Saturday, 29 December 2007

David Mitchell "Cloud Atlas"

It is a pity I've just given 'The Observations' the Edwards Prize for the Most Original Work of Fiction, 2007. Had I not done so this would have made a worthy winner of that award. Or perhaps its just plain weird. It was written in 2004 and I am finding it very hard to describe it adequately for this blog post. One of the reviews I read depicts it as science fiction, fantasy, historical novel and thriller. To those I would add 'philosophical novel' though in fact it is a series of interlinked novellas with a common theme which might best be called "Man's inhumanity to man". It was a nominee for the Booker Prize in 2004 and won the dreaded Richard and Judy Best Read of the Year 2005!

Once started, this is a book which drives you on to the finish even when, at times, you feel as though you know what the outcome is going to be.

They key question at the end of any book is "Would I recommend someone to read it?" And this is one book where I still cannot decide what my answer would be!

DAVID MITCHELL a former bookseller who was born in 1970. He currently teaches in Hiroshima. His first novel, Ghostwritten, a section of which was included in New Writing 8, was published in August 1999 to huge acclaim.

Here are a few of my favourite quotes:-

"...every conscience has an off-switch hidden somewhere."

"Sometimes the fluyffy-bunny of incredulity zooms round the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left , ago, in the starting cage."

"Every nowhere is somewhere."

"We - by whom I mean anyone over sixty - commit two offences just by existing. One is Lack of Velocity. We drive too slowly, walk too slowly, talk too slowly. The world wit do business with dictators, perverts and drug barons of all stripes, but being slowed down, it cannot abide..."

"The heating systems composed works in the style of John Cage."

"Middle-age is flown, but it is attitude not years, that condemns one to the ranks of the Undead, or else proffers salvation. In the domain of the young there dwells many an Undead soul. "

"Mrs Wagstaff's contempt for her young husband, if bottled, could have been vended as rat-poison.... 'My husband could not compleat his schooling, Sir, so it is my sorry lot to explain the obvious, ten times a day.'"

Friday, 28 December 2007

Saturday, 22 December 2007

Isaac Asimov – ‘Facts and Trivia’

I had intended originally to keep this to fiction but this bit of non-fiction has crept in. Perhaps more will...

Thousands of things you didn't know you needed to know. Not the very best of trivia books (and too Maerican a bias for me) but nevertheless good fun and a fine source of quiz questions.

ISAAC ASIMOV (January 2?, 1920 – April 6, 1992) was a Russian-born American author and professor of biochemistry, a highly successful writer, best known for his works of science fiction and for his popular science books.

Asimov was one of the most prolific writers of all time, having written or edited more than 500 books and an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards, and he has works published in nine of the ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal System (all except the 100s, Philosophy).

Asimov is widely considered a master of the science-fiction genre and, along with Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, was considered one of the "Big Three" science-fiction writers during his lifetime. Most of Asimov's popularized science books explain scientific concepts in a historical way, going as far back as possible to a time when the science in question was at its simplest stage. He often provides nationalities, birth dates, and death dates for the scientists he mentions, as well as etymologies and pronunciation guides for technical terms.

Bernard Cornwell – “Sword Song”

Cornwell is one of my favourite historical novelists and his great plots are matched by the realism of his settings. This is the fourth volume in the Saxon Chronicles; preceded by The Last Kingdom, The Pale Horseman, The Lords of the North. I have also enjoyed his Warlord Chronicles about King Arthur and the Grail Quest series. Bernard Cornwell is also the author of the acclaimed Richard Sharpe series, set during the Napoleonic Wars and the Nathaniel Starbuck Chronicles, about the American Civil War.

BERNARD CORNWELL OBE (born February 23, 1944) is a prolific and popular English historical novelist. As a child he was adopted by a family by the name of Wiggins. After he left them he changed his name to his mother's maiden name, Cornwell.

Cornwell was born in London in 1944. His father was a Canadian airman. His mother was English, a member of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. He was adopted and brought up in Essex by the Wiggins family, who were members of the Peculiar People, a strict Protestant sect who banned frivolity of all kinds and even medicine. Cornwell was sent away to Monkton Combe School, attended the University of London, and after graduating, worked as a teacher. He then joined BBC's Nationwide and was promoted to become head of current affairs at BBC Northern Ireland. He then joined Thames Television as editor of Thames News.

He married an American, Judy, in 1980 and relocated to the U.S.. Unable to get a Green Card, he started writing novels, as this did not require a work permit. He lives in Cape Cod.

In June 2006, Cornwell was awarded an OBE (Officer, Order of the British Empire) in the Queen's 80th Birthday Honours List.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Jane Harris – "The Observations"

Virtually every book one picks up in the bookshop nowadays had a cover which claims it to be an international best-seller or the winner of some prize or other. No such claims were made on the cover of ‘The Observations’ but it earns the Edwards Prize for the Most Original Work of Fiction, 2007. Not since I read “The Time Traveller’s Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger (2005) have I found a book with such originality. This is a superb account of the life of a less than ordinary maid in a less than ordinary Scottish household. Even five sixth’s of the way through I was still unsure whether I was reading a murder story, a ghost story, or simply the tale of a Victorian maid caught up in unusual circumstances. I shan’t tell you which it turns out to be... The writing style is very believable and the setting – Scotland 1863 – really lives.

“So there I was with two pens, my two titties, Charles Dickens, two slices of bread and a blank book at the end of my first day in the middle of nowhere. Except as it turned out it wasn't quite the end ...” . In an attempt to escape her not-so-innocent past in Glasgow, Bessy Buckley - the wide-eyed Irish heroine of "The Observations" - takes a job as a maid in a big house outside Edinburgh working for the beautiful Arabella. Bessy is intrigued by her new employer, but puzzled by her increasingly strange requests and her insistence that Bessy keep a journal of her most intimate thoughts. And it seems that Arabella has a few secrets of her own - including her near-obsessive affection for Nora, a former maid who died in mysterious circumstances. Then, a childish prank has drastic consequences, which throw into jeopardy all that Bessy has come to hold dear. Caught up in a tangle of madness, ghosts, sex and lies, she remains devoted to Arabella. But who is really responsible for what happened to her predecessor Nora? As her past threatens to catch up with her and complicate matters even further, Bessy begins to realise that she has not quite landed on her feet.

JANE HARRIS was born in Belfast and brought up in Glasgow. Following university she trained as an actress and acquired an equity card by touring the alternative cabaret circuit with all-female acapella/comedy team ‘The Gumdrops’. Subsequently, she worked as a singer and then, realising she didn’t want to be an actress, left Britain for France and Portugal where she worked variously as a dishwasher, a waitress, a chambermaid and, finally, a teacher of English as a Foreign Language.

It was while she was in Portugal that she began writing short stories. These have since been published in a variety of literary magazines and anthologies. Her story ‘Those Nails’ was runner-up in the Penguin/Observer Newspaper Short Story competition in 1993 and she received an Arts Council Writer’s Award in 2000. From 1992-1994 she was Writer-in-Residence at HM Prison Durham.

She has also written a number of award-winning short films, two of which - Going Down (2001) and Bait (2000) - were nominated for BAFTAs. Going Down also won the prize for best short film at both the BBC British Short Film Festival and The Angers Film Festival and came second in the Turner Classic Movie Awards. Another short, Bubbles (1999) won awards for Best Film, Best Script and Best Story at the Italian TRINI Festival and was Best Short at the Leicester Film Festival. In 1999, Jane was shortlisted for the BBC’s Dennis Potter Award with her script Turning Back the Clocks.

The Observations is Jane Harris's first novel and is soon to be made into a film..

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Margaret George - "Helen of Troy"

It must be a busy time of year - I wonder why! I've only managed this one book in the last ten days. But what a book. A lush, seductive novel of the legendary beauty whose face "launched a thousand ships," from the bestselling author of Mary, Called Magdalene. A brilliant collection of the myths of Greece, the Gods, the heroes and the Trojan and Spartan ways of life all revolving around the beauty known as Helen of Troy. Whether Helen ever existed or not is questionable. Similarly Menelaus, Agamemnon, Achilles and Paris have no evidential corroboration. But none of that matters once you get involved in Margaret George's novel. They all live in these 750 excellent pages.

MARGARET GEORGE was born in Nashville Tennessee. When not continuing research for her novels in such places as Egypt, Rome, Israel and England she lives with her husband in Madison, Wisconsin. She is the author of the bestselling novels The Autobiography of Henry VIII, Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles and The Memoirs of Cleopatra

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Juliet Marillier – “Wolfskin"

Continuing my need for some simple escapist literature I have just borrowed this from the library.

Growing up on a prosperous farm in Viking Norway, young Eyvind longs for the day when he can join Jarl Magnus's elite warrior group, the Wolfskins. Set in Norway and the Orkneys at a time when historical records were not written down, this heroic fantasy is full of adventure, rivalry, loyalty, love and death. A fine view of Orkney, the Viking way of life (and death) with a touch of Norse Gods, all set in an exciting tale of war and settlement. This will not be the last Marillier novel I read!

This book, written in 2003, is the first in a trilogy “Children of the Light Isles” of which part two – “Foxmask” was published in 2004. A previous trilogy “Sevenwaters” ( Daughter of the Forest (2000); Son of the Shadows (2001) and . Child of the Prophecy (2002)) had already won Juliet Marillier international acclaim. It is a historical fantasy set in ninth century Ireland.

JULIET MARILLIER was born in New Zealand and brought up in Dunedin, the 'Edinburgh of the South'. She has a passionate interest in Celtic music and Irish folklore. A mother of two daughters and two sons, she lives in a rural area outside Perth in Western Australia.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Ross Leckie - "Scipio"

A sequel, of sorts, to ‘Hannibal’ and a precursor to ‘Carthage’. As you will have gathered I’m going through a Latin / Ancient Rome phase at the moment and this book fits in nicely with that mood. A tale of the aristocrat, General, politician and aesthete Scipio Africanus. It gives the military perspective to the Rome of Robert Harris’s ‘ Imperium’ and ‘Pompeii’.

For the first time since I started using it a couple of years ago Fantastic Fiction has let me down by not having Ross Leckie on its pages. He definitely deserves to be there.

ROSS LECKIE - Since reading Classics at Oxford, Ross Leckie has worked variously as a farm labourer, roughneck, schoolmaster, and insurance broker. He is now a full time writer living in Edinburgh. Scipio is his fifth published book and follows on from his highly-acclaimed Hannibal which has been translated into half a dozen languages. He is currently working on the final instalment of the trilogy, Carthage.

Robert Harris - "Archangel"

I haven’t blogged within the six promised days because I’ve just read two more Robert Harris books – ‘Fatherland’ and ‘Archangel’ – before moving on to a new author. Both thrillers, they cover in the first case a Europe that might have been with Hitler in charge in 1964 and in the second case a resurrected son of Stalin.

It is worthy of note that as well as being a good thriller ‘Archangel’ shows a worrying side to the continuing Russian hero worship of Stalin. Many of us fail to realise just how brutal and genocidal he was – certainly as bad as Hitler and indeed, if Harris is anything to go by, a bigger villain than the German, especially since his terrible deeds appear largely to have been forgotten.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Robert Harris - "Pompeii"

Robert Harris - "Pompeii"; Random House, 2003 ISBN: 0099282615

I suppose it is appropriate that my first post on this blog should be a work which goes back in time. This historical thriller takes place in August of the year 79AD just as Vesuvius is about to give the Bay of Naples a wake up call.

"All along the Mediterranean coast, the Roman empire's richest citizens are relaxing in their luxurious villas, enjoying the last days of summer. The world's largest navy lies peacefully at anchor in Misenum. The tourists are spending their money in the seaside resorts of Baiae, Herculaneum, and Pompeii.

But the carefree lifestyle and gorgeous weather belie an impending cataclysm, and only one man is worried. The young engineer Marcus Attilius Primus has just taken charge of the Aqua Augusta, the enormous aqueduct that brings fresh water to a quarter of a million people in nine towns around the Bay of Naples. His predecessor has disappeared. Springs are failing for the first time in generations. And now there is a crisis on the Augusta's sixty-mile main line -- somewhere to the north of Pompeii, on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius.

Attilius -- decent, practical, and incorruptible -- promises Pliny, the famous scholar who commands the navy, that he can repair the aqueduct before the reservoir runs dry. His plan is to travel to Pompeii and put together an expedition, then head out to the place where he believes the fault lies. But Pompeii proves to be a corrupt and violent town, and Attilius soon discovers that there are powerful forces at work -- both natural and man-made -- threatening to destroy him." (Random House)

Brilliantly researched (and I use the term brilliantly advisedly) this was the first book by Robert Harris that I had come across. It is elegantly written but in now way talks down to the reader. Even without the historical education that it gives it is worth reading as a thriller alone.

I promptly dashed off the library and am now half way through Harris's "Imperium" (2006), a life of Cicero.

For a summary of the unexpected nature of the Pompeii disaster go to
but not before reading "Pompeii" first.

You can buy the softback version for a mere £3.50

ROBERT HARRIS is also the author of Enigma (1995), Fatherland (1992), Archangel (1998) and The Ghost (2007). He has been a television correspondent with the BBC and a newspaper columnist for the London Sunday Times. His novels have sold more than six million copies and been translated into thirty languages. He lives in Berkshire, England, with his wife and three children.

{It should be noted that Hannibal is by a different Harris -- Thomas Harris and the Hannibal concerned is Hannibal Lecter the character in The Silence of the Lambs.)


Poetry was described by Samuel Taylor Coleridge as the best words in the best order. Whilst I appreciate the thinking behind the sentiment and am also appreciative of much poetry I would hesitate to believe poetry was any better than prose. Any good literature is surely by definition the best words in the best order.

But in these reviews I have made no attempt to stick to good literature (however that may be defined) I’ve also included some pretty awful words that have been poorly ordered. The only qualification a book requires to make it to this Blog is that I must have read it. The view on how ‘good’ it is can only ever be subjective so that is what the reviews are. And even one person’s subjective view will change from day to day. Books I read in my teens may no longer appeal. By contrast my early attempts at Dickens (Ugh!) bear no relation to my recent enjoyment of his works. Even day to day moods affect one’s view. If I’m not in the mood for a light-hearted Ellis Peters story it becomes ‘samey’ and ‘boring’. If I am the mood it is a harmless and fun way of relaxing for an hour or so.

There is no attempt to place these reviews in any order. The first one just happens to be the work I most recently read. Others may be reviewed as and when they come to mind. I reckon that on average since I was about 4 years old I have read two books a week (both fiction and non-fiction) which means I have about 5,400 books to catch up on though if one takes out duplicates I suppose one could round it down to about 5,000. (In fact some like ‘Lord of the Rings’, the early Discworld ones and the Stephen Donaldson ‘Thomas Covenant’ stories have been read at least three times!) If I live to be as old as my parents and grandmother and kept my sight and wits I’ll add another 3,000.

It would be fun to pick my Top Ten or Top Hundred but at this stage I cannot imagine so doing. Nevertheless, odd lists and quotes and jottings will be included in these Blogs in the hope of making this something more than just a set of reviews.

Enough now of introducing the task. It’s time to get on with it....