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Federhirn (Cardiff, UK)

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Burial Rites
Burial Rites
Price: 3.14

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hard, cold, and beautiful, 5 May 2014
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This review is from: Burial Rites (Kindle Edition)
Burial Rites is the story of a condemned woman, spending a few months living on a farm in Northern Iceland while the local officials await final confirmation of her death sentence.

It does not sound like the sort of book I'd usually read, but somehow, the blurb got me. The subject matter is inherently dramatic in just the ways that movies about condemned people aren't. I have never felt empathy with movie characters waiting for executions, but this book got me close to weeping. Books are simply better at this: you spend more time with the characters, you spend time in their heads, you project your own imagination onto them, and that makes them a part of you, so you somehow have a share in their fate.

It's a very fast read. At the start, it's easy to like some characters (Agnes, because we get first person narrated scenes with her, and the novice priest, and the awkward but honest sister), and to dislike some others (the gossip, the district commissioner, the prettier, socially less awkward but more judgemental sister). As the story progresses, Agnes gains in complexity - and so do some of the other characters. (Not all of them: but enough of them to make the book worthwhile).

The book evokes 19th century Iceland, and life in rural isolation, very well. It has seasons, and claustrophobia, and a real sense of a tiny island nation.

It's an engrossing book, written in atmospheric and rich prose. When we are in Agnes' head (her scenes are written in first person), we encounter a poetic mind, describing the world and events and thoughts deftly and richly. Those who are wont to cry "purple prose" at the slightest provocation might need to be a little wary, but for me, the prose seemed beautiful.

All in all, it's a beautiful, very well-written novel. Engrossing, emotionally exhausting, atmospheric, and for the very biggest part, authentic and believable. I wouldn't recommend it for light, fun reading, but if you're in the mood for something hard, cold, and beautiful, then this novel is definitely worth a read.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society
The Rabbit Back Literature Society
Price: 4.19

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars All the ingredients for a good novel were there - but it all went terribly wrong, 5 May 2014
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The Rabbit Back Literature Society is a book that starts out promising... and then fizzles, gets lost, and dies.

The set-up is promising: a writer of mythology-inspired books (mostly read by children) started a small creative writing group for talented kids, a generation ago. She recruited nine children, all of whom have become successful authors in adulthood. Now, decades later, a young substitute teacher / literature research student (our protagonist) finds herself invited to join the mysterious society as the tenth member.

Oh, and there is a strange plague affecting books in the library: the texts and plots change inside the books.

Soon after joining the society (which includes a pivotal moment of mystery), our protagonist learns of 'the nosferatu game', wherein the writers sneak up on each other at night, and challenge each other, and then have to tell the whole, unvarnished truth about whatever they are asked. They then get to switch around and interview their challenger. As reader, we get to hear everything the other writers say, but our protagonist's statements are left out entirely.

Once she's in the society, the novel quickly loses any kind of momentum and mystification: it mostly consists of interviews via the above-mentioned Game, and dream sequences. The interviews are basically giant infodumps, each character narrating some events and memories.

The reading experience changes during the story: at the start, there are witty, quirky observations, and the sort of clever things a young person might think / say and be very pleased with. There is a bit of mystery around the book plague, and quirky mythical magicalness. But that gets lost, as the focus shifts entirely, and then the plot pursues the new focus in a meandering, half-bored way. By the end of the book, I found myself struggling to keep reading, and when I reached a series of chapters bundled together as "Epilogue", I was surprised: the story had not ended, and the final chapters were no epilogue, but simply final chapters. Many things never get resolved, and the constant dream-scenes and quite boring expositionary infodumps make the book a painful, boring read.

It starts out reading like the work of a talented writing student (all the characters are writers and aspiring writers and literature students), and ends up reading like something that never knew where it was going and got finished off by a writer terribly bored with their own work.

All in all, I'd give this one a miss.

Fire (Graceling Book 2)
Fire (Graceling Book 2)
Price: 4.99

2.0 out of 5 stars Morally bankrupt and misogynistic, 26 April 2014
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Fire is a 'companion novel' to Graceling - not a sequel, a bit like a prequel only not-really, as only one character appears in both.

Graceling, by the way, is an enjoyable romp of a novel, which I would recommend.

So, to recap: Graceling is a novel set in kingdoms where some people have superpowers. In that novel, our heroine is a beautiful super-killer who, having been forced against her will to be her king's Enforcer, forms a secret Council of do-gooders doing rescue missions, and getting involved in a love triangle.

All of which has very little bearing on Fire, except that the main villain from Graceling also appears in Fire. In this novel, the prologue tells the tale of his birth / toddlerhood / early childhood, and we meet him as a boy (fairly far into the novel), in a completely different region, called the Dells.

In the Dells, there are no Gracelings. Instead there are monsters - animals, and, very rarely, humans - who are visually different from the others of their species, and who are fiercer (if animals) or so stunningly beautiful that they rob people of their minds (if human), and empowered with hypnotic superpowers (monster animals fascinate their prey, monster humans can all-out mind control people, even remotely).

Fire, our heroine, is so beautiful that her beauty takes her own breath away when she looks in a mirror. She's not at peace with her monstrous nature (just as the heroine in Graceling was not at peace with being a super killer), and lo and behold, there is a love triangle / quadrangle / web.

So, similarities: female heroines, love triangles, superpowers with a large dose of self-loathing, and heroines who have to learn to accept themselves (and to trust the male love interest despite some obstacle).

Unfortunately, Fire is a much less accomplished novel and beset by deeply unpleasant moral bankruptcy. No, I don't mean the casual-sex, no-committed-relationships, everyone-sleeps-around stuff that some reviewers object to. Fire is a war-worshipping, soldiers-are-heroes, the-ends-justify-the-means novel, advocating murder, mind-rape and pre-emptive wars as tools the 'good guys' should and do use.

Graceling is the tale of a human killing machine wanting to move away from killing and doing good / rescuing people. Fire is the tale of a human mind control machine joining a war effort by becoming an interrogator (violating the minds of hundreds of people against their wills), then partaking in a plot to entrap a group of characters in order to interrogate and assassinate them so that the 'good guys' can strike pre-emptively and start a war. Once the war is under way, her role switches between being a damsel in distress and parading about medical stations, where much of her work consists of shaking her hair loose and letting herself be more alluring so everyone can get numbed by how attractive she is...

There's a lot that's deeply disturbing about the novel. Our heroine gets touched up against her will, beaten when she frustrates men's desires, nearly raped, and that's all because she is so magically irresistible, so the story makes her forgive and forget and even declare her (sibling-like) love for one of her most persistent assaulters / pursuers. Men just can't help themselves, can they, and it's perfectly forgiveable for them to touch up women or hit them if they don't agree to a man's desires? Really?

The love interest is a man who, when initially meeting her, threatens to kill her, throws her against a wall and nearly strangles her. But she has to earn his trust (by nearly dying for him) and learn to trust him, and all will be lovey-dovey, yes?

It's a novel so misogynistic it makes me shudder.

There are other things that make this a less-than-pleasant reading experience. All the wallowing in self-pity, all the whining of our heroine. (Of course, it's her monstrous nature that's to blame for all the abuse she suffers, and not moral weakness in the people around her). Oh, how hard her life is, being desired and having the power to control minds. She spends most of the novel injured - getting shot with an arrow at the start (allegedly not for the first time), then mauled, then frostbitten... the writer seems to think she is a kick-ass, strong heroine, but that's just how she's described. Mostly, she gets herself injured and then rescued, followed by lengthy periods of wallowing & needing to heal (while the male heroes go from battle to battle with rarely more than a bruise to show for it, over which our heroine of course fawns).

All in all, not a novel I would recommend, even to fans of Graceling. It might be nominally set on the same planet, but it is really a different world with different rules, and a completely different feel (despite the similarities in themes). It's morally bankrupt to a point where it actually made me angry, and quite misogynistic in the ways our heroine is treated & accepts her treatment & learns to love her abusers. Also, the pace is a lot slower than Graceling's, and the novel feels a lot more boring in comparison.

The Hen Who Dreamed she Could Fly
The Hen Who Dreamed she Could Fly
Price: 5.31

3.0 out of 5 stars A cute parable about migrants, 4 Mar 2014
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Sprout, a battery hen, dreams of a better life, and a chance to have a family, outside her oppressive home. Looking through the door whenever it is briefly open, she years to live with the yard animals: it looks so promising.

The Hen Who Dreamed she Could Fly is a nice enough parable. Is Sprout a metaphor for a migrant, the dog the border agency, the rooster & hen a government, the other barn / reservoir animals foreign nations' citizens & groups? It certainly seems like a strong possibility.

The story is readable and very short. For me, the animals are over-anthropomorphised: beaks don't smile or frown, I'm not convinced birds shed tears, etc. etc. - every character has animal behaviours and human behaviours in a weird balance. (Perhaps comparable to Fantastic Mr Fox, the movie). I found this kept distracting me - but then, I can have a fairly literal mind at times.

The title is also a bit misleading - it's not really about a hen who dreamed she could fly, but about a hen who dreamed of freedom and motherhood, and a better life. It's a tale of not belonging, and of family, and the permanent outsiderhood / marginalisation of people who migrate from one place to another, and about xenophobia, too.

The reading experience is nice and pretty, but easily forgettable.

by Margaret Elphinstone
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Richly detailed, engrossing, but mellow, 1 Feb 2014
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This review is from: Voyageurs (Paperback)
Voyageurs is a novel about a Quaker from a community in North England who travels to Canada to search for his missing sister, around the time when the US and Britain / Canada were just about to go to war.

Quakers are well-known for pacifism (and, these days, for tolerance / being a religion that champions equality). But at the time that this book is set, they were also very insular, holding their own cult apart from the wider world. Hedonism and joy are seen as frivolous (as is literature and song!), so quiet appreciation rather than exuberance is valued. They are portrayed as people who take themselves - and moral reflection - very seriously.

It's a slow novel, enjoyable because it puts the reader in a different time, place and culture. Multiple cultures, really: our narrator is a Quaker, but he spends time with voyageurs (fur traders), natives and settlers. For most of the book, you don't really know whether the main mystery will be resolved - the odds seem insurmountable. So it's the conflict between a devout pacifist and the various societies readying themselves for war which drives much of the tension. And, of course, the difficulties our narrator has with his own nature (which is somewhat less peace-loving and more capable of lust & outbursts than he would like).

It's a book with lots of description, quite a few scenes where people sit around and tell each other their life stories (but then, what else would they do when they are stuck with each other for a long time?), and a story which includes the odd moment of shock - but not necessarily tension. Big events happen, but there is rarely build-up.

This all contributes to making it a slow and mellow read - I enjoyed it for its power of displacing me, and for a sense of a time and a world I had not really thought about very much. But it's definitely no thriller. It almost reads like a good novelisation of non-fiction events (i.e. similar to Nathaniel Philbrick's novels), even though it is pure fiction. That achievement is a testament to the attention to detail of the writer. I would recommend this book to any patient reader with an interest in historical fiction, Canada, and pioneers.

The Hairdresser of Harare
The Hairdresser of Harare
Price: 0.99

4.0 out of 5 stars This feels like a 'Richard and Judy Book Club' novel, 25 Dec 2013
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This feels like the sort of book that would be destined to be a Richard and Judy Book Club read (if that book club still existed). It's short, has easy flowing prose, and it's easy and unchallenging. It's got just enough culture shock to offer an interesting flavour and put the reader in a new place, but not enough to overwhelm or alienate anyone.

The story starts when our narrator, the best hairdresser in a stylist's in Harare unexpectedly gets competition for the crown when a male hairdresser is hired. Male stylists are totally unheard of, and he's much more talented than her, quickly relegating her to lower rank in the pecking order. Their relationship changes from being pure competitors to becoming people who use and rely on each other.

All plot developments are heralded well in advance and unsurprising to European / American readers, which helps the book retain a certain sweetness even when bad things happen. There's a major plot point which is fairly obvious from the first page, but still treated like a giant surprise revelation, which makes me think the reader was always supposed to know more than the book's narrator (it's all told through the eyes of the female hairdresser).

The story is quite casual about bad things - omnipresent sexual harrassment, deprivation, rape, racism, persecution, sexual abuse of children, thug squads, death squads - there's lots of grimness in these pages, but it's always safe, at arm's length, part of the story's scenery rather than its heart. It makes the story easy to digest while giving it some sense of authenticity.

For some light entertainment with an African / Zimbabwean flavour, I'd recommend this book.

A Different Kingdom
A Different Kingdom
by Paul Kearney
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Rich, complex and smart: this is how mythical lands should be treated, 13 Dec 2013
This review is from: A Different Kingdom (Hardcover)
A Different Kingdom is the tale of Michael Fay, an orphan boy growing up on a farm in Ireland. It's a time when rural life still feels eternally static, but is actually on the cusp of big changes. A farmer in his village buys the first tractor, and while horses are still the most popular beasts of burden and means of transport, there are cars, too...

But that is backdrop. Really, it is the story of a boy stumbling towards, into, and out of, an eternal, mythical forest. At first, Michael notices things in the woods around his farm, and by the river, things glimpsed only momentarily out of the corner of an eye. He's still a small boy then, and though he gets into trouble, that trouble mainly takes the form of a beating for ruining clothes while falling into mud.

The other place (and the creatures from that other place) initially have very strong competition for Michael's attention: his aunt Rose is a girl / young woman, a sensual, unabashed one, and even though he is very much a child, he is fascinated by her. It's only when Rose disappears from his life that the forest begins to claim him in earnest. And in the forest, there seem to be wolves...

The narrative is split: we read about Michael gradually moving towards the Different Kingdom, intercut with scenes of Michael as an older man, working his way back towards Ireland / home, from that different kingdom. And then we get his journey through the kingdom, intercut with a narrative of Michael's later life in London.

There are many books about characters who stumble into other worlds. Few treat the matter with as much seriousness (and thought) as A Different Kingdom. It's the sort of novel which could probably be marketed as `literary' or among the most ambitious of the fantasy genre. It's rich with themes like adolescence, first childhood sensuality, fascinations, and it treats the journey into another place as something with a real and lasting psychological impact. The prose is masterful, drifting into a rich mythical voice in the other world (and when its characters speak), but grounded in real Ireland (and later, London) when it needs to be. And the characters are complicated and believable.

It's a novel reminding me of Alan Garner's work (The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Owl Service), and of Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood - eminent classics. I do believe A Different Kingdom will take its place among those, and I could easily imagine it winning awards. It does not feel quite as self-conscious as Mythago Wood though: Different Kingdom is not a tale of scientists investigating myths, analysing myths, being absorbed by myths. It's a tale of a boy/man having an adventure with and through a mythical environment, which are simply treated with seriousness and respect.

Its richness does mean that it commands your attention, and its narrative structure is not optimised for thrills and pace. It's a gradual, immersive novel, but definitely not a thriller. (After all, you almost always know that Michael will survive, simply because of the way the story has been intercut from different timelines). It's also a novel with a protagonist who is not always impressive. Michael the orphan boy has our undivided attention and sympathy. Michael the teenager is a bit full of himself. Michael the quest obsessed man is stubborn, wilful, and not the most cheerful company. Michael, the tired Londoner is not the hero type. It's a novel where the gradual erosion of likeability of the protagonist works against the flow: it's uphill reading. It's definitely worth persevering with, but it's not simply a cheerful little piece of escapism. Perhaps because of its complexity and less than perfect hero, this novel feels real and authentic, despite its mythical beasts and lands.

Rich prose, thoughtful plotting and intelligent writing make this a worthwhile read, but also a bit of an acquired taste. I'd recommend it for fans of Alan Garner, Robert Holdstock and Jo Walton.

Airport Simulator (PC CD)
Airport Simulator (PC CD)
Offered by 4GamersUK
Price: 5.95

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars I'm an avowed aviation enthusiast, and yet this bored even me..., 24 Nov 2013
= Fun:1.0 out of 5 stars 
This review is from: Airport Simulator (PC CD) (CD-ROM)
This was an impulse buy. I thought Airport Simulator would be a business sim (like a Tycoon game), about building and expanding airports. Or maybe air traffic control. Or some other form of management.

Instead, this is a mindnumbingly bland simulator of the vehicles that drive to planes. Lorries, tractors, buses, vans. Each is incredibly slow, and, though you can flip them if you drive very badly, they magically end up the right way up after any crash. Not a racing game. Fine.

Each plane that arrives has to have various things happen to it - passenger bridges, stairs, buses, maintenance, fuel trucks, etc. At the start, every one of those vehicles has to be driven by the player. Accumulating money, you can buy autopilots for the vehicles. (Slow autopilots, then, later, faster ones).

Unfortunately, the simulation logic is rubbish. You have to drive a luggage trolley to the plane - there is a deadline for that. Then, another plane arrives. It needs a luggage vehicle, too. Now, there are dozens sitting around the airport, but you can only control the one. So you have to drive it to the other plane, to avoid incurring a penalty. It is, however, not finished at the first plane, but there is no penalty for that. Similarly, you need stairs and a bus at each plane (even though they all connect to the gate via bridges). But the stairs can drive to the next plane, and yet the buses can fill and empty without stairs. Basically, the logistics and processes are broken. Given that the game, with its uber-slow gameplay, could only ever appeal to the most nerdy of anoraks (and yes, as planespotter, I am nerdy), it is jarring that it gets so many aspects wrong.

It is also surprisingly slow in terms of its graphics, lagging and lumbering along. Several hours of playing the game, and only one plane has ever departed my little airport, while the slow pace of driving one cumbersome vehicle after another to planes and parking spots and terminals is slowly driving even this most devoted of airport enthusiasts insane. (Yet, I keep playing, because I like airports).

I guess this game is the perfect gift for any anorak-y aviation enthusiasts you really dislike, as it's basically a form of torture which they will inflict upon themselves, and probably, stubbornly persist with for quite some time, in spite of its arduousness...

Pacala and Tandala, and other Rumanian folk-tales
Pacala and Tandala, and other Rumanian folk-tales
by Jean Neville Ure
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Cheeky folk tales, 24 Nov 2013
Some of the folk tales here are basically long jokes. Almost all of the others are about wily characters and people outsmarting and outwitting their obstacles. The titular heroes, Pacala and Tandala, appear in several of the tales, and they are both wily farmers / con artists. They become lifelong friends while trying to con each other, and there is a good-natured camaraderie (which does not stop them from trying to cheat each other again and again) - it's a uniquely chummy relationship, much more complex than archetypal folk tale characters usually get to experience.

If you like your folk tales to have a comic slant, and shedloads of admiration for pranksters and jesters and occasional con men, then this is the book for you.

Not much noble strife and moral guidance, but an ode to cheek and smarts.

The Thief of Broken Toys
The Thief of Broken Toys
by Tim Lebbon
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.84

4.0 out of 5 stars Autumnal, atmospheric, gothic and quite beautiful, 24 Oct 2013
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The Thief of Broken Toys is not really a horror novel. It is a short magical-realist / semi-mythical story, longer than a novella, but quite compact for a novel. It's a tale about bereavement and melancholy, about depression, and about life in a small fishing village near the edge of a cliff. It is incredibly atmospheric, beautifully written, elegant, and rich. A father whose son has died surprisingly, and whose wife has left him, is meandering through his despair when he meets and old man - a stranger - who has an interest in fixing broken toys.

The book builds atmosphere without being too worried about forcing the plot along - a story about loss kind of probably has to march in the stately pace of a funerary procession.

There are things which some readers might find uncomfortable - second person narration sections, and descriptions that feel a bit like stage / camera directions moving our view across the scenes. Omniscient narrators are rarer than they used to be. Strangely, it all works, and works well.

All in all, this compact novel is rather good and well worth a (melancholy, autumnal) read.

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