Review: The Farseer & Liveship Traders trilogies, by Robin Hobb

This is not so much a proper review as just a few musings on these books. Because they are fantastic.

Robin Hobb has been one of my favourite epic fantasy authors for years. I’ve read the Farseer Trilogy and the Liveship Traders more often than I can count, and have also read and enjoyed the Tawny Man trilogy and the Soldier Son books. In the last year I’ve been on a bit of a binge of new epic fantasy, but on a whim I decided to reread all nine Farseer, Liveship Traders, and Tawny Man books before reading Hobb’s newer Rain Wild books. A couple months, six books, and several thousand pages later I have no regrets!

These books are massive, but to me they are completely gripping. I read all 903 pages of Ship of Destiny in less than five days over New Years, despite everything else going on. What amazes me are the characters. I remember on a previous reading of one of the Farseer books getting so annoyed at the protagonist Fitz that I threw the book across the room, only to have to rush to grab it and find out what happened next. All the characters are vividly three-dimensional, having complex but understandable personalities and histories, and frequently making mistakes. A key theme of all the books is how the decisions of individuals shape the destiny of all, and that these decisions are often made for selfish reasons.

The Liveship Traders has always been my favourite of Hobb’s trilogies. I think it’s because I love the serpent, dragon, and Elderling plotlines, and how they are slowly explored and woven into every part of the story. I have a weakness for a good resurgence of magic story, and who doesn’t like dragons? Everything about the liveships is fascinating, particularly the theme of memories becoming life, which was also touched on in the Farseer trilogy.

I think I appreciated the Farseer trilogy more this time around. Maybe I’m more accepting of Fitz’s many imperfections. I’m about a hundred pages into Fool’s Errand, the first Tawny Man book, where he is once more the main character, and I think I’m also enjoying this trilogy more this time. I’ve only read the Tawny Man trilogy once before, and at the time I didn’t like it as much as the other trilogies. We shall see how I go this time!

 

Review: Nation, by Terry Pratchett

Nation is set in an Earth-like 17th or 18th century, where the Pacific is called the Great Pelagic Ocean and Australia is split in two big islands. The majority of the book takes place on the island of Nation in the Pelagic Ocean, the largest of the tiny Mothering Sunday islands.

Nation is home to a happy, established islander culture, where boys must earn new souls to become men, grandfather birds drink beer as a proxy for the semi-deified Grandfather ancestors, and there is a mysterious word that can drive away a shark. But while the boy Mau is returning to Nation to claim his man’s soul, a tsunami hits the islands hard. Mau finds himself the only survivor in a nation of death. That is, the only survivor except for the trouserman girl Daphne (she much prefers that to the horrible name Ermintrude she answers to back in England), who was shipwrecked on the island by the wave.

Daphne and Mau come from very different worlds, but they have one thing in common: their old worlds are not there anymore. Mau has no village, and no man’s soul and tattoos, and Daphne has no chaperone and never learned how to bake proper scones. How do you go about inviting a naked boy who doesn’t read to tea? As they struggle to survive and to see a future for themselves and their growing Nation, they must deal with gods, death, life and so many questions the world doesn’t seem big enough to hold all the answers.

Nation asks the big questions of life in such a way that the questions sneak up on you and the answers ring true. What happens when all your world and all the things you knew are taken away? People question and people believe and people learn and people rebuild. A tiny Nation must rely on its wit and questions and beliefs to make it through demanding Grandfathers, cannibalistic Raiders, jingoistic trousermen, and the future. Times are hard, but Mau tells death “Does not happen!” and so a new world does happen.

And this is me, looking at all that horizon, Daphne thought, looking at the wash of blue that stretched all the way to the end of the world. My goodness, Father was right. If my horizon was any broader it would have to be folded in half.

It’s a funny saying, ‘broaden your horizons’, I mean, there’s just the horizon, which moves away from you, so you never actually catch up with it. You only get to where it’s been. She’d watched the sea all around the world, and it had always looked pretty much the same.

Or maybe it was the other way round; maybe you moved, you changed.

From the start, I was enthralled by this book. It’s an easy and engaging read, philosophy and all. You are quickly sympathetic to Mau and Daphne and their struggle to come to terms with what has happened to their world. Pratchett’s writing is clever and funny as always, though this book is not a comic one as the Discworld books are. Everything is vivid, and everything is meaningful. As I kept reading, it just pulled me deeper and deeper. It also inspired me. I want to think, I want to discuss, I want philosophy and science! The ending was happy and sad and sweet and promising and exciting, all at once. Despite the setting, I would call this book true science fiction, in the best of ways.

I’d highly recommend this book to everyone. In fact, recommending it to just about everyone I’ve talked to is what I’ve been doing since I started reading it. Nation is far and away the best $2.50 I’ve ever spent at Lifeline Bookfest!

Oops

I think I’ve forgotten how to read instructions! On updating WordPress for this blog, I clicked the button to update the theme before I read the text saying that updating the theme would remove customisations. Oops.

So… the blog will look a little messed up for a little while. I don’t have a backup of my stylesheet etc and it’s been a while since I made it! Bear with me, I’ll fix it as soon as I can.

This is not the only time I’ve done something like this recently! It’s all stress stress rush rush, no matter how much I try to focus. I’ll get there.

Flying

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Flying high, seeing all. It’s so clear, perspective is broad. Time stands still and files. Time to think.

Disconnected. Limited means, limited distractions. Just you and what you chose to put in your one bag that must fit inside the bo. What do you bring? A book to read. A phone to play on, but not to communicate with.A magazine from the seat pocket is an honorary part of your collection. A notebook, a pen. With these, and with the window beside you, you must occupy your time midair.

A landscape of thoughts passes by as you stare out that window. Cities, towns, forests, seas, mountains, plains, horizon. Clouds may obsuce, but they are the most beautiful, fascinating clouds you can ever see. Through them, the paths we have traced out on the landscape. Showing where we have lived and where we have travelled over the years.

You may have a planned destination, you may be headed to a new place or a familiar one, but you can never be quite sure what will be there when you land, when you disembark. Your journey will always take you through new paths, or by unfamiliar landmarks.

When you are flying, you are focused on that journey. You are engaged with where you are, with the sights, with the passage of time, with the excitement, fear, and hope for the destination. You take joy in your surroundings – the familiar routine of the plane framing the ever-changing view through that window.

The known and the new, gliding by in timeless elegance. As you sit, with your book, magazine, phone, notebook, and watch out the window of the plane.

A love letter

Dear Earl Grey,

I love you. You make me happy, you comfort me when I’m sad. You’re always there when I need you. Through the long years of studying, the reading, the writing, the procrastinating, you were always with me. Through cold winter mornings you kept me warm. If I could, I would marry you! I know there’s a Lady Grey already, but she’s trademarked by someone else. I’m clearly a Ravenclaw, I can be a new Grey Lady.

Yes, I admit that I do enjoy other teas as well. I experiment with exotic fruity blends. I have a fondness for your French brother. I even occasionally flirt with your distant cousin, Coffee. But I always come back to you. You are my true caffeinated love. Nothing, neither drought nor flood nor lack of cake can keep us apart.

Yours by tannins and warmth,

Betsy

Good habits, good things (including apple crumble)

I moved house about six weeks ago. I moved across the river, back to the south side of the city, back to the side of the river I grew up on. It’s taking me a lot of adjustment. A lot about it is great – it’s the most convenient location I’ve ever lived in in Australia, it’s the first time I’m living on my own all proper and official-like (as in renting through a real estate agent etc), I’m living with a good friend. I’m feeling all grown up, and it’s weird – I bought a washing machine! But it’s making me realise how much a creature of habit I am. Moving disrupted many of the good habits I’d been building up, and I’m finding it difficult to get everything going the way I’d like again. My sleep patterns are still disrupted, my working abilities were impacted for much longer than they should have been, and I still have a worrying amount of unpacked boxes in the garage, a disorganised kitchen, and am missing at least one piece of essential furniture.

Between all this and the fact that, having graduated last year, I need to start a new big adventure, I’ve been finding it difficult to settle into new routines and move on to exciting new things. But all the topsy-turvyness has made me notice and appreciate some of the good things in my life that are keeping me happy and helping me sort things out. Firstly, spending time with my family and friends. Playing games with my brother, talking to my parents, lunchtimes at uni, morning teas and outings with my dear old friends, chatty fun knitting times. Good times, good people, to be appreciated.

Cauldron cardi

Craft is what relaxes me. I’m knitting myself a cropped cardigan. From yarn I spun, making up the pattern as I go along. It’s no-stress knitting, no deadline, no pattern. The colours and the texture make me happy. I’m spinning a new yarn as well, which is pure meditation. And I have a super secret project I’ve started for my Stitch ‘n’ Bitch’s Xmas in July swap, which is good fun!

Another thing that I’ve been appreciating taking the time to do of late is reading. I just finished Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. I am in the process of writing a review of it, so more on that later!

The last couple of weekends I’ve been making an effort to get to the West End markets on Saturday mornings, even if I only have time for a quick trip. It’s so much fun! The stalls are arranged in a long line, curving around the path of the park. The first half is mostly produce and other foodstuffs, the second half is mostly clothing and handmade and vintage goods, with more food mixed in. At the halfway point is the Gypsy coffee cart, and so my market mornings consist of me walking through the first half planning what food to buy, stopping to get an amazingly spiced coffee or hot chocolate, browsing through the pretties in the second half while I drink, and going back through the produce and deli stalls on my way out and back to the bus stop. From my new place it only takes half an hour to get to the markets – fifteen minutes on the bus and fifteen minutes on foot. It’s a great start to the weekend!

Market finds

This weekend I only was able to spend a short time at the markets, but I found a couple of treats: a pretty vintage plate that’s just begging to be loaded up with shortbread and biscuits; artisan chorizo (one chicken, one hot Spanish) from an incredible stall I haven’t seen before and forgot to get the name of. The chicken chorizo went in last night’s dinner. I’ve been making a lot of soups lately – they’re easy, tasty, filling, warm, and use root vegetables that last well and I’m trying to get to know better. The chorizo may have cost me $5, but the rest of the soup ingredients can’t have cost me more than $1 or $1.50, not including the chicken carcass from Saturday’s roast that I saved to make broth with. I saw a bread recipe in the morning, and it was such perfect timing that I used it to make lovely fluffy rolls to go with the soup. It made three very generous servings of soup and rolls (even though I halved the bread recipe) – in fact, as I sit here staring at the amount of soup I’ve reheated for my lunch, I think I definitely should have divided it into four.

Cooking is something I love to do. It’s interesting, it’s fun, it’s focusing and calming. And best of all, at the end you have something delicious to enjoy! I’ve found in the last six weeks that it was getting back into the habit of cooking and eating well that started the process of feeling better and being able to sort other things out. It’s something I’ve really noticed in the past, as well – especially when I was travelling and when I was living in Montreal – take the time to cook well and eat well and you’ll have more time and energy for the world around you.

And so, I’ll leave you with another thing I’ve cooked this weekend: the most amazing apple crumble I’ve made since Montreal. When I was in Montreal, especially after going apple-picking with my flatmate, I made an awful lot of apple crumbles. I experimented with different topping proportions, different fruit mixes, etc. I usually made one serve at a time, baked in the bowl, or sometimes chopped and mix up a larger amount of fruit and kept it in the fridge, taking portions of it whenever I needed some baked apple goodness. Baked apples are one of the best things in the world, I do believe. Soft and delicious and warm and comforting. Last week I impulse-bought a stick of rhubarb and some figs at the markets, and so at the end of the week I found myself with rhubarb, the last of the figs, overripe and in need of eating, and an apple crying out to be baked with. I chopped them all up, mixed in lemon juice, and baked a third of it with a simple flour-oats-butter-sugar-cardamom topping. It was alright, but where straight apple crumble can get away with not having sugar mixed in with the fruit, it seems apple-rhubarb crumble really can’t. Fortunately, 2/3 of the fruit mix remained.

Here’s what I came up with today. It was pretty amazing, if I say so myself!

(I couldn’t stop eating it long enough to take a proper picture.)

Filling:

  • apple (Granny Smith) – approx 1/3 of a medium-large apple
  • rhubarb – approx 1/3 of a stick
  • fig – approx 1
  • lemon juice
  • brown sugar
  • nutmeg

Crumble:

  • flour (wholemeal)
  • brown sugar
  • rolled oats
  • butter
  • nutmeg
  • almonds – small handful, roughly chopped

I didn’t measure any of the crumble components. I usually go pretty light on the topping – I just make enough to almost cover the fruit when lightly scattered over the bowl. Mix the flour, sugar, oats & nutmeg, then add small bits of butter and rub in until the mix clumps together. Scatter over fruit mix, then scatter the almonds on top. Bake at 180 C until toasty brown on top and you can see the fruit has caramelised.

The fruit blend came out amazing this time – the added sugar (and a longer cooking time) counteracted the sourness of the rhubarb, and it all blended together wonderfully. The toasted almonds made it extra delightful. In Montreal I learned that the best crumbles always have at least two fruits in them (if you have really amazing apples, the lemon juice is enough), and now I’ve discovered that nuts are another essential part of the crumble experience.

Enjoy : )

 

Review: Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

It’s not terribly surprising to me that I should love a book by Jasper Fforde. I’ve read six of them already (the first four in the Thursday Next series, and two Nursery Crime novels), and have enjoyed them all immensely. Fforde’s books are incredibly witty and rich in detail, not to mention comic and just plain fun.

Shades of Grey is the start of a new series (the title of this first book is technically Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron), and was a blank slate, as far as I was concerned. When the book was lent to me, I knew nothing of it except the title, that it was unrelated to Thursday Next and Nursery Crime, and that it was Jasper Fforde (the latter fact being enough to warrant reading it, of course). I didn’t know what genre to call it, I didn’t know what to expect.

The book started off slowly, an immediate difference from the Fforde books I’d read previously. I was not discouraged, however, as the book was doing something I absolutely love: introducing a completely foreign, well-fleshed, detailed world to the reader slowly, through the character’s eyes and the natural progression of the story. Good world-building is something I adore in fiction, and Shades of Grey has a vibrant world, the exact nature of which is never fully revealed – because the protagonist, Eddie, is only starting to discover it himself. The setting is post-apocalyptic, in a world that has changed considerably since the “Something That Happened” approximately five hundred years previously. People in this society are not terribly curious about the past (except to wonder why the Word of Munsell does not allow the manufacture of new spoons), or about the workings of their world beyond their own social circles. Because of this, while towards the end of the book some significant facts about the Chromatic society are revealed, the majority of it is still a mystery, to Eddie and to the reader. The hints and clues and puzzles are intruiguing! All the remnants of Previous society which remain, in pieces and largely unusable. All the references to National Colour and how they control society.

Eddie Russett was never much of a questioner, aside from his ideas of improvements to queuing theory. His most pressing concern in life was whether Constance Oxblood would choose him as her husband. You see, the Oxblood family are quite prestigious and wealthy, but have been growing low in colour perception over the generations, and Constance needs to marry a strong perceiver of red to boost her offspring’s hue. Chromatic society revolves around colour: a person’s social status is almost entirely derived from what colour they can see, and how well they can see it. Eddie and Constance are Reds – they can only see that single colour in the natural world, and only know colours involving yellow or blue in synthetic form. Red is at the bottom of the Chromatic hierarchy, which ranges through the rainbow to prestigious Purple, and are only above the working-class Greys and the Riff-Raff, who are outside of society. Colour perception is the basis of quite a strict class system, which Fforde says is based on the Edwardian class system. Everything is calm and orderly and unquestionable in Eddie’s world… until he is sent to the Outer Rim village of East Carmine to conduct a chair census. There, everything is a little… strange. He meets many new and unusual people, most noticeably Jane, a Grey who despite her lack of hue is not afraid to stand up to people and to question Chromatic society. She also has an incredibly retrousé nose – but Eddie has to be careful, the last person to compliment her nose lost an eyebrow!

After a bit of time getting to know the people of East Carmine, the book becomes more of an adventure, and a mystery, as Eddie tries to figure out what’s going on in the village and in all of Chromaticia, all the while having to keep up his prospects with Constance Oxblood and his prospective entry into the string industry, trying to win Jane’s affections (or at least keep her from trying to kill him again), keeping hold of his railway ticket back home to Jade-under-Lime, and keeping out of trouble! Not to mention avoiding ball lightning, giant swan attack, and carnivorous trees.

Fforde’s writing style is what I’d generally describe as “colourful”, despite the fact that the characters in this book perceive the world as largely monochromatic. I’ve mentioned the detail before, but it’s something I keep coming back to when discussing these books. Everything that happens is rich and vivid, exciting and fascinating. In a way, it defies genre: technically science fiction in setting and plot, but with a fantastic, adventuresome feel.

This is the sort of book that, on finishing, I immediately want to discuss with others who’ve read it. There is a lot going on, in the world and in the characters – some explicit, some only hinted at. Writing this review without spoilers has been quite a challenge! It will be very interesting to see how the exploration continues in the next book.

Speaking of the next book, I don’t know how I’ll manage to wait until it comes out. I’ll have to keep myself occupied by reading The Last Dragonslayer and catching up on the two most recent Thursday Next books!