Thursday 29 January 2015

Books read in January

The end of January is still a couple of days away but as the two books I've just started - see sidebar - are long I know I won't finish anything else now before the end of the month, so I may as well do my 'Books read in January' post now.

Well goodness, it's been an interesting reading month. I kept to my decision not to try and read loads of books just to get my numbers up and have read just six books for the first month of the year. I'm very happy indeed with that.

These are the books:

1. A Fire Upon the Deep - Vernor Vinge

2. The Magician's Nephew - C.S.Lewis

3. A Tiny Bit Marvellous - Dawn French

4. Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys - Amelia B. Edwards

5. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - C.S. Lewis

6. Mountains of the Mind - Robert McFarlane

Ostensibly this is a book about the history of mountaineering and truthfully that was all I was expecting. What I got was an awful lot more. It's more like 'The History of Everything' as McFarlane takes the reader on a wonderful trip, firstly through the geology of the planet, then on to how our mountains were formed, where they were and are now, how old they are and so on. He moves on to people's attitudes towards mountains... at first they were considered a blot on the landscape until slowly, during the 18th. century, attitudes changed. People realised that they were actually beautiful, could present a challenge found nowhere else, and that they were the epitome of the 'sublime'.

The author gives us all of this but also intersperses the history with his own experiences climbing mountains all over the world. Fascinating stuff. I mean really rivetting. Some of his adventures will make your hair stand up on end! Of the history chapters my favourite by far has to be the one that dealt with the ill fated George Mallory who became obsessed with Mt. Everest in the 1920s and died on his third attempt to climb it. But what really made this book for me was the beautiful writing. Not only does McFarlane make the historical parts very readable and interesting, he writes lyrically and magically about the mountains themselves. It's quite captivating and I found myself wishing the book was a bit longer than its 280 pages. Brilliant read, sure to feature in my best non-fiction of 2015.

Like I said, an interesting reading month and this was mainly because of the variety of the subject matter of the books. I started with a terrific science fiction adventure, read a modern comedy drama by Dawn French, and then followed those with two books about mountains which were very different to each other. In between I squeezed in two of C.S. Lewis's Narnia books which I am rereading this year, having borrowed the set from my grand-daughter. I have to say, I love a reading month that includes this kind of varied reading and am hoping to continue it throughout the year.

Favourite book of the month? Very difficult and in the end I think I'll have to call it a draw between A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge and Mountains of the Mind by Robert McFarlane.

And because I seem to be a bit hooked on books about mountains at the moment, here's a new one I just got from Amazon Marketplace:

Adore that 'poster' type cover... artist - P. Colombi apparently.

Happy - and cosy - February reading. Stay warm and safe.


Saturday 24 January 2015

Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys

My first non-fiction book for 2015 is under my belt at last. Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys (a really snappy title that...) by Amelia Edwards is the kind of travel book I like... one where Victorian women troop off to explore pastures new and unexpected, thus defying expectations for women of that era - the 1870s.

Amelia Edwards, born in 1831, was the daughter of a retired army officer and Irish mother. As such she was staunchly middle-class and money was not really an object. Never-the-less, unusually for those days, she had three seperate careers in her lifetime - that of a journalist, a novelist, and an archaeologist. She also became a very famous traveller, writing books about her journey up the Nile and, in this instance, a summer spent in the Dolomite mountains of northern Italy and southern Austria... popularly known as the Tyrol.

She was in her forties when she went - no spring chicken for those days - and it was in no way a relaxing holiday her and her friend had in mind. They intended to travel all over the mountains and valleys, which back then were pretty much inaccessible. Most places were reached by tracks through mountain passes that were difficult at the best of times. At worst, liable to flooding, landslides or impassable because of snow. This was one brave, indefatigable lady!

The two ladies used various villages as their base, staying in each one for a few days, sometimes longer, seeing what was to be seen in the area and then moving on. A primary interest seemed to be looking for paintings by Titian. It seems he was born in one of the villages, Pieve di Cadore near Belluno, and had done work in many of the churches before becoming famous: it was Amelia's opinion that not all of the paintings were genuine though.

Both ladies were enthusiastic walkers and did a huge amount of exploring that way. They were looked upon by the locals as objects of extreme curiosity, many of them not able to understand why they were there or even really the concept of a 'holiday' of that sort. Neither of the women were mountaineers but they did in fact climb one, the Fassa Thal, and that bit was particularly interesting.

There is, necessarily, a great deal of naming of mountains they saw. If you don't know the area, as I don't, then that becomes a bit tedious because the names mean nothing. That is more than made up for though by descriptive passages such as this:

At length when we have journeyed on and on for what seems an interminable distance, we come across a circular hollow in the midst of which nestles the Misurina lake - a green, transparent, tranquil tarn, fed as we are told by thirty springs, and rich in salmon trout and otters. The place is inconceivably still, beautiful and solitary. Dark rushes fringe the borders of the lake, and are doubled by reflection. Three cows stand drowsing in the water, motionless. Not a ripple disturbs its glassy surface. Not a sound stirs the air. Yonder, where the vista opens Northwards, appear the cloudy summits of the Drei Zinnen; here where the grassy lawn slopes down to the water's edge, the very sunshine seems asleep. The whole scene has a breathless unreality about it, as if it were a mirage, or a picture.

I defy anyone to read that and not be completely transported to that lake, at that time, in northern Italy:

(Image from Wikipedia)

Amelia Edwards herself illustrated her travelogue. Sketches such as these:

This one is the Sasso di Ronch.

That the Monte Antelao.

She was clearly a very talented artist and sketches like this are peppered throughout the book.

As can be surmised I really enjoyed this one. It gave me a real flavour of the Dolomites in the late 1800s... unspoilt, wild, quite primitive in the way of amenities, but utterly and stunningly beautiful. Amelia must have been an amazing lady, typical of the sort the British Empire produced in Victorian times I imagine. I'm definitely planning to read her book about Egypt, A thousand Miles up the Nile, sometime this year.

Those who have ereaders can find Amelia Edwards' three non-fiction travel and history books here on a website called A Celebration of Women Writers. I have a paperback copy, a Virago Travellers edition, that only cost me £2 and which I shall not be parting with any time soon.

Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys is my first book for The Victorian Bingo challenge which is being hosted by Becky's Book Reviews. It covers the category 'A female author'. It's also my book three for Bev's 2015 Mount TBR challenge.


Friday 23 January 2015

Rethinking things

Which things am I rethinking? the casual reader might ask. Well, reading challenges as a matter of fact. I seem to have got myself much more tied up with them than I'd previously planned. I wanted 2015 to be a reading year that was more unstructured than 2014. Don't misunderstand, it was a fun year and I got a nice chunk of books off my tbr pile. But it was very structured, necessarily so because doing eight challenges requires a bit of organisation. I didn't want that for this year but somehow or other I seem to have got it. My own enthusiasm is to blame of course... I really can't resist a fun sounding challenge that I know I have loads of books for. I must try harder.

Consequently, I've decided to abandon a couple before I've even properly started. The two I won't be doing are, firstly, The Round the World one where I was planning to read a book from every country in Africa. Wonderful as this sounds there's no way I can realistically achieve this and trying is just going to stress me out. The other one is the Gentle Spectrums one which I only posted about a couple of days ago. The post will be taken down in due course.

So, onwards and upwards. Sort of literally because I'm enjoying books about mountains at the moment. At some stage I need to do a review of the delightful 'Victorian women travelling' themed book that I've just finished. I now have a real yen to visit the Tyrol region of The Alps!

Just to let people know, I've enabled comment moderation for a short time, but as I'm around a lot all comments will probably be dealt with fairly rapidly and it's very much a temporary thing.


Sunday 18 January 2015

A Tiny Bit Marvellous

A Tiny Bit Marvellous by Dawn French was given to me a year or so ago by my youngest daughter who thought I might like it... me being a fan of the wonderful comedian, star of The Vicar of Dibley and one half of the comedy duo, French and Saunders.

Mo Battle, a child psychologist, is fast approaching fifty years of age. Her life is all routine, family, job etc. but she's also trying to write a book about how to deal with children in their teenage years. Her own teenagers are Dora, almost eighteen and Peter, sixteen.

Dora is a pretty typical teenager. She's obsessed with her looks, with clothes, with fitting in, with friends. She thinks she's fat, has a best friend, Lottie, who she feels she would die for and she's not very academic. Dora also loathes her mother and they row constantly.

Peter is not your average sixteen year old boy. He idolises Oscar Wilde and demands that everyone call him 'Oscar'. He's very affected in his mannerisms, a bit of a dandy in the old-fashioned sense, and pretty much scathing about everyone.

In the background there's Dad, who doesn't like rows but behind the scenes, and reading between the lines, is pretty much the rock of the family.

Mo is with a small firm of psychologists, just her and her boss, George. Into the mix come Veronica and Noel, two junior psychologists who are to work with the firm as part of their college buddy scheme. Mo is assigned Noel, who is in his thirties, very good looking and from New Zealand. During a chance meeting Peter/Oscar falls madly in love with Noel. The problem with this is that Mo is also slowly finding herself very attracted to him. Noel is paying attention to her which is something she doesn't really have in her life at home. Will Mo take the ultimate step with Noel? And if she does, will the family manage to survive?

Each chapter in this book is written from the point of view of three of the characters, Mo, Dora and Peter. To do that it's crucial that the author gets the voice of each person distinct and individual: Dawn French manages this admirably. Mo, comes over very strongly as an over-controlling mother who doesn't realise that she is that way. Being a psychologist she over analyses everything, but you feel for her as basically she's just a mum trying to do her best for her family. You could slap Dora, quite frankly, but she too is vulnerable and scared a lot of the time. Teenagers are cruel and things happen which make you feel so sorry for her. When writing makes you infuriated with a character and sympathetic at the same time it must be pretty good.

The book is a bit slow starting in my opinion. This does allow time to really get to know the family but some might think it drags a bit and perhaps I did think so a little. I'm glad I persevered though as it takes off mid-way and becomes a bit of a page-turner. You can see the train-crash coming and after a while I couldn't put it down. What I didn't see coming was a brilliant little twist at the end.

A Tiny Bit Marvellous was Dawn French's first attempt at fiction after her autobiographical, Dear Fatty. I gather after writing that she realised she loved writing and didn't want to stop. My eldest daughter tells me that Dear Fatty is excellent, so I now have that on my library pile. My youngest says that her second book, Oh Dear, Sylvia is a terrific read too, so I'll be getting that at some stage. I'm so glad that Dawn made the decision to continue writing as she's very good at it. Having watched her for years on various TV shows her voice is very evident in her writing. But that's ok... she's a very funny lady and we need books that make us laugh, which this book does. But it also made me think a great deal, which gave the book a bit of an unexpected depth. I do hope she has something else in the pipeline as I think I'll be reading her entire output pretty quickly this year.

A Tiny Bit Marvellous is my second book for Bev's Mount TBR 2015 challenge. And that's two chunky books, so far, off this shelf:


Monday 12 January 2015

A Fire Upon the Deep

At almost 600 pages my first book for 2015 was a bit of a doorstop, so it's taken me a while to read it. But that's good. I took the time to enjoy it and take it in, though whether I understood all of what was going on in A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge is quite another matter...

In an area of space called Straumli Realm a group of human scientists have been a bit busy. Too busy perhaps as they've unearthed and set free an ancient archive which at its heart is evil. Most of the scientists do not escape with their lives but a cargo ship carrying the Olsndot family and over 150 children in cryogenic stasis, do. 'The Blight' as it comes to be known only realises the humans have escaped, too late, and realises that this ship must be carrying something that can destroy it. The chase is on.

The ship lands on a planet but is crippled by a difficult landing. It's not long before the family are over-run by a race of beings. The mother and father are killed but the two children, 14 year old Johanna and 8 year old Jefri, survive. Johanna is kidnapped and taken to a city some days away and Jefri is taken prisoner by the people who have killed his parents. Neither of the children realise that the other has survived.

The strange race that inhabit this planet have multiple bodies but share a 'mind' or 'soul'. They resemble dogs with long necks, and one 'person' is usually made up of 5 to 8 bodies. They are telepathic in nature but the chaos of each others thoughts means that they cannot come within ten feet of each other apart from breeding purposes. It's a huge handicap as working together as a society is very hard. On the other hand people can live for hundreds of years because when one member dies, another is brought into the 'pack'.

Johanna has been take by the 'Woodcarvers', a group who like inventing things, and they also have her dataset computer. Jefri has no idea his murderous capturers, The Flenser sect, killed his parents. He is thrown into a certain room by mistake and this leads to him 'imprinting' on a pack of young puppies. The head of this sect, Steel, realises that Jefri and the pups, known as Amdi, are a genius combination and could eventually help him to understand the workings of the spacecraft. He sets about insinuating himself into their affections.

Meanwhile The Blight is ravaging parts of space, wiping out whole civilisations. Ravna Bergsndot works for Relay, a kind of spacewide internet provider. The Blight destroys the planet she's working on but she escapes with Pham Nuwem, a human that has been recontructed by an Old One to solve the problem of The Blight. Also with them, two skroderiders, beings that look like bushes on trollies. These four set off to find the planet where the Olsndot family landed as they suspect the ship was carrying the secret of how to destroy The Blight.

The journey for the various humans - Johanna and her brother, Jefri, Ravna and Pham's perilous spacetrip - will be long and arduous. And nothing is certain other than the fact that the fate of the galaxy is on their shoulders.

Ok, well that's a pretty miserable description of this very intricate, amazingly wide-ranging plot. The detail in this book is staggering. I haven't really tried to describe the galaxy that's been invented here as I'm not sure I really 'got it'. It seemed that there were various levels... from the very highest where people have 'transcended' to the highest form of existence, to the lowest where nothing works as it should and people struggle almost to exist. That very much over-simplifies it. The massive galaxy-wide internet type thing has newsgroups too, who discuss things and watch events millions of light-years away. And chatter of course. Some of which is included in the book.

I think most fascinating for me were Vinge's 'Tiners' the race of beings inhabiting the planet. The idea of a person consisting of many individual bodies which go to make up a single soul, each bringing various traits or specialities to the one, has to be unique. The obvious comparison is a pack of wolves but to make them 'one person' is an intriguing idea. Brilliant, in my opinion. In a way this was partly a 'boy and his dog' sort of story, not really my thing but it works beautifully here. The Woodcarvers were a fascinating lot too. Inventive, intelligent, inquisitive... friendly towards Johanna though she didn't at first realise it. There was a lot of subterfuge and treachery going on too. You felt for Jefri, who at eight was too young to have any idea what was really going on.

There's so much else I could say about this book, but I don't want to spoil it for anyone planning to read it. The things I have descibed happen within the first few chapters, believe you me there is a *lot* more. I can't remember when I last read a book with this much detail, where the author has created such a fascinating and unique universe. This is space-opera on a huge scale which is something I absolutely love. I search endlessly for books like this; occasionally I strike lucky and this time I definitely did. In a way it's a small story of humans trying to survive against great odds, the sort of story you find in loads of books, but put it into a setting like this and the story becomes 'epic'. I thought it was an amzing book and happily gave it 5 stars on Goodreads. What a book to start the year with!

A Fire Upon the Deep is my first book for Carl's Sci-Fi Experience and also my first book for Bev's Mount TBR 2015 challenge.


Monday 5 January 2015

The Southern Lit challenge

The Southern Lit. challenge was one of my favourite reading challenges of 2013. It's once again being hosted by The Introverted Reader and I've decided to sign up for it again in 2015.

The rules:

Read a book(s)--non-fiction or fiction of any genre, for any age group--written by an author from the South and set mostly in the South.

Definitions of the South are flexible, so I've decided to define it the way I want. That's the fun of hosting your own challenge, right? :-)

The states:
South Carolina
North Carolina
West Virginia

Please keep in mind that this is a Southern literature challenge. It's possible to find books set in each of these states that are not Southern in nature or feeling. Use your best judgment when choosing your books.


Level 1--C'mon in the house! Read 1-2 books.

Level 2--Pull up a seat and stay a while! Read 3-4 books

Level 3--Have a glass of sweet iced tea, honey. Read 5-6 books

Level 4--Y'all come back now, y'hear! Read 7-8 books

The challenge will run from January 1, 2015 to December 31, 2015. You can join in anytime throughout the year.

Bearing in mind that I'm trying to have a less stressful reading year this year I am aiming at Level 2 which is to read 3 or 4 books. I'm not going to create a reading list but I really do want to read To Kill A Mockingbird this year. Plus I have several other books on the tbr mountain. Looking forward to this one immensely.


Saturday 3 January 2015

Read Scotland 2014 wrap-up

One of the challenges I did quite well at last year was Peggy's new Read Scotland 2014 challenge.

I signed up for The Hebridean level which was to read 9 to 12 books. In the event I actually managed to read 13, and these are they:

1. Consider Phlebas - Iain M Banks

2. Letters from the Horn of Africa - Sandy and Christian Curle

3. Sisters of Sinai - Janet Soskice

4. The Middle-aged Mountaineer - Jim Curran

5. Huntingtower - John Buchan

6. The Man in the Queue - Josephine Tey

7. The Fair MIss Fortune - D.E. Stevenson

8. Charlotte Fairlie - D.E. Stevenson

9. Lorraine Kelly's Scotland - Lorraine Kelly

10. A Shilling for Candles - Josephine Tey

11. Tea Time for the Traditionally Built - Alexander McCall Smith

12. Letters from Skye - Jessiac Brockmole

13. The Hills is Lonely - Lilian Beckwith

A nice mixed bag of titles, some fiction and some non-fiction and I enjoyed each and every one. Many thanks to Peggy for hosting this new challenge and for doing it so well.


Friday 2 January 2015

Mount TBR 2014: Final checkpoint

Bev's Mount TBR 2014 challenge came to an end on the 31st. December so it's time for the final checkpoint post.

I signed up to complete the climb to Mount Ararat but sadly did not make it. I needed to read 48 books for that category but in the event managed only 36... which is Mount Vancouver. I say 'only'... I am actually quite pleased with getting 36 books off the tbr mountain at my first attempt. It's a lot better than none at all.

Anyway, these are the books I read:

1. The Long Winter - Laura Ingalls Wilder
2. Consider Phlebus - Iain Banks
3. Shards of Honour - Lois McMaster Bujold
4. The Talisman Ring - Georgette Heyer
5. Have His Carcase - Dorothy L. Sayers
6. Sundiver - David Brin
7. Good Evening Mrs. Craven - Mollie Panter Downes
8. The Nine Tailors - Dorothy L. Sayers
9. Touch Not the Cat - Mary Stewart
10. West with the Night - Beryl Markham
11. Among Others - Jo Walton
12. Thirteenth Child - Patricia Wrede
13. Huntingtower - John Buchan
14. The Red House Mystery - A.A. Milne
15. Cuckoo's Egg - C.J. Cherryh
16. The Last Continent - Terry Pratchett
17. Detective Stories from the Strand - ed. J. Adrian
18. The River of Adventure - Enid Blyton
19. Demon in the House - Angela Thirkell
20. Alanna: The First Adventure - Tamora Pierce
21. Turkish Embassy Letters - Lady Mary Montagu
22. Out of the Deep I Cry - Julia Spencer-Fleming
23. Up With the Larks - Tessa Hainsworth
24. Sovereign - C.J. Sansom
25. The Rendezvous and other stories - Daphne du Maurier
26. The Overloaded Ark - Gerald Durrell
27. Helliconia Summer - Brian W. Aldiss
28. Anthem for Doomed Youth - Carola Dunn
29. Elizabeth and her German Garden - Elizabeth von Arnim
30. Come, Tell Me How You Live - Agatha Christie Malloran
31. Silver Borne - Patricia Briggs
32. A Coven of Vampires - Brian Lumley
33. Night of the Living Deed - E.J. Copperman
34. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush - Eric Newby
35. Once Upon a Christmas - Sarah Morgan
36. Gone West - Carola Dunn

Part 2 of the checkpoint post is: Using the titles of the books you read this year, please associate as many statements as you can with a book read on your journey up the Mountain.

Describe yourself: Demon in the House

Describe where you currently live: Huntingtower

If you could go anywhere where would you go?: The Last Continent

Every Monday morning I look/feel like: A Coven of Vampires

The last time I went to the doctor/therapist was because: Out of the Deep I Cry

The last meal I ate was: Cuckoo's Egg

When a creepy guy/girl asks me for my phone number, I: Have His Carcase

Ignorant politicians make me: A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush

Some people need to spend more time: Among Others

My memoir could be titled: Come, Tell Me How You Live

If I could, I would tell my teenage self: Up with the Larks

I've always wondered: The Red House Mystery

Well, that was fun! Some are appropriate, others a bit hit and miss.

Many thanks to Bev for hosting this very enjoyable challenge and I look forward to participating once again next year.