Tag Archives: fantasy

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

I’m back in Cambridge, which means I can use my library card to break out of my rut! I’ve made a list of all the books you recommended – and now I’m reading other things, until the plan takes off in May! First up, one of the books I’ve been rationing: #69 Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett.

Ankh-Morpork is the Discworld’s largest, smelliest city. Its stench is usually enough to warn off invaders, but not when the marauder is a dragon. Faced with a fire-breathing menace, the City Watch swing into action to defend their city. Shame there’s only 3 of them, plus the new recruit…

One for the NPCs
In role playing games, both computer and table-top, characters that aren’t controlled by the player are called ‘non-player characters’. These NPCs may give you the last jigsaw piece, kidnap your party, or serve drinks in a bar, but their main role is to die a lot. In Guards! Guards! Pratchett has taken those characters and brought them to centre stage.

I hadn’t reread Guards! Guards! since I read John Scalzi’s Redshirts, another fun book which takes a look at the same sacrificial lambs from a different angle. Coming back to Guards! Guards! I had a different perspective, which is always fun. It makes reading a book for the dozenth time feel fresh. I’ve also played a lot more games since I read the book for the first time, and I can confirm that it’s fun whether or not you’re a role playing / gaming / fantasy geek.

Character development
Pratchett introduces a lot of characters that he later developed and reused in this novel. It’s the 8th Discworld novel, first published in 1989, and introduces (if I remember correctly) several key characters, including Captain Vimes, Nobby, Sergeant Colon and Carrot, swamp dragons, Lady Ramkin and the Patrician. It’s also the first book to really dive into Ankh-Morpork, as in the earlier Rincewind largely runs away from the city, the witches mostly stayed in Lancre, and the wizards in the university.

I reread Snuff, the 39th Discworld book, recently. It features many of the same characters as Guards! Guards!, and it’s interesting to see how they’ve all evolved. It’s hard to recognise the later characters of Vimes and Carrot in their earliest incarnation, and yet the seeds are there. I do feel that Pratchett doesn’t always ensure a logical character growth, particularly when he’s off and running with a new idea. He doesn’t usually reinvent people whole cloth, so the arcs tend to sort of work, but I do sometimes feel the bumps.

While Guards! Guards! isn’t my favourite Pratchett novel, it’s still a good book and a very enjoyable read. I’m glad I found it at the library, and I’m happy to break my slump with a new review for you.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Demons, babies and magic, oh my!

Demons, babies and magic, oh my!

This is the space where a Big Read update should go, but there isn’t one. I haven’t picked up a Big Read book at all this week, despite putting ‘finish Sons and Lovers‘ on my to-do list at least twice. I’ve got to that point where I’ve by-passed all the books I have available so often that even the ones I know will be good seem dull. Have you noticed this effect? The more often I look at a book and then read something else, the less likely I am to ever read it, even if I love it or its a book I’ve been waiting to come out.

I’m back in the UK now, which has switched up my TBR pile, but I’m not making any promises. Instead, here are three books I’ve read this week:

The Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones (1998)
I totally love Diana Wynne Jones, so I was thrilled when the price on The Dark Lord of Derkholm dropped to £1.99. It’s well worth two quid. It’s a really fun read on several levels. It’s a fantasy novel for children, with magic and fun. It’s set in a world which is being destroyed by a rapacious tourist industry, so the wizards of the realm decide to take action. Gamers (RPG or computer) will appreciate the world, as the tourists are on trips which look rather like a gaming quest. It’s as if the NPCs finally got a chance to talk… Having been recently reading Tolkien, I particularly appreciate the fact that the novel has, oh, female wizards, and women at all. People of different races act like people, not like walking stereotypes, talking animals are people, and you can have different kinds of people in one family. It’s not that it’s an ‘issues’ book, it’s just good world building.

The Amazing Thing About the Way It Goes 
by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee (2014)
The Yarn Harlot‘s newest book, The Amazing Thing has surprisingly little knitting in it. Really, there’s not much yarn at all, so don’t buy it for that. It’s got the same mix of uncommon common sense, humour and minor disasters as the previous books, but without the yarn. There’s parenting advice, but no advice on what not to knit for your kids. As a result, it’s still a good book, but disappointing. I really like reading about knitting, and I don’t have any teenagers that need wrangling. On the plus side, the book should appeal to a much wider audience, and I’m all in favour of knitters who make me laugh having a bigger yarn budget.

Demon Hunter and Baby by Anna Elliott (2012)
I have to say that I got Demon Hunter and Baby when it was free, and I don’t think it’s well edited enough to be worth the £3+ that it’s currently selling for. However, I really like the concept. I enjoy urban fantasy, and part of the reason I like it is that there are lots of physically, mentally and magically strong female characters in the genre. Unfortunately, few of them ever get to settle down, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen one have a baby. Demon Hunter and Baby is a good example of the genre, with a neat twist (the baby, I mean. The plot is a bit more predictable). The mythology feels a bit disjointed at times, and at times I felt like there was too much going on. It reads a bit like book 2 in a trilogy, but it’s a stand alone novel, and I feel like a good editor would have made the book rather better.

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien – Book One

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien – Book One

THERE WILL BE SPOILERS in my Lord of the Rings reviews and the review will be split over several posts.

Reading #1 The Lord of the Rings is a slow process for me. Clearly, a lot of people love this book very much. I really don’t understand why, but I would be glad if you could tell me what it is you like.

Book One is the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring. It follows on directly from The Hobbit – well, sort of. Bilbo has handed over the adventuring to his nephew, Frodo. Advised by Gandalf to quit the Shire, he packs up a few friends and a few ponies and heads into the dark and magical woods.

The timings
After the adventures in The Hobbit, Bilbo waits 60 years before handing the ring of the title onto his successor, and Frodo waits another 30 years before setting out on the next adventure. In the mean time, nothing has changed whatsoever in Middle Earth. And everyone’s still alive, apart from one grouchy relative and two dwarves.

I don’t understand why the lifespans are so extended. It doesn’t add anything to the story as nothing has changed – at least so far. There’s no evidence of 90 years of progress in any of the places we’ve visited. Also, humans (at least, I assume Gandalf is human) seem to live for ages as well. What’s the point of having super-human supernatural races if humans are just as good?

The races
As in The Hobbit, each race has distinct characteristics and individuals are slave to them. It seems like lazy world-building, but perhaps Tolkien is making some meta point about how he views the world. There aren’t enough humans in Book One to provide a test, but in The Hobbit it seemed that humans were allowed to vary, having no one type, so I think it’s a lack of detail. And, of course, some races are good and some are bad and no one shall ever swap sides.

The woman
There is a woman in Book One. Her name is Goldberry and she is as beautiful as I don’t know what. She’s a very gentle river goddess, so far as I can tell, and married to the god of the forest. She’s a hostess, and says nothing that doesn’t relate to her guests’ comfort.

Another woman is mentioned, an elf maid who is the most beautiful woman who ever lived. She’s captured by a human man who has determined to own her. There’s something really off about this, and even Tolkien calls their first embrace ‘her doom’. This is glossed over and she gives up her immortality for him and they die happily ever after.

The poetry
I don’t like it. I like poetry by other poets. I don’t like Tolkien’s comic songs, I don’t like the elf-lore, I don’t like the historical ballads. They all seem pale imitations of the real thing – they are a bit soppy and far too nice. I remember reading Beowulf at school, and it’s it’s strange and beautiful, even in translation. This is a bowdlerised version.

The luck
One trait not mentioned, is that hobbits are incredibly lucky. In Book One, Frodo and friends get rescued at least three times. On each occasion, the timing is critical. A few minutes more and everything would have been lost. Fortunately, someone turns up and saves them each time. In once case, this is literally the only other person for a hundred miles. How lucky! How unsatisfying.

Sam’s servile attitude
It’s bugging the crap out of me. I really don’t understand why there’s this ongoing distinction between the different hobbits. And given that Sam is so low-class and servile, who are Merry and Pippin? And why haven’t they brought valets?

The economy
I don’t understand how hobbit society survives. What has Frodo been living off for all these years? Bilbo’s gold from his adventure? What about everyone else? Where do things like ponies come from? They actually pay for a pony in this book, and it gives the reader a glimpse of the economy. A pony costs about 4 silver pennies, and that’s a lot of money to working folk. And yet, throughout The Hobbit, people scratching a living in the wilderness gave ponies away like water. So who is making what, in Middle Earth? And who does all the cooking and cleaning?

The geography
Who makes all these paths? Who maintains them?

What I liked
I am growing fond of the hobbits – I feel like they could be rounded characters, if they were allowed. I also liked Strider (Aragorn). He’s been my favourite character in every incarnation of this story I’ve encountered. I don’t know why, but he’s less frustrating that the rest of the crew. I liked the barrow wraiths, and thought they were a good villain. I really liked the image of the river taking the form of foam horses, and sweeping off the threat. I quite like the Nasgul. They have a lot to put up with. I was sad to encounter the trolls from The Hobbit again. They were some of my favourite characters in that book and deserved a better fate. (I also don’t understand how trolls work, seeing as they can’t ever stand daylight? Not a good evolutionary tactic for creatures that live above ground…)

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien – a sort of prologue

Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien – a sort of prologue

When I started the challenge, I thought that #1 The Lord of the Rings was the title of the first volume in a trilogy. I was corrected by a friend: it refers to the whole trilogy. Starting to read, I was corrected again. It’s not, says my edition, a trilogy but actually one novel told in six books, commonly split over three volumes: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King.

I’m not a fan of Tolkien’s works, as you’ll have noticed from my review of The Hobbit. From my prejudiced and unhappy viewpoint, it seems unfair that he not only got the top spot, he did it with three (or six, depending on your perspective) books disguised as one. I had to drag myself through The Hobbit, so I thought I’d help myself (and you) out by reviewing the books in chunks, as I read them. This means that although there are no spoilers in this post, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS in my Lord of the Rings reviews. Either that or I’ll have nothing to say by the end. 

In the beginning
I bought the three volumes of Lord of the Rings on Kindle, as they were £1.99 each at the time, and K wanted to reread them. I then realised I had to go and read The Hobbit, as the blasted thing is a prequel to The Lord of the Rings so it was a fair while before I opened the ebook. And then even longer before I got to the first chapter.

One advantage of reading a book on Kindle, is that the Paperwhite makes a good guess at how long you’ve got left in a chapter or the whole book. It’s easily tricked by appendices, but it’s pretty good overall. According to my Kindle, I had an hour of reading between the cover of my edition of The Fellowship of the Ring and the start of the first chapter. An hour! Fully 10% of the material in the book is before Chapter One. It’s partly a long discourse on who changed what when, partly Tolkein’s notes to the reader, and partly a long and involved history of the made-up travels of the non-existent original sources that are the imaginary fore-runners to this work of fiction.

Apart from a short ‘previously in The Hobbit‘, all this stuff should have been at the end of the last volume. It’s interesting stuff, but by no means essential. And, in his notes to the second edition, Tolkien spoils his own books. He tells you that so-and-so is bad and meets such-and-such fate, that this happens and that happens. I’ve played through the whole LEGO Lord of the Rings game, so I don’t care about spoilers at this point, but I also know enough to realise at least a couple of these things should have been surprising. So I’m already not happy with either Tolkien or his editor.

Getting to the first page was exhausting. I think I’ll break the six-book series into 7 posts, this being the first. I’ll launch into Book One, after I’ve had a nap and a third breakfast, hobbit style.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

As part of making 2014 the year of long books, I’ve just finished #25 The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien. The Hobbit is not, on its own, a long book but it forms a prologue to #1 The Lord of the Rings. I’ve been informed by at least 2 of my favourite people that The Lord of the Rings means The Whole Trilogy, not just The Fellowship of the Ring, which makes it a very long book indeed.

The Hobbit is a children’s fantasy adventure story. Bilbo Baggins is the hobbit of the title. Hobbits are cosy, tidy creatures with hairy toes who rarely stray far from home. Caught up in an epic quest and taken along by 13 dwarves and a wizard to slay a dragon, Bilbo finds himself travelling far from home with unlikely companions and even missing a meal or three – a big deal for a hobbit.

I don’t like this book
I realise that a great many people do, and I can sort of see why. The Hobbit reminds me very much of The Magic Faraway TreeTolkien, at least when writing for children, has the same glossy style for his adventures. Nothing very bad happens to a named character, and everything is clearly going to work out in the end. If you’re a true hero, million-to-one chances come off nine times out of ten (as Pratchett describes beautifully in Guards! Guards!, in a section that is lampooning, it turns out, the end of The Hobbit).

The whole time I was reading The Hobbit, I kept looking for depth, and not finding it. The world building is terrible – nothing makes any sense, not the geography, the travel, the supplies, the economy. Despite the fact that the group is usually 15 strong, no one fails to offer them hospitality. A single man, living alone in the woods happily feeds them for half a dozen meals an then kits them out with a pony each to ride, a bow and quiver each, and food for a fortnight. I appreciate that he is a special snowflake of awesome power, but where did all this stuff come from? Who made the bows, and why does he have an arsenal lying around? Who saddled all these ponies? Who made the saddles? And given that this man doesn’t like hurting any animal, where did the leather come from?

Every time they stop, the wealth of a small township is showered over them. As a result, the questers can be heroically unconcerned with their goods, and lose an awful lot of stuff along the way. They never pay for anything, or trade, or do any useful work so why people are so willing to help I really can’t think. Presumably it’s because no one has any memory of last winter or any plans for the next. Everything is in an epic context, and the only events that matter are those that happened a hundred and fifty years earlier.

On race and gender and the working class
Do you know, I’m not sure that there’s a named female character anywhere in this book? I’m not sure there’s even a female speaking part, which is impressive given how much attention is paid to food. There aren’t any workers, either, unless you count the goblins and the dwarves. The entire story is that of some rich dudes going on a quest to get some more money, and getting a bunch of ordinary folk killed along the way. 

I’m also really not happy with how the different races are portrayed in this story. Even if we assume that Tolkien invented them all whole cloth, and that hobbits aren’t supposed to be one sector of humanity, elves another and goblins a third, it’s still pretty horrific. Entire races are either Practically Saints, Quite Good or Really Bad. If you’re at all bad, you have to be killed. In the book, the elves and the goblins have been at war for a very long time, and I can see why because the elves go and hunt the goblins. When they’ve nothing better to do, they hunt gobilns. When goblins have nothing better to eat, they eat elves. Now, out of those, which is worse? Hunting sentient creatures for food or for fun?

Moreover, everyone eats sentient animals, which I find horrific. Sure, dragons eat humans, but humans eat sheep and it turns out they can talk, although not in a human language, and wait at table. This book is an ethical mess, and I really can’t see that any of the characters come of out of it looking good.

It remind me of the sort of games I played as a child. The kind that’s described so well in Swallows and Amazons, where it’s clear who the main characters are (the real people pretending to be other people) and everyone else is less than a breath on the wind, as real or disposable as you like. The Hobbit is like two children playing “I kill a goblins with a single blow with my magic sword” gets the reply “well I kill two, no, ten, no a thousand goblins with my, um, with my mighty hammer”.

I didn’t enjoy The Hobbit and I don’t expect to read it again. That said, it was an interesting exercise as it so clearly provides a background to other works I’ve experienced and even love. Pratchett clearly knows this book well, and reacts to it in several of his works. A lot of roleplaying games and roleplayers act like they’re in The Hobbit, where certain creatures are bad and can be killed at will, and I suspect one of the origins of that is this series. Although, to be fair to Tolkien, mass slaughter is common in SF novels and action films too. But just because the other kids are all doing it, doesn’t mean it’s cool, OK?

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The Witches by Roald Dahl

The Witches by Roald Dahl

I have a strong memory of reading #169 The Witches by Roald Dahl when I was a child. I remember reading it in a friend’s car, and I remember being so scared I couldn’t finish it. The friend in question moved away half way through year four, so that puts a fairly narrow time frame on it. It’s one of the few books I read when I was a kid that I remember vividly but didn’t reread a lot.

The Witches tells the story of a brave boy and his grandma. After his parents are both killed in a tragic accident, the boy goes to live with his grandma, and they comfort each other. She lives in Norway, where there are many witches, and warns him to be wary of them, telling him how to spot them. Faced with the problem, the pair eventually come up with an unusual solution.

A Roald Dahl classic
The Witches is probably one of Dahl’s best-known books. It’s got all his favourite elements: a brave child, weird magic, absent parents and a fight with evil. The language is clear and simple without being condescending. In The Witches, Dahl treats the children in his audience like grown ups. More than that – he expects them to know and understand things that grown ups have forgotten, put aside or dismiss.

The edition I have is, to the best of my knowledge, the one I remember reading when I was about seven. It’s beautifully and very evocatively illustrated by Quentin Blake. I really do think the pictures are an important part of the story. They bring the characters to life in a particular way, giving them a form. I do wonder if some of Dahl’s books would be a little sparse without the pictures but perhaps that’s because I’ve only known and loved them this way.

Horror for children
As I mentioned, I remember being scared by The Witches, and I can’t imagine that Dahl wrote the book without being aware that he was writing a scary story. I have mixed feelings about scary stories for kids – and for adults, too, for that matter. In On Writing, Stephen King divides horror into, I think, three categories. I usually find that two are enough: gore and ghosts. In my definitions, gore is a story where the violence is the horror. I don’t like stories like this, as I find that the audience is usually expected to be enjoying the bloodshed, and I don’t. Stephen King’s Under the Dome fell into this category for me, as do a lot of mainstream horror and action films. 

Ghosts, on the other hand, are things that are scary because they aren’t real, but their presented as plausible. The Witches is this kind of horror, and it does it very well. I find that this sort of book can be fun to read as long as, to paraphrase Pratchett, the book shows you that the monsters can be killed.

As an aside, I thought about adding a third category, which is people. I’ve encountered a number of stories where the truly scary element was the human one. One example of this, sticking with King as he’s clearly a horror writer, was Rose Madder, where the monster is entirely human. A woman is on the run from her husband, as he’s violent and likely to kill her. The scary part is that there’s no way to deal with him, without invoking a supernatural element. In this case, it’s an inverse of the ghosts theme: the monsters are real, and, in the real world, the magic sword doesn’t work and they can’t be killed.

My point is that The Witches is deliberately scary in a plausible way. After reading the book, it would be all too possible to start seeing witches in real life (they look almost exactly like ordinary human women). As the book makes it clear that adults (even parents) can’t be expected to recognise a witch or to save a child when they’re in peril, it’s a pretty scary set of ideas.

I think it’s a good book, well written and effective – I’m just not sure that the intended effect, a good scare, will be enjoyable for every child. Perhaps one to rate PG or a 12A, although the reading level is probably first or second grade.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett

Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett

I really like #152 Thief Of Time by Terry Pratchett which is one reason I picked it as my 100th Big Read book. Yes, I’m officially half way through! It would be more exciting if I hadn’t left so many of the chunky classics for later – I may only read 4 books next year: Les Miserables, Ulysses, Moby Dick and Lorna Doone. And then I’ll still have ItThe Lord of the Rings (which I’m told means all 3 books, at least The Hobbit doesn’t mean all 3 films) and The Magician to go. So something different is in order for 2014, but for now, it’s all about fun.

This is a book about time travel. About travelling forward in time at one second per second, and what might happen if you could go a little faster or a little slower or perhaps stop time altogether. Jeremy, a foundling left on the doorstep of the Clockmaker’s Guild in Ankh-Morpork, has been asked to make the world’s most accurate clock. It’ll be tied to the fundamental tick of the universe and so precise that no one will ever need a clock again…

Not the best starting point
Thief of Time is the 26th Discworld book, and it’s one that has some back story. You probably need to know who Susan, Death’s granddaughter, is to thoroughly enjoy the book. I’d suggest you read Soul Music first. It’s a light, fun read and it’s got all the grounding you’re likely to need for Thief of Time. You could also read Small Gods, which is my favourite, so I have to suggest it at every opportunity. It might also fill in a few more bits and Lu-Tze’s back story. And it features the bonsai mountains, which are rather brilliant.

However, I could be wrong about this. I’d probably read all the previous 25 Discworld books when I got to Thief of Time and that skews ones’ perceptions. Apparently I’m no judge of whether a piste is steep for skiing, either. I’m struggling to find the words to explain Thief of Time. I just love it, as it is, the thing and the whole of the thing. It’s not a book I feel compelled to disassemble, and perhaps analyzing it too hard would break it. As it’s late, I’ll have a quick bash but the short version is: I really like this book. Do read it.

Deep bits and shallow bits
I’ve read Thief of Time several times. Sometimes, like this time, I read it for the enjoyable story. For the adventure, which rattles along, and the neat physics. But there are other readings in there too. There’s a whole lot of stuff about the nature of time and the nature of self and identity, of inside the head and outside, how we know things. It’s pretty deep. And there again, there’s all the references to martial arts movies.

A book like this can tell you something about your friends. The ideas and philosophical issues it throws up are likely to boggle your brain at some point, and it’s really interesting to see who gets boggled by which bits and why. It’s fascinating to find out what people think is implausible, so if you’ve read the book, do leave me a comment. Personally, I accept pretty much anything in a Pratchett novel, and I think this one hangs together well. I enjoyed reading it a lot, and will probably read it again next year, too.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The Truth by Terry Pratchett

The Truth by Terry Pratchett

Back to one of my favourite authors with #193 The Truth by Terry Pratchett. I never quite know how to describe Pratchett’s books – ‘comic fantasy’ is accurate but lumps them in with just-played-for-laughs and self-consciously quirky books by authors like Tom Holt and Robert Rankin who just aren’t as good.

To recap briefly, for those who aren’t familiar with his works, The Truth is a comic fantasy novel set on a flat world where gods, barbarian heroes, wizards and guilds are all real. And now it has its first newspaper. Ankh-Morpork is a hotbed of intrigue, and now one William de Worde is poking his nose in, finding things out, writing them down and printing them for anyone to buy. The city may never be the same again.

Discworld + newspapers = ?
The Truth came out in 2000, the 25th Discworld novel. It’s one of the ones where Pratchett takes something out of our world (in this case, newspapers) and adds it, suddenly, to the Disc. The story is mostly in the effects of this collision. In The Truth, it’s not just a new technology that’s arrived, it’s a new ideal. The freedom of the press has hit Ankh-Morpork and it’s the start of its information age. 

Pratchett has written a number of ‘Discworld + tech = ?’ books (including Soul MusicMoving PicturesGoing PostalMaking Money and it looks like the new one, out next week will be in the same vein as it’s called Raising Steam) and while I usually enjoy them (particularly Moving Pictures) I generally prefer the books where the elements from our world are less obvious. That said, The Truth is one of my favourites in this genre, and I do like the enduring characters who have their first appearance in this book.

On writing
The Truth is a particularly good read for writers, as it’s primarily about journalistic integrity. Pratchett started off in newspapers, so knows rather more about the topic than an online hack like me, but it’s still interesting. In The Truth, the whole world of news reporting is brand new, so the early adopters are shaping the media as it goes. Using the Discworld’s tendency to pick up ideas from our world whole cloth, Pratchett can explore how people on both sides of the press relate to news.

One of the interesting things about the book is that it emphasizes that news journalists are just ordinary people with an unusual job. The phrase ‘no one believes anything they read in the papers’ pops up, usually on the professional side, while the flip side ‘they wouldn’t let them print it if it wasn’t true’ is repeated, too. Clearly, neither phrase is entirely true, but, particularly this week with the changes going on in the UK, it does give you a nudge to think about how passive you are as a consumer (or how skeptical) and, if you are a writer or publisher of any kind, even a blogger, how thoroughly you check your facts.

Now, this is almost entirely fact free, being a personal review of a novel, so instead of going into the types of sources that may or may not be acceptable resources in the internet age, I will simply close by saying that I really enjoyed this reread, and I do recommend The Truth, both as a great fantasy novel (although it’s starting to get a bit steam punky, as the Disc levels up tech wise again) and as a philosophical text.

While I’m on the topic of Pratchett, another shout out for his new book. I’m definitely looking forward to Raising Steam. It’s due out on my 30th birthday and I’ve pre-ordered it for Kindle, so that will be a nice present to wake up to. The first book in the Discworld series, The Colour of Magic,  was published the month I was born, so it’s a pleasing coincidence that the 40th one should be out on my birthday.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis

I didn’t like #9 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis when I was a kid. I read most of the Narnia books eventually but probably only once or twice each, simply because they were there. So unlike many of the books I’ve reread for this challenge, I was pleasantly surprised. The book wasn’t bad – problematic, of course – but didn’t seem to justify my strong dislike at the time.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe tells the story of four children. Evacuated during the Second World War, they find themselves in a mysterious old house. Exploring, they come across a magical wardrobe, which acts as a door to another realm. Narnia, the land through the wardrobe, is a magical place full of talking animals, dryads and magic, where giants walk the land and people can be turned to stone in an instant. The children must fight to break the land free from its 100 year winter.

Unusually, I remember reading the Narnia Chronicles. We only had odd copies, sort of passing through, but my brother had a friend whose parents were friends with my parents. If they’d had a child older than my brother, it might have been perfect. As it was, I was often bored at their house. I don’t remember them having other kids’ books – probably those were kept in the boys’ rooms – but the Narnia ones were on the landing, where I could hide and read. They were surrounded by adult books, second shelf from the bottom on a white floor-to-ceiling book shelf at the top of the stairs.

I didn’t like the books much to start with, and I don’t, having reread this one, know why. I did like The Horse and His Boy and The Magician’s Nephew was the next best one. Otherwise, I wasn’t interested, and I went off them entirely when, age about 12, I discovered that they were a Christian allegory, with Aslan standing in for Jesus. Learning that made me feel like I’d been duped.

The religious elements also bother me as an adult. Everyone ‘just knows’ that Aslan is special, and good and evil are determined pretty much entirely by gut feeling. You don’t need to see the traitor betray their friends because you’ll get a gut feeling. You can tell if someone has been tainted by evil by looking into their eyes. I think this is horrific, for two reasons. One, it suggests that if you get a strong bad feeling about someone, they are evil. Two, it completely excludes anyone who doesn’t feel a rapture walking into a church, suggesting that if you don’t, this religion is not for you. What I’m saying, I guess, is that as propaganda it seems poorly aimed and poorly launched.

The the sexism, the talking animals and the real problem
As The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was first published in 1950, it’s no great surprise that it’s sexist in an Enid Blyton way. The girls go on all the adventures, and step back when one person needs to fight something and step forward when one person needs to be tender or weep. Lewis says things like “battles are ugly when women fight”, as though they were so pretty when it’s all boys together.

The talking animals are inconsistent, as is typical, but more worryingly the magical creatures are used to a line between good and evil, putting some races on one side and some on the other. It’s a lazy, racist thing to do. It’s deterministic, as well – the villain is villainous because “There isn’t a drop of real human blood in the Witch…that’s why she’s bad all through.” She’s half Jinn (descended from Adam’s first wife, Lilith, apparently) and half giant. So she must be bad. Given it’s apparently as inevitable as a rock falling downwards (more so, I’m sure there are levitation spells in Narnia) it seems unfair to punish her so severely.

But none of this is unexpected, given the age and religious overtones. The real problem, to my mind, with this book is that there’s no strong positive to balance these flaws. All the characters are a bit wet. The villain is villainous, but ineffectual. Aslan is omnipotent. One child is pegged as evil from the get go, and does moderately evil (thoughtless) things. The others are good and do good things. Everything is, as predicted ‘finally defeated before bedtime’. At no point did I wonder if the ending would be other than happy. At no point did I think any of the characters were in real peril. Plus, they don’t ever seem to change, except through a magic conversion. There’s no growth or character development even across the series, if I remember correctly. The book just isn’t that good, although Narnia is an interesting world to visit.

I’m not sorry I read the book. It only took an hour to get through the whole thing, so it wasn’t a big investment. But I don’t really recommend it.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl

George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl

I can’t find my copy of #134 George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl, so I was thrilled to find a copy when I was in the UK recently. I remember it being one of my childhood favourites. It’s probably my second favourite Dahl book, after Matilda

George’s Marvellous Medicine tells the story of George, who lives with his parents and his very grumpy grandmother on his parents’ farm. One day, as an act of revenge, he decides to replace his grandmother’s medicine with a concoction of his own, with astonishing results.

Fabulous story
I don’t know why I love this book so much. I think it’s because the book is gleeful and joyful throughout. Pretty much everyone in the book – and there aren’t many characters – spends a large part of the story in a state of highly pleased excitement. It’s like reading a successful birthday party, where everyone laughs and dances and enjoys themselves. 

It’s also a quick, fun read, and well illustrated by Quentin Blake. It’s a story about pushing boundaries, crossing the line of polite behaviour, and reaping the unpredictable consequences. The story is imbued with Dahl’s trademark zaniness and wild invention. In this case, it works, in my opinion.

Entirely unsafe
Like all of Dahl’s books, there’s a grim undertone and if you think about some of the things that happen seriously, you’d get a rather different feel than the jaunty rollicking ride Dahl conducts you on.

The thing I found most shocking about the book is that George’s mixture is made of some really lethal ingredients, and yet that’s fine. It has horse medication, anti-freeze and household cleaners in. It’s properly poisonous, and that seems like a terrible example to be setting small children. I’m at that stage where I haven’t been a kid myself for a long while, and yet my friends mostly have toddlers, so I really don’t know how likely a curious 8-year-old is to mimic George’s concoctions. I know I didn’t, but then I wasn’t exactly a whirlwind child.

I really enjoyed reading George’s Marvellous Medicine again. I don’t think I’ve read it since the 1990s, and I probably wouldn’t have reread at all if it weren’t for this challenge. I grumble about quite a lot of books on the Big Read list, but I think it’s worth doing for the new books I try (even if I don’t love them) and the old loves I revisit.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.