Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Hogfather - Terry Pratchett

   1996; 354 pages.  Book  #20 (out of 41) in the Discworld series; Book # 4 (out of 4, I think) in the Discworld Death series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Comedic Fantasy.  Laurels : 137th in The Big Read; British Fantasy Award nominee in 1997.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    It’s Hogswatchnight Eve on Discworld, and something seems just a bit awry with the Hogfather.  No, it’s not the four giant, flying hogs – Tusker, Snouter, Gouger, and Rooter - that pull his sleigh while he delivers toys on this night; they’re the same as always.

    Instead, its the Hogfather himself.  He seems ...well... different.  His face is narrower, darker, and bonier.  And although his girth is plump as always, it appears he’s actually a skinny guy with a pillow strapped around his stomach.

    Then of course, there’s that scythe he’s carrying.  That definitely is not a standard piece of Hogfather paraphernalia.

What’s To Like...
    The book’s cover lets you know immediately who is being parodied here; so I chose this as my 2015 “Christmas read”.  Published in 1996, this is at the creative height of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld wit and storytelling.  Hogfather is also one of four Discworld books that spotlights Death and some of his associates, including his granddaughter, Susan; and his rodent counterpart, The Grim Squeaker.

    This is a classic Discworld story, with its usual structure – lots of hilarious footnotes, no chapter divisions, a great supporting cast that includes both familiar faces: the Wizards (with their computer called “Hex”), Corporal Nobbs, and my favorite, The Librarian; and some refreshingly new ones: Banjo, Violet Bottler (the Tooth Fairy), Bilious (the “Oh God” of Hangovers), and the enormously cute and charming galoot, Banjo.

    There are a bunch of plot threads (I counted at least five of them) that Pratchett skillfully weaves together at the end.  But make no mistake about it: Death is the star here, and that’s a big plus.  Pratchett cleverly uses him, as he makes his rounds with Albert, his pixie assistant, to discuss the true meaning of Hogswatchnight/Christmas.  His conclusions may surprise you.

    The other major theme here concerns the merits of Belief itself, particularly those involving the god or gods of your personal choice.  Terry Pratchett was an avowed humanist, so his thoughts on this were enlightening.  OTOH, if you prefer your themes a bit less serious, you’ll delight in the Campaign for Equal Heights.  Or the ability of Belief to conjure up all sorts of pesky mini-gods.

Kewlest New Word ...
Profligacy (n.) : the state or quality of wasting something, usually money, but here the wasting of life.

    “Well, I mean, dammit, it’s human nature, isn’t it?” said Ridcully hotly.  “Things go wrong, things get lost, it’s natural to invent little creatures that – All right, all right, I’ll be careful.  I’m just saying man is naturally a mythopoeic creature.”
    “What’s that mean?” said the Senior Wrangler.
    “Means we make things up as we go along,” said the Dean, not looking up.  (pg. 191)

    Violet’s lips moved silently.  Part of Bilious thought: I’m attracted to a girl who actually has to shut down all other brain functions in order to think about the order of the letters of the alphabet.  On the other hand, she’s attracted to someone who’s wearing a toga that looks as though a family of weasels have had a party in it, so maybe I’ll stop this thought right here.  (pg. 286)

Death was hereditary.  You got it from your ancestors.  (pg. 203 )
    Hogfather is another fine Discworld tale, but there are a couple caveats.  For starters, the storyline at times slips into a darker tone.  There's a psychopathic assassin, a cold-blooded murder or two, and several horror scenes that Dean Koontz could take pointers from.  If you like your Christmas reads full of snow bunnies, cocoa, and warm, blazing fireplaces, this probably isn’t your kind of book.

    Also, if you’re not reading this series in order (and I’m not), some of the threads and characters may get confusing.  I never did figure out the role and goal of the Auditors; apparently they’re carryovers from an earlier story featuring Death.  But you can still read this as a standalone novel; just be prepared for one or two minor info gaps.

    9 Stars.  I expected Hogfather to be a fascinating read, and it did not disappoint.  Subtract 1 Star if you were hoping for something along the lines of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Clockwork God - Jamie Sedgwick

   2013; 218 pages.  Book 1 (out of three) of the Aboard The Great Iron Horse series.   New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Steampunk Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    In a post-apocalyptic, steampunk world, Socrates and his band of adventurers ride the steam-powered locomotive, The Iron Horse, through the icy wastelands in search of other remnants of civilization.  Their train is ½-mile in length, so they can take on board lots of survivors.

   Of course, what we’re really talking about is human survivors.  There are wild beasts afoot.  They are a good source of meat, but can be quite the challenge when your weaponry has been reduced to muskets and swords.

    Plus, not all of the humans they encounter may want to be “rescued”.  Some may even be downright unfriendly.

What’s To Like...
    The cause of the civilization-erasing event is not given; but it’s most likely either a new Ice Age or a nuclear winter.  There’s a bare-bones prologue that gives you a small amount of a backstory, but it felt like you’re supposed to already know the main characters, and apparently they are carryovers from Jamie Sedgwick's previous series, The Tinkerer's Daughter.  But if you haven't read that trilogy, it's okay; the world-building here is great, and I quickly became acclimated to it.

    There’s not a lot of characters to keep track of, which makes it easy to focus on the storyline.  The action is fast-paced and plentiful, and everything builds to an exciting, albeit, not particularly twisty, ending.  There’s a nice variety of characters, although the steampunk ape Socrates is by far the most fascinating.

    Critters and gadgets abound.  Besides the train itself, we have muskets and broadswords, and a mysterious substance called “Starfall” which provides the power for the steam train.  If Socrates and company can’t find enough Starfall, there are literally dead in their (railroad) tracks.  There’s also a way-kewl “bone-shaker” (a steam-powered bicycle), and I was pleasantly surprised to see Chemistry – in the form of a distillation apparatus – get some ink.  We won’t tell you anything of the critters; it’ll be more fun if you meet them firsthand.

    Besides all the hack-&-slash, Jamie Sedgwick explores the more serious theme of blind faith.  In this age of religious shysters and political hucksters, it’s a timely topic.  The Clockwork God is a standalone novel that ends at a logical place, and of course leaves you wanting to read the further adventures of the crew of the Iron Horse in the next book.

    The burly blacksmith dismissed his bald-headed companion with a snort.  “You’re projecting,” he muttered.  He took a big bite of roast and the greasy juices streamed down his beard.  He appeared not to notice.
    “Aye, like you know what that means,” Patch said, rolling his eyes.  “Don’ be slingin’ those silvery words ‘round here.”
    “It means ya see in him what ain’t there; what yer seein’ is yourself.”
    “Pfft,” was Patch’s educated response.  (loc. 751)

    “My people are simple, but I guide them gently, like a shepherd.”
    “No doubt you do.  However, it has been my experience that the ignorant always hunger for knowledge, just as your people’s bellies hunger for food.”
    “Ah, but is that not the way of things?”  The Keeper took a sip of his wine and smiled.  “Alas, we have no control over the world, or we would solve all of these problems with a snap of our fingers.”
    “Would you?” Socrates said.  (loc. 1380)

Kindle Details...
    The Clockwork God is free at Amazon right now.  The other two books in the series, Killing The Machine and The Dragon’s Breath, sell for $0.99 and $2.99 respectively.  Jamie Sedgwick has a slew of other books and series, all of which are in the $0.00-$2.99 price range.  His general pattern seems to be to offer the first book in each series for free, the second one for $0.99, and the rest for $2.99.  I think this is a great marketing strategy, and just bought Killing The Machine.

 “We are all machines of a sort. … We are made of moving parts.  But if we have consciousness, then we are more than the sum of our parts.”  (loc. 1317)
    The quibbles are minor.  Although there was plenty of action, the main storyline – meeting and interacting with a strange town and its strange beliefs and townspeople – is not very “epic”.  This is not necessarily bad; in a way, it reminded me of a typical episode in the original Star Trek series.  Highly entertaining, but not particularly cosmos-shaking.

    Then there was the attempted rape scene, which felt awkwardly forced, and kinda made me wonder who the target audience was.  Steampunk is generally YA-oriented, and the sexual assault didn’t seem to be in keeping with the tone of the book.  But I’m not an expert on Steampunk, and know next to nothing about the overall tone of Jamie Sedgwick’s other books.

    Finally, at 218 pages, the book was over entirely too soon.  But maybe this just means it was a page-turner for me.  Bottom line – The Clockwork God kept my interest, and made me want to read other books by this author, including the sequel.

    7½ Stars.  This is a promising start to a new series by what is for me a new author.  We shall see if the subsequent books are as good, or even better than this.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Catcher In The Rye - J.D. Salinger

   1951; 214 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : American Literature; Realistic Fiction; Banned Books.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    It is not the best of times for Holden Caulfield.  He’s about to be expelled from an exclusive private academy.  Again.  For a total lack of effort.  Again.

    This time it’s prestigious Pencey Prep; it's the 4th school that Holden will be kicked out of; and he knows his parents are going to hit the roof.  There are still a couple days until the end of the semester, but he decides to leave school early, since his fate is already sealed and he’s surrounded by teachers and students who are (in Holden’s opinion) all phonies.

    He has some cash on him – he comes from an affluent family – and there’s no sense arriving home early to face the inevitable chewing out, so Holden opts to hang out in his hometown for a few days.  Which happens to be New York City.  Take in a play, go ice skating, look up old friends (especially girls), maybe hire a hooker.

    Except all his old friends are phonies.  And he’s still a virgin.

What’s To Like...
    The Catcher In The Rye is J.D. Salinger’s blockbuster 1951 novel, and grasps poignantly the alienation, angst, and crisis-of-identity that many teenagers go through, no matter what generation they belong to.  Some parts of the story can be described as autobiographical fiction, akin to Sylvia Plath and her novel, The Bell Jar (reviewed here).

   The story is told from a first-person POV (Holden’s), and in a stream-of-consciousness format.  Salinger makes extensive use of 1950’s teen-speak, some of which was still around in the 1960’s when I was growing up (eg. : “necking” and “corny”).  It was fun to read about an America that is long-gone, including long-forgotten things like phone booths, a La Salle convertible, and a popular song from that time, “Tin Roof Blues”.  Being the thoughts of an teenager with an attitude, it should not be a surprise that cuss words abound.

    The writing is very good; it has to be to keep the reader’s interest for 200+ pages while recounting Holden’s messed-up view of the world.  But our protagonist has some good aspects too.  He is honest about himself, knows when he’s screwed a situation up, and even evokes some sympathy as he tries to fathom the opposite sex.  One of Holden’s repeated lines is “It’s a funny thing about girls…”

    There are some great scenes in the book – such as the will-he-or-won’t-he encounter with the hooker and her pimp.  And while Holden may have some crumby (to use his vernacular) views on life, some of his mini-discourses are quite engaging, such as his reasons for liking Jesus but hating his disciples.

    The ending is either brilliant or unsatisfying, depending on your expectations.  While it is implied that Holden is finally getting some professional help, it is not clear that it’s altered his outlook on life in any appreciable way.

Kewlest New Word ...
Chiffonier (n.) : a tall chest of drawers, usually with a mirror on top.

    “Anyway, I keep picturing all those little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all.  Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me.  And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff.  What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them.  That’s all I’d do all day.  I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.”  (pg. 173)

    “I have a feeling that you’re riding for some kind of a terrible, terrible fall.  But I don’t honestly know what kind … Are you listening to me?”
    You could tell he was trying to concentrate and all.
    “It may be the kind where, at the age of thirty, you sit in some bar hating everybody who comes in looking as if he might have played football in college.  Then again, you may pick up just enough education to hate people who say, “It’s a secret between he and I.”  Or you may end up in some business office, throwing paper clips at the nearest stenographer.  I just don’t know.  But do you know what I’m driving at, at all?”
    “Yes.  Sure,” I said.”  (pg. 186)

“If a body catch a body coming through the rye.”  (pg. 115 )
    I have to admit that the first 2/3 of the book got repetitive at times.  Holden hates this, Holden hates that, Holden hates yet another person, and on and on it goes.  Yet it’s all worth it once he sneaks home and talks with his kid sister, Phoebe, who’s the one person in the world who Holden actually cares about.  The feeling is mutual, and that is what gives the reader optimism that Holden might someday get his life together.

    I chose The Catcher In The Rye as my “highbrow literature” book for 2015.  I try to read one of those each year but am not always successful.  It could also have served as my read for “Banned Book Week 2015”, since it continues to be one of the most challenged books year after year.  I find this paradoxical since it is also one of the most recommended-reading books in high school English classes.

    Bottom line: this book thoroughly resonated with me, because so many of Holden’s thoughts and views were also mine back in my salad days.  If you were your high school’s homecoming queen or star quarterback, you may not be able to relate to Holden, and may find his story to be a real drag.  But for every perfectly adjusted kid, there are a hundred others that are confused, maladjusted, and/or socially or emotionally messed up to varying degrees.  And that’s why The Catcher In The Rye remains such a popular novel.

    8½ Stars.  Subtract 1 Star if you prefer Leave It To Beaver to All In The Family.  I don’t know whether to pity you or envy you.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Shepherd's Crown - Terry Pratchett

   2015; 288 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book #41 (out of 41) in the Discworld series; Book #5 (out of 5) in the Tiffany Aching series.  Genre : Fantasy; Humor.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Change is coming to Discworld.  The witches can feel it.  The Kelda of the Nac Mac Feegle clan can sense it.  The Elf Lord, Peasebottom, feels it, and discerns an opportunity.  The Goblins believe that it is already underway.  And there are those who'd say that even the land itself is aware of it.

    Nobody can say how the ‘new’ Discworld will turn out, or even whether the change is for the better or the worse.  But one thing is certain.  When Tiffany Aching’s mentor, Granny Weatherwax, takes a walk with Death into the eternal night, the dimensional barrier between the realm of the Elves and Discworld has been seriously weakened.

    And that means some big changes are about to unfold.

What’s To Like...
    The Shepherd’s Crown features the witch-in-training Tiffany Aching, whose bodyguards (whether wanted or not) are the wee folk of the Nac Mac Feegle.  They’re always a treat to follow.  The “costars” are the various Discworld witches, who I also enjoy, including Granny Weatherwax.  I particularly liked Terry Pratchett’s handling of the Letice Earwig character.  Plus, it was fun to meet Geoffrey and his incomparable companion, Mephistopheles.

    The storyline is divided into three parts.  The first deals with Granny Weatherwax’s departure, and I felt it was the strongest portion of the book.  Terry Pratchett was aware that his days were numbered, and I got the impression that Granny Weatherwax’s discourse with Death reflected his own views on his life and mortality.  It left a lump in my throat.

    The middle portion dealt with Tiffany’s struggles to live up to her new position.  It was a bit too repetitious for me, and things bogged down once or twice.  The final portion of the story dealt with the confrontation with the Elves, and (as always) pulled all the plot threads together nicely.  The ending isn't particularly twisty, but I liked it that the Elves are baddies here.

    The titular Shepherd’s Crown figures into the story.  I won’t say how, but if you have trouble visualizing it, its image is on the book’s cover.  A couple of other Discworld characters make cameo appearances, and if goblins and geezers are your kind of critters, you’re in luck.

    The Shepherd’s Crown is a standalone novel, and the closing book of both the 5-volume Tiffany Aching series, and the larger 41-volume Discworld series.  I’m not reading either series in order, and am aware that I therefore missed some plot details, most notably, the role of Preston in Tiffany’s life.  But I still had no trouble following along.

    The Appendix has both a hilarious “Feegle Glossary” and a touching Afterword from Terry Pratchett’s family.  You don’t want to miss either of these.

Kewlest New Word …
Littoral (n.) : a region lying along a shore. (it can also be used as an adjective)
Others : Dissembling (adj.)

Kindle Details...
    The Shepherd’s Crown sells for $11.99 at Amazon, which seems a bit steep, although this is a new release from a top-tier writer.  Most (but not all) of the rest of the Discworld e-books are in the $4.99-$9.99 price range.

    “What about this woman called Mrs. Earwig?”
    Drumknott made a face.  “All show, my lord, doesn’t get her hands dirty.  Lot of jewelry, black lace, you know the type.  Well-connected, but that’s about all I can say.”
     “Ah yes, now you tell me, I’ve seen her.  Pushy and full of herself.  She’s the kind that goes to soirees.”
    “So do you, my lord.”
    “Yes, but I am the tyrant, so it’s the job I have to do, alas.”  (loc. 834)

    “What are your names, boys?”
    Wee Callum, a little bit tongue-tied, said, “I’m Callum, mistress.”
    “Pleased to meet you,” said Tiffany.
    “Aye, mistress, and this is my brother, Callum.”
    “Two of you?” she said.  “Isn’t that difficult?”
    “Och no, I know who I am and he knows who he is and so does our other brother Callum.”  (loc. 3884)

 “Being a witch is a man’s job: that’s why it needs women to do it.”  (loc. 1461)
    There are the trademark Pratchett footnotes, but they didn’t seem to have their usual wit.  Indeed, that can be said of the entire book.  Also, the overarching tone of the book was a lot darker and more serious than most Discworld novels.  This has been the trend over the last 3-4 books, but I think it’s quite understandable, and even forgivable.  Pratchett knew he was dying, and I have no doubt that it’s hard to be whimsical under such circumstances.

    The Shepherd’s Crown was published posthumously and to me, it seemed like it was Terry’s way of saying goodbye to both his readers and his beloved Discworld universe.  I’m therefore willing to cut him a lot of slack, and let’s be clear; any Discworld devotee will still find it a delight, albeit a somewhat sad one, to read.  I don’t think anyone is going to pick up the Discworld mantle, and I for one am going to miss this series.

    8 Stars.  Subtract 1 star if this is your first Discworld novel and are wondering where all the wit and humor is.  Trust me, none of the other books in the series are as somber as this one.