Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Color of Magic - Terry Pratchett

1983; 210 pages. Genre : Comedic fantasy. Awards : #93 on the "Big Read", detailed here. Overall Rating : B+..

    This is the book that started it all - Terry Pratchett's initial Discworld offering. An inept and cynical wizard is forced to safeguard the health of a visiting and very naive tourist. Their (mis)-adventures cause the capital city of Ankh-Morpork to burn to the ground. This is followed by a trip to the lair of an unspeakable evil; then to a dragon-kingdom; and finally to the very edge of the (disc)-world.

What's To Like...
    There are endearing characters, such as : 1.) Rincewind, the wizard who only knows one spell and can't use it. 2.) Twoflower, the tourist who wants to see barroom brawls, fire-breathing dragons, and the rim of the world, and does it all without ever having a sense of danger. 3.) "The Luggage", a hundred-legged trunk that's a devoted bodyguard to Twoflower, and who will devour anyone it perceives to be a threat to him.

    .This was our introduction to Pratchett's zany wittiness. Here's one example, being Rincewind's description of Twoflower :

    ."Let's just say that if complete and utter chaos were lightning, then he'd be the sort to stand on a hilltop in a thunderstorm wearing wet copper armor and shouting, 'All gods are bastards'." Oh wow! A cross between Sylvia Plath and Douglas Adams.

    .My only complaint is the relative shortness of the book, and the fact that Borders wanted to charge full-price ($6.99) for it. Fortunately, it showed up at the used-bookstore for $2.00. Also, this is a "to be continued" tale - I now have to hunt down Book #2, The Light Fantastic. Assuming it is of similar length, then why weren't the two books combined into a single 400-page volume?

The Secret to good Fantasy-Writing...
    I read once that Tolkien's endeavor, when he wrote The Lord Of The Rings, was to simply not have any "dead spots" in it. It seems Pratchett follows this philosophy. I don't think a page goes by here without some sort of mayhem arising. Which makes sense - if you're writing a fantasy, why should there need to be more than a couple paragraphs before something wicked this way comes?

   .In the end, Discworld books are now "three for three" with me. I'd give this an "A" except for its brevity and the annoying need to now find the sequel. It appears a weekend trip to the library is in order.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Journals of Sylvia Plath - Sylvia Plath

1982; 355 pages. Edited by Ted Hughes & Frances McCullough. Genre : Non-Fiction. Overall Rating : D (but see last paragraph)..

    After immensely enjoying The Bell Jar, I picked this up with the idea of getting a better understanding about what drove Plath to her suicide attempts. Alas, TJOSP sheds little light in that regard.

   .There is now an "Unabridged" version of this book, so this particular edition is rendered essentially superfluous. And it needs to be kept in mind that I'm sure Plath never intended these musings to be shared with the general public.

   .This book was heavily edited by Plath's "quasi-ex" Ted Hughes, and her mom, with whom she had a complex love-hate relationship. One gets the feeling these two (especially Hughes) did some significant cutting to make themselves look good. For instance, there is nothing here about the "Bell Jar" breakdown years (allegedly, those journals just up and disappeared). There is nothing negative about Hughes here at all; and there is nothing here about the final months of Plath's life, after she and Hughes had separated due to his infidelity. (Hughes admits destroying the final two of Plath's journals).

   .What you do get is an open and often unflattering self-portrait of Plath. She has caustic comments about almost everyone she meets (although she finally breaks this habit in the last 30 pages of the book). She also is jealous about her authoring "rivals", especially when they get published before she does. And she is vain about her looks, considering herself to be a sort of disdainful man-eater.

.   Plath also seems to have set her life goals unattainably high. She is determined to be the best author   ever, and anything less than that causes grave self-doubts, insecurity, and bouts of depression. In college, she fears that she'll get trapped in a 50's marriage that will squelch her writing goals. Ironically, she marries Hughes who, for whatever his personal drawbacks, was a brilliant poet/writer. Plath "praises" his successes, but one gets the feeling her teeth were gritted when she wrote those entries.

What's To Like...
    There is a certain self-honesty about these journals, even if they show Plath in a less-than-favorable light. Two examples :

."If only a group of people were more important to me than the idea of a Novel, I might begin a novel." (pg. 320). "Feel unlike writing anything today. A horror that I am really at bottom uninterested in people : the reason I don't write stories." (pg. 324).

.And then there are the descriptive passages, throughout the book, of which Plath was a master. For instance :

."The wind has blown a warm yellow moon up over the sea; a bulbous moon, which sprouts in the soiled indigo sky, and spills bright winking petals of light on the quivering black water." (pg. 31) Oh my, That's beautiful!

    .Perhaps it might be said that Plath's real strength lay in being a wordsmith. She struggled her whole career to create plots for her marvelous prose. Even The Bell Jar, her magnum opus, is more an autobiography than a novel, and therefore needed no plot. I suspect that she is best-suited as a poet, not a story-writer. We shall see. Ariel is sitting on my TBR shelf.

    .In conclusion, I struggled to complete this book. Thank goodness for OCD. I can't recommend TJOSP to most readers; I got tired of Plath's endless verbosity about writing, editing, submitting, re-editing, rewriting and re-submitting all the poems and stories she worked on. However, those who are writers might rate this book much higher, even moreso if they can relate to Plath's bipolarity.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Fantasy Gone Wrong - Edited by Martin Greenberg & Brittiany Koren

2006; 16 stories; 309 pages. Genre : Fantasy. Overall Rating : B..

    Hey, is that a cool bookcover or what?! Sixteen authors were asked to write tales with humor, irony, and unexpected twists. At an average length of 19 pages, things like depth and development of characters are forgivably non-existent. As with any anthology, some stories were excellent; others were so-so.

    .My only gripe is with the last one ("Is This Real Enough?"), and that's only because of its sloppy spell-checking. "Deity" was repeatedly spelled d-i-e-t-y, and the name of one of the characters, Mirri, was occasionally spelled with only one "R". My normal review format doesn't work well with anthologies, so here's six of the stories that I liked.

01. Goblin Lullaby. It's elves and mankind versus witches and goblins, but this one's told from a goblin nursemaid's perspective. My personal favorite in the book.

.02. The Rose, The Farmboy, and the Gnome. Jed (the farmboy) owes 1000 gold pieces to the pixie underworld; or else Uncle Gotti and his femme fatale daughters are going to start slicing off various parts of his body. A nice, unexpected ending.

.03. New Yorke Snowe. A village whore (yes, there are adult themes and cussing in these stories), finds that a magic unicorn is inexplicably tagging along with her, which is interfering with her livelihood. Some nice twists, and a non-stereotypical stepmother.

.04. The Hero of Killorglin. A Tolkienish doggy faery tale. Short on the humor; long on the beauty.
.05. Finder's Keeper. Kinda like the Sorcerer's Apprentice segment in Fantasia, save that here it's the mage's pet wyrm and an animated spell book.

.06. Food Fight. A guy can hear food talking to him. The opening line is "My coffee keeps insulting me". Hilariously witty, although the storyline lags a bit.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Thief of Time - Tony Hillerman

1988; 325 pages. Genre : Murder Mystery. Made into a movie for the PBS series Mystery!. Overall Rating : B-.

   .An anthropologist vanishes among Anasazi ruins. A flatbed trailer and backhoe are stolen. Three murders rock the remote 4-Corners area of the Southwest. Navajo Tribal police lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and officer Jim Chee have to find the connection in all this, find the killer(s), and find the missing anthropologist.
What's To Like...
    The list of suspects are all "gray"; none jump out as the obvious bad guys. The solving of the case comes from dogged and determined detective work, not from some too-good-to-be-true stroke of luck.
Hillerman uses real-world settings, usually in the Native American regions in the Southwest. Since I live in Phoenix, this was a close-to-home story. He also focuses heavily on the daily lives of the Native Americans, and their sturggle to maintain their cultural identity. Chee and Leaphorn are a nice study in contrasts. Leaphorn is modernized - Navajo traditions don't bother him, and he doesn't believe in witches. Chee is a "singer" - kind of a junior shaman for his clan. Finding bodies calls for a ritualistic cleansing just as soon as the policework is done.

   .That being said, there is a bit too much emphasis on the cultural issues here. A bit more time might have been spent on smoothing out the storyline. The ending seems contrived and just a bit abrupt. Oh yeah, and we have yet another burnt-out cop here (Leaphorn). Is it too much to ask just once to have the main cop be well-adjusted and happy to go to work each day?

On writing Murder-Mysteries...
    I have a feeling this is a tough genre to write. Somebody gets killed early on. Somebody else spends most of the book searching for clues and trying not to be offed or fired as he/she closes in on solving the case. At the end, there needs to be an exciting climax, with the perpetrators getting their just desserts. There's not much room for variation in this format, and how many thousands of murder-mystery books are there out there?
Adieu, Tony Hillerman...
    Tony Hillerman put his unique stamp on the murder-mystery format by imbuing his books with a heavy dose of Southwestern Native American history & culture. I've read that among the Hopis, Navajos, etc., he is held in high esteem for this. Tony Hillerman passed away last October 26, at the age of 83. While I'm not a big fan of this genre, it seemed appropriate to read one of his books.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Code of the Woosters - P.G. Wodehouse

1938; 222 pages. Genre : British comedy. Overall Rating : A.

   .O Happy day! My local library has a veritable trove of P.G. Wodehouse books! I can see me going on a "Jeeves" kick in 2009.
    The Code Of The Woosters is a more typical Jeeves book than The Return Of Jeeves, reviewed earlier here. TCOTW is told in the first-person, and by Jeeves' usual employer, Sir Bertie Wooster.

   .Bertie and Jeeves are guests at a neighboring estate, and Bertie is being blackmailed by three different relatives, each of whom wants him to purloin a cow creamer from there for them. The task is complicated by the fact that the present owner and his goose-stepping bodyguard already suspect that Bertie is a thief. It gets worse when someone pinches the local constable's helmet. Suspicion immediately focuses on Bertie, and inexplicably, said helmet keeps showing up in his room.

What's To Like...
    This is vintage Wodehouse. Besides the plethora of threads, there is a recurring theme of Bertie & Jeeves confidently "taking care of everything", only to find themselves in deeper doo-doo five minutes later when something inevitably goes awry. When they take care of that new challenge, another unforeseen twist immediately shows up, landing them in an even stickier wicket.

    .The book is well-written, quite funny, and full of Britishisms. It also is notable that Wodehouse takes some political jabs at Fascism in the book, save that here the brown-shirts are replaced by black-shorts. This buffoonery was quite brave, given that Wodehouse wrote this in 1938, when Hitler and Mussolini were on the rise in Europe. In the end, all turns out well, and the Code of the Woosters remains intact. I highly recommended this book, especially since it's probably available at your nearby library.

A few words on cow-creamers...
    Maybe I've led a sheltered life, but I had never heard of such a thing as a cow-creamer. I could of course, deduce what it was. Still, it was nice to find that Google Images has dozens of pics of them, one of which is to the right.
    Amazingly, the source of all my knowledge, Wikipedia, does not yet have an entry about cow-creamers. They give one short sentence about them bring a favorite Wodehouse prop, and that's it. So if you're yearning for instant fame by writing an article for Wikipedia, here's your opportunity.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Thud! - Terry Pratchett

2005; 382 pages. Genre : Fantasy. Overall Rating : B..

    Thud! is the name of a board game played in Discworld. The pieces/sides are dwarves and trolls, and the game is unique in that you have to successfully play it from both sides in order to win the game. Thud! is also the sound Grag Hamcrusher's skull made when someone bashed in the deep-down dwarf's head . With a club.

    Possibly the troll's club found beside the body. It's now up to Sam Vimes and the City Watch to solve the murder before the Trolls and Dwarves turn Ankh-Morpork into an urban battleground.

What's To Like...
    The Wodehousian influence is readily apparent in the tangle of plot lines going on here. Besides the murder and imminent ethnic warfare mentioned above, there's the first vampire to join the City Watch; a huge painting done by a deranged artist that just might hide some clues about some secret or treasure (a Pratchett tweak at the Da Vinci Code); a nasty "dark" monster that I swear was also in The Wheel of Darkness, reviewed here ; and last but not least, there's Sam Vimes hurrying home each night to read "Where's My Cow" to his son.

   .All these disparate lines get nicely tied together by the end of the book. Oh, and for you romantic types, there's even a love story between one of the guards, Nobby, and a sweet young thing named Tawnee. Yes, she's a pole-dancer, but is that any impediment when it comes to true love?
    This is something like #34 in the Discworld series. The only other one I've read is #8, Guards! Guards!. (I must have a thing for exclamation marks in titles). Thud! doesn't pack as many laughs-per-page as G!G! did. It kinda reminds me of the TV series M*A*S*H in its latter years. Less yucks, more message.

    Thud! does take on some serious themes - racial prejudice, affirmative action, and religious fanaticism, to name a couple. Yet at its core, it's still a light-hearted, fun-to-read fantasy.

   .It is interesting to note that subsequent to this book, a real-world board-game "Thud!" was developed. And "Where's My Cow?" was developed into a real-world children's book. In the end, this is a good read, although it probably shouldn't be your introduction to Discworld. I did find the very first Discworld book, The Color Of Magic, at the used-bookstore; and I'm looking forward to reading the "genesis" of this decades-popular series.