19 January, 2010

Book 43 - "One day a prince would come, even if Glenda had to drag him on a chain."

Title: Unseen Academicals (2009)
Author: Terry Pratchett

Why this book?
Because it's the latest in the Discworld series, of which I have read every single book. All 37 of them! I really like Terry Pratchett, OK.

So what's it all about?
Most of the Discworld books satirise or parody "round world" - real world - culture and history. Unseen Academicals is no different, taking on the grand English tradition of "foot-the-ball" - soccer, that is, not American football - and includes references to the historical banning of football, modern footballers with their model girlfriends, glamorous international players, and the bitter club rivals and fights between fans. As well as football, Pratchett plays with other topics which may be familiar to round-world readers - rivalries between universities, the stealing of intellectual property, and a Tolkeinesque orc who may be the last of his kind, and is sure he isn't a blood-thirsty as the legends say - well, mostly sure.

So: Unseen University, the home of the greatest wizards in Ankh-Morpork and therefore (as far as they're concerned) the world, have just discovered something rather horrifying: that unless they put together a football team, their funding is going to dry up. Therefore, they are charged not just with putting together a team, but with turning football into a game that isn't played in underground games by fifty-aside teams.

Below stairs at the University, large and practical Glenda - maker of fine pies - has always known where her place is (to whit: in the kitchen, making pies.) But when her friend, the beautiful and not-too-bright Jools drags her along to a fashion show and is suddenly being hounded by the press, Glenda starts to realise that times are changing, and that if Jools can become a model for a dwarfish fashion house, then maybe Glenda can also go on to bigger and brighter things?

Nobody knows where Mr Nutt came from, or what he is - not even Mr Nutt. But he's a very quick learner and an efficient worker, and when Trev drags him along to a football game he takes to it very quickly, and soon finds himself coaching the University team. Still, Mr Nutt is sure he must be carrying some dark secret; will letting it out hurt himself, and his new friends? Trev already has his own problems - he's fallen in love with Jools, even though they supports rival football teams. And even though Trev promised his Mum he'd never play football, not after the way his Dad died, he may be the only player capable of winning the game for the University without anyone else getting killed...

The Good and the Bad
It's kind of hard for me to be objective about anything Pratchett's written, mostly I'm a huge Pratchett fangirl, but also because I'm so familiar with his style, ideas, and characters that I find it difficult to think critically about them. I will say, though, that while I've been disappointed with a few of his more recent books (notably Thud and Making Money, both of which were readable but somewhat weaker than his usual fare) he's finally back on form. The ending was still a little weak, but it was in no way an anti-climax, nor did it ruin the rest of the book for me. I enjoyed both the new characters he introduced and the revisiting of the wizards - some of his oldest and most popular characters. His word-play and lengthy footnotes, for which he is renowned, were brilliant and hilarious - and the book is, overall, thoroughly enjoyable.

So should I read it or what?
Obviously I'm going to say "yes", but I would say that maybe this isn't the best book to start with if you're completely new to Pratchett. If you are new, then I'd suggest starting either with The Witches Abroad, which plays with fairytales and ideas of good and evil, or with Men at Arms which is a good introduction to the city of Ankh-Morpork where many of the Discworld books take place (and it also has most of my favourite characters in it!)

Irrelevant link of the day: Of all the literal music videos youtube has produced, this one for Take on me is still the greatest.

14 January, 2010

Book 42 - Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter (no seriously that's its name)

It's coming up one year since I started blogging. I've got ten weeks to blog the remaining 11 books. However, being the incredibly over-excited young person I am, I'm already planning a new reading challenge for my second year blogging. It'll involve a quick and dirty site revamp, a banner (I've been meaning to put one up for ages) and a new approach to the books I read. So what's the challenge for year two? I guess you could say that it's a mystery...

Meanwhile, how about a little historical fantasy?

Title: Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter (2009)

Author: A. E. Moorat

Why this book?:
Because it's called Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter. I mean, really.

So what's it all about?
In a somewhat alternate reality, the night that Victoria learns that the King is dead and she will soon be the Queen of England (and, you know, everywhere else) she is attacked by a succubus, her life saved by the mysterious Maggie Smith. Maggie, it seems, has a very particular role: protect the incumbent ruler from demon attack, and make sure that the Devil never gets to put a finger in the ruling pie. Needless to say, this comes as something of a shock to Victoria.

Her thoughts are soon directed elsewhere - to politics, of course, and to her country that may still follow France's example and revolt; but also to her cousin, Albert, with whom she has fallen hopelessly in love. The good news is that Albert loves her, too: the bad news is that he is almost certainly the son of a demon. The really bad news is that Victoria's parents aren't exactly who she thought they were, either, and Victoria and Albert, for all their good intentions, might just be a match made in hell...

The Good and the Bad

One of my friends called this book "a waste of a perfectly good title" and I am forced to reluctantly agree. It starts out very strongly, with prostitute-eating zombies and Victoria fighting for her life, but afterwards, when Victoria is learning how to Queen, as it were, and angsting over Albert, my interest waned, and not even a kidnapping and a werewolf attack could bring it back. I think the problem is that Moorat tries too hard to mingle fact with fiction - a lot of the incidents in the story did actually happen, but few of them are really that relevant to the plot and as a result the story continually builds up tension and then loses it again. Or perhaps it's simply Moorat's style - there were several high-action scenes where I ended up skipping ahead rather than impatiently reading every word to see what happened.

The other problem is that I found the supernatural elements weren't quite concrete enough - there was religion mixed in to them, with the idea of the anti-Christ and the devil, the dead walking the Earth, but I didn't really buy it, not without the other side of the battle for good and evil being mentioned as well - Victoria, as the head of the Chruch of England, surely would have considered where God and Jesus were in this equation. I know, I know, I'm probably demanding too much from a story about Queen Victoria fighting demons but I think it may have helped the story to be less muddled (and more interesting) if the pseudo-religious bits were left out.

Having said that, the book does have the occasional good joke:
"Amazed, Quimby looked at her, then gazed at her internal organs quivering on the boards. She had the body of a weak and feeble woman, he thought, distractedly, but she had the heart and stomach of, well, a seemingly invincible zombie."
So should I read it or what?
Enough one-liners to cause a chuckle, but not enough to save the book's confusing plot or bad pacing. I wouldn't recommend.

Link of the day:
One of my favourites show ever ever, Never Mind the Buzzcocks.

10 January, 2010

Book 41 - Boy and Girls Forever: Children's Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter

Book related link of the day: Did you ever read that picture book Each Peach Pear Plum? LJer fox1013 has created a more contemporary version. The rhyming scheme is at times a little... crazy, but her collages are simply amazing. The first page is here.

Title: Boys and Girls Forever: Children's Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter (2003)
Author: Alison Lurie

Why this book?
Because I found it in a second-hand bookshop and... it looked good? Basically I should just not be allowed in any second-hand bookshops.

So what's it all about?
Boys and girls forever is a collection of essays exploring various facets of children's classic literature - some on specific books, like Little Women, and some on general themes, like the place of nature in children's books.

The Good and the Bad
I nearly put this book down as soon as I picked it up, thanks to this paragraph:

"Other nations have produced a single brilliant classic of series: Denmark, for instance, has Andersen's tales; Italy has Pinocchio, France has Babar, Finland has Moomintroll. A list of famous books in English, however, could easily take up a page in this volume"
I'm sorry, but I call bullshit. I'll admit that I can't name many books beyond those that Lurie has mentioned (aside from the French Le Petit Prince and Le Petit Nicholas) but then, I'm not Danish or Italian or French or Finish and I wouldn't expect to be familiar with their children's literature. (In fact, I learned French at school, which is why I have at least a passing familiarity with some French works.) Of course, I'm hardly an expert on the subject, but given that most of the books which are considered New Zealand children's classics would be unheard of in the UK or the US, I don't doubt that the same applies even more so to classics from countries where English is not the mothertongue.

I also think it's far too soon to be labelling Harry Potter a "classic". Yes, I read every Harry Potter book and loved them, but without the mania whipped up by both publishers and media, will my kids be interested in reading them? I mean some of the books were just awful. (I'm looking at you, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.)

However! I pressed on, and despite my initial misgivings and Lurie's Anglo-American focus there was still plenty to interest me among her essays. The place of feminism and gender identity in The Wizard of Oz and its sequels, Louisa May Alcott as a fairly revolutionary writer, and an essay on the humanity in modern fairy tales were all of great interest to me. They were all good enough for me to bookmark them for future reading - others, however, didn't interest me at all, or were perhaps a step too far from the "children's classics" theme of the book.

So should I read it or what?
If lit crit lights your pipe (and it certainly lights mine) then this is a book worth dipping into, but it's hardly the seminal work on children's lit (although it doesn't claim to be, either).