I was first introduced to Terry Pratchett when I was twelve. My big sister was playing Ysabell in a5 Stars
A reread in memory of Terry Pratchett. RIP.
I was first introduced to Terry Pratchett when I was twelve. My big sister was playing Ysabell in a year 10 house play production of Mort. Neither of us were familiar with Discworld at the time, but she borrowed the book from the student director and I borrowed the book from her. And that was it. It was wonderful and clever and different from anything I had read before.
Over the next few years I attempted to complete the whole series of (then) around 25 books. With no budget for buying books, and so many to read, I borrowed them from the town library, the school library, the earlier mentioned student director (who was then dating my sister and probably thought he was only lending them to her). Once I was a bit older with a bit more disposable income and a few older admirers of my own I purchased a few for myself and borrowed even more. I can’t remember what order I ended up reading them all in, but it was whatever was available at the time, and most certainly not the ‘correct’ order. I read Carpe Jugulam before Wyrd Sisters and got confused by the change of cast, and Feet of Clay before Guards! Guards! and was distressed to find Angua and Detritus were not guards in the earlier book. The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic (the first two books in the series) were the final books I read in my catch up – which was probably good as they are by far the weakest. But throughout this disorganised mishmash or chronology and characters there was one subseries, and one character, who always remained my favourites. The City Watch, and Commander Samuel Vimes.
I watched the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork shrink and grow and shrink and grow as I erratically read whatever I was able to get hold of at that moment. Only when I had caught up – and my parents had caught up enough on mine and my sister’s shared love of the series to start buying new releases for us at Christmas – did I start to read them in order. And the first of these Christmas presents gifted to me rather than my sister, was Night Watch. I had finished it by Boxing Day morning.
Still, when I heard the news of Terry Pratchett’s death this Thursday, it was Guards! Guards! I sought out, and the excuse to finally read The City Watch series in the correct order (and apparently my big sister had the same thought). As I could not locate the book, however, I picked up Night Watch instead. And I think, even had I found the book I was initially looking for, Night Watch was the right choice. It’s one of the most poignant and most human stories in the whole series. A policeman and a murderer, sent back in time through a freak magical accident (more details on that in Thief of Time) to a time when the city watch was incompetent, the ruler of Ankh-Morpok relied on torture and secret police, and rebellion was brewing in the slums. And a young Sam Vimes needs to learn to become the man (and the policeman) he will be. Only one problem – the murderer’s first act is to kill the man who would teach him that, and potentially change the course of history forever. Its up to Commander Vimes to step into his mentor’s role, teach his younger self the morals of policing, and become the leader of a revolution he already knows is doomed.
But Vimes (wonderful Vimes!) never half-arses a job. And, as the timeline changes in subtle ways, he realises that perhaps things aren’t so doomed after all. If he does things right this time and learns from his past, maybe this time the revolution will be successful, the friends who died might live – but doing so would change his future forever; he would lose both his wife and his unborn child. And this is why Vimes is my favourite character in the whole of the Disc. It’s all exemplified in this one book. Although Vimes is grumpy and pragmatic and cynical and never fails to fight dirty, he will always always do what is right and gets so caught up in being a policeman that he always gives his all and follows the job through right to the end. He adores his wife, but that’s who he is, and he cannot let the people around him down by not trying his best. Its one of the more angsty, more depressing, and most beautiful Discworld books from what I regard the best period of Pratchett’s writing.
And as it deals with Commander Vimes travelling back into his own past, well prior to the events of his introduction in Guards! Guards!, it serves my rereading from the beginning purpose even better than the first book of the series itself! It sets up what the characters and the city were like before the current ruler and before Vimes’ meteoritic rise through the ranks better than any of the early books do, and I’m sure will make me appreciate just how much Vimes achieves in the rest of the series.
So 5 stars. Forever 5 stars. Funny, sad, and thoughtful. A good book for grieving a wonderful wonderful author and a brilliant person. RIP Terry Pratchett. You will be missed.
Sidenote: My copy of Guards! Guards! has now been found, the next few books are reserved from the library or on order from the bookshop. This City Watch reread is totally happening! Watch this space! And I promise future reviews will try to be more about the book than this one too....more
The Luminaries is one of those books I’ve been picking up and then putting down in bookshops ever since I spotted the hardback. Intrigued by th5 Stars
The Luminaries is one of those books I’ve been picking up and then putting down in bookshops ever since I spotted the hardback. Intrigued by the blurb, daunted by the size, and more than a little wary of that ‘Winner of the Man Booker Prize’ label (I was less than wowwed with the last one of those I read), I always ended up putting it back on the shelf while I waited for the recommendation of someone I actually knew. Well that never came (presumably my friends have not read it for similar reasons!) but, finally, I got sick of always being drawn to the same book so I bit the bullet and bought it. And I’m very glad I did, because it turned out to be utterly brilliant.
It’s a bit slow to start with, with a lot of pages given to the presumed main character, Walter Moody, as he lands in Hokitika, New Zealand, for the first time to seek his fortune and accidentally stumbles across a secret gathering of twelve men in the parlour of his cheap lodgings. The tension and unease in these early pages are palpable, but it was only when the rest of the gathering start to tell their own stories, revealing a complex, tightly plotted web of interconnected events and interactions, that I really got sucked in.
The twelve men, from a wide spectrum of social, economic, and ethnic backgrounds of the mid-19th century New Zealand goldrush town have all gathered to solve the mystery of the night of the 14th of January; when a rich man disappeared, a prostitute attempted suicide, and a local drunk was found dead, his house full of gold. Each of the men is also implicated in the events and has vested interest for the full truth not to be revealed. Their stories all intertwine, overlap, and sometimes seem to contradict each other but, somewhere in there, they hope that their pooled knowledge will find the answers to what really happened.
The book is masterfully written and tightly plotted as the thirteen characters slowly peel back some of the mysteries surrounding the gold, the prostitute, the brutish Captain Carver, and the estranged widow of the dead drunk who has arrived suddenly to claim the gold herself. It’s a book full of vivid, three-dimensional, flawed, and diverse characters (well, the male characters are diverse anyway. There are very few female characters). Everyone is holding something back, the narrators are all unreliable in their different ways, and navigating through the webs of connections, clues, and coincidences to piece the truth together made for such compelling reading that I had real difficulties in putting the book down. The denouement in part four was gloriously satisfying.
But, and here’s where I’m half-tempted to take away half a star, the book is longer than it needs to be. The story does not stop at its natural ending point but, after the ‘conclusion’, jumps back in time to reveal the build up to the events that have already been uncovered. I won’t say that these chapters were completely unnecessary; they give a further insight into the more enigmatic players – particularly the two central female characters who, for the first half of the book, have only been viewed through the lens and perceptions of the male characters. This second half also raises a lot of further doubts and questions for the reader on elements that already seemed solved, but now might be murkier than first suspected. Only some of these questions are ever answered and most left open ended, which on one level worked very well but still felt a bit anticlimactic after everything that had gone before.
The structure of the book: the way each of the twelve ‘sections’ is shorter than the last (to mimic the waning moon) and how each takes place over the course of a single day a month from the previous ‘section’ to make up the cycle of a lunar year, has to be admired as very clever. Ultimately, however, it’s just a bit too clever – sacrificing some of the story at the expense of retaining its unusual structure.
Moody’s introduction and the initial revelations and explanations of the secret gathering take up over 350 pages, and by the end of part two, the reader is over halfway through the book. This shortening of chapters does greatly speed up the pace of the novel as it draws to a close, imbuing it with a sense of quickening pace and urgency but, while cleverly executed, it has its downsides. The early, longer, chapters are by far the more satisfying: exploring the psyche of each character and the long convoluted sequences of events that brought them together. In the very last sections these meaty chapters are replaced with what are almost vignettes, freeze frame snippets of isolated key events. Sometimes, in fact, what is happening in the later chapters can only be understood by the Victorian-style chapter summaries ‘in which x does y….‘ which become gradually longer and longer as the chapters themselves become shorter until, on the last page, the chapter summary is at least twice as long as the final chapter itself and three times as informative. While it’s a very stylistic approach and the details that are shown or omitted in these viginettes do raise some intriguing questions, I found I much preferred the earlier, wordier, and more detailed chapters of the early sections.
The other astrological trappings of the structure; starting each section with the day’s horoscope, and chapters titled after astrological movements, I have to add, did absolutely nothing for me. I don’t know astrological symbolism very well and have no interest in looking it up. The story works just fine without that knowledge. Having each part take place on a single day, however, worked very well to create a sense of claustrophobia, danger, mystery, and urgency, but the horoscopes and chapter titles felt like gift wrap – pretty bits of nothingness you rip past to get to the present inside.
Overall though a wonderful book and I’m still giving it five stars, despite a few minor reservations about the emphasis of style over story towards the end. Even with those reservations, the story is still amazingly well written with a great cast of characters. The majority of the book is a fantastic page-turner, and even the last chapters, where it loops back around again to the lead up of are only really frustrating because I wanted more detail....more
A christmas present from my best friend on my Museum Studies course (where I did my specialist module on curating Natural History collections3.5 Stars
A christmas present from my best friend on my Museum Studies course (where I did my specialist module on curating Natural History collections), this oversized coffee-table book purporting to be a ‘museum…between two covers’ is utterly gorgeous to look at. It is beautifully illustrated and beautifully laid out and my friend is very lucky I didn’t spot it first otherwise I would have almost certainly brought it for myself. It was only on researching it a bit more to write the review that I saw that it is aimed at the 8-12 age group, the wonderful illustrations and simple straightforward but unpatronising prose that accompanies them are, however, an appropriate introduction or overview of animal taxonomy for someone of any age. Though the target market does go a long way to explaining a few of the things I was disappointed in – mainly wanting more explanation for the interesting facts dropped about certain animals.
Laid out in ‘galleries’ rather than chapters, the museum metaphor is rather heavily laboured. It mimics the tradition Natural History Museum layout though by dividing the contents by taxonomic classification (mammals, birds, fish, etc.) rather than continents or countries – which is how I remember most of my childhood wildlife reference books being laid out. What comes out of this is a book that is more scientific in focus; explicitly about how and why certain creatures are grouped together by similar traits rather than just a more general ‘isn’t wildlife cool’ message. It also means that unglamorous creatures like Porifera (sea sponges) are given as much attention and explanation as traditional favourites like Birds of Prey. While it’s not a complete encyclopedia of animal life (with only 160+ featured animals it was never going to be) it provides a good overview of the larger animal groupings, alongside some interesting chosen examples from each major family on the tree of life.
Tree of Life (bigpicturepress.net)
Each ‘gallery’ opens with an explanation of what sort of animals can be found inside and what the defining features of invertebrates, birds, amphibians etc. are. While the next pages further subdivide them into smaller classifications with a short two-three paragraph explanation and a number of illustrated and labelled examples on the opposite page. For some of the more visually interesting animals such as cephalopods (squid, octopuses and cuttlefish) and the Elephant, or that require a bit more explanation such as the life cycle of a frog, they get a beautifully illustrated double page spread all to themselves. At the end of each chapter there is an illustrated habitat ‘typical’ to the type of creatures is featured (eg. coral reef for for fish, rainforest for amphibians).
‘Exotic Birds’ (bigpicturepress.net)
And, to my mind, it is these illustrations rather than the ‘gallery’ structure that really make the book. Old fashioned - if not ‘paint and ink’ than the digital equivalent - and reminiscent of the Victorian explorers colour plates found in natural history museums ('Images of Nature' might just be my favourite gallery in the whole of the Natural History Museum, London). They are enchanting and beautiful in the way that most photo snaps of animals don’t manage (though I do love animal photography and Wildlife Photographer of the Year is the only art exhibition anyone will ever find me in raptures about). They are the main attraction of the book and what makes it stand out from other, similar, children’s encyclopaedias and reference books.
Because, whilst the art is outstanding, I was left wanting a bit more from the writing. Not so much the main text and explanations, but the labels given to each illustration. These always include the common name, latin name, and size of each creature – but leaves off location and habitat, both of which would be an important part of any museum label. Most of the labels also have a short paragraph about the creature that normally (but not always) adds this information and sometimes an interesting titbit, but other labels just leave it at that. I realise we are now in the age of google and wikipedia and that I am more than capable of looking up anything that catches my interest but more than once I found myself going ‘wait, that’s it? You’re not going to elaborate! But that’s really interesting! I want to know more about that. Why haven’t you included a whole section on caecilians? They sound amazing!’ Which, I suppose, if you look at it one way, is a testament to the books success rather than its failure but was irritating at the time.
Discovering it is a book aimed at children helped though. It clearly isn’t meant to be a thorough exploration of the different taxonomic groups, drilling down into the science behind the weirder traits, but an overview to introduce people to the basic ideas of grouping, evolution, and shared traits and to provide some visual examples (both well known and obscure). And it does that well. My wants out of a book like this are not the same as the target audiences, so I can’t rate it higher but what it aims to do it does very well. It isn’t attempting to be a children’s DK eyewitness book on animals (do children still use those? I loved them) but a beautiful reference book of much more select examples that is to be treasured as well as educational. And I don’t think you have to be 8-12 to appreciate it as that either. If I had got this age 8, it probably would have become one of my most precious and loved books. So 3 and a half stars from adult me (I just wanted more facts!) but probably 5 or even 6 stars from 8-year-old me!
One final thought. This is, apparently, the first book in a larger series/imprint of ‘Welcome to the Museum’ books. I am interested to see what they do next and how they manage it – I think the format lends itself well to science ‘museums’ (minerals, dinosaurs, plants!), other sorts of museum…I’m less sure of. It’s probably not a series I would start collecting for myself (though I will flick through any more that come out in the bookshop) but, were a niece or nephew to arrive on the scene in the next few years, I might make the investment....more
1 Star for the illustrations - 0 stars for the writing
Homophobic, sexist, and obsessed with the British pagan agenda (like...wut? That's not a thing!)1 Star for the illustrations - 0 stars for the writing
Homophobic, sexist, and obsessed with the British pagan agenda (like...wut? That's not a thing!). Poorly researched, inaccurate, and deliberately misleading with the few facts it does get right. Instead of being funny (I think that's what it was aiming for) it just comes out as bitter, and more than a little deluded, ramblings.
Normally, when I dislike a book as much as I disliked this one I get a sort of perverse pleasure out of going over all its flaws but not this1.5 Stars
Normally, when I dislike a book as much as I disliked this one I get a sort of perverse pleasure out of going over all its flaws but not this time. This time I just feel bad. I desperately wanted to enjoy this book, there was so much in there that I liked and admired. The author is a woman of colour in a genre (sci-fi) that is still disproportionately dominated by white men, and an author I’ve read widespread praise for too. It’s sci-fi set not in Britain or the US, but Nigeria (how often does that happen?). Almost the entire cast is black, the primary leads are both women (a scientist and an alien), and it touches on a hell of a lot of social issues; some that are topical specifically in Nigeria but many that are applicable everywhere (evangelical christianity, LGBT rights, prostitution, domestic violence, military rape culture, internet fraud…). There are so many elements I was looking forward to exploring but, in the end, and despite attempts to like this book, the only part of it I really enjoyed was the cover design.
I tried, I really fucking tried. And I still don’t want to completely dismiss the book because it’s at least interesting and experimental and different, even if it's not for me. But I still could not make myself like it. The characters fell flat, the narration felt dull, there was a lot of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’, the sic-fi elements were completely unbelievable, and nobody seemed to react to aliens in any way I would expect an actual human to.
Apparently this novel, and the more welcoming attitude the characters have to the aliens is a reaction to District 9 and its portrayal of Africa’s reaction to an alien arrival there. I’ve not seen District 9, so perhaps I would have liked this book more if I had, but I do admire the book for having a variety of reactions rather than everyone jumping instantly to the ‘invaders!’ scaremongering. Its just a shame that the reactions people have instead are so damn weird. almost everyone was all just a bit too credulous and accepting and some of the reactions were truly bizarre. At one point, on viewing secret footage of an alien shapeshifting, one character’s reaction is to rhapsodise about what this will do for LGBT rights…wut? Absolutely no character felt true to me, they were all rather one dimension characterisations of whatever issue they were there to represent. And yes, some people exist who are essentially caricatures – I do not doubt for a minute that their are crazy evangelical pastors like Father Oke obsessed with driving out witchcraft, but when every character feels like a one issue caricature that’s a problem. And most of these threads are only picked up for a few chapters each and then dropped completely without any resolution. What happened to the minor characters? Who really cares?
Worse still, I didn’t care for any of the main protagonists either. I still don’t even know what Anthony brought to the group or how him being a famous rapper was relevant. When we get glimses into any of the character’s thoughts and monologues they all seem to be basically the same person. At one point, after the aliens go public, there are three chapters of reaction told in first person from three very different people; a young male internet fraudster, an older male commuter, and a visiting female african-american hip hop artist. Yet all of these chapters follow exactly the same formula that lends exactly the same voice to each character. At one point Agu and Adaora kiss a few hours after meeting each other. It’s rarely mentioned again until near the end when Agu envisages a life with her an omniscient narrator invites the reader to speculate as to whether Adaora left her husband for him. One kiss! Insta-love! And zero fucking chemistry.
The main problem with the book though is that it’s just crammed too full of stuff, any of which could make an interesting novel on its own but when smooshed together just creates a big smoosh. Aliens transforming the sea life in Lagos into terrifying monsters protecting their borders from human fishing and oil rigging? Awesome! three people coming together to convince the world that alien integration is the way of the future? Less awesome, but you know I’d roll with it. People with poorly defined super powers? Maybe! A secret LGBT society going public in the face of evangelical Christian hatred? Yes. Figures from Nigerian religion and folklore walking around modern day Nigeria? Right back to awesome again! A road that comes alive and eats people? That’s batshit off the wall awesome! All of these in one book? Way waaaaaay too much.
So many ways I could have loved this book, but I didn’t. I half want to give Okorafor another go at some point because people seem to love her and I can definitely see things in her work that do appeal to me. But somehow I have a feeling that she’s another Neil Gaiman – critically acclaimed, loved by fans, and with absolutely great ideas that I really really want to read, but executed in a way that I just simply don't enjoy, And all the more frustrating for that....more