The Ladies of Grace Adieu ~ Susanna Clarke

•May 13, 2011 • 2 Comments

What a rare treat this was! I’ll throw aside all pretense at impartiality here (heh… like I’m ever impartial about anything!) and say that I loved every page, every picture, every story!

So what’s it all about? Well The Ladies of Grace Adieu is a book of short stories, eight in all, which take place (to varying degrees) in the world Susanna Clarke created in her magnificent novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. An England in which magic exists (though it has largely been forgotten) and the fairy realms are real. So they are fairy tales in a every sense of the word: though not the tinkly, twinkly fairy tales that have been passed down to us through Victorian writers. These are big manly fairy tales! It’s fitting then that both Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and The Ladies of Grace Adieu take place before the Victorian Era, and one of the great gifts of Susanna Clarke as a writer is that she captures this period beautifully. She brings the Georgian Era to life like no other modern writer I’ve read, and behind all that is the ever present threat of shadows and snow, the distant beating of the raven’s wing. I love it!

It’s hard to choose a favourite story from the collection as each one I read stood out just as strongly as the one before. Clarke offers us a broad selection of tales, from The Ladies of Grace Adieu itself, which sees the return of the great Jonathan Strange, to The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse which sees the old duke having an run in of his own with the world of fairy, to Antickes and Frets which is a strange tale about Mary Queen of Scots and embroidery! If I had to go with one story that really made me smile though, I would plump for Mr Simonelli or The Fairy Widower which captures the magic of Clarke’s writing perfectly for me, the wit of Jane Austin mixed with a liberal dose of fairy cruelty!

My score? Five Stars!

More Chess Goodness – A lesson learned.

•May 12, 2011 • Leave a Comment

I learnt my first lesson today. Strangely not by reading a book, but by studying an opening I was playing. In a game on Chess.com I came up against The King’s Gambit (1. e4 e5 2. f4) which is something I’ve never played against before though I’m familiar with the basic concept (the really basic concept!) anyway while in the process of researching the opening I found some new ideas, as well as a quote from Bobby Fischer: “The refutation of any gambit begins with accepting it.”

Now I passed that off as a bit of Jedi double-speak, I knew I didn’t want to accept the gambit as it is offered, so I just continued with a classic King’s Gambit Declined (2. … Bc5) and I’m regretting it now. I’m not in a bad position by any means, but I wish I took the gambit so that at some point I could give the back the pawn white offers up on my own terms. As it stands now I don’t feel like I’m learning anything about the King’s Gambit at all. We are already playing in unfamiliar territory, and while that in itself is a good thing, I wish I’d listened to Bobby!

More Chess Goodness

•May 11, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Well I’ve decided I’m going to start keeping a chess diary as a way of helping me get back into the game. I’m finding really hard to study the books I have at the moment, this is mainly due to the fact that everytime I set up a board and crack out my books, my cats decide they want to get involved and either start batting the pieces around or just slump down on the board for a quick nap. While this is cute for the first five minutes or so, it’s hardly the best enviroment to learn in.

Anyway I set up a new account on Chess.com started a few games and I’m really looking forward to getting more involved. I have three games on the go at the moment, playing against the Philidor Defense and the Sicilian as white (never played against the Sicilian before!) and playing the King’s Indian Defense as black. So far so good. What I really need to do is come up with a catchy title for my chess diary – so more news on that as it happens. In the meantime I’m going to crack open one of those books – dose my cats with catnip or something and try to improve my game!

Top Five ~ Gaming Plot Twists

•April 6, 2011 • 1 Comment

As I really enjoyed writing Metafur’s Top Five: Dragons – I’m back with another! This time my top five gaming plot twists. You should probably be warned that there are quite a few spoilers in here.

5) Baldur’s Gate – Murder’s Child is full of loot!

I’ll be the first to admit that this is not one of the greatest twists of all time, but the entire experience of Baldur’s Gate combines to make it better than you would first think. Considered by some (including myself) to be one of the best RPGs of all time, and one that has stood the test of the time. Baldur’s Gate draws you in slowly, the wonderful mixture of gameplay and characterisation, set against the backdrop of one of the most famous RPG worlds ever created, gets you to really care for and nuture your character. So when you find out that you are actually the spawn of the deceased god Bhaal, the Lord of Murder, and half-brother to the Big-Bad Sarevok, it’s very much a ‘Wow! That’s so cool!’ moment. And so it earns a place on my list.

4) Call of Duty 4 – Apocalypso!

For me one of the greatest FPS games of all time, there are moments in this game that became instant classics and are still aped by both later games in the CoD series and the franchise’s many rivals. All Ghillied Up, which eschews the usual action tropes of the genre and sees you as a sniper sneaking into a town to assassinate your target. Death from Above, an eerie monochrome level that puts you in the cockpit of an AC-130 and sneakily tests your reaction to raining hot death down from the skies in a scene reminiscent of a Gulf War newsreal. The true shocker of this game though comes in Aftermath which finds one of the game’s two heroes, Sergeant Jackson, regaining consciousness in the wreckage of his chopper which was downed in the shockwave of Nuclear Explosion. What follows is one of the strangest and most vicseral couple of minutes in gaming history: Your controls are unresponsive, you can’t stand up, you don’t know what the level objectives are. What the hell is going on? Staggering out into the fallout of the nuclear blast you’re thinking to yourself ‘Hold on, this is a bit far fetched – I’ve survived a nuclear explosion?’ It’s at that point Jackson collapses and the scene pulls away followed by the words Killed In Action. Absolutely brilliant moment and anybody who has ever played CoD 4 can tell you stories of their first time.

3) Metal Gear Solid 1 to 4 – Erm… all of it!

It’s hard to choose just one plot twist in Hideo Kojima’s sprawling saga of erm… plot twists, but I loved ’em all and so Metal Gear Solid earns a place. From the genius of MGS 1, which had you swapping control pads to fight psychic nutcases, searching on the back of your game case for clues, and just generally being in awe of the wonderful ideas that filled the game. To the epic finale of MGS4 when for a few brief moments things started to make sense. This series had it all, no wonder then that Metal Gear is such a favourite for a whole generation of gamers.

2) Knight of the Old Republic – Luke, I am your father!

If, like me, you found the Star Wars prequels to be eye-gouging blots on the sacred innocence of your childhood, Knights of the Old Republic was the cure. It took you back the the days when Star Wars was wonderful and cool! As a generic Republic space hero and later a Jedi you take on the machinations of the evil Sith Lord, Darth Malak, who is terrorising the galaxy after succeeding his master, the equally evil Sith Lord, Darth Revan. Of course a brilliantly realised RPG set in the Star Wars universe is not enough to secure it a place on this list, so why is it here? Well… two thirds of the way through the game you and your party are captured by the Sith and one of the best twists in gaming history ensues. Luke, you are Darth Revan! It turns out that Darth Revan was not killed at all, but instead defeated by a combination of Jedi savvy and Malak’s treachery, and taken prisoner by the Jedi Council. After much debate the council decide to wipe Revan’s mind and in effect give him a second chance in the service of Bastila, the Jedi Master responsible for defeating him… or rather you…¬† in the first place. The effect of this revelation on the game play is played out wonderfully. If you’d played the game as a bad guy, you now had the perfect excuse for all your nasty deeds, you were Darth Revan dammit! If like me you played a good guy, and had spent the entire game preaching to anybody who would listen about Jedi beliefs, and how the light side of the force was stronger, you were completely justified. Genius!

1) Final Fantasy VII – Cloud is a big fat liar!

Considered by some time be the greatest Final Fantasy game of all time, Final Fantasy VII is an epic game with the slightly cooky theme of saving the world from enviromental disaster and being nice and stuff. Worked for me, I live my life by such codes, well… the ‘stuff’ part at least. In someways FFVII is quite a basic story, chase the Big-Bad, kill him and save the world. The real beauty of it though is the characters, the setting and the ideas behind the game. One of the subplots tells the story of Cloud Strife’s time in SOLDIER, the military arm of Shinra Electric Co, the evil company hellbent on messing up the planet. This story is told in flashback, and Cloud (the game’s main hero) describes in detail his adventures with Sephiroth (the game’s main villain) back when both were elite members of SOLDIER. During these flashbacks you actually control Cloud and so they all feel natural enough, you’d don’t really give them a second thought, they are just filling in the story. The kicker, of course, happens when Cloud has a mental breakdown and the truth is revealed. Cloud was not the character you controlled in those stories, even worse, not only was he not the hero, he was the wimpy little soldier who tagged along with Sephiroth and the real hero of the flashbacks, Zack Fair, which is why he remembers the incidents so clearly. Awesome no? Final Fantasy VII – we salute you!

Top Five ~ Dragons

•April 5, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Mmm… being at a loose end I’ve come up with this to entertain myself. In honour of Temeraire here is my list of the top five Dragons like… ever!

5) Puff the Magic Dragon – Okay, so it’s probably best to admit at this point that I don’t really know that many dragons, and so Puff makes it in at number five by default. But hey, he’s a magic dragon, and he lives by the sea. In my book that makes him alright!

4) Silvara –¬† Actually this is the only dragon I can remember the name of in the Dragonlance stories, and I don’t want to make this a Tolkienfest. Still, she spends most of her time disguised as a smoking hot elf-maid with silver hair and gets naked a lot, so she makes the list! What? It’s the 21st Century – don’t judge me!

3) GlaurungTolkien¬† gave us a few memorable dragons in his stories, this one is from The Silmarillion and a nastier piece of work you’d be hard pressed to find. We are talking about a dragon here who not only killed heaps of people, gathered a glittering hoard, and all the usual dragony stuff, but was also responsible for making a man sleep with his own sister and subsequently get her pregnant. That my friends is just evil. Why did he do it? Probably compensating for the fact that he didn’t have any wings, and all the other dragons made fun of him or something. Still, that’s no excuse!!

2) TemeraireNaomi Novik’s awesome creation. Clever, sleek , and a voracious reader, Temeraire is a dragon’s dragon. But I shall say no more about him until you’ve all gone out and read the book!

1) Smaug the MagnificentYes the villain of The Hobbit comes in at number one. Was there ever any doubt? Cunning, cruel, but ever so cool, Smaug is as golden as the bed he lies down on. Sure you could say he’s a evil ne’er-do-well who destroyed a dwarven city and a human town and probably has a kill count in the thousands, if not tens of thousands. But couldn’t you also say that he is just obeying his natural insticts? Is it Smaug’s fault people are so crunchy? Don’t we all want to put a little by for a rainy day? And then a little more? And a little more? And then gather it into a massive pile and lie down on it whilst picking human bones out of our teeth? Come on, be honest! Smaug is like a tiger, sure his symmetry may be fearful, but deep down he’s just a little kitten, and we love him!

Temeraire (aka His Majesty’s Dragon) ~ Naomi Novik

•April 5, 2011 • 2 Comments

Temeraire is the first in a series that caught my eye in a bookshop a couple of weeks past, sometimes you just read the blurb on the back of a cover and it ticks all the boxes. Georgian England, check! The Royal Navy, check! The Napoleonic Wars, check!! Dragons, dragons? That’s check and mate! I had to give it a read.

I knew from the start that this was a book that was going to appeal to me, what I wasn’t expecting was just how much. I have to say I loved Naomi Novik’s writing, she’s just one of those authors who can carry you into a story and away, without you even noticing just how many pages you’ve turned. It’s a rare skill. I picked up the book and before I knew it I was a hundred pages in and still eager for more.

So what’s it all about? Well it’s tells the story of William Laurence, Captain of HMS Reliant, a daring naval officer with a damned fine career ahead of him. He comes of good family, he has a sweetheart at home, and he has good prospects. All this is taken from him however after capturing a French ship and finding a dragon egg stashed away in the hold. Normally, of course, capturing a dragon’s egg would bring a fine bounty from the Admiralty, but this particular egg is ready to crack and the ship is some weeks out to sea, the likelyhood of making landfall before it hatches is slim. With few options available to him Laurence makes preparations for the hatching, and an officer is chosen by lot to try and bring the dragon to harness, for if the dragon chooses a companion it will become a valuable asset to the Britsh war effort. Naturally things don’t go according to plan, and upon its hatching the Dragon chooses Laurence, who names it (or rather him) Temeraire, after the ship (in our history at least) that would go on to avenge Nelson at Trafalgar. This brings the life Laurence knew crashing down around him. He will have to leave the Navy and take Temeraire into the much maligned Aerial Corps: the Fleet of Dragons that Britain maintains to combat the threat of, well… other Fleets of Dragons.

Of course Laurence’s new life is not as bad as he first imagined it would be, the greatest compensation being Temeraire himself, a creature of vast intelligence, good companionship, and slightly revolutionary beliefs. Quite possibly the star of the book, Temeraire is as cool as they come, and has quickly become one of my favourite dragons in fantasy literature, he’s kinda special too! I’m not going to spoil any more of the plot however, if you’re looking for a good read then pick this up. I’ve already bought the next two books in the series and am half-way through the second. I’m loving that one too! Great stuff! I’m giving Temeraire Five Stars!

The Sunday Session ~ P.J. Harvey

•March 13, 2011 • Leave a Comment

This week’s Sunday Session is brought to you by the one and only P.J. Harvey.

So sit back, put your feet up, and enjoy!

Big Exit ~ P.J. Harvey

This Is Love ~ P.J. Harvey

You Come Through ~ P.J Harvey

Shame ~ P.J. Harvey