Sunday 29 March 2015

Murder Most Unladylike & Arsenic For Tea - Robin Stevens

There's been a rather shocking murder at Deapdean School for Girls. Unfortunately, there is no proof; between Hazel Wong stumbling upon a dead science mistress in the gymnasium and going for help, the body has vanished, leaving no evidence that Miss Bell has done anything other than resigned her post and moved away. But Hazel knows what she saw. It is up to her and her friend Daisy Wells, the founding members of the third-form Wells and Wong Detective Society to uncover the truth!

Set in a 1930s girls' boarding school, Murder Most Unladylike is reminiscent of the school stories that made up a lot of children's literature of the 20th century - Malory Towers, the Chalet School, Angela Brazil - mixed up together with the Famous Five or Nancy Drew. Robin Stevens recreates the golden age of children's books wonderfully, with dormitory pranks and midnight feasts, gym tunics and bun breaks, with a mystery to be solved without getting the police involved. But within this old-timey children's story are subjects that wouldn't have been written about in 1934, not for children - the racism Hazel, who is from Hong Kong, faces, two of the schoolmistresses having been in a relationship, and an illegitimate child showing up from someone else's past. Plus murder, of course - I don't think anyone ever actually died in Enid Blyton's writing. A dog might have got ill from eating poisoned food once or twice, but that's about the extent of it.

Daisy and Hazel join a long line of classic detective duos: Like Sherlock Holmes, Daisy is the intrepid detective whose excitement for a case sometimes overlooks human compassion. Hazel is more cautious, and the chronicler of their adventures - Daisy even calls her "Watson" from time to time. The story is a lot of fun, if verging on the ridiculous sometimes as this small private school has an unusually high body count!

The sequel, Arsenic for Tea, takes place away from Deepdean. You can't have too many murder mysteries at one school; it would be closed down! Hazel goes to stay with Daisy at her huge, if slightly faded, English country house. Daisy's birthday falls during this holiday, and her mother throws a big tea party, but as well as the family and school friends, the house has some mysterious and sinister guests. The atmosphere is terrible, filled with unspoken secrets and deceit. And then, one of the guests falls horribly ill and dies. The evidence points to poison. But who might bear such ill-will towards this guest? Perhaps it would be easier to ask who doesn't. Wells and Wong launch another investigation, but Daisy finds it is not so easy to get swept up in the spirit of adventure when her own family members are implicated in murder.

Arsenic for Tea is another instant classic of children's literature, perhaps even better than Murder Most Unladylike. It is Agatha Christie for children: a well-plotted, twisty mystery with plenty of red herrings, a limited cast of suspects, but everyone keeping secrets, even if none of them are the secrets they are suspected of hiding. But Stevens plays fair, and hides the clues within the text, if you only know what you're looking for. I actually picked my suspect quite early on and stored up the evidence against them even while they were seemingly eliminated from the list. I felt very proud of myself when I was proven right - not because the author was sloppy but because I was paying attention. An excellent, very satisfying pair of mysteries, and I hope to see a lot more of Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong.

Sunday 22 March 2015

Sunday Summary: Miniature catastrophes and minor disappointments

Hello and good evening. I hope you've had a good week. On the blog, this week's been all about commemorating the life and works of Sir Terry Pratchett, who unfortunately passed away the other day. It's been a change for me to focus solely on one author, rather than my usual hopping between genres. From the Discworld series alone, I read an old favourite, a new favourite and one book which will never be on my favourites list - but that's okay, because there are so many excellent Discworld books out there, they can't all be the best. If you're interested in discovering the works of Terry Pratchett for the first time, but don't know where to start, Bex and Kirsti have both got good guides to the series.

Last night I rewatched the adaptation of Going Postal which Sky One produced a few years ago, following on from Hogfather (which is near-perfection) and The Colour of Magic (which I don't think I actually watched all the way through.) Going Postal is the story of a con man who is saved from the gallows under one condition: that he take an honest job getting the Ankh-Morpork Post Office up and running again. Going Postal is one of my favourite books in the series, and the Sky One production has an inspired cast, with Richard Coyle (the funny one from Coupling) as the lead, the unfortunately-named Moist Von Lipwig, Claire Foy as the equally unfortunately-named Adora Belle Dearheart, and Charles Dance as the icy, sinister Lord Vetinari. That last piece of casting in particular was sheer brilliance. However, I found that the adaptation was not as good as the cast and source material. For one thing, there was too much angst and melodrama, and not enough humour. Moist is haunted by black-and-white visions of the far-reaching consequences of his "victimless" crimes - which, yes, he needed to confront, but there was no subtlety to it. And is it the case that if TV shows a character who smokes, they have to make a Very Big Thing about it, and beat you over the head with its moral that Smoking Is Bad? Adora's smoking is presented not as a minor character trait but as a Tragic Flaw that Must Be Overcome. Is this the 21st century equivalent of the Hays code?

Going Postal is visually spectacular, and you instantly forget that this is set in a fantasy world, because it presents to you an established Ankgh-Morpork with little fanfair, and it recreates the later books' feeling of being more like Dickens' London which just so happens to contain dwarfs, werewolves, golems and banshees among its population. It just didn't quite seem offbeat enough for me. Entertaining, but the book was better.

Away from the drama in my books, tv and CD player, I had an unfortunate misadventure at work on Thursday when I got myself trapped in the lift between two floors. It was entirely my own fault, and I take full responsibility: I was taking the hoover upstairs to put away, and was a bit careless in winding up the cable. The plug got stuck in the doors, but for some reason that didn't stop the lift from moving as far as it could before shuddering to a halt. And it would not go back down again. I had to ring the bell and call for help, and it was the end of the day, we had just a couple of members of staff in and they were at the other end of the shop and didn't hear me. Eventually a customer heard me calling and fetched help. I could force the inside doors open, but the outside doors would not budge. Eventually my colleague Simon was able to reset the lift and bring it back down to the ground floor, and all in all I was only in there for maybe twenty minutes. But it is not an experience I can recommend.

Friday was my day off, and I sat outside to watch the much-hyped eclipse of the sun. It was a very British eclipse; the sky was completely clouded over, and the only difference I noticed was that the clouds turned a slightly darker shade of light grey, and it got very cold. Also the seagulls sounded very distressed when the eclipse began.

In the afternoon, of course, the sun came out and was beautiful. Judi came over after work - she works just down the road from my house, and finished at lunch time - and we set out a table in the back garden where we played Carcassonne and Trivial Pursuit (regular and Disney versions) before going indoors to watch The Empire Strikes Back. 

What have you been up to this week? Did you get a better view of the eclipse? (i.e. any view at all!)

Saturday 21 March 2015

Guest Post: Judi on The Long Earth series by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter

Imagine you wake up to a world where everything has changed. It's like the birth of the internet all over again, only overnight. Suddenly, everyone is talking about this thing called a 'stepper'. If you assemble this fairly simple circuit from easily obtained ingredients, including the humble potato, you'll be able to move 'stepwise' into a series of alternate worlds, empty of humanity and full of possibilities, and with no more cost than a bit of nausea. Welcome to 'Step Day.'

This was the premise of a short story the wonderful Terry Pratchett wrote, called "The High Meggas"(mega as in thousands of worlds away). It was a very good short story, and full of potential. I like to think Stephen Baxter read this story and was on the phone to Mr Pratchett later that day. "This story you have: I think we could do something great." I like to think Terry Pratchett was flattered but initially reluctant, since he had so many projects on the go. Eventually, he was won round and this series was born.

Made up of The Long Earth, The Long War, and The Long Mars, with The Long Utopia still to come, these books span the next fifty years or so of exploration as humanity makes the most of this extra real estate by moving into it and making it pretty much the same as the 'datum Earth'. Well, okay, that's a lie. Nothing iron can travel, so the new settlements have to make much from scratch. People who know how to make things are suddenly much in demand. Security takes on a whole new dimension as anything valuable has to be buried in cellars, to prevent people merely stepping into the middle of a bank vault. Sprawling Western cities are reproduced in miniature in these other worlds, with extra rooms or allotment gardens expanding the effective size of properties.

There are pioneers, who go deep into the Long Earth in the search of particularly clement conditions. There are natural steppers, who don't need the potato, and one of them (the daughter of the man who leaked the plans for the stepper onto the internet) finds 'soft places' in the Long Earth, where she can take massive shortcuts to travel further, even beyond a town called Haven, thousands of worlds stepwise, where natural steppers sometimes accidentally end up. There are phobics, who can't use the steppers for whatever reason and so are left on Earth amid a mass exodus. There's an AI called Lobsang who claims to be a Buddhist motorcycle repairman reincarnated as a vending machine. There's Joshua Valienté, his friend and a natural stepper. Together they travel beyond what any human alone could do, and see all the different routes evolution could have taken if our Earth were only slightly different. More dramatic is the sheer number of worlds where multicellular life never got started at all, a reminder of how unlikely we really are.

This is a fantastic series, very readable sci-fi with sympathetic characters and a gripping narrative. Spoiler alert! The second book focuses on stepping aliens, who were born on an Earth distant from our own and the source of many fairy tales. As the name suggests, there's a build up to a war that never really happens. There's also an alien encounter with what's basically an intelligent giant amoeba, which absorbs life wherever it finds it without destroying it. The third book catalogues an expedition to find life on stepwise Mars. Throughout the series there's an increasing sense of impending peril as the aliens seem to be migrating en masse. Something is coming. I can't wait to see what adventures The Long Utopia will have.

Thanks to Judi Fruen for this post. I haven't read The Long Earth series yet, but after reading this review it's shot right to the top of my wishlist. - Katie 

Friday 20 March 2015

Book to Radio: Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

Crowley had always known that he would be around when the world ended, because he was immortal and wouldn't have any alternative. But he'd hoped it would be a long way off. 
Because he rather liked people. It was a major failing in a demon.
The end is nigh. Very nigh indeed. It is up to Aziraphale, angel and part-time bookseller, and Crowley, "an angel who did not fall so much as saunter vaguely downwards," to make sure all goes according to the Ineffable Plan. But they have other ideas. Over the past millennia, angel and demon have spent a lot of time together, and a lot of time among humanity, and they don't want it to end.

Good Omens is a collaboration between two of the greatest creative minds of offbeat fantasy, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, and it is every bit as brilliant as you could hope: witty, irreverent and philosophical, a story of good versus evil on a cosmic scale as Armageddon approaches, with an angel and a demon as its most prominent protagonists. But ultimately, it is is a story about humanity, presented in microcosm in the form of the eleven-year-old Adam (who ironically isn't really human at all. Or perhaps he is exactly as human as he seems...)

Crowley doesn't have a very high reputation among his fellow demons, with their proud boast of tempting priests and corrupting politicians - while Crowley's biggest achievement is merely tying up the phone lines at lunchtime, causing a spread of bad temper and nastiness throughout the country. There is something very British, I feel, about how little minor inconveniences can do far more lasting and far-reaching damage than a more overt evil. Oh, [Crowley] did his best to make their short lives miserable, because that was his job, but nothing he could think up was half as bad as the stuff they thought up themselves.  

It is remarkable how well Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's writing styles work together. They have their differences in style - Pratchett was more overtly comic, for the most part, while Gaiman - though he masters a wide variety of genres - has a dark poetry to his writing. But in Good Omens, the two come together seamlessly. You cannot tell who wrote which part. (Allegedly, neither could they in some places.) The only line I would be willing to swear was the work of one author was: "and she held her sword, and she smiled like a knife," which is a strongly Neil Gaiman turn of phrase.

As well as Aziraphale and Crowley, Good Omens is full of colourful and wonderful characters: Adam Young and his gang "Them," The Four Horsemen (or bikers) of the Apocalypse (and the other four bikers of the Apocalypse) Sergeant Shadwell - the dour last Witchfinder in England - and his apprentice Newton Pulsifer, and Anathema Device, a witch and keeper of The Nice And Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter. The book is packed with memorable scenes, lines and gags that spill out from the pages and become part of how the reader views the world. For instance: I take it as fact that any cassette (or CD) left in a car stereo will mutate into a Best of Queen album (which is why I felt it was really a bit superfluous to buy my sister that album for her birthday, although I did.) Elvis's cameo in a fast-food restaurant. (I DON'T CARE WHAT IT SAYS. I NEVER LAID A FINGER ON HIM.) A drunken angel waffling on about dolphins. A demon terrifying his house plants into growing properly. And really, I feel I've just scratched the surface of this book. It is not a long book, but it has so many wonderful, laugh-out-loud and profound moments. Go and read it! Or, alternatively, you could listen to the dramatisation.

Last year, Good Omens was adapted by the BBC into a six-part radio drama, aired over Christmas, and is now available as a 4-CD set. (Just don't leave it in your car or you know what'll happen. The creative team behind it, Dirk Maggs and Heather Larmour, were the same people who adapted the star-studded Neverwhere last year. As with Neverwhere the casting is spot-on. Mark Heap is a wonderfully fussy Aziraphale, and Peter Serafinowicz brings the right balance of darkness and snarky likability to the role. The supporting cast, too, are wonderful (although Death did not sound quite right. Really, he needed to be Christopher Lee, but that is a small grumble.) There is even a small cameo from Neil and Terry as traffic cops in the first episode.

The original novel was written 25 years ago, but very little really needed updating: a little technology here or there. Adam and the Them, and the village of Tadfield in general, are right out of the first half of the twentieth century, before computer gaming consoles and health'n'safety. That's the village's charm, and kept that way unconsciously by Adam's supernatural powers. I was sorry that a couple of my favourite jokes were omitted or changed -  there is an allusion to the Queen gag, but it was not stated outright - while I was surprised that one or two lines made it in that are perhaps well past their use-by date. But overall, Good Omens is an utter treat, and I listened to it on Christmas week in bed, giggling madly to myself.

Radio drama is an underrated storytelling format, and very occasionally the exposition is a little clunky - a limitation of the format as you have to tell everything through dialogue. But apart from the rare moment of "people don't really talk like that," it is very well done, utterly engrossing, and the hours simply fly by.

Thursday 19 March 2015

Pratchett Readathon: Night Watch

 This isn't your past any more. Not exactly. It's a past. And up there is a future. It might be your future. But it might not be. You want to go home now, leaving Carcer here and the real John Keel dead? But there'll be no home to go to, if you could do that.
When Sam Vimes faces a vicious serial killer on the roof of the Unseen University, the last thing he expects is to find himself stranded thirty years earlier in his own past. It was a very different time, an explosion just waiting to happen. The ruler was out of touch with the common people and reality, the Watch were corrupt, and the masses had just about had enough. Vimes just wants to go back to his own time, when his wife is having their first child, but there is a problem. Vimes brought the evil Carcer back with him, who is running amok in Ankh-Morpork and mingling with powerful villains, quite happy to cause as much disruption to history as he possibly can. And John Keel, the man who taught Vimes everything he knew, is now dead. Now it is up to Vimes to mentor his younger self and single-handedly turn the City Watch around. But revolution is brewing...

Night Watch is, without doubt, my favourite of the thirty-plus Discworld books I've read. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is objectively the best book in the series! It is best to read the other "Watch" books first, however: Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay at a minimum, with The Fifth Elephant and Jingo as optional extras. That way, you get to see how far Samuel Vimes and the Ankh-Morpork City Watch (or police force) have come since the start. When we first met the Watch in Guards! Guards! it comprised only three men, and its Captain was a drunk in a gutter. (Not, as my sister so rightly pointed out, an alcoholic - he wasn't rich enough for that. A drunk.) Over the course of several books, Terry Pratchett built up the characters, improved the Watch, promoted Vimes several times and saw him happily married to the richest woman in the city. Pratchett shows us just how much Vimes's life has improved, just how good he's got it - and then snatches all that away. We see how bad Ankh-Morpork has been by comparing it with the city we've come to know, which may be a mouldering cesspit crawling with villainy, but it is a mouldering cesspit that works, crawling with well-regulated villainy. That may not sound like a glowing recommendation, and yet it shines a light into the dark places of the city in years gone by.

But the real conflict of Night Watch is that which comes from within. It is up to Vimes, in the role of his mentor John Keel to not only sort out the corruption and brutality of the Watch and protect the populace during a time of severe unrest, but also to make sure that his younger self will stay on the right path (while knowing that it's a path that will lead to a lot of pain along the way.) And he does so magnificently. As "John Keel," Vimes strides in and takes over with sarcasm, audacity and an unconventional but very firm moral compass. I think it is fair to say that Sam Vimes becomes the closest thing that the Discworld has to a hero.

This series began life as a comic parody of the fantasy genre, but by Night Watch it barely feels like fantasy at all. This is literature, albeit literature containing time travel, trolls, werewolves and zombies, all taking place on a flat world held up by four elephants on the back of an enormous turtle called The Great A'Tuin. All this is secondary. I wouldn't even call Night Watch a comedy. There is humour throughout, but instead of silly gags there is a more piercing wit that is all the more satisfying for being paired with darker themes. And the social commentary is just as relevant today, if not more so than when it was published in 2002. Just think of the political situation in the UK with a government out of touch with the people it claims to speak for, or in America with all the reports we hear of racism, corruption and brutality ingrained in the police force. Night Watch can be held up against Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo in its fierce morality, as well as being a jolly good story. This is Sir Terry Pratchett at his finest.

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Pratchett Readathon: Reaper Man

"I remember," said one of the oldest mayflies, "when all this was fields, as far as you could see."

Reaper Man was one of the very first Discworld books I read, when I was thirteen or fourteen, and although I've reread all of the others in the "Death" mini-series several times, somehow Reaper Man has been missed out on these rereads. So returning to this book this week, I was amazed by how good it really is. There is, of course, the humour one comes to expect from Terry Pratchett, but also a lot of pathos and philosophising (but not in such a way that you feel beaten around the head with it.

The book opens with a broad view of the universe, before focusing in on the Discworld, lyrical observations on life, death and nostalgia as seen by mayflies and ancient pine trees, before focusing in on the human characters who will feature in the novel. It is a thoughtful, lyrical opening, showing the parallels in all life, no matter its length. I'm reminded of another personification of Death, from Pratchett's friend Neil Gaiman, who says, "You get what everybody gets - you get a lifetime."


Reading Reaper Man in the context of its author's death is a strange experience, poignant but also comforting. Pratchett portrays death as part of the natural cycle of the world, using impossible fantastical situations to try to make sense of the real world. As a child, death seemed quite straightforward: you live and then you die. But as I've grown older, I find it more difficult to get my head around.

In Reaper Man, Death loses his job, and chaos takes over. The dead find they're not going anywhere, and learn all about undead. Death himself gets a job on a farm, and starts to learn a little bit about life, about how precious time is when it is limited. And the wizards of the Unseen University find themselves faced with strange poltergeist activity, souvenir snowglobes and shopping trolleys.


Death, the Reaper of the Discworld, is one of the series' most lovable characters, despite his gloomy profession. Although he doesn't always quite understand his human charges or the way they do things, he cares about them and is a warm, safe (?) presence despite his appearance and job description. And he likes cats, and has a horse named Binky. When he is reinstated at the end of Reaper Man, the effort he puts into paying a very special visit is both heartbreaking and beautiful. This is the book to read this week. Given its subject matter, yes, it may be a painful read, but it is a pure sort of pain, which is also comforting and soul-refreshing. Reaper Man has easily shot into my list of favourite Discworld books. I'm sorry that it took so long to rediscover, but I'm very glad I found it when I did. It was the right book at the right time.

Tuesday 17 March 2015

In Memoriam: Sir Terry Pratchett. Discworld Highlights

With about forty books in the series, it is very difficult to do justice to the best bits of Terry Pratchett's Discworld, but here I go with a small selection of my personal favourite bits. Of course my lists will be far from exhaustive, and if you think I've missed out something special, please do let me know in the comments below!

Katie's Top 10 Discworld Books

  1. Night Watch: In which Samuel Vimes, commander of the City Watch, finds himself in his own past, tracking down a dangerous criminal and having to guide himself through a turbulent time in Ankh-Morpork's history. But all he wants is to get home to his wife and newborn baby.
  2. Reaper Man: Death is missing. Presumed... gone.
  3. Maskerade: The Discworld's take on opera and musical theatre in general, and The Phantom of the Opera in particular.
  4. Guards! Guards!: This is where the Discworld series Gets Really Good. Introducing Samuel Vimes, Carrot Ironfoundersson, and many other beloved characters. Also, there are dragons.
  5. Hogfather: The Discworld Christmas Special. The Hogfather (similar to our Santa) goes missing, and a most unlikely substitute steps in, with hilarious results.
  6. Monstrous Regiment: One of the stand-alones. In a far-off country, a band of recruits join a long-running war. But they all have secrets, and all are running to or from something...
  7. Men At Arms: In which the City Watch starts to expand, and faces new challenges.
  8. Feet of Clay: Another City Watch book, concerning golems, and a dwarf defying cultural norms. 
  9. Going Postal: A criminal is offered a choice: execution or rescuing the Ankh-Morpork Post Office.
  10. Carpe Jugulum: Concerning vampires.

Katie's Top 10 Discworld Characters

Lord Vetinari, by Paul Kidby

  1. Lord Havelock Vetinari: The Patrician and tyrant of Ankh-Morpork. Cold, sinister and morally ambiguous. Somehow he always seems to be masterminding and working towards the same ends as our heroes, but that doesn't necessarily make him a good guy. Certainly not a nice guy.
  2. DEATH: The archetypal Grim Reaper. Skeleton, robe, scythe... horse called Binky, granddaughter Susan, lover of cats, and COULD MURDER A CURRY.
  3. Samuel Vimes: Recovering alcoholic and head of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. Hard-bitten and cynical, has been "brung low" by being a good man trying to keep order in a lawless city. Probably the best-rounded character of the series, and the one with the most growth from start to end.
  4. Granny Weatherwax: Witches don't have leaders. Granny Weatherwax is the leader that the Lancre witches don't have. Shrewd, stubborn and no-nonsense, her witchcraft contains little magic and more "headology." The good witch, after her sister turned bad, and very resentful of the fact.
  5. Carrot Ironfoundersson: At well over six feet tall, it wasn't until Carrot was sixteen that his father, a dwarf, explained that Carrot was adopted. Carrot arrives at Ankh-Morpork to join the City Watch (voluntarily!) with big ideas about Upholding the Law and Making a Difference. Simple, but don't let that fool you into believing him to be stupid. Carrot grows in wisdom but retains his innocence through the series.
  6. Nanny Ogg: The "Mother" of the Lancre coven, to Magrat's "Maiden" and Granny Weatherwax's "... Other One." Nanny has been married three times, loves to drink, laugh and sing The Hedgehog Song. There is nothing her mind can't make grubby.
  7. Susan Sto Helit: DEATH'S granddaughter (adopted.) Susan takes over when DEATH is otherwise occupied. Normally, though, she works as a governess. She knows what children are like, and has a very matter-of-fact way of teaching them how to face life.
  8. Rincewind: The worst wizard in the history of forever, and an absolute coward. Rincewind spends his time running away from one misadventure and falling headlong into another.
  9. The Librarian: He was once human, but a magical accident turned him into an orang-utan. He won't be changed back. Jealously guards his library, and woe betide you if you should accidentally use the m-word around him. Ook.
  10. Lady Sybil Ramkin: Head of the Sunshine Sanctuary for Sick Dragons, and later wife to Samuel Vimes. She is a scruffy, outdoorsy sort of rich person, big-hearted (and generally big) and matter-of-fact. She and Vimes balance each other out perfectly.
DEATH by Paul Kidby

Assorted Awesome Moments (contains spoilers.)

1. Guards! Guards! On apprehending their villain, Captain Vimes gives the order: "Throw the book at him," to the young and keen Lance-Constable Carrot, who has no concept of metaphor.
2. Guards! Guards! again - the scene where Vimes confronts a mob wielding a small, sickly swamp dragon, in a callback to Clint Eastwood. "Am I feeling lucky?"
3. Wyrd Sisters: The three witches moving the entire kingdom forward in time.
4. Moving Pictures: The reversal of the classic King Kong scene.
5. Maskerade: Granny Weatherwax plays poker with DEATH, for the life of a newborn baby. And wins. The fact that DEATH let her win does not detract from this scene's awesomeness, but instead enhances it.
6. Witches Abroad: Granny Weatherwax is imprisoned between mirrors, but has no trouble finding her real self among all the reflections. "This one," she says, pointing to herself.
7. Soul Music: DEATH'S fiery motorcycle ride.
8.Carpe Jugulum: "I ain't be vampired. You've been Weatherwaxed."
9. Night Watch: As a student at the Guild of Assassins, Havelock Vetinari failed his stealth exam, because the examiner marked him as absent.
10. Night Watch: Vimes ordering the resistance to dismantle their barricade... then rebuild it the other end of the street. Properly, this time.
11. Night Watch: (Guys, just read the whole book, will you?) Vimes facing down the rioters with nothing but a cigar and a mug of cocoa.
12. The Monstrous Regiment: The gradual revelations of each character's true identity.
12A: The Monstrous Regiment: Related to the above, Sergeant Jackrum is a single-handed awesome moment in every scene. "Upon my word, I am not a violent man." You never spoke a truer word.
13: Thud! "THAT! IS!! NOT!!! MY!!!! COW!!!!!" Nothing, nothing, will stop Sam Vimes from reading his son a bedtime story.
13A: Thud! Vimes's inner Watchman versus the Summoning Dark, "an invisible and very powerful quasi-demonic thing of pure vengeance." Truly, Samuel Vimes has come a long way since we first met him, passed out drunk in the gutter.
14. Unseen Academicals: Lord Vetinari's version of drunk. More sober than most people's sober. (And yet, not knurd, which is the exact opposite of drunkenness, and another thing entirely.)
15. Unseen Academicals: Mr Nutt's polite address to a hostile crowd, his acknowledgement of his alien nature and the problems therewith, and, "come on if you think you're hard enough."

Assorted wit and wisdom

Granny Weatherwax by Paul Kidby

“Things that try to look like things often do look more like things than things.” - Granny Weatherwax, Wyrd Sisters
"Here’s some advice boy. Don’t put your trust in revolutions. They always come around again. That's why they’re called revolutions." - Sam Vimes, Night Watch
Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.
The thing about words is that meaning can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their meaning.
No one ever said elves are nice.
Elves are bad. - Lords and Ladies
Technically, the city of Ankh-Morpork is a Tyranny, which is not always the same thing as a monarchy, and in fact even the post of Tyrant has been somewhat redefined by the incumbent, Lord Vetinari, as the only form of democracy that works. Everyone is entitled to vote, unless disqualified by reason of age or not being Lord Vetinari.
And yet it does work. This has annoyed a number of people who feel, somehow, that it should not, and who want a monarch instead, thus replacing a man who has achieved his position by cunning, a deep understanding of the realities of the human psyche, breathtaking diplomacy, a certain prowess with the stiletto dagger, and, all agree, a mind like a perfectly balanced circular saw, with a man who has got there by being born…
 - Unseen Academicals
His mind was grinding through the problem. She was a witch. Just lately there'd been a lot of gossip about witches being bad for your health. He'd been told not to let witches pass, but no one had said anything about apple sellers. Apple sellers were not a problem. It was witches that were the problem. She'd said she was an apple seller and he wasn't about to doubt a witch's word. - Wyrd Sisters
A good bookshop is just a genteel Black Hole that knows how to read. - Guards! Guards!
"There have been...accidents.""What kind of accidents?""The kind of accidents you prefer to call...accidents." - Maskerade

Nanny Ogg by Paul Kidby

"Well, basically there are two sorts of opera," said Nanny, who also had the true witch's ability to be confidently expert on the basis of no experience whatsoever. "There's your heavy opera, where basically people sing foreign and it goes like, 'Oh oh oh, I am dyin', oh I am dyin' oh, oh, oh, that's what I'm doin',' and then there's your light opera, where they sing in foreign and it basically goes, 'Beer! Beer! Beer! Beer! I like to drink lots of beer!' although sometimes they drink champagne instead. That's basically all of opera, reely." - Maskerade
"Commander, I always used to consider that you had a definite anti-authoriarian streak in you.""Sir?""It seems that you have managed to retain this even though you are authority.""Sir?""That's practically zen." - Lord Vetinari and Sam Vimes, Feet of Clay
"If you have to look along the shaft of an arrow from the wrong end, if a man has you at his mercy, then hope like hell that man is an evil man. Because the evil like power, power over people, and they want to see you in fear. They want you to know you are going to die. So they'll talk. They'll gloat. They'll watch you squirm. They'll put off the murder like another man will put off a good cigar. So hope like hell your captor is an evil man. A good man will kill you with hardly a word." - Feet of Clay
A selection of Punes, or Plays on Words

Samuel Vimes by Paul Kidby

  1. He hated being thought of as one of those people that wore stupid ornamental armour. It was gilt by association. - Night Watch
  2. They had dined on horse meat, horse cheese, horse black pudding, horse d'oeuvres and a thin beer that Rincewind didn't want to speculate about. - The Light Fantastic
  3. "Rincewind, all the shops have been smashed open, there was a whole bunch of people across the street helping themselves to musical instruments, can you believe that?" "Yeah," said Rincewind, picking up a knife and testing its blade thoughtfully. "Luters, I expect." - The Light Fantastic
  4. The land of Djelibeybi (lit. Child of the Djel). The setting for most of Pyramids.
  5. The duke had a mind that ticked like a clock and, like a clock, it regularly went cuckoo. - Wyrd Sisters
  6. The Ramkins were more highly bred than a hilltop bakery, whereas Corporal Nobbs had been disqualified from the human race for shoving. - Men at Arms
  7. FABRICATI DIEM, PVNC - motto of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch
  8. Thunder rolled. It rolled a six. - Guards! Guards!
  9. Mrs Evadne Cake was a medium, verging on small. - Reaper Man
  10. "I thought dwarfs loved gold," said Angua. "They just say that to get it into bed." - Cheery Littlebottom, Feet of Clay.

From the archives: Previous reviews of Discworld books. 

The Colour of Magic and Interesting Times. (July 2014) This post is more ramblings than an actual review.
Unseen Academicals and Monstrous Regiment (September 2012)
The Fifth Elephant (March 2011)
Feet of Clay (March 2011)
I Shall Wear Midnight (October 2010)

And one non-Discworld book by Terry Pratchett:

Dodger (October 2012)

Monday 16 March 2015

Pratchett Readathon: Eric

Faust Eric

There are Discworld books I read over and over, and there are Discworld books I'd never read, although I am trying to remedy that this year, and have only about half a dozen left to go. I don't want to rush through the last few, though, especially knowing that there won't be any more. I have read Eric before, but not for twelve years. I read it when I was studying Marlowe's Doctor Faustus for A-Level English, and so could appreciate Eric as a parody of the legend. In Pratchett's version, the would-be magician is in fact an incompetent brat of a teenage boy with a one-track mind, and instead of conjuring a powerful demon, Eric produces... Rincewind, the hapless "wizzard."

Though published after Guards! Guards! (the point at which the Discworld series suddenly "gets good,") Eric feels much more like the earlier books in the series, when the series was simply a parody and subversion of classic fantasy and mythology. It is full of giggle-out-loud wordplay and observations, but has not yet achieved the sharp satire that I've come to associate with Discworld. As well as the Faust legend, Pratchett takes Rincewind and Eric to the Disc's equivalent of Troy, and, of course, subverts everything you think you know, from the famed "most beautiful woman in the world" to the wooden horse (oldest trick in the book, but both parties have read the book and therefore events take a different turn.) There is a fair bit of hopping about within the space-time continuum which is not very easily explained. Again, it fits in better with the early Discworld before it became fully-formed and rounded.

The Rincewind stories tend to be more loosely-plotted than, say, the Watch books, or the Witches, due, I think, to the nature of the character. Rincewind is a coward, and his tale is one of running away from one misadventure and falling headlong into another. Eric is an amusing and entertaining read, and as one of the shortest books in the series (155 pages), it is easy to read in a single evening. However, it never made it onto my regular-reread list, and with so many other excellent books to choose from, that's not likely to change.

Sunday 15 March 2015

Sunday Summary: Shopping and another sad farewell

Hello to you all on this Sunday evening (or whatever time and day it is when you're actually reading this.) It's Mother's day in the UK (though I believe some countries celebrate it later on in the year) so here's a special hello to all the mothers reading this blog, and I'd also like to spare a thought for all those who wish they were mothers, but are not, and those who no longer have their mothers with them. Here's (a picture of) some flowers for you all.

I'd only been back on the Isle of Wight for a week, but this week I felt the need to get back onto the mainland. Going back to work hit me hard - not for any discernable reason, but I've been feeling a bit of anxiety and claustrophobia. So on Monday I decided to take a day trip over to Southampton, where I met up with my friend Ruth for masses of ice cream at Sprinkles Gelato, a bit of shopping, and we ended up going to Wagamama's for dinner. It was lovely to catch up with Ruth, who is in her last year at Southampton university, and we wandered around the shops, especially Forbidden Planet and Waterstone's, where we both invested in a few of the 80th anniversary Penguin mini-books (which, at 80p, and only a few pages, do not count towards my "read three, buy two" rule for this year.) I also picked up the Secret Garden colouring postcard book that has made colouring acceptable for grown ups. I'd been planning to get a colouring book anyway - it can be very calming and therapeutic - and about the same time, Jess and Ray seem to have set a trend and made colouring cool again. (I've also ordered an Anne of Green Gables colouring book through Hive. It's Anne, it exists, therefore I must have it!

A mere fortnight after the death of Leonard Nimoy, the sci-fi and fantasy world was hit with another sad loss when Sir Terry Pratchett passed away last week. Pratchett is one of the UK's best-loved authors, and one whose books I've been reading since I was about thirteen years old. I've read nearly all of his Discworld series, and one of this year's goals was to fill in the last few gaps of his backlist. I don't feel in quite so much of a hurry now I know there won't be any more. Sir Terry had been furiously battling Alzheimer's disease for the last few years, but over the past several months it became clear that the disease was winning - a dreadful thing to happen to such a brilliant mind. When mum told me the news I was first angry, then so shaken by this second sadness that I think my brain just shut down for a while. And yet, at the same time, I don't think it's really hit me yet.

Terry Pratchett at Forbidden Planet, London, November 2005
Bex has decided to hold a Terry Pratchett reading week on her blog, and I'll be doing likewise, with reviews of his books and adaptations, a "favourite moments" post (which, I'll give you due warning, could be long) and maybe even a guest post or two.

So farewell, Sir Pterry, and thanks for the laughs, the rage, the wisdom and the punes, or plays on words. Long may your legacy continue.

Friday 6 March 2015

Book Bloggers Do London, and other adventures.

Last week I finally had some holiday from work. It had been three months since I last got off the Isle of Wight, even for a day trip, and I usually like to at least go shopping in Southampton or Portsmouth once a month. But I made up for it on my recent London trip. I went to stay with my sister, and on Thursday was very excited to meet up with Bex and Laura for the first time for an epic book-shopping spree.

I got into London quite early, taking the train with my sister Jenny, who works in Victoria. After wandering down Oxford Street, desperately looking for a pair of jeans that were affordable and not skinny (I failed. Skinny jeans are sadly the default style these days.) I got to our meeting place in Waterstone's Piccadilly with a few minutes to spare. I was worried we wouldn't recognise each other, but - after apparently offending a passing man by accidentally catching his eye and causing him to swear under his breath at me - Bex found me, recognising me by my bag. Laura was not far behind, and we started from the top of the massive, five-storey bookshop and worked our way down. Bex had never been to this Waterstone's before, and I had only once. We didn't spend as long as we could have in there - you'd probably need a full day to do it justice - but we explored the children's section, the Shakespeare area, the Russian bookshop (oddly), and of course large sections of Fiction. I bought Robin Stevens' two schoolgirl murder mysteries, which have caused a bit of a buzz online this year: Murder Most Unladylike and Arsenic for Tea. 

We left Waterstone's and went on a search for some lunch, but apparently Piccadilly doesn't have restaurants. We walked and walked before giving up and taking the next tube to Leicester Square, where we basically came out of the station and into the first cafe we saw, a cheap-and-cheerful noodle place with pink seats.

We took a detour from our planned bookshop route to go into Forbidden Planet - which does sell books, after all, as well as comics and all the geek memorabilia you could wish for. In the Doctor Who section I saw cuddly Adipose toys - squishy fat monsters - and commented that "they ought to make Adipose stress toys... they DO have Adipose stress toys!" After that, of course, Laura would not let me not buy one, as I had just somehow willed it into being. And it is so funny adorable that I don't think it would be possible to remain stressed while squishing it around. Look!

Oh, there was so much geek merchandise in Forbidden Planet that I could have spent my month's pay on before I even ventured down to the book department. Buffy and Firefly Pop figures! A giant Serenity ship (at £340!) All the Doctor Who and Star Trek things you could dream of. T-shirts! ALL THE THINGS, PEOPLE! Then, downstairs, we all managed to talk each other into buying at least one comic book or graphic novel: Bex got Hyperbole and a Half, Laura bought Watchmen, and I picked up Seconds, which I knew I'd read about somewhere but forgotten it was Bex's review that made me interested in the first place. It's awesome that people can know each other's reading tastes so well, especially when they're people who haven't met before. (I know Bex and Laura have met up plenty of times before but this was my first time on a bloggers' book-shopping spree and it was as awesome as I'd hoped.)

Unfortunately Laura then had to go back to uni for a Macbeth lecture, and we had to go on a big diversion to find the tube station thanks to all the work at Tottenham Court Road. Then, when we got through the station barriers Bex and I weren't sure we actually wanted the train from there after all, though we figured out a way to get to the Persephone bookshop. Most people hate the London Underground but I quite like it, if it's not too crowded and I don't need to worry about losing too many people. Neither of us had been to Persephone before; it is the shop of a small publishing company which reprints forgotten books, mostly by women, from the early part of the 20th century. It's an unusual way of shopping, in that all the books have plain grey covers (with pretty endpapers and matching bookmarks which are prints from fabrics made in the same year that the books were published.) All you have to go on is the title and the blurb. I bought Saplings, by Noel Streatfeild who wrote the classic Ballet Shoes. 

Of course, no trip to London would be complete without visiting Foyle's in Charing Cross Road. The shop has moved down the road to an even bigger store, shiny and new and exciting - although, if I'm honest, I miss the old Foyle's and its layout. I was very tempted by the 80p mini-books that Penguin have published on every subject to celebrate its 80th anniversary, and Bex persuaded me that they would be too small to count towards my book-buying limit, but in the end I didn't get one of those. I did, however, find the last copy of Ms Marvel, and Deborah Johnson's The Secret of Magic, which I could have bought from work, but where's the fun in that? Finally, I picked up a writing prompt book - which doesn't count, because it was from the stationery section - of 642 Things To Write About. 

Weighed down by bags of books, we headed back to Victoria for 6 o'clock, with just enough time to get a cup of tea or coffee and a piece of cake from Cafe Nero, where we found agitated text messages from Ellie demanding photos and details of our shopping trip. Well, Ellie, this may be a belated post, but I hope it will do.

Jenny met me at Nero's, and we took the train back to her house, where we watched the incredibly cheesy original film entitled Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was quite ridiculous, farcical, a long way from the vision Joss Whedon thankfully got a second chance of realising. The vampires hammed it up no end, took a long time to die, Buffy was far more fluffy-headed than Sarah Michelle Gellar, at least at the start (but that's fair; the series Buffy was implied to be an airhead before she got "called.") There were different elements to the mythology than we were familiar with, and though I could from time to time see elements of the character we know as Buffy Summers, the story just isn't the same without the strength of the supporting cast. Also, for some reason (wine?) the leading man's horrible patch of chin hair made me laugh hysterically for about five minutes straight.


Jenny took the Friday off work and we decided to celebrate her birthday a week early, with presents, cake and a meal out in the evening. It was a gorgeous sunny day - winter was definitely on its way out - so we drove out in her exciting new purple car to Richmond Park, spending a lovely afternoon taking pictures of trees, parakeets and deer.

The park closed at half past five but our dinner reservation wasn't until seven o'clock, so we popped into Wetherspoon's to pass the time. Jenny took out her phone to reply to a friend who had been messaging her through about three different apps (I do not quite understand the necessity of having three different ways of sending text from one mobile phone to another, but there you go.) I heard a sad "oh!" and Jenny told me that Leonard Nimoy, one of science fiction's most beloved legends, had died. It wasn't really a surprise. I knew about his lung disease, and that he had been taken into hospital earlier in the week. I followed him on Twitter, and each time he updated, I would think, "Oh, good, he's still alive then," but the last tweet, a few days before his death, made me feel uneasy at the time. Even then, I must have recognised the poignant finality to his words. The news may not have been unexpected, but I was still very sad. I am very sad. Though I am a new Trekkie, and it was Zachary Quinto who first made me interested in Spock, it was Leonard Nimoy who made me fall in love with the character, bringing a subtle humanity to this all-logical, apparently-emotionless alien. And - though (of course) I never knew Mr Nimoy personally , or even very well as a fan presumes to "know" someone they admire, but I liked him nonetheless, as a person as well as an actor. He came across as a real gentleman, wise, intelligent and compassionate. He'll be sorely missed, and of course my thoughts go out to his family and friends at this time.

Jenny and I went to Jamie's Italian restaurant in Kingston, a place I'd been meaning to go to since it opened. Being a Friday night it was very busy, quite loud, but the customer service was amazing. We were in the restaurant for two hours, but did not feel that we were either kept waiting or hurried. We enjoyed a delicious three-course meal (I had mushroom bruschetta, a sausage pasta dish and something very much like a posh Bakewell tart) and a lot of good conversation. The price was reasonable, the staff were charming, and we left feeling full but not uncomfortable. An excellent meal.


Friday's sunny weather gave way to a rainy, grey Saturday. I met up with Clare and Hannah, two of my best friends from university, who sadly I don't get to see very often any more, due to me working weekends and them working weekdays. We took the tram from Wimbledon to Ikea in Croydon, and spend the morning wandering around, looking for potential furniture for "when we can afford it" and stopping halfway round for meatballs (probably horse-free) in the cafeteria. None of us have cars, so the only shopping we actually did was for little things like tablecloths and cushions. I may or may not have spent a lot of time in the store humming Jonathan Coulton's "Ikea" song.

Afterwards, Clare left us and I went back to Hannah's flat. I hadn't planned to spend very long there, but we kept on talking, and then Hannah's husband Paul told me that they had a Wii with Mario Kart, so we had to have a game or two. And then Hannah and I spent nearly an hour talking out in the hallway when I was getting my coat on. In the end, I got back to Jenny's flat about four hours after I initially intended to. Oops.

Tuesday 3 March 2015

February in books

Another month over. We're out of gloomy February, heading towards spring, with the sun showing itself more often, even if it's still pretty cold. Winter is on its way out, and I for one say "hurrah!"

February's provisional to-read pile

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August - Claire North
The House at Sea's End - Elly Griffiths
The Elements of Eloquence - Mark Forsyth
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers - J. R. R. Tolkien
The Year I Met You - Cecelia Ahern
The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe - Alexander McCall Smith

I stuck less rigidly to my pile this month, also getting several books out of the library, and embarking on an epic shopping trip with Laura and Bex in London, which I will write about more fully later on this week.

Additional reads:

The Bumper Book of Fads and Crazes - Richard Lewis (a random library find.)
Ms Marvel: No Normal - G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona

Started in February:

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring - J.R.R. Tolkien
Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words - Boel Westin
Murder Most Unladylike - Robin Stevens

Best books of February:

I didn't allocate any of last month's reads with 5 stars, but Trigger Warning was a good 4 and a half, and The Elements of Eloquence and The Girl on the Train were 4-star reads. 

Bought in February:

Murder Most Unladylike and Arsenic for Tea - Robin Stevens
The Secret of Magic - Deborah Johnson
Saplings - Noel Streatfeild
Seconds - Bryan Lee O'Malley
Ms Marvel: No Normal - G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona

(Also 642 Things to Write About, but that doesn't count as a book so much as a stationery item.)

Borrowed from the library:

The Stuff of Thought - Steven Pinker
A Son Called Gabriel - Damian McNicholl
The Bumper Book of Fads and Crazes - Richard Lewis
The Crossing Places - Elly Griffiths
Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words - Boel Westin

Provisional March to-read pile:

In progress:
Murder Most Unladylike - Robin Stevens
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers - J. R. R. Tolkien
Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words - Boel Westin

To read:
Arsenic for Tea - Robin Stevens
The Secret of Magic - Deborah Johnson
Seconds - Bryan Lee O'Malley
The Stuff of Thought - Steven Pinker
A Son Called Gabriel - Damian McNicholl
The Crossing Places - Elly Griffiths

I have noticed that the new books go straight to the top of the pile, displacing books that have been there a while, probably because of the novelty, and the excitement of finding them is still fresh. Apparently that is A Thing. Also, I've renewed those library books a few times and ought to take them back soon.

What are you planning to read in the month ahead? Do you give yourself a shortlist, or just read whatever takes your fancy when you finish your latest book? 

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