Wednesday, 30 July 2014

A moment of inspiration

Sometime in February I wrote a blog post bemoaning the amount of jobs that existed in this world which I thought contributed nothing to society (sports agents, political spin doctors and "life coaches" were among those I think I targeted with my ire).

I will admit though that the starting point of that blog was sports professionals; why, I thought, should people be paid for playing a game? What have they contributed to society by, for example, kicking a pig's bladder around a field for an hour and a half? How does that help anyone except themselves?

But there was something missing in my analysis I think, I failed to realise that the contribution to society from a person doesn't necessarily have to be tangible or measurable. Sometimes the contribution is more abstract, more difficult to define. Sometimes it is simply a case of providing inspiration, providing hope.

Our lives are essentially a collection of stories and memories; those of ourselves and those who we encounter along the way. We often have an unhealthy obsession with what other people are doing (our neighbours, celebrities etc...) but sometimes the stories that are told by other people's lives provide inspiration to our own. And this intangible element is one I admit I have overlooked in the past.

Sometimes we don't realise what can be achieved until we see other people achieve it. We seem to be overly cautious, finding reasons why things can't be done. Often all it takes is a spark, that moment of realisation that maybe whatever it is isn't beyond us. We hear people's stories, see where they came from and we begin to understand that people aren't so different in the end.

A lot of the time the only difference is whether some has taken that spark of inspiration (from wherever it comes) and chosen to do something with it. It is not always easy, or even obvious a lot of the time, but these moments cross our paths more frequently than we take them. So do we "sieze the day" as it were, accept the inspiration and try to mould it into something? Or do we resist the moment and shy away from the chance to maybe be an inspiration ourselves?

I believe it is within everyone to make that choice. That spark will come, the moment that has the potential to change everything if you just allow it to. Be bold, be courageous and, most importantly, don't be afraid. Fact is there may be very little stopping you except your imagination, your desire and your will. Life is short so make sure your story is the one that is heard, you never know who might be listening.

Till next time,
DT

Coming thick and fast

After a bit of a lull between challenges we have now hit "busy season". Between now and the Men's Health Survival of the Fittest on November the 8th I appear to be attempting the following:
  • Total Warrior (10km)
  • River Rat (10km)
  • Tough Mudder (18km)
  • Spartan (5km)
  • Reaper (2 x 10km)
  • Men's Health (10km)
Six challenges and 73km across a mere 101 days (plus hopefully this accursed zipline). 

The longest between events is 3 weeks and the shortest will be the few hours between the day and night versions of Reaper! I pretty much blame Rick entirely for this and I will make sure I moan at him continually before, during and after all of these events.

But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't anything but genuinely excited about this little stretch. It is a chance to try and get myself fit and really get out there and do something positive. I'm lucky enough to be still able to even attempt these challenges and even more fortunate to be raising awareness and funds for such a fantastic charity along the way.

First up is Total Warrior (Challenge #15) on Saturday. It's been a wee while (April in fact) since I last encountered the mud and it'll be great to feel its sticky goodness again. Wish me luck and please check out the website if you get a chance. It would mean a lot.

Till next time,
DT

Monday, 28 July 2014

REVIEW: Dark Space (Dark Space #1) by Jasper T. Scott

Jasper T. Scott’s Dark Space is another one of the increasing number of self-published novels appearing these days, helped by the growing appetite for digital books and websites like Amazon offering this capability.

This was also another of Amazon’s recommendations based on my purchase history, and another book which cost me the square root of nothing on my kindle. There really are plenty of very good books out there which you can pick up for nothing (or very little) if you know where to look

There are some inherent problems with self-published books that you have to learn to be tolerant of; they simply don’t have the level of copy-editing or proof-reading available that the more traditionally published books too. So you get a few more grammatical and spelling errors and they occasional typesetting blooper.

But if you are able to get past this and enjoy the stories for what they are then there are some real gems out there.

*SPOILER ALERT*

The humans lost the war. The Sythians invaded the galaxy and all but wiped out human kind. A small pocket of them still survive, safe for now in the last remaining human sector, Dark Space. Human kind is on the brink of annihilation and only the starship Valiant, which guards the only route in or out of Dark Space, stands capable of defending them.

But how long will it be before the Sythians find them and finish the job? And will the Imperium tear itself apart from the inside and save the Sythians the trouble?

Dark Space itself is a gritty and grim place, a function of a broken down society struggling to survive. The protagonist (Ethan) is a freelance ex-convict who owes a big-time crime lord more than he has. In order to cover his debt he is coerced into infiltrating sabotaging the Valiant for the benefit of his creditor, but in doing so is he dooming human kind to their fate?

As the story progresses Ethan begins to learn more about the Imperium and their activities. Are they in actual fact jeopardising the entire human race rather than protecting as they claim to be? Before Ethan can gather all the facts, his mission takes a turn for the unexpected and he realises that there is so much more going on that he understood. Now it becomes a case of ensuring his own survival and trying to rescue those few people who still mean anything to him.

Scott draws on elements of numerous space-based science-fiction series such as Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica. The world he has created operates on the underbelly with shady characters, very little loyalty and an “everyman for himself” feel to it.

He has managed to create an interesting universe here, one in which not everything is as it seems and there is far less black and white than we are often used to seeing. Pretty much every character we encounter has a fundamental flaw somewhere along the lines which is quite refreshing to see.

The action fairly cracks along in places with numerous space battles and plenty of interaction between the relatively limited number of characters. The plot does take some interesting twists along the way, particular a last chapter effort that feels both seismic and also very forced (if that makes sense). Time will tell whether this is an inspired decision or one to be regretted.
  
Scott’s characters are nothing too original or out of the box here. You have your lovable rouge, your sidekick/love interest, a thoroughly unlikeable but (probably) over-hyped bad guy and the various rag-tag assortment of military and civilian stereotypes that this type of work generally includes. They aren’t bad characters at all, and there is enough depth about most of them to get you suitably invested in their adventures. Just don’t expect anything you haven’t seen before

Some of the other reviews I have read are critical of the “science” aspects of the story, such as “you can’t see laser beams in space” but I am perfectly prepared to overlook minor details like this. To be honest, for me you can do whatever you want with the laws of physics in your universe as long as you are consistent with it.

So overall Dark Space was nothing earth-shattering but it was a thoroughly enjoyable read. The plot was of sufficient quality and depth to keep my interest and I like the universe Scott has created for his characters to play in. There is plenty here to suggest that the series will grow and improve as it goes along and he has left enough of a carrot to draw you back in for the later instalments.

Verdict: 4 stars out of 5

Sunday, 27 July 2014

REVIEW: Land of Shadows (The Gatekeeper Series #1) by Jeff Gunzel

Well I'm nearly through my reviews of all my holiday books. Just in time to have another batch of books finished and in need of a review too!

This one was an "Amazon Recommended" book based on my previous purchases and my viewing history. It was also free I think so I wasn't expecting too much. I read a few reviews and most of them said that it wasn't a bad story but that it was let down by some really bad editing.

The book was actually self-published by Gunzel himself and I think I have an updated version because, to be honest, there were no more editing errors here than in any other book I've read recently.

*SPOILER ALERT*

Land of Shadows starts off at a reasonable pace, though there are some quite unpleasant scenes in the few first few chapters. This book is graphic in places and certainly not one to sit down with the kids and read! I found myself grimacing a couple of times early on but somehow the violence felt necessary.

Gunzel does however quickly set about laying down the characters and there is nothing new to readers of fantasy here. Eric, the Blacksmith's son, lives in a small rural village which is preparing for the annual summer harvest. He generally enjoys his life and has no real desire to leave. His best friend Jacob is a smooth-talking hit with the ladies who also knows his way around a quarterstaff.

Morcel is a mercenary who 10 years ago witnessed one atrocity too many and, as a result of his actions, ended up being branded a slave and forced to fight in the arenas in the capital. He has lasted longer than most but no-one lasts forever.

Jade is a young girl who has been training her whole life to fulfil her destiny. When The Gatekeeper comes of age she must find him and protect him with all her powers, as he is fated to save the world.

Sometime soon after Eric comes of age, things begin to happen. His village is attacked and he barely escapes with his life. He is eventually (despite at least one attempt on his life) rescued and along with his best friend Jacob and his "guardian" Jade sets of for the capital to begin to live up to the destiny he never knew he had.

In an interesting twist we are also given a glimpse into the life of the antagonist, a ruthless and cruel demon by the name of Dragot - who is also trying to find the Gatekeeper and destroy him before he can fulfil his destiny and save the world.

We are also given some background into the world of Tarmerria, its politics, history and the mysterious beings called "crytons" against whom the last war was fought. These clearly will become relevant soon but probably in a way no-one expected (again a classic fantasy plot line).

Make no mistake though, this is ambitious stuff. Gunzel has thought long and hard about this world and created a universe and story that goes far beyond the scope of this book. He should be given credit for that; a lot of people would settle for something safe with a nice easy plot which you can tie a bow round at the end. It is risky to invest the time and effort in creating a world when you have no idea whether the next instalment will ever see the light of day.

The plot itself is nothing original and pulls together elements from all the "best" fantasy series. There is a definite feeling of this being a collaboration of ideas-by-others in some places, but in Gunzel's defence there is very little in the fantasy genre that hasn't been done before in one guise or another!

I enjoyed the occasional glimpses into Dragot's world (if slightly sadistic and brutal) and don't real blame Gunzel from sticking to tried and tested techniques. The whole "farm-boy has to save the world but doesn't have any idea" could have come straight out of Wheel of Time or Eragon (to name just a few) but Gunzel does enough with his take to keep it fresh.

The characters of Eric and Jacob really do remind me at this early stage of Rand and Matt from the first few Wheel of Time novels, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing if Gunzel takes the time to develop them further in the later instalments.

Jade is more interesting but I hope that her character isn't reduced to the role of "romantic interest" only as is hinted at towards the end of the book. I think she has more to give and it would be disappointing if Gunzel went down this route too far.

Morcel, again, is someone we have encountered in different stories under different names but he also has enough about him to be interesting and worth finding out more about.

Land of Shadows is actually quite short and Gunzel packs a fair amount into the story. He is also trying to establish the characters and the environment at the same time too. As a result, some of the pacing can feel slightly inconsistent and rushed in places. I'd rather it was this way than the other way (turgid boring passages about nothing) but I felt he could have balanced things a touch better occasionally.

All in all though I was pleasantly surprised by Land of Shadows and will definitely be reading the rest of the series if it continues in this vein. I found the characters and storyline to be interesting, if not unique, and enjoyed enough of the universe Gunzel has created to be enticed back for another go.

Verdict: 4 stars out of 5

Thursday, 24 July 2014

REVIEW: Raising Steam (Discworld #40) by Terry Pratchett

It is over 30 years since Terry Pratchett's first foray into the magical realm of the Discworld. 40 stories and 10-20 other publications have since followed, with over 80 million books sold in 37 different languages. If you want to talk about an epic series, then you have to look no further.

They don't have the depth of a Wheel of Time or a Lord of the Rings but the way Pratchett runs multiple themes through the series gives them a unique feel. While there is essentially a reading order to them you can often pick up any of the books and become immersed very quickly in an environment that is familiar.

The other good things about the Discworld series is the way Pratchett uses the events on Discworld to satirise real life, or alternatively basing his tales on something on our "roundworld". Raising Steam is one of the latter, heralding the Age of the Railways.

*SPOILER ALERT*

The world is changing. A young man from Sto Lat has worked out how to harness steam, now the race is on to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the advent of the railways. As always with anything new on the Discworld, it can only happen with the "permission" and input of Lord Vetinari. And when Vetinari needs a civil servant to keep the interests of Ankh-Morpork to the fore, he calls on Moist von Lipwig.

Having rescued the Royal Mint and fixed the Post Office, Moist is in the ideal position to maximise the potential of the railways, for profit of course. This is the third book to feature the ex-con von Lipwig and it follows a similar feel to the others. Moist somehow always manages to dig himself out of the holes that Vetinari happily puts him in.

Throw in a dwarf rebellion, some gender politics and plenty of goblins and you can very quickly see that Raising Steam is typically Pratchett. The old characters that we know and love are back, as good as ever. The news ones he weaves in are interesting and perfectly rendered in your mind within no time at all. The universe of the Discworld is 40+ books old but it never feels full or contradictory with things that have been before.

You kind of know where the story is going quite early in the piece, but that has always been Pratchett's way. He has always been more about the little touches; the nods to his fans, the throwaway lines that turn out to be very important, the small elements as opposed to relying on blockbusting plot twists or huge sweeping set pieces.

This story isn't actually one of his better ones. Once again the little touches are great but I felt the overall plot line was a little bit uninteresting this time. It's not by any stretch bad but I don't think it is one of his best. The idea of introducing the railways is great and the bits of the story around this are really enjoyable.

It was the dwarf rebellion story which felt a bit "tacked on", almost like Pratchett needed somewhere to go on the railway and this was what he came up with. It doesn't feel organic and natural. That particular plotline also got tied up a bit too quickly for my liking - once the train arrived everything went back to normal. Again, that just added to the feeling that the plotlines didn't really come together naturally.

Its amazing that Pratchett is still churning out these stories though, his mind seems as sharp as every despite the Alzheimer's which can't make his brand of story telling easy. Overall this is a pretty typical Pratchett tale, if you like what he brings to the table then you can't go wrong with this. It's not one of the classic Discworld tales but it is plenty good enough to keep you entertained for a bit, and there are (as always) one or two cracking moments which make the journey worthwhile.

Verdict: 4 stars out of 5

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

REVIEW: Black Lung Captain (Ketty Jay Tales #2) by Chris Wooding

*SPOILER ALERT*

So he were are again. Back in Chris Wooding's Firefly-inspired universe with Captain Frey and his ragtag bunch of misfits. A year has passed since the events of Retribution Falls and the crew of the Ketty Jay are pretty much exactly where we left them, doing the odd bit of smuggling and petty theft and hoping not to attract the attention of the Coalition Navy or the Century Knights.

The plot of Black Lung Captain follows a similar pattern to Retribution Falls. Once again Darian receives an offer that seems too good to be true, once again he takes it against his better judgement and once it again it blows up in his face. The crew are then forced to team up with someone they would rather not, someone who has a connection to Frey's past and who has already betrayed them once before.

Throw in a dark backstory for one of the characters, the odd revelation and plenty of things blowing up (both deliberately and accidentally) and you have the recipe for a good old fashioned adventure.

For those of you who have read the first book this slots nicely into place as a follow up. I guess this is your typical second book in a series. They tend to be a bit more expansive and a bit "braver", now that the author knows he has got the first one published and he can let his creativity shine through a bit more.

The story is a bit grander and the author is able to dedicate more time to the development of the characters and their backstories; always tricky to do with the first one as you are not sure whether this is the only book in the series that will ever see the light of day.

Wooding does a pretty decent job of spinning an enjoyable yarn too. There is nothing particularly ground-breaking here but there is enough to keep you entertained and a few nice little touches and twists which enable this to rise above the "normal".

The character dynamics are becoming more well defined and the interplay between them feels natural and organic. We are learning more about this world every day and you sense that Wooding has something more than just your "caper of the week" planned for the later installments.

As for Black Lung Captain itself, well it contains the usual amounts of intrigue and suspense. Wooding has thrown a few of the characters onto seemingly independent "story arcs" and there are several questions that get at least partially looked at through the book.

  • What is the exact nature of the Manes and how does Jez fit in with them?
  • Can Crake ever atone for his mistake in the first book?
  • Will Hawkings get one over on the cat?
  • Can Trinica and Frey put aside their past differences and work together, despite barely being able to stand each other?

I really did enjoy this book, it ripped along at a reasonably rate and (though the plot was nothing particularly new or clever) the story had enough about it to keep me entertained. The characters are becoming more rounded and even likeable in some cases, and there is plenty hinted at to imply that this series might be gathering a good bit of momentum.

Verdict: 4 stars out of 5

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Challenges and Travelling

Been a busy day today. First thing this morning my brother-in-law and I headed over to Leeds for the Asda Foundation 10km run - Challenge #14 on Tom's Many Silly Adventures. We survived in one piece which is obviously great news indeed!!

A full review can be found at my Silly Adventures website. Don't forget why I am doing these events though, to raise money for Friends of Serenity and raise awareness of Trisomy 13 and other syndromes caused by chromosomal abnormalities. I'm delighted to report that we got confirmation of our full charity status this week, which is fantastic news and testament to all the hard work being put in by everyone.

So please please please visit the website and direct friends and family to it aswell. The more awareness we can raise, the more we can try to do something about these illnesses in addition to helping those who are dealing with them. Thank you.

In other news, I've finished my travel blog from my recent trip to Lisbon. It can be found here, any and all comments and thoughts are welcome. Hopefully you'll find it interesting, informative and useful if you have any plans to go to Lisbon. I'd definitely recommend you do, it is a great city with plenty to do and see.

I'm aware that I'm still a good 3/4 book reviews and one MOOC review behind schedule (at least) so I've got plenty to keep me going over the next week or so. Hopefully I'll have something on every day but for now, thanks for taking the time to read :o) As always, any feedback and comments are much appreciated - either on here or to doctortomowens@gmail.com

Till next time,
DT


Friday, 18 July 2014

REVIEW: Way of Kings Part 2 (Stormlight Archive #1) by Brandon Sanderson

I finished Part 1 of Sanderson's epic-starting Way of Kings in about May time. I don't really like getting too immersed in one particular universe at any one time so I had to quickly remind myself where I had left this one. It proved very easy to do, mainly due to Sanderson's typically fantastic story-telling.

In actual fact, Brandon didn't really want to split this in two but the first book of the series is simply too large to put in one tome. So consequently the break point between the books is quite arbitrary so it doesn't feel like a new story. It's kind of like the 4 hour version of Lord of the Rings where you've got to flip the DVD over after about 2 hours or so!

*SPOILER ALERT*

So we are plunged right back into where we left off. Sanderson has always liked to weave strands together rather than rely on a single fast-paced plot to carry the narrative. That is part of the reason he did such a good job with tying up Robert Jordan's many Wheel of Time loose threads. And Way of Kings has three or four seemingly disparate plotlines that he is starting to bring into alignment.

Brandon wanted a big first book (or at least felt it was merited) partly because he wanted to take enough time to set the scene and develop the characters but also have a decent enough story to carry through the book. His characters are always engaging and interesting, and Way of Kings is no different. 

Kaladin is still stuck at the Shattered Plains, trying desperately not to get himself or any of his bridge crew killed. But is he more than he seems?

Dalinar's visions are becoming stronger and more incisive, but can he discover their meaning before it drives him insane? The war isn't going anywhere fast, the highprinces seemingly content to have the odd skirmish with the Parshendi but wary of committing more than they want to.

In the capital Shallan is fighting between loyalty to her family and her desire to learn about the world under the care of Jasnah. A stunning revelation changes everything for Shallan and she has a tough decision to make. Once which will change her life completely.

Where does Szeth fit in to everything? Who controls him, and what is their ultimate aim? 
And what happened with the Knights Radiant? Will they rise again to save the world from the Desolation?

You genuinely care about the people he is writing about, you want to know more about them and you find the pages flying by as you are drawn in to the world and its history. Sanderson doesn't do things by half and he loves to create huge universes for his characters to play in. The surface has only just been scratched but once again you are itching to know more.

The genre here is nothing you haven't seen before; fantasy and magic, an enemy to face down, epic battles, political infighting and squabbling, romance etc.. But Sanderson does these things so well that you don't really mind. He always manages to throw enough twists in to keep things interesting and his magic systems are among the best there are.

This is an epic-scale story, there is so much going on and even more hinted at. I read a lot of books and have a lot of series going on at once, but Sanderson's are always memorable and they are the ones that I graviate towards almost without thinking. His attention to detail, his love of his craft and his infectious desire to entertain keep me coming back more and more.

The second book of this (proposed) ten book epic is already out and it won't be very long at all until I'm cracking through that. This is what Sanderson does, he reels you in and keeps you desperate to get the next installment in your hands. 

Verdict: 4.5 stars out of 5

Monday, 14 July 2014

So much to catch up on!

Wow it has been a busy week or so.

I've been off enjoying the sun in Portugal and ticking capital city #16 off my list - Lisbon. I'll be doing a full TravelPod blog  as soon as I get a chance to so watch out for that in the next few days so keep an eye out for the link.

Travelling always gives me time to read a lot so I've also got four (yes, FOUR) book reviews to get through. The second part of Brandon Sanderson's epic-opening Way of Kings will be first up followed by book #2 of Chris Wooding's Firefly-inspired Ketty Jay Series. I also got time to finally crack through Terry Pratchett's latest discworld offering, Raising Steam, as well as starting a new series called The Gate Keeper which has a "standard" plot of "farm boy has to save the world" but was very enjoyable in its own right.

I also managed to finish my third MOOC, this one called Introduction to Forensic Science so that will be getting a quick review when I get a chance. I've got a couple more on the go as well so that is definitely keeping me nice and busy just in case I ever thought of having a rest.

The charity work is flying along with another challenge coming up on Sunday. Gareth (my brother-in-law) and I will be running the Asda Foundation 10km in Leeds. Well I say running, I'll be taking part and Gareth will probably do the running.

Add in some exciting news for our Friends of Serenity founder Jo who has been shortlisted for a couple of gongs at the Butterfly Awards (which celebrate survivors and champions of baby loss) and you can see it is full speed ahead there too aswell.

Plus it is my birthday tomorrow and I tend to get all introspective and reflective around my birthday these days. Hence I've got a couple of my more traditional blog posts that I'll be rolling out at some point.

Wow. Like I said, it has been a busy week or so. I like busy weeks. It is good to feel engaged and productive with my condition and I'm clearly on one of those manic cycles so I'd best take advantage while I can!!

Till tomorrow,
DT

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Caught in a loop

Have you ever noticed that the same ideas keep coming round in your head? The same thoughts, the same concepts. Often they are subtly different but sometimes it is just the same thing looping round and round and round. I came to write my blog tonight and the first five topics I thought about have all been done at some point in the not too distant past.

It's not as if the world is short of things to write about either. I just seem to keep returning to the same things over and over again. I suppose it is the human brain equivalent of some kind of feedback loop, once you start thinking about one thing you are always drawn back to it. There is one particular drinking game (the Name Game) - some of the rules have been semi-nicked from here - that showcases this phenomenon quite accurately.

Everybody sits in a circle and someone starts by saying the name of someone famous, or pretty close to being famous as far as those people are concerned.

The next person says a name that starts with the first letter of the last name of the previous name. For example,
 
    Mel Brooks
        |
        Bart Simpson
             |
             Steve Redgrave
                   |
                   Richard Burton 
                           |
                           Bill Clinton
                                |
                                Chris Brown

If a player can't think of a name IMMEDIATELY, they must drink for the DURATION until they can think of an appropriate name.

Now you'd be amazed how difficult it is at this point to think of some whose first name begins with a B and who isn't either Bill Clinton or Bart Simpson! Why? Why does the brain get locked into this loop whereby all you can think of is TWO people in the whole world whose first name begins with a B.

I'm sure there is some very technical psychological terms for this behvaiour but, short of that, I'm going to describe this as a teeny bit bizarre. The mind has got locked into a weird loop and (maybe as you are under pressure and/or quite boozed) it reverts back to its short term memory and tries to drag stuff up from there. Maybe I'm talking crap, but it seems a pretty reasonable explanation!

Well that is pretty much what has been going on in my head everytime I've tried to think of a blog post recently. I'm putting it down to the need for a holiday but who knows what is actually going on up there. All I know is that I can guarantee within a few weeks I'll be thinking "why don't I write a blog about how difficult it is to write original posts". The whole cycle will happily repeat itself over and over it seems.

On the plus side I have just about managed to write a blog post about the fact that I can't think of anything new to write about, so maybe the old grey matter isn't as useless as I'm giving it (lack of) credit for!

Till next time,
DT