Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Dangerous Women

edited by George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois - 3 stars

A big, fat book of short stories (although not all of them feel that way, *cough* Virgins *cough*) from a variety of genres, as with any collection this one is something of a mixed bag and I'd argue that quite a few are barely about women, let alone dangerous ones.

Many of those included would appear to be side-trips in previously established worlds (some of which I'd read, and some I hadn't) and some were more successful than others at allowing the casual reader as much enjoyment as devoted fans. There are some 5 star stories in here, but the reasons above (as well my anal insistence on individually scoring and then working out the average) brought the whole down to a 3.

Starting out well with Some Desperado from Joe Abercombie (starring Red Country's Shy South who, like many an Abercrombie character, should never be underestimated even when outnumbered), other high points for me were Cecilia Holland's Nora's Song (probably as I'm still a little obsessed with the court of Henry II after Alison Weir's Eleanor of Aquitaine), Jim Butcher's Bombshells (though I should have got up to date with Harry as I found that he not only has a protege, Molly, but might have taken a turn for the dead. While worrying that this meant no more Bob either, I still enjoyed the ride which at least starred some kick-ass ladies), Megan Lindholm's Neighbors (not surprising as this is also Robin Hobb, who seems able to suck me in to whichever world she chooses), Shadows for Silence in The Forests of Hell from Brandon Sanderson (who shows as great a flair for character names as he does titles, and whose predatory forests and awesome bounty hunter posing as an inn landlady makes me eager to read more from him), Caroline Spector's Lies My Mother Told Me (set in the Wild Cards universe and not mattering that I'd barely read much of that world before) and, of course, George RR Martin's The Princess and The Queen (giving us a taste of Targaryen/Westeros history and awesomely featuring rather a lot of dragons, although I did get a little "Which Aegon is this, now?" at times and, although I am well aware that GRRM is not my bitch...

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...I still couldn't help wishing every now and then that I was reading about what's happening with them now).

On the other side of the coin, I've no idea what I thought Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series was about (I had vaguely sci-fi notions, I think), but I'd never have guessed it was 18th century Scots. Although it seems to have a hefty fan following, going by Virgins I won't be joining in. My enjoyment of Sharon Kay Penman's A Queen in Exile doesn't bode well for the copy of Here Be Dragons that's awaiting me on my shelves, and Lawrence Block's I Know How To Pick 'Em, with an incestuous mother and killer son, made me want to scrub my eyes in bleach to remove the taint.

Still, this was well worth a read even if not all its inclusions were my flavour, and it's already helped me find some new worlds to start spending time in (Amazon will be so pleased).

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Necropolis: London and Its Dead

by Catharine Arnold - 5 stars

A fascinating look at how London has dealt with its dead through the ages, taking us from the Pagans and Romans, through the Middle Ages and the Victorians, up until modern times, and taking in numerous plagues and epidemics, a few fires and two World Wars, the death of Lady Di and the London bombings, while moving from outside the city, into its heart and then back out again. 

Informative, astonishing, gruesome and revealing, this book nearly managed to outdo my record of how many times I could turn to Nik with a "Listen to this!" - I think he was being bothered at least once a page (although he'd probably say it felt like more. He was trying to watch football, after all).

Whether it be the charnel houses with their decorative skeletal chandeliers, the boisterous medieval graveyards and their town centre on a Saturday night atmosphere (complete with heavy drinking, fighting and regular deaths), the putrescent Victorian burial yards that actually killed the living, the drunken gravediggers, the exploding coffins and the showers of remains, the embalmed wives on display in living rooms...

...or the brides making 'grave clothes' for their potential future children, each page was bursting with jaw-dropping and frequently stomach-turning facts.

Gladstone is quoted within: "Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical exactness, the tender mercies of its people, their loyalty to high ideals, and their regard for the laws of the land."

In that case, Arnold shows us here that we don't have an awful lot to be proud of.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Songs you can't be blue to...

I've been something of a miserable sod lately, spending far more time than can possibly be good for me feeling sorry for myself, whining and generally being a bummer to be around. It's time to try and shake off those winter blues, and there's no better way of doing that than with a spot of music. So, in no particular order, here are my picks of songs it's impossible to stay blue to.

Fiesta - The Pogues

You start the song all mopey, but before you know it you're jumping around, bouncing off the walls. Perfect.

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I Want You Back - Jackson 5

One of those songs that makes me want to slide on to a dance-floor from it's opening note, I can even banish all thoughts of how Michael turned out when listening to the Jackson 5. That's some pretty powerful stuff...

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Birdhouse in Your Soul - They Might Be Giants

I have a secret to tell from my electrical well...Nothing makes me happier than singing (probably more like shrieking) about killing Jason off with countless screaming argonauts.

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Me & Julio Down By The Schoolyard - Simon & Garfunkel

Bouncy and fun, I only have to hear a snatch of this song and it's stuck in my head for the rest of the week. I can't embed the proper video for some reason, so you'll have to make do with a scene from the Royal Tenenbaums instead. Which is rather cheering in itself...

And if that doesn't cheer you up, there's always You Can Call Me Al.

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Groove Is In The Heart - Deee-Lite

From the inclusion of this song, you will most likely be able to tell exactly when I did most of my growing up...

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Half Man Half Machine - Goldie Lookin' Chain

The perfect band for when I'm feeling miserable, they never fail to me make laugh. And never more so than with this. (The official video bleeps all the swears, so you'll just have to imagine a proper video instead)

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I'm A Believer - The Monkees

Another song that makes me want to wiggle, and sing along at the top of my voice, banishing all misery at least until it's over...

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Sweet Child O'Mine - Guns N' Roses

With the most perfect opening in music history, I defy anyone to listen to this and not find themselves attempting Axl's snaky hip dance.

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Sir Duke - Stevie Wonder

You could choose quite a few Stevie Wonder tracks for this, but my favourite is this:

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One Step Beyond - Madness

Much like Stevie, you could probably pick any of Madness's songs and they would do a great job of lifting you up. But I'm going with this one.

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One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces - Ben Folds Five

The piano in Ben Folds Five always gives me a case of the happy's. As does getting to sing "Kiss my ass" very loudly.

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Hey Ya! - Outkast

If you listened to the lyrics in this one, you'd probably get a little more bummed out than cheerful, but the music makes you think you're listening to a different song entirely and does indeed make you want to shake it like a polaroid picture. (Skip to 1 minute in if you don't fancy watching the pre-scenes)

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Back in Black - AC/DC

Nothing quite banishes a case of the blues like doing your best Angus Young impression.

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Ahh, that's better. Let me know which songs you think should have been included, and happy Friday everyone!

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Foundation, by Isaac Asimov

4 stars

After The Stars My Destination and now this, I’m going to have to add a lot more 50’s sci-fi to my reading list. I’d initially thought that my attempting to take on Asimov would be a little like this…

Happily, I found that Foundation was not at all dryly academic as I’d anticipated and is, in fact, really accessible and surprisingly funny.

Hari Seldon is a psychohistorian, by which I don’t mean that he’s into Henry VIII and stabs people. Instead, psychohistory is an advanced form of mathematics applied to large populations, through which Seldon can accurately predict the fall of the Galactic Empire and the thousands of years of barbarism which will follow. The fall cannot be averted, but through the application of psychohistory Seldon can do something about how long the age of barbarism will last, by manipulating humanity onto a path towards a new Empire through the successful navigation of a series of crises.

Less a story and more a series of glimpses into those crises and the people pitted against them, there’s not much ‘action’ within but there are a lot of ideas and a lot of outwitting of enemies and events in a series of conversations in which one of the players, at least, is always a few moves ahead of everyone else.

If I had any criticisms it would be that our main players, regardless of who they are or at what time they’re floating about in (sort of) history, they all sound like the same man. And it also seems that men writing sci-fi in the 50’s don’t seem able to imagine women in any roles other than the ones they already held at that time and so we are either invisible or, as in the case of the lone woman we meet, easily distracted by jewellery.

Still, it wasn’t enough to detract from what was, ultimately, a great little read.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Wild Justice, by Kelley Armstrong

4 stars

I meant it earlier about back-to-back Armstrong - we're straight in to the next entry and this time it's all about Nadia as Jack has tracked down Drew Aldrich, the man who walked free from court following the death of her cousin, Amy. Only things aren't quite as straightforward as they seem and when Aldrich is killed by someone who isn't Nadia, she not only has to come to terms with what happened in her past but accept the possibility that Aldrich hadn't worked alone. To complicate things further it seems the Contrapasso Fellowship, the legendary vigilante group whom Evelyn had been pressing Nadia to join, also have a stake in the case. On the romance side, she and Quinn have broken up, although Quinn isn't quite so clear on this as Nadia is which makes things that little bit easier when she and Jack finally get together.

A great finale to the series, I enjoyed how Armstrong wrapped up the questions that have been gnawing at Nadia since the start and, whilst inevitable, I also enjoyed how she finally brought Nadia and Jack together, and especially their interaction once she had. Thankfully, things hotting up between them doesn't mean the monosyllabic Jack is suddenly transformed into a gushing fountain of sentimental declarations, or Nadia a simpering twit.

Consistently entertaining, while this might not be quite as addictive as the Women of the Otherworld, it's not far off and was precisely what I needed to distract me during the past few days of hanging out in bathrooms.

Made To Be Broken, by Kelley Armstrong

3.5 stars

When your flat has been transformed into a biohazard thanks to a touch of stomach flu, there is one positive, at least - you get to spend days seeking refuge in your Kindle and back-to-back Kelley Armstrong. 

And so we're back with Nadia Stafford, AKA Dee, former cop and current hitwoman, as she investigates the disappearance of her least favourite lodge employee. Being both from a bad family and a teen mum, when Sammi and her baby don't make it home from work one night even the police don't seem to give a shit and so, reminded of her cousin and supported by Jack (who's staying at her lodge whilst recovering from an ankle injury picked up on a job) Nadia steps into the breach.

As addictive as the first instalment in this series and building nicely towards the series' conclusion, it's becoming clear that Nadia is in serious denial about what happened when her cousin was killed, as well as about her feelings for Jack. Misinterpreting him at every time, even after eavesdropping on him, instead she's settling for Quinn.

I'm glad to say that I'm enjoying this series as much as Armstrong's previous works and, while I'm sure I'm not going to be hugely surprised by the ending of Nadia's story come the final instalment (hooking up with Jack and finding out that she wasn't left untouched by Amy's killer, by any chance?) I'm really enjoying the ride.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Exit Strategy, by Kelley Armstrong

3.5 stars

I've been something of a Kelley Armstrong fan for some time now, having torn my way through the Women of the Otherworld series, plus two supernatural YA trilogies, and discovered they were brain candy of the highest order. With the last entry in this trilogy now published, I'm turning my attentions to Nadia Stafford. There are no supernatural shenanigans in this one but thankfully it's just as addictive as Armstrong's other work, as well as continuing with her tradition of starring heroines who don't make me want to do this:

A former cop, Nadia was ousted from the force following the death of a suspect - one that wasn't exactly accidental. Having lost everything in the aftermath, Nadia has started a new life as the owner of a hunting lodge. One that moonlights as a hired killer. Trouble is, Nadia (professional name: Dee) isn't the only professional killer around and one of their number looks to have gone rogue, attracting a lot of police attention. So when Nadia's mentor, Jack, shows up with an offer for her to join him and few others from the hitman community to take the guy out, she does.

Setting up Nadia's world nicely and introducing us to some characters who will obviously become big players as the series progresses, I really enjoyed the way Armstrong wrote about her and the way she approached tracking down the killer (and I really enjoyed Evelyn, the gun-toting and not very trustworthy OAP). 

The scenes around the killer's victims were all very effective and, while I'm no expert on police-work or, indeed, that of professional killers, all of the details and techniques at least seemed plausible to me.

I was glad to see the initial case would be solved in this entry - no cliffhangers here! - and while I'm not particularly keen on love triangles, so far Nadia's is taking a backseat. And although I'm sure it'll become more of a focus as the series progresses, I quite like Jack so am happy to see how this builds (as I am equally sure that he will emerge the victor).

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Too Good To Be True, by Jan Harold Brunvand

3 stars

My introduction to urban legends came early, and at the hands of my auntie. When I was a kid, my brother and I would spend the latter half of the week at our grandparents' and, while they did their weekly food shop, we’d be left under the charge of Auntie Lisa, who’d soon have us squealing and our hair standing on end as she told us about The Dead Roommate, the Maniac on the Car Roof, The Call From INSIDE The House, and The Licked Hand (these are the first I remember hearing, along with one about an old woman who comes to the door and you notice she has a missing finger….I can’t remember the rest of the story, but I can remember nearly hitting the ceiling whenever Lisa would get to the end and screech “YOU DID IT!” and lunge for us. Got us Every.Damn.Time.) I’m now looking forward to my own niece and nephew becoming old enough for me to scare the bejeesus out of, and this book should be a good source for me to mine.

A compilation of all of the urban legends you’ve heard (plus many more) ranging from the comic to the horrifying, from the old to the new (including all those warnings about gang initiations, petrol stations and checking the back-seat of your car that people are always sharing on Facebook), Brunvand’s writing style is a little irritating at times, especially whenever referring you to the ten thousand other books he’s apparently written on urban legends, but not enough to detract from the legends themselves.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

My Year In Books

As I mentioned yesterday, I managed to read 84 books this year (yes, I am the sort of person who keeps track of this sort of thing. I'm also the sort of person who thinks 84 is a paltry figure, and that I really should do better in 2014). Only a few were actually published in 2013 - I have far too many unread books already sat on my shelves and in my Kindle to allow me to get around to those for a while yet - so this won't be a round-up of the year's best books. What this will be is a list of those books that I loved most in 2013, or loathed (click on the titles to be taken to the reviews).

Those I loved and that you should run out instantly and get copies of

10. Angelmaker, by Nick Harkaway
9. Mother Night, by Kurt Vonnegut
8. The Secret History, by Donna Tartt
7. HMS Surprise, by Patrick O'Brian
6. Eleanor of Aquitaine, by Alison Weir
5. The Liveship Traders (series), by Robin Hobb
4. Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three, by Mara Leveritt
3. The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester
2. Wolf Hall & Bring Up The Bodies, by Hilary Mantel (Thomas Cromwell #'s 1 & 2)
1. The Ocean At The End of The Lane, by Neil Gaiman

And those that made me wish I'd never learnt to read in the first place

10. Gentlemen Prefer Succubi, by Jill Myles 
9. The Atrocity Exhibition, by JG Ballard (although I feel bad about it)
8. Witch Fire, by Anya Bast
7. The Fall of Arthur, by JRR Tolkien
6. Magic of Thieves, by C. Greenwood
5. Hunter's Moon, by CT Adams & Cathy Clamp
4. Helen of Troy, by Margaret George
3. Ravens, by George Dawes Green
2. Dead Ever After, by Charlaine Harris
1. Taken by the T-Rex, by Christie Sims & Alara Branwen

And there you have it. I read some blinders this year, but also read an awful lot of bad Kindle smut. And although that always figures highly in each year's most hated list, it seems I never bloody learn. Especially when it's free.

What were your favourite reads this year? And which books made you want to throw them on the fire? Do share...

P.S. If any of you are interested in my full list of books for 2013 (you never know, there could be at least one very bored person out there) then click here. And while you're over on Goodreads, don't forget to get yourself a profile, friend me and start reviewing. Go on...