glenatron: (Emo Zorro)
I haven't written one of these in a while, but this is an important book so I'll share my opinions of it here as well:

One of the problems with most of the great horse trainers and clinicians is that although they are brilliant at working with horses or explaining what is happening with the horse in front of them, they are not always as good at teaching humans as they are at teaching horses and - at the next layer of remove - the number of definitive books on horsemanship can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Ross Jacobs is a clinician, a trainer and a writer and in all of those settings he stands out for his excellent communication skills, with people as well as horses.

In this book, Ross sets out to explore what lies at the very heart of horsemanship. Unlike many books in the field, it isn't tied to any particular discipline or style of riding but instead seeks to draw out what lies in common across disciplines and of course at the heart of them all is the horse. There are many books on how to train horses to peak fitness, how to improve your performance over fences or in the dressage arena but none of them really go into any depth on how to work with a horse's mind although that is usually the single most powerful governing factor in both the performance of the horse and the relationship between horse and rider. The Essence Of Good Horsemanship fills that gap.

The book explores three central pillars of working with the horse - Focus, Clarity and Softness and considers how to develop all three and how each one affects the other two. It is broken up into short chapters, each separating out an important idea and exploring it in detail. The writing is clear and easy to follow, combining expertise, personal experience and scientific evidence to shine light on topics that are traditionally difficult to grasp but become accessible through Ross' writing.
glenatron: (Iris)
I had a big creative plan for this year, but most of my plans for the year have in fact not worked out because I am a horrendously lazy man.

However a conversation on Twitter with Juliet E McKenna ( [livejournal.com profile] jemck ) about representation of female authors on the genre shelves of bookshops got me looking at the ratio of male to female authors in that section of my local Waterstones and then deciding that this year I would only buy new fiction from female authors.

If I am honest, I don't always buy a lot of new books in any case, so this wasn't a big challenge for me, but this year I have bought way more new fiction than I have in a good few years so I thought I'd mention some of the books and authors that I read in case any of you might enjoy them too.

The Lescari Revolution - Juliet E McKenna
I have read quite a lot of Juliet McKenna's books and always enjoyed them but this series, in which a team of characters set about instigating a revolution to overthrow the warring feudal barons whose actions have devastated their country is the best so far. An exciting mix of action and politics taking place in a well realised world ( that has been the setting for a lot of other novels, which you don't have to have read, but if you have this will build up some familiar characters ) the thing which really impressed me was that intensity that these books created- the pressure picks up in the first quarter of the first book and it simply doesn't let off until the very end of the trilogy. Three books at maximum intensity. An impressively unputdownable achievement.

Ancillary Justice - Anne Leckie
This is one that you have probably heard of, albeit largely for the genderless society it describes ( everyone is simply termed 'she' ) rather than the storyline. I do enjoy a bit of space opera and this was very good but something about it didn't quite blow me away and I'm not entirely sure what. However I do remember at the time that it reminded me somewhat of something between Iain M Banks and Ursula Le Guin's sci fi, which is not a bad place to be. I certainly plan to pick up the other books in the series in future.

Song Of The Earth/Trinity Rising - Elspeth Cooper
I enjoyed Song Of The Earth- the story about the young man raised by templars then condemned as a witch and his adventures and escape was a little bit familiar in places, but well executed and brisk reading. However when I got the next in the series, Trinity Rising, we started to learn more about the world and meet characters in different regions- the northern barbarian clans with scottish names, the fiery fanatics of the southern desert and the long-lived and magically inclined elfin folk of the forest - and I suddenly realised I was on main street of lazyworldbuildingville. Not to mention the "evil just because" antagonist. Now I acknowledge that sometimes the way you pick up existing ideas and reshape them is an important skill in its own right, but I just didn't feel that happening with this series. Interestingly [livejournal.com profile] herecirm picked up the first one and gave up very quickly.

God's War - Kameron Hurley
So at the other extreme we have a novel set on a planet where two sides are fighting an endless war in the name of religion in which women go out to fight and the core technology is based on insects controlled by magicians. This was an utterly, strikingly, original setting. Absolutely ideal, right? Well... the problem I had was that I couldn't find a character to hook onto. I loved the setting and the style and the imagination, but the main character was so busy being a relentless hardbitten bad-ass that I simply couldn't get any kind of handle on her. The other characters also lacked whatever quality it is that brings me to engage with them, possibly along with the fact that it was hard to believe any of them were going to survive for long. So there were lots of things that I really liked, but the story didn't draw me in. It wasn't quite an "awful things happen to awful people" narrative, but it certainly leant that way.

Tea With The Black Dragon - R A Mackavoy
This is an old book, set in the early 1980s and dealing with silicon valley as it was then, which makes it something of a period piece by now. In essence it is a short, beautifully constructed, character study with a background thriller and a little bit of magic as well. I enjoyed it and I think quite a few people reading this would, but I can imagine it may not be for everyone.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms - N K Jemisin
This book was interesting and different- the setting is a world-spanning empire controlled by a royal house who took their power from imprisoned gods and most of the story takes place in their palace hanging high above the capital city of the kingdoms as an outsider princess finds herself drawn into the dangerous machinations of the royal house. The world was a little hard to get a handle on but it was worth the effort. It managed to pull a couple of totally unexpected but absolutely coherent twists on me, which is relatively hard to do and something I delight in. As a standalone book it is a little on the short side, but I believe a omnibus of all three books in the trilogy is available and that would be a worthwhile acquisition.

I did suffer a bit of a reading hiatus in the summer, partly because I had to do some technical reading to get up to speed on stuff for my new job ( the best parts of which were Eloquent Ruby and The Design Of Everyday Things ) and partly because I ordered a bunch of books from my local Waterstones who proceeded to take nearly three months not to get them in - this is the only major highstreet book shop left in the country and in three months they couldn't get a couple of books in to order. When I left the job I cancelled the order and bought them through Amazon instead. They arrived within the week.

Range Of Ghosts - Elizabeth Bear
This is the first book of a series in a setting based around central Asian mythology and it is flipping awesome. I have always enjoyed fantasy that steps away from the standard northern European forms, something I was strongly reminded of when I read Saladin Ahmed's excellent Throne Of The Crescent Moon last year. This is the story of the grandson of the great khan and begins directly after a major defeat in a war of succession which he only just survived. It has Rocs and wizards and a giant tiger lady and armies of ghosts and - as one might expect from a Mongolian setting - some excellent horses. I'm certainly going to buy the sequels to this one and I'm already looking forward to reading them. Strongly recommended.

Cold Magic - Kate Elliott
I just finished this one and so maybe it is super-fresh in my mind but it has so many of the things I want to read about going on that it's crazy. We're in a 19th Century Europe where the last ice age persisted, magic works and things are culturally very different. There is radicalism and technological progress in the air, but the ruling princes and cold-mage houses are seeking to maintain the status quo. You'll notice that I've gone almost as long as some of my other mini-reviews just describing the setting, and that's before I've got to the characters and the way they develop and the trouble they get into and the things they learn and the way that every time a question is answered two more questions are raised and the way it's fun and sophisticated but also maintains a sense of humour and probably it's going to be quicker if you just get the book. Also I edited out a whole lot more where I realised I was just explaining the history of the setting because it's so great. Recommended to the highest degree.

So that was my year's reading and I have enjoyed reading a lot of books that I might not otherwise have gone to the effort of seeking out. There are certainly writers here who I am going to look for other books by. I think the main thing that this year has reminded me of is little to do with gender and a lot to do with the sheer amount of good genre fiction that is being published at the moment. I have also found Twitter to be a very good way of keeping up with authors and of finding interesting recommendations- I will tend to pay more attention to the recommendations of a writer whose work I admire and through the last year I have found a whole more of those, which counts as a good thing.
glenatron: (Emo Zorro)
Inspired by [livejournal.com profile] wldhrsjen3's reading challenges over the last few years, I'd like to try something similar. But I'm going to need you all to help for this one.

Basically, you're all interesting, smart, literate people and so the idea I have is that I'd like to have one book per month recommended by you guys.

If I get twelve interesting recommendations for books I haven't read already, I'll try to get hold of and read one every month then report back on how I liked it or otherwise.

I read a lot of fantasy, some sci-fi, a bit of travel literature, sometimes something literaturey, particularly if it intersects with one of the others. I've read very few classics but that doesn't mean I wouldn't enjoy them if I did read them. In the last couple of years I have really enjoyed books including The Raw Shark Texts, Anathem, The Wizard Knight, The Lions Of Al Rassan, Illium/Olympos, A Horse's Thought, The Fabric Of Sin and The Name Of The Wind which may give a general guide to the kinds of thing I quite like.

Things that make me angry with books include vampires ( they have never been anything but dull, if one vampire book was to exist Fevre Dream is it, no more needed or wanted ) badly built worlds that don't make sense, predictable "twists" that aren't actually twists at all and glacial slowness- Gormenghast is one of the few books I ever gave up on.

So, if you're inclined to play along, why not suggest me a book and if it looks like I might vaguely enjoy it, I'll add it to the list.

Happy New Year, one and all!
glenatron: (Emo Zorro)
I've just finished reading The Wizard Knight by Gene Wolfe. What a truly extraordinary book. It's a proper, deeply old-school high fantasy. It has knights with pennants on their lances when they joust and giants and dragons and magic swords and castles. It takes cues from the high arthurian stories and from norse mythology and all the roots of most standard fantasy fiction and yet somehow through sheer deftness and storytelling it somehow sneaks between the predictable events and avoids the cliches even as it uses them.

It is rooted in the same legends that Tolkien was inspired by, but the story itself is of a different kind, revolving more around the notions of knightly conduct and how people can relate to each other, maybe closer to a medieval romance in that respect, tapestried and bright with the glare of sunshine on burnished armour. However it is not caught in that time, the storytelling is modern, but modern without ever drawing too far from the setting or being distracting to the reader. The development of the central character changes as he grows through his adventures and their writing does too.

I mostly bought it because I know Neil Gaiman is a big fan of his work and I can really see why. This is a grand story of honour, glory and adventure. It doesn't read like it's trying to be anything that it's not- you could write a book of this kind and people would read it and think "this is trying to be T.H.White" or Tolkien or whoever else - this book reads like it is it's own thing and it is clearly a classic, from start to finish. It belongs to a canon broader and more illustrious than the fantasy genre, alongside Mallory and Grimm as much as Martin and Le Guin and I recommend it strongly. Reaching the last pages made me sad because I didn't want it to end.

Also it really freaked me out by starting with the line "Ben, look at this first."
glenatron: (Emo Zorro)
For those of you who enjoy the reading of books I shall append my recommendation to that of the very reliable [livejournal.com profile] shiva_matimbres and strongly suggest that if you have not already done so you obtain a copy of The Raw Shark Texts. It is very good indeed.

I don't even really have a reference point for it- maybe a bit House Of Leaves ( but less reliant on textual tricks ) just a hint of Neverwhere's fascination with the forgotten corners of urban life and a whole lot of ideas that are quite unique in my experience. It manages to walk the very fine line between being clever, telling a compelling story and still packing a powerful emotional kick. I'm still theorising about what actually happened at the end, not because it's not clear, but because there are so many layers to it.
glenatron: (Default)
I'm always happy to pick up an arthurian retelling and among a box of books from my mum ( a mixture of returns to the library at our house and loans from the library at theirs ) I found Here Lies Arthur by Phillip Reeve. It's a very clever low Arthurian story, set in post-roman britain and centred around a young girl who is rescued by Myrddin and then goes on to be part of the world around which the myths grew. It is full of very terse storytelling - each word is carefully chosen to fit the story and carry it onwards and the cast is edited down to the bare essentials, so the number of named characters is kept very low. The whole thing is a textbook example of how to write for it's target audience ( which is probably early teens ) in an economical and effective way.

What I found interesting about it, more than anything else, was what it said about the present and our wider culture. In this story, Arthur is a brutal bully ( which is probably quite accurate for a 6th Century war leader ) and Myrddin is his brilliant myth-making spin doctor. What it teaches us is that anyone who wants to lead is unfit to do so, and that to be a leader is to be self-serving, cynical and willing to do anything to achieve your own goals.

This is what our leaders have taught us, over the last ten years or so - with Bush, Blair, Brown and surely many others that you will be able to think of, we have seen that our political leaders say one thing for the cameras and do something else when they think nobody is looking. We have seen the greed, the cynicism, the vested interests, naked ambition and the cruelty they are willing to inflict to get their way and we have learned from it. This, they have said to us, is what a leader is.

The more I have learned about horses the more I have seen how wrong that is. Because a horse needs to be lead, when they feel they are in charge they get anxious and potentially unpredictable. As far as they are concerned, they are responsible for the good of the herd- maybe they see their human as part of that herd, probably they don't, but they believe that if a lion leaps out of that hedgerow or a pack of wolves come rushing through the trees, they will have to look out for themselves. What they need us to do when we work with them is to show that we can be a reliable leader, that by listening to what we ask we can keep them safe. And this is a totally different way of thinking about leadership, it's leadership through accepting responsibility rather than leadership through taking charge. Sometimes you need firmness, certainly you need consistency and boundaries to establish and maintain that leadership, but you're showing those things not as a way of disempowering the horse, but as a way of reassuring them that the rules you have established still apply. Everything is still alright. It is a relationship where the leader gives back more than they take.

This is part of one of the core themes of the Arthurian cycle in some retellings, the notion of the connection between the king and the land- when the king is sick, the land sickens with him. The king is a part of everything and ( quite literally if you read Frazer ) sacrifices himself for his kingdom absolutely. The king who tries to impose the rule of law rather than might is right, the king who spends his life campaigning against vortigern's well established invaders and their destructive march westward, the leader who gives more than they take.

I wonder whether we have reached a turning point here, whether the arrival of a more aspirational president in the US will start to give people the idea that a leader can have something to offer them, rather than giving orders and making demands. These tides only turn slowly and storytelling often seems to lag behind the prevailing cultural trend, but I find myself hoping that a book like this written ten years from now might have a different view of what it means to be a leader. This isn't a bad book, by any measure, but the ideas reflected in it make me a little sad. It is certainly worth a read, but my recommended historical Arthur remains the one described in Sword At Sunset which is in a league of it's own.
glenatron: (zorro)
I just finished reading King Hereafter, Dorothy Dunnett's novel telling the story of the historical MacBeth ( there is no definitive evidence for his exact identity in any direction and her research was exceptional, so her candidate for the role of the king is as good as any ) and it was absolutely fascinating. I don't know whether it matches up to the sheer brilliance of her Niccolo and Lymond books, my reading was grabbed in spare moments so it wasn't quite so smooth going for me and I think it will probably deserve a second read, but she is always a class act and a book could fail to match up to those two series and still be in the top two percent of everything ever written as far as I'm concerned.

The attention to detail is as faultless as ever and the book is in part an exploration of the early days of the idea of Scotland and the challenge of forging of a single kingdom from the Viking islands, the gaelic west and the more English south. It also moves through the tumult of 11th century Europe as it makes the transition from the more tribal dark age to the feudal kingdoms of the middle ages. If you have explored the period at all you will find many familiar names and the politics of England, inextricably linked with those of Scotland, gave me a lot of perspective on the machinations that lead up to the Norman invasion, although the story ends in the late 1050s.

If you enjoy historical fiction or you're interested in this period of history I'd say this is necessary reading. Also if you interested in Scotland's past and identity you would find a lot to enjoy here ( and in Dorothy Dunnett's other work.) It's epic, full of drama and intrigue, and it brings a world long-since washed away on time's tide back to brutal, sparkling, thought-provoking life. Recommended.
glenatron: (Default)
Lucy Rees is a familiar name to some people thanks to The Horse's Mind, which is still one of the best books on Equine Psychology more than 20 years after it was first published.

The Maze isn't about horsemanship, although horsemanship happens in it, instead it's a very traditional travel book. Lucy and her partner buy a couple of horses headed for the meat market and set out to ride across Arizona with them, giving themselves the opportunity for a unique journey and the horses the chance to work out any problems they have and start a new life at the end of their adventure.

It is a beautifully written book, bright and colourful, the journey is both physical and spiritual and it tests every traveller hard in their own ways. More than any other travel book I have read it runs deep and wide, making the path through the maze of the title ( the ancient labyrinth found carved in Crete and Cornwall and in Hopi petroglyphs in Arizona among many other places ) into it's own heart and back out again, very much an inner journey but full of the idea that the wide open skies of that landscape and the joy of travelling across them on horseback make the deep-running division between us and the world around a little thinner.

I was expecting the horses to be very well written, but I was very impressed by how beautifully and honestly everything else was described the author very quick to describe her own failings and negativity when they arise and showing the beauty in simple things and the kindness and generosity of the people they meet.

I really enjoyed reading this and I certainly recommend it to anyone, horsey or otherwise. Like the journey it describes it covers some tough ground, but it is very rewarding.

I thought it was out of print, meaning a search around for it second hand, but it looks like the very brilliant Long Riders Guild are reprinting it as part of their mission to keep equestrian travel writing alive.
glenatron: (Default)
I just finished reading Juliet McKenna's Aldebreshin Compass quartet of books. Really good - some of the best alternate-world fantasy I've read, interesting setting, strong and well written characters and a storming narrative that rarely stopped for breath.

The aspect of them that really made them stand out for me compared with most fantasy writers was that although they were very much a sequence each one was a complete story in it's own right with a beginning, a middle and an end. There was none of this "book 1 suddenly ends and you have to wait until book 2 to find out what happens next" nonsense *cough*Joe Abercrombie*cough* - each one felt complete in it's own right. I wanted to know what happened next but they at least gave a bit of closure, which would make life a lot less annoying if I had been reading them as they came out and had to wait a year for the next in the series to be written.

This is encouraging as I'm sure I'll be reading more of her books in future. Really good stuff.
glenatron: (Default)
The other day my mum mentioned that Lloyd Alexander had died. His Chronicles Of Prydein ( which some of you may know only in it's watered down disnified form as The Black Cauldron ) are some of the most warm-hearted and funny books I have ever read. I go back to my increasingly worn down copies of them every few years, especially if I need cheering up and like all truly great childrens literature it is still just as easy for an adult to enjoy them and they have a depth and subtle thought-provoking quality that explores the real world without getting in the way of the story. I heartily recommend the whole series to anyone who has not read them.

When I found the obituary linked above I noticed that a nearby link was to an obituary for Pat O'Shea, author of The Hounds Of The Morrigan - another classic book that I loved when I was young, full of myth and magic and certainly one of the reasons that I am now so keen on writers like Mark Chadbourn, Tim Powers, Neil Gaiman and Robert Holdstock now.

Another writer who strongly influenced my reading in that direction was Susan Cooper, whose brilliant The Dark Is Rising sequence were built on a tantalising mix of myth, time travel and the modern world. From the first time I read them they absolutely fascinated me and I reread them time and again. Consequently, I'm slightly anxious about how the forthcoming film adaptation - can they really get it right? Are they going to make Will Stanton, from Buckinhamshire, American by any chance? Christopher Ecclestone as The Rider, yes I can see that, but Ian McShane as Merriman? Can we expect to see Tink and Eric ineptly assisting in the attempts to recover the signs of the light? Has some dodgy dealer swapped the Book of Gramarye for a ringbinder full of copies of heat?

I would love for the film to be made and for it to be great and they have a very solid writer and what looks like a pretty good cast generally, but somehow everything I have seen about it just makes me nervous.
glenatron: (Default)
So I've been reading a book by a bloke called Greg Palast. It's very interesting. He's an investigative reporter, investigating stuff and then reporting it. The book is called The Best Democracy Money Can Buy and it is genuinely shocking. I always thought I was fairly cynical about politicians and the people in power, but I was mistaken. Things are worse than I thought, by several orders of magnitude.

The world genuinely is being run by a malevolant cabal of the incredibly rich, everyone who matters has already been bought and those who wont play the game are attacked through every available method, some subtle and some less so. The globalisation stuff is deeply shocking, the deliberate destruction of country after country by the IMF/World Bank/World Trade Organisation combination and their incredibly stupid far right economic dogma (it may be good theory but if it has never been successful anywhere in the world maybe it's time to try something else?) which pretty much serves to channel money from the developing world into the US Federal reserve. It makes me angry.

The corporate connection things are very interesting too- there is a very good chance that money from your electricity bill went into Dubya's campaign kitty. Along with the money you spent on petrol and quite possibly your water rates. Doesn't it make you proud?

It struck me yesterday that maybe the reason that conspiracy theorists all seem to lean so far to the right is that if your political views incline towards the centre chances are you have provable facts.

There is one thing that we Britons can be proud of, though. In the BBC and the Guardian newspaper groups we have two of the only not-for-profit professional news organisations in the world. That means they can put news stories out without an owner intervening because they conflict with their commercial interests, unless they cover dossiers full of obvious lies anyways. Judging by the utterly cowed state of American journalism, that is a very good thing indeed.

It's a good book, I recommend reading it. I don't know what the solution is to the consequent despair.

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