis, capital city of a nearby Empire. There they discover a world ruled by subtle gradations of status conferred by birth and bloodline. The Chancellor is a talented and intelligent man and recognises that Cale can give them information about the Sanctuary. He sends them to the Empire's military training academy where they wreak havoc and make some enemies. In passing, Cale meets the daughter of the Marshal of the Empire and falls in love. Said daughter, Arbell Swan-Neck, is kidnapped by the Redeemers in an attempt to draw the Empire into battle. Cale rescues her. The Redeemers attack again and Cale is forced to admit that the tactics they are using are his, but that he doesn't know what the big picture is. He doesn't know why the Redeemers are attacking, or really why they do anything. In the end, Cale finds himself back in the possession of the Redeemers.

This is an odd book. It starts off well. The initial chapters introducing us to the Sanctuary and the relationship between the boys are great. They are delightfully disturbing and the environment is solidly evoked. This world seems very real. The writing style is compelling and engaging. Characterisation is good, although less so for the female characters. The action and dialogue are great, keeping the book moving at a nice pace. This first quarter of the book is definitely the best and it is worth reading just for this.

Then it all gets a bit wobbly. The quality of the writing remains high and the style is still compelling. In fact, the writing style is basically what carried me through the rest of the book because there are some weaknesses. The main weakness is the worldbuilding. When the setting is the Sanctuary it's really good. This is a real place with great detail and an oppressive sense of horror about it. Outside the Sanctuary, everything seems a bit haphazard. Nothing seems to fit together particularly and there is some confusion about where places are in relation to each other.

If the POV was tight third person centred on Cale you could argue that he wouldn't have the first idea about the world outside the Sanctuary and that it would all be confused. But Hoffman uses a loose third person POV for various characters and frequently slips into an omniscient POV where the authorial voice can be used. His handling of POV is good and the changes flow smoothly. The use of the authorial voice contributes to the engaging nature of the writing style. However it jars badly with the poor worldbuilding. There are POV characters who would know exactly how their world works but they are never used to convey that information to the reader. And there's no map so you can't check (although I believe that if worldbuilding is done well a map is unnecessary).

To compound the rather haphazard communication of the worldbuilding, Hoffman randomly throws in elements of the real world, which, to my mind, only adds to the confusion. It starts with a reference to the Norwegians (never followed up), then one to the Middle East, then the Redeemers attack a city called York. I'm wondering if this is more of an alternative history than a fantasy but this is never revealed. (Whilst looking for the image for this post I went on the Left Hand of God website which has a map. It's not this world.) Towards the end, in a discussion about the cost of war, there is mention of a group of people called Jews who happen to live in a ghetto and lend money.

I know most fantasy worlds are based on elements of the real world and that some authors are better at it than others, but this is just lazy. It feels like he was just making it up as he was going along with absolutely no regard for internal coherence. It's annoying. But other elements of the book are really good. I don't really know whether to recommend it or not. I enjoyed it but also was frustrated with it.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

A Read of A Dance with Dragons - Part 49

Chapter 48 - Jaime

At the end of A Feast for Crows Jaime had received Cersei's letter and chosen not to respond. He secured the surrender of Riverrun and is now arriving at Raventree Hall, the last holdout of those who swore for Robb. It is complicated by an historic feud between the Blackwoods and Brackens.

Jaime discovers what Bracken will accept and goes to treat with Blackwood. He reaches a settlement that both will accept but that neither is very happy with. He takes one of the Blackwood boys as a hostage and starts back for King's Landing.

The boy is very knowledgeable about the feud between the families and the tales he tells Jaime indicate that they are fighting over the crown to a kingdom that hasn't existed for a thousand years. They stop at a village. All the villagers are hiding in a holdfast and won't come out. Jaime makes camp.

Then a woman comes riding in. It is Brienne. She says she's found Arya and he must come quickly as the Hound will kill her.

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TRAP!!! No, Jaime, don't go. I knew Brienne wasn't dead - all that pretending to kill people isn't convincing anymore.

I'm glad Brienne didn't get killed. This is clearly Catelyn trying to kill Jaime instead.

Friday, 28 October 2011

100 Books in 2011: The Girl who Played with Fire

I've become fed up of reading short books in order to hit my 100 books for the year target and was feeling the need to get into something more substantial. The Girl who Played with Fire by Steig Larsson is the second in the Millenium trilogy and is a 650 page brick.

Lisbeth Salander is hiding out in the Carribean, having had some cosmetic surgery and done a bit of travelling. She's wondering what she will do with herself now she doesn't have to work for a living.

Blomkvist is working on an expose of the sex trade in Sweden. Salander comes back and starts to pick up the pieces of her life, including checking in on her guardian and making sure that she is on track to be declared competent. But her guardian has hired a hitman to kill her. Then the journalists Blomkvist is working with get killed and it looks like Salander is the murderer.

The police investigation focusses on finding Salander but Blomkvist doesn't believe she did it and does his own investigation. Salander takes matters into her own hands. All three investigations come together in a tense climax with some interesting revelations, which hopefully will be expanded on in the last book.

This book was actually a little better than the first one. It still suffered from a lack of editing, especially visible in the frequent summing up passages. It probably could have been a hundred pages shorter without losing anything.

The dialogue is stiff and stilted but the pacing of the action sequences is good. The plot and story line are really exciting and the characters are becoming more rounded and engaging. I wouldn't make this top of your reading list, but it is worth reading.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

A Read of A Dance with Dragons - Part 48

Chapter 47 - Tyrion

Tyrion and Penny are being sold in a Yunkish slave market: one which has been set up outside the walls of Meereen, while the Yunkish beseige Daenerys.

The bidding slows at 1000 pieces of silver and they do a bit of a joust. The bidding picks up. When it slows again the bidders come for a closer look. Then a sellsword enters with a high bid and Tyrion realises he has been recognised. He bids for himself, as a Lannister. The bid goes up and in the end they are sold to Yezzan zo Qaggaz, the fat Wise Master who collects grotesqueries. Tyrion reckons he could make a break for Meereen but it would mean leaving Penny behind.

Jorah is sold after them. Tyrion tells Qaggaz's slave master Nurse that Jorah is part of their act, as a bear, and Qaggaz buys him as well. They had heard that Daenerys has married and Jorah is devastated.

They are taken to Qaggaz's camp. Tyrion sees slaves being whipped and killed for trying to escape. He also sees that there is flux in the camp. They get collared and taken to Qaggaz's tent. Jorah is chained up outside and the dwarves put in the grotesquerie.

That evening they perform for Qaggaz and the Yunkish supreme commander. A lord recalls that Tyrion boasted of his cyvasse skill so he plays. Ben Plumm tries to win him as he lost the bidding but he loses at cyvasse too. Nurse tells them they will joust in the Great Pit.

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So, does that mean the Great Pit in Meereen? Will Daenerys recognise Jorah? What will happen then?

Tyrion is a bit soft-hearted really and it's nice that he's trying to take care of Penny and Jorah.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

100 Books in 2011: New Moon

The second book of the Twilight Saga by Stephanie Meyer is New Moon. In this part Edward leaves Bella, for her own good natch, and she goes into a big funk for months. Then she discovers that if she engages in activities that could kill her, her subconscious provides an hallucination of Edward being all domineering. She hangs out with Jacob who falls in love with her and turns out to be a werewolf. Bella wonders if she can settle for being adored by someone she can't love but then discovers Edward has gone off to get himself killed because he can't live without her.

Bella goes off to find Edward in the company of Alice (Edward's sort of vampire sister), meets lots of scary vampires who like to eat people, and brings Edward back. She bangs on a lot about wanting to be a vampire.

There's even less plot in New Moon than there was in Twilight and even more disturbing relationships. The quality of the writing has slipped a bit from the first book and doesn't seem quite as polished. It wasn't as engaging and afterwards I felt a bit dirty.

Now I really understand what the issue is with these books. Twilight was ok, really it wasn't any worse than your average romance novel. But New Moon takes it to another level. Bella only regains any happiness when imaginary Edward is abusively yelling at her in her hallucinations.

Then there is a really telling moment at the end. Edward has been his usual terse, controlling self who appears to only speak to Bella in order to correct her, admonish her or berate her over something. He acts as though he hates her. But for a moment, at the end, after he has left her and tried to kill herself, he makes a speech about how he loves her to distraction really, and all his arsehattery is because he loves her so much. It was a little out of place and read like the sort of thing the author wishes someone would say to her.

It is tragic that this resonates with so many women and girls.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Blogcation

So, only I few posts ago I was banging on about posting daily and then I go on a three week blogcation. Life happened, sorry about that. I'm busy at work and got a bit sick.

The other reason is that I have started playing World of Darkness roleplaying games and they are awesome. It's like character creation boot camp and I am doing loads of writing practice.

Normal posting will be resumed, although it might be a while before I get back up to daily posts. Still, it's good to have a goal.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

A Read of A Dance with Dragons - Part 47

Chapter 46 - A Ghost in Winterfell

People are getting murdered at Winterfell. It starts with deaths that could be accidental; someone falls off a wall. People wonder if there are traitors among them. They are covered in snow, cold and suffering from frostbite. The gates are frozen shut. Someone makes the mistake of saying Stannis' red god has brought the snow in Ramsay's men's hearing. He is whipped and thrown from the battlements.

Abel's washerwoman approaches Theon asking how he took Winterfell. He is too scared to tell her. She wants to see the crypts. He walks the walls and is still too scared to flee.

A squire is found naked and frozen to death. A crossbowman is found in the stables with a broken skull. Theon recalls the similar deaths at Winterfell when he held it. Bolton's knights are arguing about what to do. Frey and Manderly are at each other's throats. Bolton is uneasy. The stable collapses, killing twenty-six horses and two grooms. Then one of Ramsay's men is found with his severed cock stuffed in his mouth. All the horses and men are brought within the Great Hall.

Theon walks the walls again then returns to his chambers. He is summoned by Roose Bolton. He is accused of the murders and Lady Dustin asks him to show them his hands. They agree he doesn't have the strength to be responsible. Some think that Manderly is behind the deaths. Lady Dustin points out that all the knights here had supported Robb.

A horn blows. A drum beat begins. Theon goes to the godswood wondering if he can get killed in the battle. Abel's washerwomen find him and tell him they will kill him quick once he's told Abel what he knows.

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I knew Abel and co were up to something. Hooray! Bolton's alliance is being undone by the waiting and the tension. There's still no sign of Arya/Jeyne. Theon seems a little less scared sometimes, as Ramsay can't really hurt him here.

I felt so cold reading this chapter. Martin really brings the weather to life. Amazing.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

A Read of A Dance with Dragons - Part 46

Chapter 45 - The Blind Girl

At the end of A Feast for Crows Arya had killed Dareon and the House of Many Faces had made her blind. This was to train her to use her other senses better. She goes out begging as a blind girl, works in the kitchen, attends to the dead, learns to move around without hurting herself and learns to fight.

Arya goes to an inn where three Lysene pirates are talking. She learns that two slaver ships got blown North and discovered Hardholme. They took on some wildling women and children and then made for the free cities. One made it to Braavos and was taken as slavery is illegal in Braavos. But they will go back as the price of slaves is rising. Arya tells the monk that she knows it's him that has been attacking her in the crypts.

She gets her sight back.

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Oh hai Arya. I've missed you. I love Arya's story and she is one of my favourite characters in the series. I am beginning to wonder how this is going to be brought back in to the rest of the stories. Maybe it's being with Jon's POV again, because their relationship is lovely. How will Arya ever fit back into her old life with her new ninja skills?

I hope Jon gets to the wildlings before the slavers do, but I suppose either option is better than being an ice zombie.

Monday, 26 September 2011

A Read of A Dance with Dragons - Part 45

Chapter 44 - Jon

Queen Selyse (Stannis' wife) has arrived at Castle Black with a retinue of southern lords and a representative of the Iron Bank of Braavos. Jon meets her with his retinue. She mistakes him for a squire or something. They make introductions and Wun Wun the giant appears. He frightens her daughter, Shireen, but Patchface makes him laugh. The Queen is not amused and goes to her chambers in the King's Tower.

Jon asks Lord Tycho of the Iron Bank to talk with him. They go to his chambers. Jon enquires about his business with Stannis. Tycho doesn't reveal the details but says the Iron Throne has stopped paying its debts and he is interested in the views of the other claimants. Tycho arrived with three ships. Jon wants to borrow them to rescue wildlings from Hardholme and the Others. Then he negotiates a loan that will see the Night Watch through the winter.

Then Jon and Tycho go to the Great Hall to eat. Axell Florent, the Queen's Hand, wants to see Val, the wildling princess. Jon says he's not going to parade her in front of them. He goes back to his chambers and falls asleep. He's woken to discover the girl in grey on a dying horse has turned up and is in Clydas' chambers. He thinks it might be Arya and lets himself plan what he would do to keep her safe.

Of course, it isn't Arya. It's Alys Karstark, who is the heir to Karhold. She tells him her uncle Arnolf wants to marry her to his son, Cregan, who has buried two wives already. She appeals to Jon for protection and tells him Arnolf Karstark is only pretending to have declared for Stannis, and is still committed to Roose Bolton.

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I knew the grey girl couldn't be Arya, but credit to Martin's skill at creating suspense because I could never be completely sure. And now Stannis can be warned about the Karstarks.

Clever Jon for arranging the loan. It's a bold move but it might just make all the difference.

I don't like Selyse one bit. In previous books I've felt a bit sorry for her because she's had a tough lot in life, but this chapter presents her in a very negative light.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

100 Books in 2011: Sword Song

Book 4 in Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Stories is Sword Song. Cornwell is one of my favourite authors and I am really enjoying the Saxon Stories.

Uhtred is nowhere nearer Bebbanburg. He's busy building forts to protect Wessex from the Danes and raising a family. Then some Danes invade London, try to convince Uhtred to join them by promising to make him King of Mercia so that he will bring Ragnar to join the cause.

At the same time, Uhtred's cousin Aethelred, is married to Alfred's daughter, Aethelflaed and becomes the Lord of Mercia. Not king though; Alfred doesn't want a King in Mercia. Alfred commands Uhtred to drive the Danes from London. He gives Aethelred the nominal command of the mission.

They win the battle for London and the Danes take refuge in the Kingdom of East Anglia from where they raid Wessex. On one of these raids, Aethelflaed is taken hostage and an enormous ransom is demanded. If it is paid, the Danes will have enough money to raise an army capable of overrunning Wessex. Uhtred is sent to negotiate and discovers that Aethelflaed has fallen in love with one of the Danes and they want to run away together. Uhtred is fond of Alfred's daughter and knows that her husband is violent and jealous, and if she goes with her lover then the ransom won't have to be paid and Wessex will be safe. So he agrees to help them escape.

I think I was grinning from the minute I opened this book. I like the character of Uhtred. It's told in first person but from the point of view of the elderly Uhtred looking back on his life, so the character can be presented as arrogant and impulsive, but with the self-deprecating awareness of experience. It's extremely likeable. Uhtred is a torn man. He's bound by oaths he doesn't want to keep and which prevent him following his dream. I can certainly identify with that.

A good third of the book is taken up by a detailed description of the battle for London, which is very exciting, but the consequence is that the plot feels quite thin in this book. I don't remember thinking that for the previous three. However, it is gripping and the Saxon Britain is fully brought to life. As always, Cornwell's skill is evident and the writing is excellent. I thoroughly enjoyed it and am looking forward to book five.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

A Read of A Dance with Dragons - Part 44

Chapter 43 - Daenerys

Daenerys has been fucking Daario but now it is nearly time for her to marry. He asks if she is going to hold court, as she hasn't done so in a while. When she says no, he says some of his Westerosi have a gift for her. She says she will hold court the next day, as much because she knows she has to. She wishes she could marry Daario but knows she can't. He acts recklessly and shows no interest in rulership, yet expects to take liberties.

So the following day, Daenerys holds court. The Green Grace wants to lecture her on sellswords. There are many supplicants; some go away happy and some don't. At the end of the day Daario presents his Westerosi. Quentyn Martell and his companions reveal who they are. Quentyn gives Daenerys the marriage contract that was signed in Braavos, promising Arianne Martell to Viserys Targaryen.

Daenerys considers it. But she is staying in Meereen and she must deal with that problem. She will marry Hizdahr zo Loraq.

Next she is prepared for her wedding. Daario goes off in a snit. On the journey Daenerys asks Barristan Selmy to tell her who her parents really loved. He does so, saying Rhaella loved a stormlord and Aerys loved Joanna Lannister, Lord Tywin's wife. Then Hizdahr's precession joins hers and they are married.

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It seems so sad that Quentyn arrived too late. I still don't trust that Hizdahr is on the up and up. I know that Daenerys is putting aside her own needs for the sake of the people she rules, but I'm convinced this is a mistake.

Friday, 23 September 2011

A Read of A Dance with Dragons - Part 43

Chapter 42 - The King's Prize

Stannis Baratheon is marching on Winterfell. Asha Greyjoy is chained up in a baggage wagon. The march starts off well enough and they make good time. Once into the Wolfswood it starts to snow which makes the going harder. The northerners fare better than the southerners but they are losing men and horses, and provisions are running low.

They press on but sometimes are only moving a mile or so a day. The northerners and southerners argue about whether they should have come. The northerners say it's only a little snow and anyway it's better to die fighting than to be frozen to death. They stop at a village where they can fish. In the morning they're completely snowed in.

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Oh, Stannis, it does not look good for you. If you get to Winterfell your men will be starving and weak and all Roose will have to do is let you sit outside, starving and freezing.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Things I have liked this week

Politics stuff
From Men's Rights Activist Marmoset comes the equally clever and funny Internalized Misogyny Aardvark. Brilliant.


Writing stuff
Five reasons why blogging makes you a better writer. I've read a few articles lately about how blogging is a distraction activity and is basically giving your work away for free, so it's nice to read something that affirms that blogging is a useful activity for a writer. It has certainly improved my writing.

Astronomy Picture of the Day
The Sun. So very awesome.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

A Read of A Dance with Dragons - Part 42

Chapter 41 - Turncloak

It's snowing at Winterfell. That's good for Roose Bolton and not good for Stannis. Theon has his best opportunity to run but he's scared to because of the game Ramsay played with Kyra. Arya is kept locked in her chamber, bruised and crying. Ramsay Bolton tells Theon he's to keep her bathed because he wants her squeaky clean.

In the great hall, one of the washerwomen wants to know how Theon captured Winterfell. He's too scared to tell her, fearing a trap. He wanders around the castle keeping away from others.

Lady Dustin's men find him. She wants to see the Stark crypt. She tells him Roose isn't happy about how sad Arya is; the northmen love Starks and they need to see her happy or they'll break. The alliance is fragile. In the crypt they notice the three swords that Bran's group took are missing. Lady Dustin says Brandon Stark took her maidenhead and she wanted to marry him. When Brandon was promised to Catelyn, her father had hopes of marrying her to Eddard, but Cat got him too. Then she married Lord Dustin and six months later he joined Robert's Rebellion. He never came home. She is waiting for Eddard's bones so she can feed them to her dogs.

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I think there's more in this chapter than I've picked up on. I don't think the singers are who they appear to be. Surely Stannis is too canny to attack Winterfell straight on - after all he took Deepwood Motte by surprise.

The missing swords are the ones Bran, Jojen and Meera took. I wonder if anyone will work that out.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Daily posting

When I've finished the chapter by chapter review of A Dance with Dragons I'm going to post some thoughts on the process and what doing it has revealed to me.

One of those thoughts was that I like daily posting. But not in the sense of writing a blog post every day. What I like is seeing a new post on my blog each day. I write on the weekends and occasionally in the evenings and often what I will do is write a week's worth of blogs in one go - except for the Thursday Things I have liked this week posts, which I tend to write on a Wednesday or Thursday.

Today I realised that I had no blog. Last weekend I did some worldbuilding for my new WIP, wrote a couple of blogs and then started re-writing a vignette which I plan to post on my DeviantART page. I think I intended to go back to blog posts but didn't quite get there.

As I don't have the time (I'm at work, on my lunch break), to find links to things I want to tell you about, or mess about with pictures, or have access to my notes on ADWD or the A-Z challenge, then you get this. Because I want there to be something new on this blog every day.

Now all I have to do is figure out what on earth I'm going to do once I've posted the review of the last chapter of ADWD. Any ideas?

Monday, 19 September 2011

A Read of A Dance with Dragons - Part 41

Chapter 40 - Tyrion

Tyrion is wearing wooden armour and riding a pig in a joust. The cog that is taking Tyrion and Jorah to Meereen is becalmed and the crew is on the verge of turning nasty. The dwarves are likely to take the brunt of it.

Tyrion and Jorah argue, with Tyrion talking truth about how Jorah is trying to use Tyrion to get back into Daenerys' good books. He reveals that he knows that Jorah was spying on her and reporting back to Varys. Jorah thumps him and says he can't sleep in their cabin any more so he'd best go fuck his dwarf girl.

Then a storm comes up. They were told the ship would never reach its destination and assumed that meant it would go to Meereen. It doesn't. It meant they're going to be wrecked.

The storm lasts for ages. Tyrion stays with Penny and her animals. She tries to kiss him but he puts her off as nicely as he can. He holds her to comfort her. When the storm is over the ship is wrecked, the mast is gone, and it's sinking. The captain is dead and so is Moqorro. Tyrion wonders if he saw that in his fires. Some of the crew take the little boats and get away.

Soon they see a sail on the horizon. Jorah says it's a slaver.

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Tyrion's having a bit of a riches to rags experience here, isn't he? I'm sure it's all character building. I like that he's nice to Penny but he does have a bit of a white knight complex.

Is he never going to get to Daenerys? She needs him! Right now, I'm feeling like two more books isn't enough to finish this.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

100 Books in 2011: Pig Island

I'm getting pretty good at judging whether what I've got left of a book will last me to the end of my commute. Unless, of course, the train dies at an obscure little station that I normally never see because my train goes through it so quickly. Which is what happened a couple of weeks ago and my commute in the morning took me an hour longer than usual. Thus I needed a new book for the journey home and I went to the book drop at work (which is a brilliant thing to have) to find something to read.

As I'm now racing to catch up on the 100 Books in 2011 Challenge, I was looking for an easy read. Pig Island by Mo Hayder is certainly that. It's a good five hundred pages but was quick to get through. Joe Oakes is a journalist who specialises in uncovering hoaxes of a spiritual or supernatural kind, after having been taken in by Malachi Dove when he was a young man. His girlfriend, Lexie, comes with him, thinking it is some sort of holiday.

Joe is investigating a video of a devil seen wandering around Pig Island, which is the home of a reclusive cult led by Malachi. When he gets to the island he finds Malachi has left the cult, lives on the other side of the island and keeps his privacy by means of an electric fence.

All the cultists are locked in their church and burnt and it seems like the work of Malachi. Joe goes to investigate and discovers that Malachi had a daughter. This daughter,Angeline, has a tail and appears to be frightened and fragile. Joe takes her back with him. Lexie, until recently a receptionist for a Harley Street plastic surgeon, recognises that what Angeline has is the remnants of a conjoined twin and thinks this will get her back in with her former employee.

Course, not that simple and Angeline turns out to be what everyone thought she was.

It was ok. Neither the characters, Joe or Lexie, are particularly sympathetic. Lexie, especially, is quite unpleasant. Joe seems ok until the point of view switches to Lexie and he doesn't treat her very well. It wasn't scary but it was nicely creepy in places with one or two genuinely shocking moments. The plot was handled ok but I could see the big reveal at the end coming from just after the halfway point. If you're looking for brain candyfloss, this would be just the thing.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

A Read of A Dance with Dragons - Part 40

Chapter 39 - Jon

Jon is sending Val north to find Tormund Giantsbane and make him an offer. He sees her past the Wall and she promises to return but won't promise to bring Tormund back with her.

Jon returns to eat. Bowen Marsh, Septon Cellador and Othell Yarwyck want to see him. Jon asks how restoring the Nightfort is going. Yarwyck says it is going slowly so Jon offers him the help of the giant that came back with him from the woods north of the Wall. Yarwyck won't accept. Then the three ask why there are corpses in the cells. Jon says they need to know their enemy and this is an opportunity.

Marsh, Cellador and Yarwyck complain that Iron Emmett and Dolorous Edd are being sent away and complain more about the people Jon is replacing them with - a wildling, Leathers, as master-at-arms and Satin, a boy-whore. They say these are positions traditionally given to the high born. Jon replies that he needs skills and what a man was before doesn't matter once they've said their words.

Then he says they can talk about Val. They say he shouldn't be making offers to the wildlings. Jon points out, rather forcefully, that every wildling left to die north of the Wall becomes an ice zombie that will attack them.

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And I thought Jon was just being compassionate, but no, he's trying to reduce his enemies forces. Clever boy. And he handled the whiners nicely. Bowen Marsh is really beginning to annoy me.

Maybe Jon shouldn't be sending his friends away though.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Stories on DeviantArt

I have two of my short stories on this blog: Innocent, which was published in a now-defunct 'zine, and Hell, which wasn't published anywhere.

Both have moved over to my brand-new DeviantArt page, http://boudicam.deviantart.com/. I'll be posting more vignettes soon. I think I'll also add the introduction to my new work-in-progress, Wormfeeder.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Things I have liked this week

Politics stuff
The entirely hilarious Men's Rights Activist Marmoset. These are a couple of my favourites:














Writing stuff
The Bookshelf Muse is full of helpful and informative stuff. This week I particularly enjoyed this post about using frustration to ramp up your writing. 

Shopping stuff
I bought some clothes from an online store, Holy Clothing, and they are great. I love them. Go look at the lovely things now while the UK£ and US$ exchange rate is still good.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

A Read of A Dance with Dragons - Part 39

Chapter 38 - The Watcher

Ser Balon Swann has arrived at Sun Spear to deliver Gregor Clegane's skull to Doran Martell. Arianne is present, as is Ellaria Sand and Oberyn Martell's three eldest sand snakes. The head is delivered and accepted. There is a toast. Obara storms out. Then there is a feast. Doran asks Balon if he knows what was in Cersei's letter; she wants Myrcella and Trystane to come to King's Landing. Doran agrees that the children should all be friends.

Arianne flirts with Balon. Doran mentions that the other part of Cersei's letter was that Dorne should have a representative on King Tommen's small council, but he is not sure he is up to the journey. He suggests he might be if they went by sea. Balon is taken aback and says it is too dangerous.

Doran excuses himself at the end of the feast. Arianne, Ellaria and the sand snakes accompany him to bed. On the way, the sand snakes exhort him to take further revenge. In his chamber, Doran asks them what they would have him do. All the people who were involved in Princess Elia's death are now dead. Ellaria says that she has four daughters and wonders where the cycle of violence will end. Then she leaves.

Doran then tells the sand snakes that he has plans. When they get to the Water Gardens, Myrcella will tell Balon that it was the Darkstar who cut her ear and killed Arys Oakheart, and he has fled to High Hermitage. Obara will take him in search of the Darstar. He tells them that he still has friends in King's Landing and that Cersei plans to ambush them on the way back, which is why Balon didn't want to go by sea.

He says no one treads on the vipers, everyone treads on the grass but it is the grass that hides the viper. Doran is sending Lady Nym to King's Landing to take Dorne's seat on the council and Tyene will go to the High Hill to infiltrate the Swords and Stars. The sand snakes are mollified by the prospect of some action.

He also tells Arianne that a Volantene fleet bound for Westeros has put in at Lys. He thinks it is Daenerys but can't be sure.

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Things are starting to come together. Doran is another one playing the long game. Good to see that something is happening. I bet Lady Nym will wreak havoc in King's Landing.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

A Read of A Dance with Dragons - Part 38

Chapter 37 - The Prince of Winterfell

Theon is giving 'Arya' away. In the chamber where she's getting ready she keeps talking as though she's Jeyne Poole. Theon is afraid Ramsay will hurt her if she is not Arya body and soul. He tells her Ramsay is sweet so long as you don't anger him.

As he walks her to the godswood he realises that him giving her away makes it harder for any of the northern lords to question her. The marriage through the old gods is quick and the party then goes to the ruined castle for the feast. Theon hangs back and when he is alone he thinks he hears his name whispered in the trees.

At the feast he sits next to Lady Dustin of Barrowton. Lord Manderly has provided the food. She points out that Roose doesn't eat or drink anything Manderly hasn't also eaten. She thinks Manderly is craven. Theon is not so sure, as his sons were brave enough when they all rode with Robb Stark. A maester brings news that Stannis is marching for Winterfell, the Umbers and Karstarks are also on their way.

Roose takes his war council to another room. Theon is told to escort Arya to Ramsay's room by Sour Alyn. Once there, Ramsay dismisses all his men except Reek to cut Jeyne's clothes from her, tells her to get on the bed and spread her legs. He finds she is not aroused so orders Reek to use his tongue on her.

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Poor Jeyne. She's thirteen and she used to have a crush on Theon.

More mixed messages about whether Theon has been gelded. But now we know why Roose wanted Theon to be involved. He's lent legitimacy to this marriage.

I thought it was interesting that Roose is having his war council without Ramsay. I wonder if he will get killed in the battle - in the last Theon chapter Roose said Ramsay was no swordsman. Roose has good reasons to kill him.

Monday, 12 September 2011

A Read of A Dance with Dragons - Part 37

Chapter 36 - Daenerys

The refugee camp outside Meereen is enormous and the people in it are sick. It is getting harder and harder to feed them. Daenerys takes the food herself, against the wishes of her advisors, and organises burning the corpses.

When she returns to the pyramid, Hizdahr zo Loraq is due for dinner. While she bathes she is told of a tradition in which her husband's female relations must inspect her genitals and womb. She meets with Hizdahr who says it's a silly old tradition which she doesn't have to do. But she could open the fighting pits in honour of their wedding. He also tells her he can negotiate peace but it is at the cost of completely backing down and killing a dragon.

Daenerys is interrupted by Ser Barristan Selmy who tells her Daario is back. He is bloody and ridden hard through enemies to get to her. He says the hills swarm with mercenaries. Some came over to him but the Second Sons have gone over to the Yunkai. Daenerys is distraught. It never occurred to her to distrust Brown Ben Plumm. She orders the city gates closed and takes Daario to bed.

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Didn't see that coming. I think it would be such a huge mistake for Daenerys to marry Hizdahr - he'll just make sure everything goes back to the way it was.

But, yay, she gets to shag Daario, lets hope he's worth it.

Quentyn Martell is clearly in the building. I wonder how he's going to make himself known.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

100 Books in 2011: Winter Song

Winter Song by Colin Harvey is the third book I've read from small press Angry Robot. As I've thoroughly enjoyed all of them and have paid for none of them (they've all been freebies from conferences or joining the British Fantasy Society), I'm feeling a bit uneasy. I think I might have to make a point of buying some more books from them.

Karl Allman's spaceship is attacked and he bails out, landing on a barely habitable planet. Centuries ago, humans spread out from Earth. In some cases, people were genetically altered to be able to cope with conditions on planets not habitable by ordinary humans. In other cases, planets were terraformed. Since then, the factions have split and humanity is at war with itself. Allman's ship gets caught in the crossfire and the planet he lands on is one where terraforming was started but not properly finished.

He is found by a community of people who colonised this ice planet so they could live a traditional Icelandic life. In this community, there is a girl named Bera, grieving her dead baby, who is scorned and rejected by the rest of the community because she won't name the father of the baby. She nurses Allman back to health at which point, the head of the community, Ragnar, demands that he work to pay off his debt. He learns that the world is basically poisonous to humans, the terraforming is reversing, and there are other creatures, trolls, that might be sentient.

Allman learns from Bera that the remains of the original colonists' ship, the Winter Song, lie somewhere far to the south. Ragnar won't let him leave so he has to escape and Bera comes with him. They journey across the ice, followed by Ragnar, and along the way, Allman learns that Bera was raped. They also encounter a troll and discover that the trolls are modified humans that settled the planet before it was terraformed. 

I loved this. The story is complex and deals with a number of themes, which are handled so well that it is never overwhelming. Harvey writes POVs from both Allman and Bera and conveys the miscommunication in their relationship brilliantly and with sensitivity. This is an example of really good science fiction. It's a human story that's prime focus is the characters, set in a hard sci-fi world that highlights some serious social themes. The resolution of the story is excellent; it's downbeat but perfect for the story and emotionally satisfying.

And there are sort of Vikings. Is it just me? Am I just picking books that take inspiration from Norse mythology and the Vikings? Or there a Viking theme in publishing right now? 

Anyway, this was really good. I recommend it.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

A Read of A Dance with Dragons - Part 36

Chapter 35 - Jon

Jon wants to take six new recruits to say their words to the old gods, which means going north of the Wall. Bowen Marsh says they can swear in the sept but Jon disagrees. He takes a small force and Ghost and goes. He has manned a tower with women and is going to open several others. Some men think the women's tower is a brothel. He gives Iron Emmett a command.

When they come to the grove they discover nine wildlings including a giant. Jon manages the confrontation with the help of Leathers, who can speak the Old Tongue, and there is no bloodshed. He offers them refuge on the Wall. His men say their words and they return with the wildlings and two corpses.

Stannis writes to say that he's taken Deepwood Motte and Alysane Mormont joined his side. He's going to engage the Boltons at Winterfell. Jon reflects on the differences between Robert and Stannis.

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What does he want the corpses for? Is he going to make them practice kills? It's very cool that a giant has joined them. That will help. Seems like Jon is spreading his men very thin.

Friday, 9 September 2011

A Read of A Dance with Dragons - Part 35

Chapter 34 - Bran

Bran is beneath the mountain learning to be a greenseer. They stay for months and Meera says Bran will never leave. Jojen is withdrawn and no one seems to understand why.

Jojen, Meera and Hodor go exploring. It is too hard to take Bran in his basket so he slips inside Hodor, who goes to his safe place while it happens. Bran feels that no one should ever know that he does this. Bran learns to take the skin of a raven and flies over the ice and snow. Summer hunts with his pack.

Eventually, Bran goes into the weirwood trees. He sees through the eyes of the weirwood heart tree in Winterfell's godswood. He sees his father and memories of Starks going back through the ages.

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That chapter was sad and kind of creepy. Jojen is homesick. Why can't he and the others go home? Is it too far and too cold, will they not make it? And what will Bran be able to do as the greenseer under the mountain? I'd so hoped Bran's story would give him the chance to do something heroic; it doesn't look like that will happen now.

It's a nice, if disturbing, touch with Bran being unable to stop himself using Hodor, even though he knows it's abusive and is ashamed of his behaviour.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Things I have liked this week

Dancing stuff
Strictly Come Dancing is back. Whoop whoop! I love Strictly. And while I don't really know who half the celebrities are, I'll be supporting whoever is partnered with Artem or James :-).

Space picture
From Cassini in the shadow of Saturn. An amazing picture that looks like it's not real, but it is.

Writing stuff
This week I read an article about avoiding certain cliched and overused words on your CV. I thought a lot of the advice applied to writing about characters. Basically it boils down to 'give examples and let the reader work out the qualities'. Good stuff.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

A Read of A Dance with Dragons - Part 34

Chapter 33 - Tyrion

Tyrion and Jorah Mormont have left Volantis, ostensibly bound for Qarth, but really going to Meereen. Penny, the jousting dwarf girl, is also on board. Tyrion tries to be nice to her but she hates him. Moqorro is a red priest sent to bring the light of Rh'llor to Daenerys. The ship they're on is big, cumbersome and slow. Over the days, Tyrion and Penny get to know each other and move closer to becoming friends. Jorah seems to spend most of the time asleep.

The ship passes Valyria, which is red and smoking. Moqorro tells Tyrion that it was a massive volcanic eruption that destroyed Valyria. He says they must get to Meereen as quickly as possible as there are others that are seeking out the Queen of Dragons. He has seen it in his flames, in particular, he has seen a one-eyed kraken.

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Daenerys doesn't know what's just around the corner. If only she can hold on for a little bit, then maybe she won't have to marry Hizdahr zo Loraq.

Tyrion's friendship with Penny is quite sweet. She brings out his gentle side, much as Sansa Stark did.

So, the doom of Valyria was a volcano. That's kind of what I'd thought but is a bit of an anti-climax. It's a shame it wasn't a big, magickal kerbluey. Also, I recently read about how the presence of whales makes the oceans thrive (link is to an abstract, not the full article) and naturally I thought about how the presence of dragons makes magic thrive.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

100 Books in 2011: Irons in the Fire

I picked up Irons in the Fire by Juliet E. McKenna at Alt.com a couple of years ago. Juliet McKenna does quite a few writing conferences and I'd heard a lot of what she has to say about writing and the writing life. I thought I ought to read one of her books.

McKenna is published by Solaris Books and I guess I wondered what differentiated authors who are with small presses from those with the big publishers. In between buying this book and reading it I've read three Angry Robot books, all of which were excellent, so I'm not sure there are any conclusions to be drawn.

Irons in the Fire is the first in a trilogy. It is set in a fantasy world where the Kingdom of Lescar is being torn apart by incessant civil war. Many people have left or sent their children away, so there are substantial communities of Lescari in other countries. Tathrin is the son of an innkeeper sent to study in the city of Vanam in the country of Ensaimin. There he meets Aremil, the crippled son of one of the Lescari Dukes and find himself drawn into a conspiracy to bring peace to Lescar. Along the way, a small band of conspirators is drawn together, all with different agendas and Tathrin finds that he's not entirely comfortable with some of the actions they take.

I think the problem I had with this book is that the characters were too ordinary. I didn't enjoy it very much and found it hard to stick with. The writing is ok - it starts off a bit ropey but settles down quite quickly. It's not great but it's better than some books put out by bigger publishers. It was quite an easy read and the pacing was good. It's seven hundred pages and, in terms of the time I spent actually reading it, didn't take that long to finish. But I did put it down and read two other books before I made myself complete this.

So, I asked myself, what is it that's missing? Why isn't this engaging me? There's two things; the characters and the world. I didn't buy into McKenna's worldbuilding. Perhaps it's because I haven't read any of her other books, which I believe are set in the same world, that I found that there were a lot of things left undeveloped. It just didn't feel that solid. For example, there were gods, which I knew because people swore by them and there were shrines. But there was no information about how the gods related to each other, or to society, or about what impact religion has upon the world. It felt superficial.

Maybe that wouldn't have mattered if I'd really liked the characters. It was difficult to feel anything about them at all because they were flat and ordinary and not well-drawn. The POV characters lacked passion and depth. There was much telling about how they felt that was not backed up in dialogue or action. The other main characters who didn't have POVs were potentially interesting but just didn't jump off the page. They were not characters who I would think about whilst not reading the book. Also, I think the guy on the cover is supposed to be Tathrin, but I think it says quite a lot that I'm really not sure. I can't connect the picture on the front with the character in the book.

I won't read anything else by Juliet McKenna and if you're looking for epic fantasy, there's much better stuff available. But I will give Solaris Books another go if I find something that looks interesting.

Monday, 5 September 2011

A Read of A Dance with Dragons - Part 33

Chapter 32 - Reek

Ramsay Bolton is staying at Barrowton. He's been looking for someone he didn't find. Usually this would mean that he'd want to hurt someone but he has to be careful around his father's allies. Ramsay orders a feast and has Reek stand in the corner while they eat. All Ramsay's dogs are named after peasant girls he's hunted and raped and killed, but only the ones that gave him good sport. During the feast, Roose Bolton turns up. He tells Ramsay that Stannis has taken Deepwood Motte and given it back to the Glovers. Ramsay asks if he will march on the Dreadfort. Roose says no. They talk about the Frey's that have gone missing. They were travelling with Manderly and they suspect Manderly has killed them, despite how distraught he appears to be and note that he didn't bring hostages as he was supposed to. Roose tells Ramsay that his allies are disturbed by the things they hear about him and that he must be more discreet.

Roose tells Ramsay he will marry Arya Stark and it should be at Winterfell. This will send a message and Stannis will have to come to them. With Arnolf Karstark who is still their ally. Roose tells Ramsay he's going back to where he is staying and that he is taking Reek with him. Ramsay whispers to Reek that he's to keep quiet and tell him everything his father says. Ramsay says that when Reek gets back he'll take another finger.

On the ride, Roose asks Reek what Ramsay said to him. Reek can't speak because he's so afraid. Roose says he knows anyway because he knows what his son is. All of Ramsay's men are actually his. He tells Reek that Ramsay killed his trueborn son. Then he says to Reek that he will give him a bath and clean clothes and terrifies Reek all over again. He says he has wounds and is desperate not to be seen naked. They arrive at Barrow Hall where Roose introduces him to Lady Barbrey as Theon, heir to the Iron Islands.

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So many reasons to hate Ramsay. What an evil bastard. But interesting to hear what his father really thinks of him - and just how much he's prepared to sacrifice for real politik. And what are they doing with Theon now?

I reckon Theon's been castrated. There was a vague reference to this before. That, and possibly he's afraid to reveal the full extent to which Ramsay has tortured him.

The Karstarks are playing both sides, like Manderly and the Umbers. I wonder how that will fall out but Roose Bolton seems to have a better grip of it than Stannis does. I guess it all depends whether Davos finds Rickon.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

A-Z challenge: L is for Library

I always wanted to have a proper library: a whole room in the house dedicated to books and reading. All the walls would be fully shelved and there would be one of those ladder things that wheels around the shelves. It would have a chaise longue or day bed for reading in the most comfort.

There would be a roaring fireplace, probably gas because I can't be doing with the bother of a real fire, nice as they are. And of course, I would have acres of free time which I could spend lying around in my library reading all the lovely books.

I find it soothing to be in libraries, just in the presence of books. It's restful and serene and the rest of the world melts away. Bookshops work as well, but then you feel obliged to buy something and that's how book mountain grows.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

A Read of A Dance with Dragons - Part 32

Chapter 31 - Melisandre

It is never dark in her chambers and the fire must never go out. Melisandre looks into the fire and prays for a vision. She is looking for Stannis and for the girl on a dying horse. She sees a white wood face and a boy with a wolf's face, memories of her past and the wildwoods. She sees Jon Snow, both wolf and man, and she sees him surrounded by enemies.

Melisandre has kept Devan with her even though he'd rather have gone with Stannis but she thinks Davos has lost enough sons. She needs Jon Snow for something but so far he is immune to her charms. She believes he should have moved into Stannis/Mormont's chambers, she tells Devan she will have breakfast and asks him to send her Rattleshirt.

She uses powders for her effects and conceals them in her robes. Her supplies are low and she can't get the ingredients to make more, but she thinks her true magic is stronger than it used to be.

Rattleshirt arrives. She sees shadows all around him. He has put aside his shirt of bones so she tells him it protects him. The ruby he wears in a black iron fetter around his wrist gives him a glamour and Melisandre says he needs the shirt as well. She wants to send him after the girl on the dying horse. She tells him what she just saw in her vision and he says the place is Long Lake.

A horn blows. Only the once, meaning rangers returning. Melisandre leaves Rattleshirt in her chambers and goes to see who has come back. She goes through the Wall gate with two guards. They're effectively useless but it's all about the show. On the other side of the Wall there are three eight foot spears with three rangers' heads on them. Bowen Marsh says they should never have sent the rangers out. Jon orders them taken down and asks Melisandre to walk back with him. He asks if she knows anything of the other six. She has seen an attack on the Wall and says it is Eastwatch, but she's not certain, what she sees in a vision is not real and has more in common with dreams.

Melisandre asks Jon to come to her chambers. She thinks Jon and Stannis have a lot in common. Rattlesnake is still there and Melisandre tells Jon he's going after the girl. Jon objects on the basis that Rattleshirt is a rapist and brutal killer. So Melisandre reveals that Rattleshirt is actually Mance Rayder and that she burned the real Rattleshirt.

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What is she up to? She's trying to reel Jon in. Beware enemies who pretend to be friends, indeed. Who is the girl? I don't think it could be either Sansa or Arya. Sansa is in the Vale with Littlefinger and Arya is in Braavos. Neither of them is wearing grey and riding north on a dying horse. Who else might it be? Or maybe it's in the future and it will be Sansa? Not that she seems in a hurry to get away from Littlefinger.

Also, it's interesting to have some confirmation that Melisandre is as much a fake as the others.