Book review: Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

Pyramids (Discworld, #7)Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Camels would receive more admiration if they published in the peer-reviewed literature and spat in fewer people’s faces.

Teppic sets out from home to learn a trade. An honourable trade. An important trade. A valued trade. So he attends Ankh-Morpork’s famed assassins’ school. But he has barely graduated when his father dies and he has to return to the family business: king of an ancient land. His new worldliness clashes with the millennia of tradition held in place by the priests of Djelibeybi. These traditions lead to cataclysm and Teppic has to save the land of pyramids before war breaks out. Because war has to break out. It’s tradition.

As I was reading Pyramids – the bit with You Bastard calculating the flares – the sheer scale of the Discworld novels struck me. There are so many little pieces crammed into each book that you wonder how Sir Terry managed to repeat that effort over 40 times. It probably struck me because Pyramids is a more straight-forward narrative with a focus on the character of Teppic. When compared to many of the other Discworld novels I’ve read of late, this one is an “easy read”.

Definitely a 4 mathematical genius camels out of 5 novel.

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Book review: Mort by Terry Pratchett

Mort (Discworld, #4)Mort by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m not going to make a joke about learning a trade being a killer idea.

Mort is a tall skinny kid who just wants to know how the world works. Death has been flat out since the beginning of time. So when Mort’s dad decides it is time for him to learn a trade, Death offers him an apprenticeship to help cover some of the work. Hopefully, Mort doesn’t mess it up.

I quite like Death. As in the character. Death and his granddaughter Susan are two of my favourite Discworld characters. So it was definitely time to read the earlier Death instalments in the series. Worth it!

I was only a few pages into Mort when I found myself chuckling. Out loud. Normally I can keep that stuff to myself. But I couldn’t help it.

There doesn’t need to be much more said than that. Entertaining and chuckle out loud funny.

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Book review: The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett

The Light Fantastic (Discworld, #2)The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Luggage that doesn’t get lost? This must be a fantasy novel.

After shooting off the edge of the Discworld in The Colour of Magic, Rincewind and Twoflower are magically returned to the Disc for reasons unknown. The world turtle, Great A’Tuin, is swimming through space, excited about the red star it is approaching. The Wizards have noticed the red star and the magical change that allowed Rincewind and Twoflower to return, allowing them to uncover an ancient prophecy. Can the prophecy be fulfilled before Great A’Tuin reaches their destination?

When I finished The Colour of Magic I was a little peeved. Whilst a continuing story cliffhanger is a common fantasy trope, a book satirising fantasy tropes should surely rise above such shenanigans. That downgraded my rating to 4 stars.

Happily, The Light Fantastic finished the story started in The Colour of Magic in a highly entertaining fashion. I especially enjoyed the introduction of Cohen the Barbarian, being a fan of the Robert E Howard stories. Death and the other horsemen learning Bridge had me grinning for days. I wouldn’t rate this as one of Pratchett’s best Discworld novels, but it certainly started the ball rolling.

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Death, Personified

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Finally, an episode of It’s Lit about everyone’s favourite Terry Pratchett character. Oh, and a few other versions of it from lesser authors.

Lindsay Ellis fans will have noticed similarities between this video and an earlier Loose Cannon video she did on the same topic. Worth watching both and noting what having a production budget allows for.

Death as a character reveals how we process one of life’s greatest mysteries, and there’s a lot more breadth to how the grim reaper is depicted than you might think.

It’s Lit! is part of THE GREAT AMERICAN READ, an eight-part series that explores and celebrates the power of reading. Hosted by Lindsay Ellis.

Book review: Hogfather by Terry Pratchett

HogfatherHogfather by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Believe in something. Anything. No, not that. No, best not that either.

It’s Hogswatch, the time of year for carol singing, presents, warm alcoholic drinks, and giant department stores to sell lots of stuff. But some “people” have hired Mr Teatime (Teh-ah-tim-eh) to stop the Hogfather bringing presents and drinking sherry. Can DEATH and his granddaughter Susan help?

To get in the festive mood this year, I decided I needed to read an appropriate book. Rereading the Hogfather was an obvious choice. HO-HO… oh yes, HO.

There are many of my favourite characters in this novel, DEATH and Susan being prime examples, as well as some very memorable others, Mr Teatime if only for the proper pronunciation of his name. It is also such a wonderful satire. I think that I enjoyed this novel more upon rereading than the first time around, which means I’ll have to make sure my copy stays on my bookshelf.

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Book review: The Carpet People by Terry Pratchett

The Carpet PeopleThe Carpet People by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

‘Don’t do that! You’ll disturb the carpet people.’

The Munrungs have just had their village destroyed by fray, a natural phenomenon from above The Carpet. In the aftermath, Glurk and Snibril try to help their village flee the attacking Mouls, a people who regard all others as animals and rather good eating. It is then they realise that fray is pushing a path of destruction through The Carpet and that the Mouls are attacking every city and town in its wake. Can they save civilisation so that people don’t go back to hitting each other?

While I was reading this novel I kept having to remind myself that it was the heavily revised edition written by the 40-something Pratchett, not the 20-something of the original edition. This was Pratchett’s first novel and as an ode to fantasy fiction had just the right amounts of absurdism and humour, which I can’t see a 20-something nailing. If Pratchett was this good out of the gate then every other author would be left weeping into the keyboard. Hopefully, someone who has read both versions can point out the differences.

This is, of course, not a Discworld novel. Apparently, all reviewers have to point this out for some reason. As such, Pratchett’s style, particularly his satire, is less pronounced here. While I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Carpet People, for long-time Discworld fans this may feel a little light or insubstantial. Or maybe they just feel guilty about having vacuumed their house.

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Book review: The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett

The Fifth Elephant (Discworld, #24; City Watch, #5)The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Do sugar lumps disappear or were they never there in the first place?

Sam Vimes is making sure The Watch is moving with the times and keeping Ankh-Morpork in line when Lord Vetinari summons him for a new job: ambassador. He is despatched to Uberwald for the upcoming coronation of the Low King. It isn’t long before he is using diplomacy to take care of bandits, solve a mystery, break traditions, and stop a coup. As Vimes says, “So this is diplomacy. It’s like lying, only to a better class of people.”

The first Discworld novel I read was Guards! Guards! so the City Watch series are always among my favourites. The Fifth Elephant is more plot orientated than some other Discworld novels, so it feels more streamlined and ordered than some others. That doesn’t mean that the humour or satire are lacking, even if they can be a bit subtle at times (e.g. feudalism vs capitalism commentary is rife but takes a backseat to the plot).

I really enjoyed this novel. Nothing more to say really.

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Book review: Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett

Equal Rites (Discworld, #3; Witches, #1)Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Witches ride on brooms and wizards hold a staff in their hands. Nothing phallic about that.

Eskarina “Esk” Smith was born the eighth son of the eighth son and was bequeathed Drum Billet’s wizarding abilities and staff. Minor mixup. Esk is a girl. But too late for any take-backs, Esk’s magical talents have her training with Granny Weatherwax in witching. This isn’t enough for Esk as she is meant to be a wizard, she has the staff and everything, so she journeys to the Unseen University for training.

I’ve come at the Witches instalments of Discworld backward. The first one I read was The Shepherd’s Crown, Pratchett’s last novel before his death, in which Granny Weatherwax dies.* So to come to the first was overdue. I was somewhat disappointed with The Shepherd’s Crown – probably because it was unfinished in terms of Pratchett’s usual revision process – but not so with Equal Rites. This was highly enjoyable and tackled some interesting tropes of fantasy, as well as plotting the rise of grrl power on the Disc.

*That isn’t a spoiler, it’s pretty much the first chapter.**
**Not that Sir Terry was a big fan of using chapters, but you take my meaning.

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Book review: The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

The Colour of Magic (Discworld, #1)The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wizards with synesthesia hearing octarine would be an interesting experience.

Twoflower arrives in Ankh-Morpork with his sapient luggage filled with gold. After years in inn-sewer-ants he is looking to become the first tourist on the disc. Rincewind makes his acquaintance thanks to his gift for languages, and they bumble into adventure.

Having read some of the last instalments in the Discworld novels I thought it was time to go back to read the earlier instalments. The writing in the books has changed over the course of the series. Most of the Discworld novels I’ve read so far have been directly satirising a modern-day topic or institutions, but The Colour of Magic is much more concerned with satirising fantasy novels themselves.

It is hard to give this novel a higher rating, however, as it does what all annoying fantasy series do: continue in the next book. Yes, great joke, but it does mean that until I’ve read The Light Fantastic there are no five stars from me.

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Are Bob Dylan Lyrics Literature?

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PBS Ideas Channel had an interesting take on this contentious topic. And as is always the case, it isn’t really that simple.

I’m near the front of the queue to criticise literature for being a dry and dreary form of art that sucks the life out of its audience. But of course, as Mike discusses in the video, literature isn’t as easily defined as my dismissive rhetoric would imply. What defines literature isn’t arbitrary, but it is often about who is defining or classifying a work as such. My criticisms of literature stem from who perform this classifying, as they will often be people like Jonathan Jones – who said Terry Pratchett sucked – who will criticise the literary merits of works they haven’t read. These arbiters of artistic merit (i.e. snobs) like certain things, thus those certain things are worthy. They create lists of these worthy things and tell us we need to read them at school, study them at university, and expound on how much better these works are… until they actually read one of the unworthy ones and have to eat humble pie.

So the literary and artistic merit we often operate under in society is more about what a certain group of people like. But as Mike points out, that isn’t a good definition, and literature, and “good” art in general, are harder to define. Essentially anything can be literature. And even then the status of a work being literary may be revoked, or instated, as tastes change. Thus referring to Dylan’s lyrics as literature is probably about making us all think about lyrics as an art-form, something that has social defamiliarization. Lyrics are, after all, a form of poetry that are no less artful. Maybe this award will help us acknowledge that art/literature is all around us.

Don’t worry Nickelback, your literary award is surely just lost in the mail.

Book Review: The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett

The Shepherd's Crown (Discworld, #41; Tiffany Aching, #5)The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“YOUR CANDLE…WILL FLICKER FOR SOME TIME BEFORE IT GOES OUT – A LITTLE REWARD FOR A LIFE WELL LIVED…YOU HAVE LEFT THE WORLD MUCH BETTER THAN YOU FOUND IT…NOBODY COULD DO ANY BETTER THAN THAT”

Tiffany Aching has a lot on her plate. She is the witch of two areas, she has some big boots to fill after the passing of Granny Weatherwax, and trouble is brewing with the elves. The elves love a bit of mischief, and with the passing of Granny Weatherwax, the barrier between their world and the Disk is weaker. With iron and steam now coming to the lands, they want to strike before they lose a place on the Disk. Only the Witches and Nac Mac Feegles stand in their way.

This was Terry Pratchett’s final instalment in The Discworld novels. There will be no more. As such, I really wanted this to be better than it was. Unlike other novels in the series, this lacked the levels of humour and satire you would expect from Pratchett. Where he was normally brilliant, this was only okay. Of course, okay for a Pratchett novel is still better than most novelists could ever hope to achieve.

AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.

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Book Review: Hell’s Super by Mark Cain

Hell's Super (Circles In Hell, #1)Hell’s Super by Mark Cain
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hell is being surrounded by famous people, apparently.

Hell’s Super follows Steve Minion, the only non-famous person in hell as far as I can tell, as he tries to fix all the problems that come up in hell. Whether it be replacing a broken light bulb on the sign leading into hell (Abandon all hope ye who enter here), or stopping a civil uprising, Steve is tasked with fixing the problem because he sucks at fixing things: it’s hell, it’s his punishment. His sidekick is Orson Welles and he is dating Florence Nightingale: enough said.

I picked up Mark Cain’s Hell’s Super as it promised to be a novel in the vein of Terry Pratchett or Good Omens: some satire, some straight laughs, some silly fun. It had those elements but for me it rarely rose above mildly entertaining. Having recently re-read Good Omens, a book Hell’s Super is compared to in the back cover blurb, I can safely say that the Pratchett and Gaiman novel is not being knocked off the Best Novel of All Time podium any time soon. Too much of the humour and plot relies on utilising famous people and irony (especially in the punishments) to be classed as Pratchett-esque satire and humour. It also didn’t help that the plot twists were obvious given the setting.

That said, this is an entertaining novel with enough humour to amuse. I think the comparisons drawn to Good Omens, Terry Pratchett, and Douglas Adams in the blurb set up too-high an expectation for me. Knowing that, you may enjoy it more as a result.

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Book review: Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

Raising Steam (Discworld, #40)Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.
Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.

It has been a while since I journeyed from Roundworld to Discworld and with Sir Terry’s passing, it seemed like the right time. The trouble with picking a Discworld novel to read is which of the 41* to choose. I settled upon Raising Steam, the ode to the very British obsession with steam trains.

Two things struck me when reading Raising Steam. First was that the TV miniseries adaptation of Going Postal was perfectly cast. Reading I couldn’t help but see Charles Dance as Vetinari and Richard Coyle as Moist (Slightly Damp). This gives me great hope for the forthcoming adaptation of the best novel of all time, Good Omens. The second thing was that as a non-British person I feel like I’m missing many of the jokes. There are so many references throughout the novel that hint at jabs being taken at various cultures, peoples, politicians, and institutions. Some are obvious, like the French and Aussie ones, but others I’m guessing I’d have to have been to the UK to understand.

This is all another way of me saying that there is no such thing as a bad Discworld novel. Goodbye, Sir Terry, thanks for the legacy.

*41 later in 2015, 40 as of this review’s writing.

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Love it or Hate it

To read genre or not to read genre: that really isn’t the question.

With surprising regularity there are articles written explaining why people should be reading certain types of books. It isn’t just books, of course, but I’m trying not to be distracted…. puppy! The thing that these articles have in common is snobbery.

From a young age we are given lessons in snobbery, certain things are cool to read, certain things have value or social importance. These are the things we should be reading. By definition this means everything else isn’t of value and often becomes termed our guilty pleasures. I agree with the sentiments of this article that mentions guilty pleasures as being one of the phrases that makes people hate you.

The idea that something is a guilty pleasure implies that we should feel bad because we enjoy something. Well that’s just stupid. Either we enjoyed reading the book or we didn’t. Do we really have to impress others with our cool choices in reading material? I’d argue that you can enjoy whatever you like and we need to stop with the snobbery and pretence that some books are more highbrow or worthy of reading. I’d also argue that we aren’t in high school anymore and you don’t have to be cool. And reading is cool…. no, you can’t have my lunch money.

Now I don’t want to get into the argument about reasons why people read. Some people read for pleasure, some for entertainment (I’m defining those two categories slightly differently), some to explore social issues, some to learn about a topic, some to experience emotional stories, and on the list goes. For example, I don’t read scientific papers to be entertained, I read them to learn things, but the novels I read are meant to entertain me. So some people will be snobby about what they read because of why they read. I’m more interested in addressing the other type of snobbery about reading things of worth, value and not the guilty pleasures.

A lot of this snobbery comes from English Literature academics, authors, devotees and columnists. They are regularly telling us that we shouldn’t be wasting our time reading genre fiction, we should be reading the important books. You know, the ones so important that the author didn’t bother to make them entertaining. They would have us believe that reading is too important to be just entertaining, that we can’t read a science fiction, fantasy, thriller, romance or similar genre book because that would mean we haven’t read the worthy books.

Is Terry Pratchett worthy? How about Heinlein? They put more social commentary and sophisticated language into their novels than most of the literature I’ve ever read (yes, I was a literary snob at one point). And here is the problem with the snobbery argument: they are closed minded to the idea of genre books having value and thus miss out on entertaining books that also happen to do a better job of being literature.

This is also why we see 38% of people responding to reading surveys saying that they finish a book, not because they are enjoying it, but because they feel they should finish books they start. This is that snobbery having an extended impact upon our reading habits. We’ve been trained/taught to finish books that aren’t entertaining or enjoyable because of the message or value of the book, which we will only truly appreciate by wading through the boring stuff between the book covers. It will make you think, we are promised. Sure. I always think, What a waste of time, I could have read several other books instead of drudging through this crud.

I know that snobbery is very important, because those literary people would be out of a job otherwise, but can people just keep it to themselves, please? It would be nice to see more than 40% of the population being avid readers (a book a month or more). It would be nice if we bought and read books based upon what interests us and not what would look most impressive to be seen reading or have on our bookshelves. Changing this mindset would stop memes like this one:

Stupid meme is stupid.
Stupid meme is stupid – can we just agree that a book is a book, DTB, ebook, clay tablet, whatever?

It’s great that people want to impress others with what they are reading. Currently my toddler has a really impressive array of books scattered all over the house. They make for fantastic things to trip over, stub your toe on, or make us look particularly well read on the adventures of small, overly cute animals. I’m sure all the other toddlers are impressed. I still can’t wait for him to stop impressing everyone and just have them all on an e-reader. We should be reading to enjoy reading, not to decorate our house, impress others, be worthy: no guilty pleasures, just pleasures.