Saturday, September 23, 2006

Woken Furies - by Richard Morgan

Woken Furies is Richard Morgan's third novel featuring anti-hero Takeshi Kovacs. In essence it's a sequel to Altered Carbon and Broken Angels but it also casts some light on Kovacs' earlier life, before he became an Envoy.

To give you a bit of the background, Takeshi Kovacs is an ex-Envoy, a retired super-commando and now pretty much a mercenary/hard-ass for hire. He's a ruthless, no-nonsense killing machine with very few morals and not much in the way of a concience but there's a spark of goodness in him, just a spark. Of course, we're in the far distant future. Mankind has spread out to the stars and discovered that many worlds, including Mars, had been occupied by a long extinct race of flying aliens who've left a legacy of mysterious technology and some amazing architecture. Everyone gets fitted with a cortical stack at birth and this is able to store or backup their personality, which can then be transferred to synthetic or clone bodies or transmitted over vast distances to other worlds. To all intents and purposes, immortality is possible . . . if you have enough money. Here's a brief rundown of the plot…

Takeshi Kovacs is back home on Harlan's World, an ocean rich planet where boating, surfing and diving are a part of everyday life. It's just as well as not much takes to the air on Harlan's World and survives very long. The planet is surrounded by a network of orbital platforms, leftover by the Martians, that are programmed to destroy anything of a sufficiently advanced technology flying above a certain altitude. It makes it difficult to get around by anything other than sea travel and it makes physical, off-world travel impossible.

Kovacs is on the run from a group of religious fanatics and also from the planet's high ranking Yakuza criminal elements. He killed a lot of them while saving a woman in a bar and now there's a hefty contract on his head. The woman, Sylvie Oshima, offers him refuge among her troop of mercenaries as they operate out in the unoccupied zone, decommisioning sentient military hardware and no-one goes out there unless they have to.

But Kovacs isn't in for an easy time. The Yakuza have hired the one person he'd never have guessed they'd use to go after him - a younger, fitter version of himself. But they're not really after him at all, the ruling families of Harlan's World have a much older score to settle and he'd just be the icing on the cake.

Another good Takeshi Kovacs story that doesn't let up in the action stakes and with more than one twist in the tail to keep you wondering where it'll go next. If you like fast-paced action stories with a good mix of graphic violence and descriptive sex, then you won't be unhappy with this one. The science-fiction elements are very well thought out - the Envoy conditioning, the cortical stack/sleeve culture and the "Martian" artefacts make it so much better than the average spy/combat novel.

While it follows on chronologically from Broken Angels, Woken Furies could be read on it's own and, while there are quite a few references to Kovacs' earlier adventures, the story doesn't rely on them. I'd definitely recommend reading both earler novels though as they're both pretty good reads. Avoid his other novel, Market Forces, like the plague though.

Genre: Science-Fiction, War
ISBN: 0-575-07652-6
My Rating: 8/10

Friday, September 22, 2006

Sunset Over Loch Bracadale

Got another photograph into the Flickr Scotland Photoblog

Sunset Over Loch Bracadale
Sunset Over Loch Bracadale

It was taken on Skye from our holiday cottage in Fiskavaig, after a day out walking in The Cuillin, relaxing with a beer and watching the sun going down over Loch Bracadale and MacLeod's Tables.

To think I almost deleted it, as I didn't think it very good, but Lorna made me keep it 'cause she liked it.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Muirshiel Country Park

Another rainy Sunday and with the Australian Moto GP finished on TV, we had to get out for some fresh air, rain or no. Anyway, for a change we headed southwest towards Lochwinnoch and Muirshiel Country Park, which is part of the larger Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park that ranges from Greenock in the north down the Clyde coast and inland to Lochwinnoch.

It's less than 20 miles from our door so it's ideal for a few hours away from the city. Getting to Lochwinnoch is easy - straight west along the M8 and take A737 just past the airport and the turn off is well signed. From Lochwinnoch it's a bit more difficult - the signage isn't great and once you find the right road, it's three miles along a single-track road that doesn't have a lot of passing places.

There's plenty of parking and we parked right in the visitor centre as it was pretty empty what with the rain but I imagine it's much busier on a good day. Apparently the main visitor centre is built on the site of a Victorian shooting lodge, once the home and estate of one of Glasgow's nouveau riche in the mid-nineteenth century. But now entry is free to the public so we picked up some guide maps from the centre and headed for the first walk.

Muirshiel Waterfall

This is only a short walk along a dead-end path from the centre but it's a wee bit of a letdown. It's quite a nice stroll along the riverside path and it looks like it'd be a nice looking waterfall but you simply can't see it from the path. The only viewpoint you get is from the top of the falls and, while the view down the River Calder and the surrounding countryside is nice, you just can't see the falls. You'd have to cross the river and walk round the to lower side to get the kind of view we were hoping for but you're actively discouraged from doing that. Fair enough, there's no bridge or ford and you could fall in but the addition of a little footbridge and fenced walkway would certainly make it a better attraction.

Windy Hill

This looked the best walk of the lot - a kilometre long stroll through a conifer plantation and out onto the hillside to Windy Hill, an old volcanic plug with some good views over the surrounding landscape.

The lower part of the walk is up through some replanted native woodland so it'll be quite nice there in a few years. The conifer plantation is another story altogether - dark and densely packed, you can't see very much at all as you pick your way along, trying to keep your eye on the track. There were loads of fungi out, ranging from loads of little white toadstools up to the huge mushroom-capped giants. We also came across a reconstruction of a Hut Circle, dwellings used in the Stone Age (3,000BC).

Once out of the woods, it's a plain walk to the summit (316m) of Windy Hill. Most of this track is on a double path of old railway sleepers, which help keep your feet dry, as it's a pretty soggy looking area. The view from the top is quite good and you can see across the rocky top of nearby Craig Minnan to Kilmacolm and Bridge of Weir with Glasgow beyond. I'm told you can see Ben Lomond from here as well but the low rolling clouds kept that mysteriously hidden today.

We had a bit of detour through the woods on the way back and got slightly lost in the dark forest tracks (or lack of them) but not for long and then it was time to head home.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

A Walk Up Kirkton Glen

With the weather forecast looking like we were going to get a decent weekend at last, Lorna fancied going for a walk in the hills. Sounded good to me and it'd give me a chance to break in my new, light hiking shoes and try out my new camera. Mind you, I'd worn the shoes all day Saturday just to get a feel of them and they were pretty comfortable.

So, after poring through the walk books and maps, we decided to head for Balquhidder and walk up to the top of Kirkton Glen. Rob Roy Macgregor, one of our more famous or infamous Scots, lies buried in the kirkyard there and it's a place I've never visited before so we'd get to take in a bit of our heritage as well.

Kirkton Glen runs north(ish) from Balquhidder, probably somewhere between two and a half and three miles up to the top so bank on at least a five mile hike. The walk starts from the back of the church and there's plenty of parking there but it's a busy place with visitors to the graveyard so don't be surprised to see quite a few cars there. The O.S. map of the glen makes it look like it's all pretty much forested but most of it has been cleared of trees. That's good news if you don't like hiking uphill through a warm and humid forest and the warmth brought out some late butterflies so I was happy enough chasing these around and trying out my new camera.

Green-veined White butterflyGreen-veined White butterfly

It's a pretty straightforward walk, if a bit strenuous as you climb just over 1,500 feet doing it. You follow the path north on the right side of the burn for about an hour until you get to a fork in the road. The left fork goes down towards the forest and, if you go that way, it crosses the burn and curves back round and back down to Baquhidder along the edge of the forest. Continue on instead and you'll soon come to a bench at a curve on the path and just across from it is a small footpath heading off north into the hills and signed for Glen Dochart and you can clearly see the rising summit of Leum an Eireannaich ahead. The main path continues curving round and turns south towards Balquhidder again so you want to take the Glen Dochart path. We had lunch, sitting on the bench so it's a nice place to stop and rest for a while.

All you have to do then is follow the Glen Dochart track up overt he hill until you reach Lochan an Eireannaich, which is another nice place to sit and relax against the backdrop of the cliffs of Leum an Eireannaich. On the way up you'll pass a huge boulder, noted on the map as Rob Roy's Putting Stone. It's obviously split away from the cliffs and has slid down a fair way before coming to rest. The lochan looks nice enough for a swim but it's probably freezing. Might be good for fishing as there was a good splash from a reasonably sized trout at one point. We had a wander round the loch and it was well populated with tapdoles and we also saw a few tiny froglets near the water's edge.

Leum an EireannaichLeum an Eireannaich

If you walk on past the lochan and through the beallach onto the hill beyond there are some good views to be had of Ben More and Stob Binnean to the west and the Mamlorn Hills to the north. You could keep on going, following the path down into Glen Dochart, if you had the means of getting back to Balquhidder but the normal return route is back the way you came until you hit the place where the main path curves and you can take any of the three routes down.

As for the new shoes...they did the job as well as I'd expected. Great for light hikes on decent paths or tracks but not quite enough ankle protection for serious climbing. The Sony DSC H2 camera also performed very well, once I'd figured out where some of the functions were.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Another Online Bargain

I've fancied a pair of light walking boots/trainers for a while and have never seen anything I liked enough before now. I'd also wanted something I could abroad on holiday and do some light walking in. I usually just plod around in trainers but we end up doing miles and my feet are killing me by the time we're done.

Anyway, we were trolling around the outdoors shops in town last weekend and looking for walking sandals for Lorna and I saw these…

Merrell Chameleon II GORE-TEX XCRMerrell Chameleon II GORE-TEX XCR

So I tried them on and they're really light with a good Vibram sole for walking in. They're also lined in Gore-Tex® XCR® so they're breathable and weatherproof - ideal for light day hiking in any conditions. This is getting to sound like an advert but I baulked a bit when I saw the price - £85. That's more than I've ever paid for any kind of footwear other than my climbing boots so I thanked the salesman and headed home to hunt for them on the net.

Suprisingly, most online stores were selling them at £85 as well so I thought that a bargain wasn't going to be found but after a bit of a surf around I managed to find a store with a sale on so and I got them for about £71 with the P&P and that's nearly 16½% off. Not a great bargain by any means but better than a poke in the eye with a pointy stick!

I just need to break them in now…