Archive | May 2012

Cover art for Fragments!

I said in a previous post that I would share the artwork that was used for the cover of Fragments. So, here it is.

It was designed by my co-author, C. R. Smith, whose other work can be found on his DeviantArt page. I really like it and I like it more each time I look at it.

And, because this is a shameless self-promotion post, I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you it was available at DriveThruFiction.com for 99p. ūüôā

The Burning Land

Oh hai Uhtred. The Burning Land is the fifth in the Bernard Cornwall’s Saxon Chronicles. Regular readers will know I’m a fan and I enjoyed this one just as much as the others.

Wessex is once again plagued by Danes and Alfred still relies on Uhtred to fight his battles for him. The leader of the Danes has a woman, Skade, with him who is considered to be a sorceress. Uhtred captures her and uses her to lure Harald into an unwise attack. Skade curses Uhtred and although he wins the battles, he loses Gisela, his wife.

At Arthur’s court, a simpleton priest has a vision in which he says Skade and Gisela are the same. Alfred demands Skade is killed and Uhtred, humiliated, leaves Wessex. He goes to Durham where Ragnar is lord and finds him planning to attack Wessex, largely on the basis that Wessex will eventually attack them. Alfred is now calling himself King of the English.

Uhtred’s ultimate goal is Bebbanburg but for that he needs money and lots of it. He sails to Denmark where Skade’s first husband is said to sit on vast wealth. With few men and a cunning plan he takes the Danish stronghold but finds that the treasure is much smaller than it was said to be.¬† They return to join Ragnar but just before they march Uhtred finds himself ensnared again. He made an oath to Alfred’s daughter, Aethelflaed, and she has asked for his help. Her husband is trying to divorce her and she is holed up in a nunnery.

So, off he goes, because the love affair between Uhtred and Aethelflaed has been signposted since book one. Ragnar attacks Wessex and Haesten (the devious Dane ruling East Anglia) attacks Mercia. Uhtred is bound by his oath to defend Mercia. Naturally, he pulls it off with aplomb and a certain amount of work. And by the end, he’s as firmly tied to Wessex as ever and no nearer Bebbanburg.

I love these. Cornwell is a great storyteller. His characters are fantastic, the action is completely engaging and the pace is good. This was a nice change of rhythm from the last book which focussed on a single battle. It is no mean feat to have the fifth book in a series as entertaining and enjoyable as the first – and to have me looking forward to the sixth. And it’s not just because it’s got vikings in it, honest.

Last time I reviewed a Cornwell novel, The Fort, I noticed a heavy-handed use of dialogue tags. I did look out for them in this one, and they’re there, more than might be desirable, but not nearly as intrusive as in The Fort.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

This is a funny little book and I’m not sure what it’s about. In The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (translated from French by Alison Anderson) a concierge, Renee, looks after an apartment¬†building in Paris inhabited by very rich people.

Most of the people who live in the building¬†don’t notice Renee¬†unless they want something and¬†even then they barely condescend to see her.¬†She goes on with her life,¬†reading about philosphy, art, science and anything¬†else that attracts her sharp and broad mind. It suits her to be unseen and to keep her erudition, which she believes inappropriate to her class, to herself. Her best friend is¬†Manuela, who cleans in some of the apartments.

One of¬†the inhabitants of the building is Paloma, a little girl looking for meaning in life but too intelligent to be¬†taken in by the meanings offered to her by her family and culture. Then an elderly resident dies and someone new moves in. ¬†Kakuro immediately sees beyond Renee’s facade and gently pursues her.

It is an easy read and an absolute joy . The prose is elegant, the characters likeable, and the diversions on art and philosophy are interesting. But I’m not sure how well it works as a story. There is a reason beyond class that Renee doesn’t want to reveal her self-education but, while it is a perfectly good reason, it is dumped on the reader all in one go, late in the book. There’s no foreshadowing or hinting at a deeper fear of exposure. The feel of the book throughout is one of a very light touch, of delight in life in various ways and the tragic ending doesn’t quite work with it. I couldn’t accept the tragedy as presented and thus couldn’t be moved by it.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog tries to balance philosophical musing with telling a story. The musing is elegant and fascinating and works really well. The story suffers. But, I did enjoy it despite being frustrated by the ending. I would recommend it if you enjoy beautiful prose.

The Player of Games

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks is the first of his science fiction novels that I read. At the end of last year I read two of his more recent ones that I was blown away by and wished I could nominate them for my book club. I couldn’t because we have a page length limit of about 600 pages and these two books were both well over that. So, I thought I would nominate The Player of Games which I first read more than ten years ago. I wondered if I would like as much now as I did then.

The¬†Culture is a socialist utopia run by artificial intelligences¬†where people can pursue any life they like. (I¬†totally want to live in the Culture). There are a group of people and AIs who form Contact which is like the Culture’s diplomatic service and armed forces rolled into one. Within Contact is a more shadowy organisation called Special Circumstances. These are the groups that manage the Culture’s relationships with other civilizations. Gurgeh is a man who has¬†spent his life mastering all the games there are to play and is acknowledged as one of¬†the foremost gamers in the whole Culture.

Gurgeh is manipulated into travelling to Azad,¬†a more barbaric civilization to play the game that rules their society. How competitors place in the game determines the positions they will hold in public life. Azad is a hierarchical society riven with inequity and they don’t believe anyone from outside Azad will stand a chance in the game. Naturally, Gurgeh does better than anyone expects and the stakes become very high.

One thing I do notice about Banks’ books is that they start slow and end with a bang. I enjoyed this greatly, but perhaps not as much as I did the first time around. The reason for that is that Banks’ later books are much better :-). There’s a nice amount of ambiguity about who is playing who and several games are being played at once. It’s a gentle introduction to the world of the Culture and the themes that Banks’ likes to explore with it. There’s only a low level of machines with personality disorders which is disappointing but despite that, I would highly recommend it.

Fat is a Feminist Issue

Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach is one of those books I should have read a long time ago, but didn’t get around to. It’s an experience akin to reading The Lord of the Rings, in that I’ve read lots of things derived from it so it seems quite familiar.

The central premise is that women’s¬†relationship with their bodies is shaped by their experience of living in a male dominated society in which they are valued primarily for appearance. She is¬†mainly talking about women living in rich, western countries, and acknowledges that she is not expressing a universal experience. Much of women’s energy centres around¬†attempts to meet the beauty standard, which is currently to be very thin.

This has a number of effects including that¬†women have¬†disordered eating patterns and perceptions of their bodies. In terms of eating, if you have spent your life eating according to a diet plan, then eating when you’re hungry is not something you may be used to. The book talks about the associations women have with being fat or thin and both states of being have positive and negative connotations.

Much of this book is excellent. One thing that undermines the good stuff is that Orbach continually asserts that by learning to eat intuitively women will lose weight. This reinforces the message that losing weight is desirable rather than supporting the message that a healthy relationship with your body is more important than what it looks like.

If you’re interested in body issues and eating disorders this is essential reading.