Reading 2017: Rounding Out the Year

See bottom for links to further entries in the “Reading 2017” series.

Well, 2017 has been an absurd year in too many ways, so it was nice to end it with the feeling that at least my reading wasn’t doing too badly. As I’ve mentioned earlier in the series, I wanted to focus more on content and not just books in terms of numbers. After my first year reading challenge (2016), in which I aimed for a certain amount of books to read, I found a way this time to shift away from that numeric goal with some fun and variety. The dirty details:

Three books from each of three new or newish genres:

Graphic novel: These turned out to be The Metamorphosis; The Iliad and the Odyssey and Frankenstein. In passing I also read a couple of Raina Telgemeier’s, who I knew from my son having read her in the lower grades. Two, Smile and Claudia and Mean Janine, I quite liked, though a third not so much as the whole story generally felt unfinished. All three of my central choices I’d read before (in “regular” form) and loved—save The Iliad, which I mildly enjoyed. (Perhaps I ought to give that another shot in ’18.)

Until reading Mary Shelley’s entry in a sort of nineteenth-century Fright Night writing contest, the only thing I really knew about Frankenstein was that everybody mistakenly referred to the monster by the title name. I was surprised at how much I liked the plot way back, though I admit Shelley’s style of writing more than likely had something to do with it. Nevertheless, the graphic novel version held up as well, even though it lost a bit from me knowing how it would end. Still, the tension was apparent and you felt for all parties involved; there just was no winning corner.

In contrast is The Odyssey, which in previous poetic reading I loved on a level so much higher than Frankenstein that I even told stories from it to my boy when he was littler (the island of the cyclops being a favorite). Here, however, we see that color isn’t everything, which is a pity because the shades are rather vibrant and alive. They don’t, however, really do anything for the narrative, though the fault of that may lay within the technique of text on bottom of panel, words within, floating in speech bubbles—too all over the place. The effect is meant to convey casual asides and humorous remarks, but I found it irritatingly distracting. Also, there is so much lost in the story, and while I get there was a lot for the author to choose from, this just isn’t a dynamic intro to Homer’s amazing tale.

For my review of Franz Kafka’a The Metamorphosis (adapted by Peter Kuper), click here.

True Crime: I happened upon it quite by accident, when reading an update on appeal of the amazingly entitled Michael Skakel, convicted of murdering fifteen-year-old Martha Moxley in her own front yard. Apart from the crime’s own shocking nature is the jaw-dropping reality that the Greenwich, Connecticut police were either too incompetent or inexperienced to find the young girl’s killer—or were they cowed by the sleazy Kennedy name and money that tries to lord over everything it touches (and frequently destroys)? Former police detective and author Mark Furhman investigated years later and literally wrote the book on how Skakel’s name became seriously linked to the murder. For my review, click here.

I was so impressed with Fuhrman’s style—as a detective as well as writer—that I sought out another, Murder in Brentwood. Here we are given a glimpse into the cross-aisle backstabbing, soulless ambition and strikingly stupid cult of personality behind the scenes of the infamous O.J. Simpson case that de-armed detective authority and investigation and later destroyed Fuhrman’s career. The author himself is no angel and he comes clean on everything the prosecution accused him of while also rightfully stating something to the effect of the R in racism being today’s scarlet letter—and utilized as recklessly. It’s an amazing story that fills in so many gaps I was shocked to read and even more surprised to learn when I talked to people about it, how widespread is awareness that Fuhrman was totally set up by an ego-enabled prosecution utilizing the wrong tack and a defense that would go to any lengths to win. Most of all, however, it made these two lost souls, people cut down so young, so heartlessly and so devoid of justice, individuals and not just more famous statistics, or distant humans you read of in the papers and then forget about.

Ann Rule is also a gifted writer, and her book, The Stranger Beside Me too was a recommended read. Utilizing her previous experience as a police officer, she at the time events in the book were occurring, had retired and engaged as a true crime writer for magazines and newspapers. She volunteered for the suicide hotline of a crisis center along with Ted Bundy, who I knew very little about except that he had been a serial killer. I don’t tend to think much about this sort of psychopath, but can guarantee that after reading this book they were on my mind for weeks. My usual rejoinder, “I don’t lose sleep over it, but—” lost a lot of airtime because I did stay awake more than I should have. Reading about the victims of Skakel and Simpson didn’t have the same effect—and I knew this straight away—because while they were targeted, in a set of rages, perhaps, they weren’t random. Bundy, on the other hand, could strike anywhere, and that set me on edge for awhile, especially having read Rule’s descriptive passages of sexual and mental abuse of such horrific nature I could barely comprehend how any human could even think this shit up. I won’t go into details here, just suffice to say that ISIS probably borrowed heavily from Bundy’s catalogue of twisted torture techniques. It’s not something I’m really keen on reading more of, to be quite frank.

Science fiction: Sky fi, as my wee one likes to call it. That’s one thing, but the real question, I found, is: What is it? To be honest, Jurassic Park didn’t strike me as sci-fi and when himself suggested it, I was initially taken aback. It contains science and is a work of fiction, yet for some reason I tended to think of outer space, which I typically only like reading about as non-fiction. Then someone suggested 1984, which really threw me for a loop. So I dropped it all and instead of heading for booklists, the first thing I did was look up the definitions because in order to choose some sci-fi, I first had to be clear what it is.

From the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction: “Science fiction is the literature of the human species encountering change, whether it arrives via scientific discoveries, technological innovations, natural events, or societal shifts.”

(Inserting a small note here: I’ve never heard of Gunn before, so don’t endorse or not endorse them.) At the web page their definition is expanded, but even in keeping with this foundation, it also squares with this one:

Och, who am I kidding? The real reason I’m on so long about this is because I didn’t manage to finish my sci-fi reading challenge. Surprisingly, quite a few titles appealed to me, although in thinking about it, I’d be willing to bet at least a few of them I’d put down after awhile, which is something I haven’t done a lot in recent years. Hyperion caught my eye, but somehow it went back to the library unread, and later I settled on Jurassic Park, 1984 and The Time Machine, though only ever finished the first. (I did read 1984 in elementary school, if that can score me some points). And while they weren’t official choices for the challenge, I can’t say enough about Richard Abbott’s Far from the Spaceports series, the first of which shares the series title and the second, Timing, continues the adventures.

Both involve Mitnash Thakur and his AI partner, Slate, battling financial fraud in space colonies near Jupiter, though terminating the criminal activity doesn’t tend to involve standard, earth-like consequences. The colonial culture and detective angles also drew me in, and I’m certain these will both be re-reads.

The other ones, though … I just couldn’t get interested enough to read them. I did have “discipline” in mind as a factor toward the challenge, though when push came to shove, didn’t see much worth in disciplining one’s self to read something, for leisure, that one can’t get into. I did open my mind to the genre, though, which is the real goal, and may return to those titles at a later date.

It might have helped if I didn’t have others that appealed more, but contributing likely was also my own all-around reading slowdown. Once I finished the massive pile of reviews I’d needed to do, I told myself I would read, during Christmas break,  only what I wanted to read—which turned out to be not much. I picked out a few books but simply spent a lot of time doing other things. I’m rarely not in the mood to read, but it does happen, and when it does, it’s a sizeable block. Close to the end I picked up a bunch of children’s books, the easier reading of which has jump-started me in the past. I pretty rapidly went through an old favorite, Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives, which was as absolutely fabulous as it ever was. I may even write a tad about it in the new year. A couple of others I began and passed on, and as of this writing I’m still reading Company of Fools (Ellis), whose story has also pulled me in.

And, finally …

Five off my neglected TBR shelves:

I didn’t have particular titles in mind, though at the time I wrote up a blog about the ideas, I was eyeing a certain few. It wasn’t long before I had to remind myself that lots of my leisure reading is determined pretty much by mood and what I feel like reading, so even had I definitively chosen, they stood a chance of being displaced—or not. It just depends.

As it happens, this year, like last, most of my reading was for reviewing, so very few of my own books came off the TBR. I did, however, manage to meet and exceed my five: Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War that Changed American History by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger; The Revolving Door of Life, Precious and Grace, The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine, The Bertie Project and The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds, all by Alexander McCall Smith; and three Peter St. John Gang books I’ve been after since I reviewed one last year: Gang Loyalty, Gang Petition, Gang Territory and Gang Spies. As you can see, I’m a great fan of both McCall Smith and St. John, the latter of whom has at least two more on backorder that I mean to read—and I say that with great emphasis! Semi-autobiographical stories of an orphan evacuee from the Blitz, these tales are funny, poignant and delightful, with a re-readability factor that’s out of this world.

A lot of books I’ve read this year have really great covers (e.g. Cometh the Hour, The Popish Midwife, Company of Liars), which had been a focus of many discussions I’ve seen across 2017, two of which I was privileged to be a part of. Another, Hand of Glory by Susan Boulton, came at a great moment, set during and after the Great War as it is, given my sort of “re-awakening” to the era. For the past couple of years I’ve been remembering all the Siegfried Sassoon we’d studied in high school and telling myself to dip into the era some more. Boulton’s story contains a mythical twist and the war portions are written with such dexterity: sensitivity but also a knowing of harsh realities, and some resulting passages simply wind into your reading being. And, at the risk of overloading anyone else’s TBR or shopping lists, speaking of getting into you: Jennie Orbell’s Two Chucks and a Tabby Cat had me laughing nearly all the way through, even at passages that weren’t always topics of humor. Orbell has such a feel for the foibles of humanity and a witty way of pointing them out to us, all while knowing when to retreat.

Retreat is what I did once in awhile, as you can see scattered through my 2017 reads here, by backing away from reviews and picking up one of my own, most of which are listed above. I love to write reviews, mind you, and I admit it felt a little odd to be reading a book with no intention (at least at the outset, and some I had to reprimand myself and say no) of writing it up. That happened at the end of the year as well, and taking a couple of weeks off to be reading whatever I pick up off the shelf has been simply grand.

Reads from the last part of 2017, some of which you may see again in these pages. As mentioned elsewhere, numbers weren’t the goal, though you have to plug something in. (Click image for full Goodreads spread.)
2017 saw the conclusion of my 1066 series (see tab in sidebar for links to posts), and the beginning to my Knights Templar (Michael Jecks) following. I’ve got the next two queued up to read as I type.
My reading of Susan Boulton’s Hand of Glory really revved my engines for more about the Great War. A mystery with supernatural and mythological twists, the novel has great staying power.
I’m hoping to dip into more reading about the Barbary Wars, having finally found a great start with Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger’s Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates.

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Previous entries in the Reading 2017 series:

The Importance of Covers (Book Bloggers Group Chat)

Readers’ Chat with Stephanie Hopkins

Origins of the Challenge

Reading Challenge 2017

New Genre Library (True Crime): Murder in Greenwich

New Genre Library (Graphic Novel): The Metamorphosis

New Genre Library (Science Fiction): Jurassic Park

New Genre Library is a three-part spinoff series of Reading 2017

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Thanks for reading and may 2018

be your best year yet!

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New Genre Library: Sci-fi (Jurassic Park)

This series explores genres new or newish to me as part of my 2017 reading challenge

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

I’m not really into dinosaurs and, had I never seen the movie of the same name—yes, that same one everyone else and their mother has seen twelve times—I likely would have passed Jurassic Park the book up as well. So why haven’t I read it before now? Well, I can thank my ever-present TBR, that pile of awaiting works towering over the tallest skyscraper and which keeps my anticipation on hyper drive. But I can also thank my teenage son, for finally getting to it. After a childhood of “house rule says you have to read the book before you can watch the movie,” he was given some more wiggle room, and still frequently experiences the book-movie pairing, just in reverse: if he loves a movie he checks to see if it’s based on a novel and if so, wants to read it.

Click image to view a slice of terror from the eyes of Tim, as he peers, horrified, through his night-vision goggles.

So he kept telling me I had to check out the Michael Crichton book that re-ignited the dino devotion, and I finally did (after also watching the film with him at least a dozen times). As he told me, there is a lot you’ll recognize, and some you won’t. The book, to the surprise of absolutely no one, is very different to the movie. There’s a Tim and Lex, and their parents are getting divorced, the reason they appear at the island. The story is rolling for awhile, however, before they appear, and we see another little girl first.

There is also a great deal of background detail presented in the novel, some of it slightly dry, but intriguing enough to make the connections Crichton wants us to, and it explains a lot about how events turn out in both book and film—we should say films, given material from the first book is seen in at least one sequel. With a subplot involving the theft of dinosaur embryos creating more questions, tension and irritability, we witness the start of a race against time to avoid catastrophe not only on the island, but also elsewhere.

Most everyone reading this probably knows the end results of Jurassic Park’s cinematic escapade, but I’ve never come across many who’ve read the book, so I’m hesitant to go into too much detail, because there really is more to know than just the plot—and it’s fantastic. Readers will re-evaluate their thoughts regarding the characters they actually cared about the most when they read the cast present itself differently. Character knowledge also plays a role and the thrill this creates runs throughout the entire book, from start to finish, even though those who open the tale are new, underdeveloped and generally there to furnish background information. Individual characters aren’t always as emotive as one might expect, given what they are experiencing, but this tends to become a lesser concern because readers themselves will be flipping pages to find out, snapping back at those they don’t like and running up against their own anxieties in the race to escape the monsters Hammond has spared no expense to create.

OK, yes, I know: they’re not “monsters,” some purists (such as Grant) may feel inclined to shoot back.


“[Y]ou ought to see the vets scrubbing those big fangs so he doesn’t get tooth decay ….”

“Not just now,” Gennaro said. “What about your mechanical systems?”

“You mean the rides?” Arnold said.

Grant looked up sharply: rides?

“None of the rides are running yet,” Arnold was saying. “We have the Jungle River Ride, where the boats follow tracks underwater, and we have the Aviary Lodge Ride, but none of it’s operational yet. The park’ll open with the basic dinosaur tour—the one that you’re about to take in a few minutes. The other rides will come on line six, twelve months after that.”

“Wait a minute,” Grant said. “You’re going to have rides? Like an amusement park?”

Arnold said, “This is a zoological park. We have tours of different areas, and we call them rides. That’s all.”

Grant frowned. Again he felt troubled. He didn’t like the idea of dinosaurs being used for an amusement park.


It’s just that if I were running for my life from huge-toothed ginormous creatures created by a raving megalomaniac, I wouldn’t be too worried about saving them face. Getting out of Dodge would be priority number one. Crichton, however, positions Grant as a true archeologist, someone who cares deeply about his subject of lifelong study, without obnoxiously endangering those who still walk the Earth (and minus the benefit of supra natural means, I might add). Moreover, he maintains a balance because he does care about people, and the conflict he runs up against illustrates how one can walk that fine line and act in the best interests of all—and why doing so has implications for other areas.

All in all, Jurassic Park is what so many already know: a fabulous, thrilling tale of hubris and the questions pertaining to scientific advancement, plus so much more. With characters, events and a timeline that ooze terror and suspense, readers will wonder why they never got to it long before now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Previous entries in the Reading 2017 series:

The Importance of Covers (Book Bloggers Group Chat)

Readers’ Chat with Stephanie Hopkins

Origins of the Challenge

Reading Challenge 2017

New Genre Library (True Crime): Murder in Greenwich

New Genre Library (Graphic Novel): The Metamorphosis

Stay tuned for rounding out the year and what’s in store for 2018!

New Genre Library is a three-part spinoff series of Reading 2017

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Book Review: Far from the Spaceports (with Giveaway)

Author Richard Abbott is generously gifting a FREE COPY (Kindle or e-pub) of

Far from the Spaceports

for one lucky winner! Read the review and comment below or here to get you name in the draw!

Update: The draw has been completed and we have a winner. Congratulations to Nataliya, and thank you so much to author Richard Abbott for generously providing a copy of his marvelous novel for our contest!

Far from the Spaceports by Richard Abbott

Spaceports cover

I’ll be honest up front: I don’t normally read science fiction, and in fact am not really a huge fan. Nevertheless, when a read of Far from the Spaceports was presented for possible review, I was open to it because I’d seen reviews for other novels by Richard Abbott, which … means nothing really, I know, given they aren’t sci-fi. But he’d piqued my curiosity in the past and a preview at the blurb gave me a sneaking suspicion this wasn’t “typical” sci-fi.

How glad I was I didn’t dismiss it out of hand, for Far from the Spaceports was a delightfully pleasant read, not only with a fantastic plot but also personable characters (one as artificial intelligence!), intriguing world-building, an especially thrilling and sweat-breaking scene and lures from one transition to the next—all the way through.

The sole bump for me was an opening chapter segment with a tad bit of disconnect, but I put this down to the narrative and I getting to know one other, and walking into a scene in progress smoothed over quite quickly. Potential readers with the same sort of relationship to sci-fi as I generally have can also rest assured that the jargon written into the tale is not the dense or fearsome linguistic mine trap from which we often recoil: in fact it’s fun to read and typically rather understandable: “Slate … had flicked on the message within a couple of femtoseconds of reception.” Abbott does a great job, as I came to see early on, of keeping his readers informed and on track with contextual passages of dialogue or prose that need little information padding at all.

Far from the Spaceports, set in the Scilly Isles, an asteroid belt close to Jupiter, is Mitnash’s story of his mission to the Isles to investigate financial fraud. He works under the jurisdiction of the Economic Crime Review Board (ECRB), along with his “onboard persona,” Slate, also referred to in the beginning as a stele. This I found rather fascinating, given that Slate performs, really, essentially the same function as ancient stelae in terms of the passing of information, though electronically and with the added modern ability to communicate via cochlear implant.

Ceres
Ceres, largest of the real-life asteroids, discovered by Giuseppe Piazzi in 1801. It lies in the orbit between Mars and Jupiter (NASA/JPL)

Abbott’s choice to tell Mit’s tale in first person is a splendid one, as readers can more closely get to the heart of what the protagonist is thinking and feeling, whereas there would be a remove with even an omniscient but detached narrator. We engage in more of a personal feel to what Mit experiences, such as the whining of an electric car, “probably older than I was,” in double-duty fashion providing readers an idea of just how long the colony has been functioning as well as the character’s sense of resigned acceptance regarding priorities of supply.

Mit has been doing this for a while as well, as indicated by his statement that, “Some years ago I’d asked Slate to use [his partner] Shayna’s voice as the audio basis whenever we were away from Earth.” As the story progresses we are privy to Mit’s impressions as he takes up his newest mission as well as his relationship with the loyal Slate, who provides him with data computations and information helpful to his investigation.

The information technology is what in part makes this novel different to many other sci-fi stories I’ve given a shot: it is the focus, not stereotypical laser battles with weapons that can melt your enemy, nor outstanding physical feats of bravado acted out by your hero. Mind you there is action and Mit is tested, required to engage his wits to escape physical and other danger that he finds himself embroiled in, can predict or see coming. His arsenal is awareness and prep, intelligence—of the cerebral as well as provided sort—and quick wits in detecting and escaping the mysterious, suspicious and dangerous. Abbott’s persuasive mixture of just the right ingredients at particular moments shows off a research and storytelling expertise blended together with such dexterity readers periodically pause to admire the effect—of writer as well as character.

“[He] was looking at me with the unfocused expression of someone who was querying a remote [stele]. I had practiced for hours in front of mirrors and human trainers to avoid exactly that look. He saw me watching and tried to cover himself.

 ‘[My contact] tells me your supplies will be transferred within the hour, Mr Thakur.’

 I nodded, knowing full well he had been running a completely different query.”

 Indeed, Far from the Spaceports is a mystery novel, complete with queries and lies, and the author skillfully balances this genre mix with humor, including that coming from interaction with Slate, who has a developed personality as well as perspectives. On occasion she is suspicious, which makes sense given her ability to mine data and utilize formulae to determine viability. But Abbott bestows her with more than that, allowing her to avoid the paradigm of “sidekick” by making her a greater part of the story and not merely a tool Mit utilizes to progress in his detective work; he needs her as much as she needs him, and not just for efficiency. Readers will appreciate her worry about being marginalized, for example, or frustrations, even snobbery regarding equipment. Already miffed in one scene, she retreats into mostly silence.

’The fake[ flowers] are better on Deimos.’

 Pretty, though.’

 She made a noncommittal noise. Neither of us had seen a real agapanthus plant, but Slate would have been able to acquire much more accurate sensory data than I could, so she was probably right.

 Whether right or not about the quality of the flowers, she also disliked her current living space and was letting me know. A hand-held was small, slow, and impoverished compared to her usual frame. She always made her voice sound tinny when she was transferred to inadequate hardware to remind me of her frustration.”

 At one point Mit partners with a new character who, despite her late appearance in the book, is also well developed, though presented in such a way I often wondered if she was helping Mit or would turn out to be a double agent or baddie. This continued the anticipation earlier created—and that provoked actual sweat on my forehead—when Mit has to work his way through a spell of psychological warfare perhaps even more frightening than super-powered space arms.

This links also to contemplations of what a futuristic world looks like, though to Abbott’s credit, he doesn’t fall into any sort of dystopian-like trap with machinations of evil—also sci-fi staples that may have turned me off in the past. Instead, he gracefully explores various elements, periodically pointing to new versions of what appears in our existing world: small anachronisms used to define or identify actions no longer actually performed in the manner described. For example, someone today might counter repetition with, “You sound like a broken record,” despite these devices being obsolete. In Mit’s world, errors in a systematic analysis are “still call[ed] a fat finger problem even if no fingers are actually used.”

Things can also get a little intrusive, such as it being “almost impossible to persuade anybody you were out of contact,” to the very dangerous, such as hacking and a higher level of identity theft. Abbott makes it believable because though it amps up the results to something quite deceptive and potentially very destructive, more so than we deal with today, it was birthed from our current technology. It adroitly fits readers of all stripes.

Dawn
Artist’s impression of the Dawn spacecraft above Ceres (NASA/JPL)

At the end of the day one could describe Far from the Spaceports as a sci-fi mystery, which it is, though it is so much more than merely that sum. With likeable characters and bad guys readers can’t easily identify, believable futuristic technology, a well-balanced mix of drama and dry humor, and a very engaging and well-told storyline, it is a new take on detecting, with enough questions arising in the end or remaining unanswered from earlier that it seems open to a sequel.

Like many books before it, Far from the Spaceports surely contains elements I missed that could be caught on a subsequent read. Of course, readers know only too well this is near impossible in these days of to-be-read piles threatening to topple over. However, as I approached the end I felt sorry not to be moving through more breathtaking scenes with Mitnash (I hope he doesn’t mind that I’ve been calling him Mit), that there weren’t at least 200 more pages. So then, as now, I resolved it shall be read again and I hope I’ll be doing it in anticipation indeed of that sequel I mentioned as possibility.

Far from the Spaceports is simply an amazing book that took me to a world I was alien in yet felt comfortable exploring and want to return to. Combining all the right elements of mystery, psychological thriller, sci-fi, adventure—not an easy balance—this is a novel that will bring aboard a wave of new readers for sci-fi, and have Richard Abbott to thank for it.

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Update: I am so pleased to announce that the author is indeed working on Timing, a sequel to Far from the Spaceports projected for release in early autumn. Stay tuned for my review as well as some chatting with and a guest blog from author Richard Abbott. 

In the meantime, be sure to comment below or here to get your name in the draw for your  FREE Kindle or e-pub copy of Far from the Spaceports

About the author …

richardabbottRichard Abbott writes fiction set in two very different places. First, there is science fiction, set in a near-future solar system exploring issues of high-tech crime and human-machine relationships. The second area is historical fiction set in the Middle East at the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200 BC.

His first science fiction book, Far from the Spaceports, introduces Mitnash Thakur and his virtual partner Slate as they investigate financial crime in the asteroid belt. A sequel, Timing, is in preparation for release in the second half of 2016.

His historical fiction books explore events in the Egyptian province of Canaan, following events in the life of a priest in the small hill town of Kephrath during a time of considerable change throughout the region.

Richard lives in London, England and works professionally in IT quality assurance.

When not writing words or computer code, he enjoys spending time with family, walking, and wildlife, ideally combining all three pursuits in the English Lake District.

You can follow and learn more about Richard Abbott and his books at Facebook and Google–and be sure to check out his brilliant collection of images! Far from the Spaceports is also available for purchase at Amazon and Amazon UK.

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The blogger was furnished with a complimentary copy of Far from the Spaceports in exchange for an honest review.

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All images courtesy of and/or provided by Richard Abbott.