Monday, December 31, 2012

Books Read in 2012, Part 4

The Discworld project continues, plus a couple of bedtime stories that Lauren and I read together.  I’m about three-quarters through one of each of those as of right now, but I suppose they will just have to wait until next year’s list.


Interesting Times (Terry Pratchett)

The Agatean Emperor is on death’s doorstep – a familiar place for such people, as assassination is considered a normal career path for aspiring emperors – and the armies of the great warlords are massing around the capital.  Unfortunately for them, so is Rincewind the Wizzard (by request of the Red Army, a puppet rebel organization sponsored by one of the warlords) and so also is Cohen the Barbarian and his Silver Horde of elderly barbarian heroes (on their own initiative, as barbarian hordes tend not be good followers).  This is a long meditation on warfare, conquest, the virtues or lack thereof of revolutions in general, and Chinese history, in which the convoluted politeness of Agatean society often comes up rather lacking in the face of practical barbarian simplicity.  Pratchett also has a lot of fun with the difficulties involved in trying to speak a tonal language as a non-native.

Maskerade (Terry Pratchett)

Perdita X. (nee Agnes) Nitt has gone to Ankh-Morpork to make her fortune in the opera.  Granny Weatherwax has taken Nanny Ogg to Ankh-Morpork to see the publisher who has cheated Nanny out of thousands of dollars in royalties from her book, The Joye of Snacks.  Naturally their paths cross in an extended satire of The Phantom of the Opera that is full of the kind of in-jokes that anyone who has spent time backstage will appreciate.  This is one of the more plot-driven of the Discworld books, with less space given to the moral framework underneath than some of the earlier (and later) novels in the series, but it flies right along and makes its point about the power of stories to alter reality well enough.  Also, no matter how hard Agnes fights it, you know she’s going to be the third Lancre Witch eventually, replacing the now married and busily royal Magrat Garlick.

Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook (Terry Pratchett and Stephen Briggs)

At some point after writing Maskerade Pratchett must have decided to make Nanny Ogg’s The Joye of Snacks a real thing, but since most of the recipes in that book were meant to be libidinous at best and aggressively obscene at worst, he instead wrote what would have been the sequel, complete with editorial notes from the publisher and his assistant regarding what must be removed and why.  This is a slight but generally amusing collection, complete with a section on etiquette at the end and a couple of recipes submitted by other characters as well (Lord Vetinari’s “Bread and Water” recipe and Leonard of Quirm’s recipe for a cheese sandwich being the two that stand out most).  The recipes are genuine things one can make – especially if you have a fondness for fish or nuts, which most of them contain – but they are clearly designed for the British market and many have ingredients you either can’t get in the US (such as caster sugar) or might be able to get under some other name (such as courgettes).

Feet of Clay (Terry Pratchett)

When two seemingly harmless old men are murdered in cold blood (as opposed to being inhumed by Assassins for a reasonable payment, which is legal in Ankh-Morpork), it sets off a long police procedural of a novel featuring the newest alternative citizens to appear in the Discworld series, golems.  Add in an attempt to keep the Patrician, Lord Vetinari, on the sidelines, the coming out of one of the dwarfs in the Watch as a female (difficult to tell with dwarfs, even on close inspection), a bizarre attempt to make Cpl. Nobbs into the new king, and the continuing tribulations of Angua – the Watch’s only werewolf – as she tries to rationalize her relationship with Captain Carrot, and it all adds up to a fascinating story.  This is the book where Commander Vimes’ sense of social justice comes to the foreground in a way it hasn’t before, as he revisits his old neighborhood – a place full of the genteel poor, too proud to fall into crime and too far down the social scale to matter to anyone who could possibly help them.  The anger that fuels that gives the rest of the book more of an edge than it would otherwise have.

Hogfather (Terry Pratchett)

The Discworld story once again focuses on Death, in a plot that is similar in many ways to the old Tim Burton movie, The Nightmare Before Christmas.  A macabre figure (Death in this book, Jack Skellington in the movie) finds himself in charge of a much happier holiday and playing the main character from that holiday (the Hogfather, Santa Claus).  Comedy ensues.  While Burton’s movie was about identity and whether one could be someone else without bringing your old self along for the ride, Pratchett’s book focuses on the by-now-standard Discworld notion of the power of belief to affect reality.  The Auditors – the shapeless figures who control Reality – want the Hogfather dead.  Without the Hogfather, the Sun will not rise from its midwinter sleep – the power and truth of old myths and primal magic is one of the central ideas here.  The Auditors have hired Mr. Teatime, an Assassin about whom even other Assassins are uneasy, to do the deed, but Death, in his continuing campaign to understand and protect his harvest, steps in to serve as the Hogfather and rekindle humanity’s belief in him.  Throw in Death’s granddaughter (Susan), the thinking machine over at Unseen University (Hex), a number of oafish criminals, a Tooth Fairy franchisee, and the world’s most dangerous bathroom, and you’ve got yourself a novel.  This novel doesn’t hang together as well as most of the Discworld novels – I remember thinking that the first time I read it and wondering if it was just because I had a cold then, but it seems to be the case this time too.  But I do like the character of Death in these books – an earnest craftsman trying to understand his subjects within the limits of his capacity, and like all of Pratchett’s creations strongly moral in his way.

Jingo (Terry Pratchett)

The resurfacing of the ancient island of Leshp from beneath the sea, exactly halfway between Ankh-Morpork and Klatch, provides all the spark the Discworld needs for a pointless war and all the set-up Pratchett needs for one of his most strongly argued moral novels.  When a Klatchian prince is nearly killed on the streets of Ankh-Morpork (in a spot-on parody of the JFK assassination), Watch Commander Samuel Vimes investigates it as a crime even as mindless bloodthirsty patriotism in the persons of Lord Rust, military commander of the city, and his Klatchian counterpart, Prince Cadram push their respective populaces into war with all the echoes of the build-up to WWI.  It is this conflict between soldiers (creatures of war) and police (keepers of the peace) that drives the book.  Eventually it all ends up in Klatch as the two sides argue it out.  One of the joys of Pratchett’s work is how allusive it is, and there are references in this book to everything from old vaudeville jokes (“It was on fire when I lay down on it”) to Lawrence of Arabia.

The Last Continent (Terry Pratchett

Rincewind the Wizzard finds himself stranded in XXXX (pronounced “EcksEcksEcksEcks” though in later books I believe it gets shortened to “FourEcks”), once again on the run but this time pursued by a kangaroo who might be a deity.  A large portion of the faculty of the Unseen University of Ankh-Morpork is also stranded in XXXX, but millions of years in the past.  Somehow these two plot lines converge in a welter of chase scenes and commentary on Australian culture – which Pratchett clearly finds amusing in its ability to be sporting about even hangings and in the utter impenetrability of its slang vocabulary.  This novel really doesn’t hold together very well and while it has a number of great scenes and lines in it they don’t really add up to a coherent whole that I could see.  Eventually Rincewind finds a way to keep on running, because that is what he does, and the Last Continent – so named because it is the last one created, when all that is left of time and geography are the leftover bits – goes chugging along its merry way.

Carpe Jugulum (Terry Pratchett)

When King Verence of Lancre makes the mistake of inviting vampires from Uberwald into his kingdom for the naming ceremony of his baby daughter, it falls to the Lancre witches (Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, Agnes Nitt [and her split personality, Perdita] and Queen Magrat) to get rid of them.  But these are modern vampires – they can eat garlic, stand in the sun and swallow lemons, and they spell it “vampyre” to show their modernity.  It takes all of the ingenuity of the witches, the faith of the Omnian priest Mightily Oats, the aid of the vampyres’ servant Igor, and the fierce combat skills of the Nac mac Feegle – a blue-skinned race of 6”-tall Pictsies who make their first appearance in the series here – to get to the final confrontation scene, which is suitably dramatic and subtle at the same time.  Once again, Pratchett hits on perhaps the central moral message of the Discworld series – evil begins when you treat people like things.

The Egypt Game (Zilpha Keattey Snyder)

Lauren and I read this for her bedtime story in the fall.  April Hall is in 7th grade, dumped onto her grandmother by her absent mother, and unhappy.  But when she meets Melanie Ross her life changes.  They discover a common love for all things Egyptian, and with Melanie’s four-year-old brother Marshall, their neighbor Elizabeth, and eventually two boys from their grade – Ken and Toby – they convert a disused storage area behind the Professor’s junk shop into the land of Egypt, where their imaginations construct rituals and games out of the sight of adults.  But there is a murderer loose in the neighborhood, and before long everything will get far more complex than anyone anticipates.  This is a good story of tolerance and imagination, with a surprisingly dark undertone.  It’s an old book, written in 1967, and that breaks through occasionally, but it is entertaining and deserved its Newberry Award.

The Fifth Elephant (Terry Pratchett)

When the new Low King of the dwarfs is to be crowned in Uberwald, His Grace Sir Samuel Vimes, Duke of Ankh-Morpork and Commander of the City Watch is sent as the city’s ambassador.  But wherever a copper goes, he will find crimes or they will find him, and quickly Vimes is enmeshed in an incipient civil war in Uberwald – the Scone of Stone has been stolen, the werewolves are on the prowl, the vampires are plotting, and everywhere he turns there is an Igor trying to sew things back together.  Vimes gets deeper and more complex as a character with each passing novel, and Pratchett uses this novel to flesh out the culture and history of the Discworld’s dwarfs as well – they started out as satirical takes on Tolkien’s dwarves, and here acquire a dignity and complexity of their own.  Meanwhile Carrot and Angua face relationship issues, the City Watch is left under the Queeg-like command of Sgt. Colon, and the whole ramshackle mess totters forward as it usually does.

The Truth (Terry Pratchett)

This was the book that started it all for me – the first Discworld novel I ever read – and I have a soft spot for it.  It is also, upon rereading, one of the better ones in the series.  William de Worde, black sheep son of Lord de Worde, somehow ends up starting Ankh-Morpork’s first newspaper, and this gets him deeply involved with a plot to overthrow the Patrician.  It’s not what he had hoped for.  But with his capable staff (Sacharissa, the daughter of his main rival; Rocky, a troll; Otto Chriek, a vampire dedicated to photography even if it means dissolving into dust whenever the flash goes off; a collection of homeless and largely insane delivery men; and a host of unflappably canny dwarfs), William will establish a free press and get to the bottom of this crime, more or less.  Pratchett spends a fair amount of time riffing on subjects as varied as Pulp Fiction, Alcoholics Anonymous, and the sorts of letters to the editor one finds all to often in newspapers, particularly in Britain.  It’s a deeply fun book, but with some fairly thoughtful things to say underneath.

The Art of the Discworld (Terry Pratchett and Paul Kidd)

I read this one slightly out of order (it references the books as the illustrations come up) but it’s just fun to take a break and see what some of the characters look like in the minds of the author and his trusted illustrator.  This is a large-format book of drawings and paintings of most of the major Discworld characters, with full commentary from Pratchett and some from Kidd as well.  Some look like I thought they would (Cpl. Nobbs, for example) and others, well, don’t.  My mental image of Samuel Vimes is a lot less Clint Eastwood-ish, for example (the illustrator who did Where Is My Cow? did a better job with Vimes, I think).  But it’s an interesting thing to see no matter what, and some of Pratchett’s commentary is enlightening as to the origins of certain characters and situations, and what he was originally trying to do with them versus what ended up happening.

Thief of Time (Terry Pratchett)

One of my favorite Discworld books, and one of the more difficult reads if the reaction of those I’ve recommended it to is any guideline, this is a story about Time – what it means, how it can be twisted, and what happens next.  The Auditors are the stand-ins for everything Pratchett despises – grey, formless, rulebound creatures who prize order above humanity and conformity above kindness.  When they convince a human to make the perfect clock, they know full well that it will stop Time and freeze the universe into a static state of perfection.  Against them are an odd array of characters – Death (along with the other Horsemen of the Apocalypse, as well as his granddaughter Susan), the History Monks (particularly the Sweeper and his apprentice), and one renegade Auditor who is slowly becoming human.  As a historian myself, I thoroughly enjoyed his take on how time and the past fit into the present.

The Last Hero: A Discworld Fable (Terry Pratchett)

Cohen the Barbarian and the Silver Horde – all half dozen or so of them – are tired.  They’re old, they’ve been heroes for longer than most people have been alive, and it’s time to die.  But heroes don’t just lie down and pass away – they go out in one last blaze of glory.  So they have decided to return fire to the gods.  With interest.  When they do, it will be the end of the entire Discworld – so Leonard of Quirm, Captain Carrot of the City Watch, and Rincewind the Wizzard are sent on a mission to stop them.  This book is lavishly illustrated and sort of choppily written as a result, but it does get in a few sharp observations about the nature of hero stories, and the drawings add a lot to the humor.

The Witch’s Guide to Cooking With Children (Keith McGowan)

This was another bedtime story that Lauren and I read, and it is – as advertised – “a modern retelling of Hansel and Gretel.”  Sol and Connie Blink are new in town, and their father and stepmother are trying to get rid of them.  Holaderry is the witch – she’s lived in town for hundreds of years, since before there was a town, and she is gleefully unrepentant about her child-eating ways.  Eventually there will be a confrontation, and there will be an ending of sorts – but one that clearly allows for the next volume in the series, because surely there is a next volume.  With very modernistic charcoal drawings for illustrations and a rather bleak perspective on life in general (Holaderry’s dog is named J. Swift, a reference I appreciated), it’s an interesting take on an old story.

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (Terry Pratchett)

Maurice is a cat who has suddenly – and much to his bewilderment – become self-aware.  He can talk, and being a cat this means he can scheme.  He joins up with a clan of similarly newly self-aware rats and one rather sweetly dimwitted boy to re-enact The Pied Piper of Hamlin from town to town as a scam – they show up and convince the townspeople there is a plague of rats, the town hires the boy to get rid of the rats, and everyone moves onto the next town.  As the story opens, they are on their way to their last gig, but things get complicated quickly when they run into a pre-existing (and not so benign) scam there.  This is the first of Pratchett’s YA Discworld novels and does not really fit into any of the established series (though the Death of Rats – here called “the Bone Rat” – does make a cameo).  It’s an examination of who counts as a Someone who needs to be respected, and what, if any, distinction there is to be made between Story and Reality.  The writing is slightly simpler than the average Discworld book, but the ideas are just as compelling.

Night Watch (Terry Pratchett)

What would you do if you could do it over again?  If you were somehow transported to a critical moment in your life, one that shaped you from that time forward, one whose wounds were still fresh and whose blood had not dried even years later?  In what is arguably the best – and certainly the darkest – novel in the entire Discworld series, Watch Commander Samuel Vimes is sent back in time to such an event, a time of revolution in the city, a time when all hung in the balance and when good men died for little if any reason.  He knows what is going to happen.  He knows that it has to happen.  But his doubled presence (yes, his younger self is still there) and the intrusion of a psychotic killer from the opening pages of the book mean that things are not happening exactly as they did, though close enough.  When it all blows up, though, Vimes is there to see it through.  This is a powerful meditation on fate, memory, and the madness of crowds, one that gives Pratchett ample scope to etch deeply into the mind of the reader his moral argument in favor of simple human decency in the face of overwhelming evil.

The Wee Free Men (Terry Pratchett)

Where do witches come from?  The Lancre Witches are all adults – Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg are old, and Magrat Garlick and Agnes Nitt are grown-ups entering the craft.  But there must have been a time before, when they were girls, when they realized what their future held.  This is the story of Tiffany Aching, nine years old at the outset, who is going to be a witch.  She lives on the Chalk with her family and their sheep, she misses her grandmother, and she is about to learn just how effective a weapon a frying pan can be in the right hands.  When her brother Wentworth is kidnapped by the fairy queen – and in the Discworld, fairies are malevolent creatures who prey on humans and feed off their dreams – it is up to Tiffany to rescue him.  On her side are the Nac Mac Feegle, one of Pratchett’s greatest creations.  The wee free men of the title, they are six inches high, amazingly strong, and fiercely independent Celtic-style warriors who believe that this is their afterlife and all the fighting, drinking and thieving they get to do is their reward for their real lives, which they will return to when they die in this one.  This is one of Pratchett’s YA books, and unlike The Amazing Maurice this will become a series, following young Tiffany as she grows into being a witch, with all of the humanity that entails.

Monstrous Regiment (Terry Pratchett)

When Polly Perks’ brother Paul goes missing in one of Borogravia’s interminable wars, she decides to disguise herself as a man and enlist in the army to try to find him.  Little does she know she’s about to join the strangest – and, in point of fact, last – platoon in Borogravia’s military.  Borogravia is a mess.  It’s been constantly at war for generations and it’s losing.  Its Duchess hasn’t been seen for decades.  And its god is insane.  Against the combined might of the Allies – including Ankh-Morpork, which just wants Borogravia to stop burning its signal towers to the ground – what hope does it have? But hope comes in odd forms and places, and Polly and her squad are definitely odd.  A prolonged satire on warfare, gender politics and diplomacy (much of it reads like a parody of the interminable Balkan wars that ultimately led to WWI), this is one of Pratchett’s middling novels – funny, thoughtful, and deeply moral, but lacking that extra edge that would push it into his upper echelon.

A Hat Full of Sky (Terry Pratchett)

When Tiffany Aching, now eleven, goes off to the forest and away from her beloved Chalk for an apprenticeship, she is followed by a hiver – a disembodied hunger that survives by taking over the bodies of the powerful, feeding off them, and then destroying them.  The hiver cannot be kicked or head-butted, which means that the assistance of the Nac Mac Feegle will be of limited value, but it can be faced down and that is where Granny Weatherwax comes in.  Tiffany is growing into the role of a witch in the Discworld – someone who does what needs to be done and sees what really is there rather than the comforting illusions that people have, someone who helps people through the edge states of their life.  Like all of the Tiffany Aching books, this is a YA novel in form, concerned with the coming of age of the main character, but in its heart and its prose it is a Discworld book indistinguishable from the others.  As Granny Weatherwax does to Tiffany, Pratchett tests his younger audience, willing them to beat him at his game and learn the lessons that will come from that.  The more I read the Tiffany Aching books, the more they rise to the top of the Discworld pile.

Going Postal (Terry Pratchett)

Moist von Lipwig is a fraud.  A convicted fraud.  But when Lord Vetinari, Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, makes him an offer he cannot refuse, Moist finds himself charged with revitalizing the moribund Post Office.  It’s all another con, in a way, but this time with the full backing of the city and with right on his side.  In his way is the Grand Trunk – the clacks system that has been taken over by corporate raiders and is slowly being torn down for a profit.  This set-up gives Pratchett ample room to comment on modern finance and business (it is not an accident that the new head of the Grand Trunk – a swindler every bit as fraudulent as the old Moist was – dresses as a pirate), the oddity of stamp collecting, and the hermetically-sealed and fiercely is oddly just culture of hackers, and it all ends with a prolonged riff on the legend of John Henry.  This is Moist’s first appearance in the Discworld, but not his last – he provides Pratchett a way to tell stories set in Ankh-Morpork that don’t center around Samuel Vimes or Vetinari, and that is a useful role indeed.

Thud! (Terry Pratchett)

Samuel Vimes, Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, has a problem.  Actually, he has several problems.  The Patrician wants him to sign a vampire into the Watch.  There is an audit of the Watch’s finances.  The deep dwarfs are stirring up trouble that can only be made worse by the upcoming anniversary of the Battle of Koom Valley, an anniversary that has all of the dwarfs and trolls of the city on edge.  An ancient, disembodied force of pure vengeance known as the Summoning Dark is stalking the city, looking for a way in among all these hatreds.  And every day, no matter what, he must report home to read to his fourteen-month-old son, Young Sam.  This novel is a return to the police procedurals of the City Watch series, but with the everpresent moral framework that makes that the best of the many series of Discworld novels.  You never do a bad thing no matter how good your reason, because it only makes it easier to do it again for bad reasons.

Where’s My Cow?  (Terry Pratchett, ill. by Melvyn Grant)

This is the picture book that Commander Vimes reads to his son in Thud!  And it is also a book about that picture book – picking up on a throwaway joke in Thud! that had Vimes ad-libbing a few lines to make the story more interesting to his son (when would a city kid be looking for a cow?) and proceeding from there.  It’s a fun little book, with some great illustrations.  Melvyn Grant draws a much more believable portrait of Vimes than the standard one drawn by Paul Kidby.

The Discworld Mappe: Being the Onlie True & Mostlie Accurate Mappe of the Fantastyk and Magical Dyscworlde (Terry Pratchett and Stephen Briggs)

This is pretty much what it says it is – a fold-out map of the Discworld, roughly two feet square, with an accompanying booklet describing some of the Discworld’s most famous explorers (defined as people who found other lands in the proper manner, as opposed to people who were just living there).  It’s interesting to see how the names and places relate to one another.

Wintersmith (Terry Pratchett)

Tiffany Aching is now 13 years old and apprenticed to Miss Treason, a witch a century her senior.  She’s not sure what to do about Roland – who is turning out to be not so bad a guy after all, in a teenaged-boy sort of way – and she’s equally unsure about what to do with her fellow apprentices and their self-appointed (and dreadfully annoying) leader Annagramma.  These problems quickly fade into the background when Tiffany unthinkingly inserts herself into the Dance of the seasons and finds the Wintersmith – the spirit of Winter – now has an interest in her.  When Miss Treason dies, Tiffany is left on her own to figure out how to deal with the Wintersmith – though anyone with Granny Weatherwax and the Nac Mac Feegles on their side can hardly be said to be alone.  Tiffany Aching emerges over her series of books as one of the most compelling characters in all the Discworld, and proof once again that we live in a golden age of YA fiction.

Total books read: Between 88 and 102, depending on how you count
Total pages read: 29,082
Pages/day: 79.5

Happy reading!


Carol Elaine said...

I've never read any of the Discworld books (much to the consternation of Michelle, HotScienceGuy and, I suspect, now you), but I have been catching the movie adaptations on Netflix Streaming (via Roku). Highly entertaining, of course, and interesting to watch the progression from the animated Soul Music to the live action films.

Thus far I've seen Soul Music, Hogfather and Going Postal. I've seen the first half of The Colour of Magic and will likely see the second half tonight. I'm quite enjoying them. Have to admit, though, that having several actors whose work I enjoy certainly helps (Ian Richardson, Charles Dance, Jeremy Irons, David Suchet, Tim Curry, Joss Ackland and, of course, Christopher Lee).

Looking forward to Wyrd Sisters

Beatrice Desper said...

My sister sells used books to Amazon. She grabs Terry Pratchett books on sight. "There will be a market for them for at least ten more years," she told me just last week. One day I'll get to them, too.

David said...

Carol Elaine - I've never actually seen any of the movies, which is not surprising since my ability to sit through movies of any description or quality has declined markedly of late. Perhaps someday I'll try, though. The books are very much worth reading if you ever decide to give them a chance.

Bea - I'm guessing Pratchett's books will have a market long after that. He's managed to transcend the SF/F genre to become a capital-A "Author" and a remarkable satirist. Speaking as someone who wholeheartedly loves the SF/F genre, that's an achievement - it's a genre known for ideas rather than writing, and when you can combine the two as well as Pratchett does that means something.