Fantasy · Humor

Raising Steam

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by: Terry Pratchett

Hello! It’s been a bit of a busy month for me – it was my first Christmas away from my family, my grandmother, who I was very close to, passed away, and I moved to Australia for a few months to do an internship.  It’s been super hectic and I ended up wanting something that was both comforting and distracting.  Enter Sir Terry Pratchett’s work, Raising Steam.

Fair warning, this review is going to assume you are familiar with Pratchett and his work.

I’d read about half of it before, but hadn’t finished it.  If you’re not familiar with Pratchett, he wrote this incredible comedic fantasy series, Discworld.  He started writing them in the 1980s and in 2007, announced he had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.  Raising Steam was published in 2013, the last book to be published before Pratchett passed away.

After his diagnosis, Pratchett’s writing underwent a fairly noticeable (to me, at least) change, and so the last five books he wrote are distinctly different than the rest of the series.  (A major part of that, I think, was that he found himself unable to physically write and begin dictating instead.)  The first time I tried to read Raising Steam and Unseen Academicals, I didn’t enjoy them, to be quite honest.*  But I saw Raising Steam at the library and figured, since it was a Pratchett book – and you can still tell it’s a Pratchett book – and I hadn’t read it yet, escaping to the Discworld might be exactly what I wanted.

I ended up really enjoying Raising Steam, once I stopped expecting it to be a Discworld novel.  With the progression of the Alzheimer’s and the dictation, Pratchett’s work became much less pithy and more exploratory of themes and messages.  Dialogue took up a much greater percentage of the story than previously – characters now orated for nearly entire pages, whereas in previous books, speeches were limited to a short paragraph, perhaps two.   There’s a distinct shift from presenting situations and observations to using the characters inner and outer monologues to explore morality, depth, and meaning.  I don’t think his later books are necessarily deeper or more meaningful, nor are they less; they just approach things in a very different way.

Once I had that figured out, I approached Raising Steam as if it were a proper novel, instead of a wild romp that would somehow work itself out in the end (the usual method to approaching a Pratchett story) and it suddenly became much more enjoyable.  The quality of the writing hadn’t diminished; it had just changed in unexpected ways.

The book follows Moist von Lipwig, one of my favorite Discworld characters, as he works with Dick Simnel, a young engineer who has invented a steam engine.  In his normal madcap manner, Moist finds himself leading the charge to bring Ank-Morpork, and perhaps the world, into a new era.  We see nearly the entire cast of Discworld, though some only for a page.

The character development is also unusual for a Discworld novel.  Usually, Discworld characters develop through finding or fighting their destiny or purpose, becoming who they were meant to be for the former and who they chose to become, for the latter.  Development is action focused and actions have immediate consequences.  In RS, however, there’s a lot more focus on the morality and meaning of decisions than I’ve seen previously, especially for Moist.  (Dick’s development is much more in line with classic Discworld characters.)  One quibble: the characters weren’t as distinguishable as they normally are; the long speeches and and exploratory tone meant that many of the characters’ dialogues were extremely similar.

The plot was funny, and fast, but much less rompy and with far fewer threads to track and fit together.  I felt like I had a clear idea of how everything fit together the entire time I was reading, which is not my expectation from Pratchett, at least not on the first read.  It was also, as I said, less pithy.  The humor wasn’t quick and snappy, but rather depended upon ridiculous (but completely believable) scenarios and the normal satire found there.

And now we get to the difficult part.  I’m not sure how to recommend this book – it’s an excellent comedic fantasy, of course, and I recommend it to anyone who loves satire, humor, and/or fantasy.  If you like Pratchett’s writing, you may like this – like I said, the writing is still good, just different.  But it is missing what I consider to be that essential Pratchett-ness, that pithy humor and that sense of the reader simply being along for the ride. In conclusion, all I can say is that the first few pages of this book are representative of the rest of it, so read a few pages if you’re not sure.  And it is amazing that Pratchett was able to put out a book that is still one of the best of the genre while in the grips of a terrible and debilitating disease.

*I felt like such an ass for even thinking this.

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Fairy Tales · Fantasy

Beauty, Poison, and Charm

by: Sarah Pinborough (no image because it’s three books.)

This is a 3-books series I picked up at the library – actually I picked up the first one and then went back for the next two – and read over the Christmas holidays.  They’re retellings of fairy tales, and while at first glance, I thought they were stand-alones, they’re actually a series that do go in a specific order.  I luckily picked up the first one first and then figured out the order by reading the blurbs.  They don’t actually have an order listed and they were all published in the same year – but they go, in order: Beauty, Poison, then Charm.

I really enjoyed them.  They are incredibly quick reads, all three books are very short, and they’re written in true fairy tale format, so, until the third book, there’s relatively little in terms of complex characters or anything but the most simplistic character developments.  They’re also written fairly simplistically (probably late-elementary to middle school level), but they are definitely adult material; if your kiddos read these be prepared for some awkward questions about sex and violence – both separately and combined for pleasure.

Each book retells one of the major Western fairy tales: Beauty is”Sleeping Beauty”, Poison is “Snow White”, and Charm is “Cinderella.”  There are other, equally well-known fairy tales woven throughout. It was fun to piece together which fairy tales were being told and how they all connected to each other, so I won’t spoil any more of them.

The books follow the adventures of an unnamed huntsman, whose job it is to keep an unnamed prince alive as he’s set out on a “please grow the eff up” adventure by his parents.  Pinborough is really selective about who gets named in this story and who is referred to solely by their profession.  It’s interesting to think about as you read, especially since there’s a deliberate gendered element to the names.

Pinborough is also selective about which characters are developed and how.  Fairy tales written in the classic style can definitely get away with flat characters – a wicked witch just needs to be a wicked witch; a brave prince need only be brave and charming – and Pinborough lets some characters stand just as they are meant to be.  Others, however, are developed more and the development of the character directly reflects both their complacency in, and understanding of, the fairy tale in which they play a role in.

Pinborough uses the characters to criticize and deconstruct the notion of a happy ending and to argue that agency in our lives comes from not perfect character or great beauty, but from a complex and flawed character tempered by life experiences. (Or, if you’re male and royal, from privilege you were born with and do not necessarily deserve.)  Indeed, the most likable character is also the one whose flaws I both related to and was sympathetic of – a very teenaged Cinderella.  Cinderella is, Ella Enchanted aside, my least favorite princess, so I loved that this rewriting forced her out of the “passive, good girl get rewarded” and into someone who was quite real and faced with the choice and consequences of active or passive behavior.

The ideas of true love and romantic relationships are also briefly, but critically, examined.  I won’t go into those notions because it could very easily spoil the book, but Pinborough takes a rather feminist (and much appreciated) lens to the gendered aspect at play here, examining what it means to be a woman, who cannot inherit the throne and must depend on a man for survival, looking for love.

You’re probably waiting for me to get to the sex stuff but honestly, though it was relevant to the plot and thematically connected to the agency of the characters, there wasn’t all that much of it.  When it was there, however it was explicit and, in Beauty, for lack of better word, depraved, in a very intentional way.

Though quite short, and quite simply written, I really enjoyed these novels.  They’re dark and adult, but quick reads and you could easily read them without getting into gender or character analysis.  (That’s my idea of a good time, but yours could be just enjoying the plot line!) There were quite a few twists throughout; they were foreshadowed well enough that I predicted about half of them and with the other half went, “Oh, duh! that makes sense!”

If you’re looking for a quick read that is a little dark and a little twisted*, if you like fairy tales, or if you want a book with some meat for feminist analysis, this is definitely the book for you.  If you’re looking for a cast of relatable characters, happy endings, or prefer prose that’s distinctly adult in style, than, alas, this may not be the book for you.

*I did want to mention that I think this is a hard style to find; this series is very quick and easy to read, but it is not light, fluffy, or appropriate for children.
Contemporary Literature · Fiction

The Ruins of Us

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by: Keija Parssinen

I finally made it back to the library yesterday and this book caught my eye (yesterday was grey and rainy so I spent the rest of the day reading it; it was not small but a quick read nonetheless.)  I read the back and was intrigued by the plot synopsis, though the quotes were uninspiring.  I gave the first page a shot, anyways, and was quickly hooked.

The Ruins of Us is the story of an American woman, Rosalie, who married a wealthy Arab man, Abdullah, and, 25 years and 2 kids into their marriage, discovers that Abdullah has taken a second wife (and hidden it from her.) Rosalie, who genuinely loves her husband, her adopted country, and her life as a nonpracticing Muslim, finds herself at an impasse right as her son finds himself influenced by a religious man with dangerous beliefs.

At its core, this book is about a failing marriage, a middle-aged love story.  Abdullah and Rosalie both love each other but are dealing with the realities of growing older and facing the inertia of their life together.  It’s a true love story, though not a romance.  Abdullah is a good guy, if spoiled, and Rosalie is a good woman, if somewhat made passive by a life of convenience.  The book doesn’t focus as much on cultural differences as I would expect; Rosalie is pretty well assimilated into the Arabic culture and truly doesn’t mind the restrictive laws of Saudi Arabia. (She is also more than a little protected by Abdullah’s status and wealth; this, I think, plays a lot into her worldview and decisions.)

The book is also fairly realistic about the realities of Saudi’s current political state; Rosalie knows about all the limitations put upon her but is not ever scared of Abdullah abusing them or her. The aftereffects of 9/11 are talked about, as are the, er, foibles of the ruling family. Again, though, the family is quite wealthy and sheltered, so while evils, injustices, and cultural differences are acknowledged, many of them aren’t explored in depth.  (Which feels very realistic of an upper class family, honestly.  The characters are not unsympathetic to the challenges others face; it’s just that the draconian laws don’t affect them as much.)

The major exception to this is the son, who is struggling with being an obviously mixed child.  The anger and resentment he feels is funnelled into a burgeoning fanaticism, clearly driven more by emotional need than by belief.  I actually really appreciated this storyline, as it makes the reader sympathesize with the motivations (though not the actions) of such a person. And through the sympathesizing, you can begin to understand the underlying issues that need to be addressed.

This book flew by.  I couldn’t believe how much I just wanted to know what happens next.  I found the ending mostly satisfying; the ends were tied up and though I’m not sure what ending I wanted, the ending I got was believable.  It’s actually fairly light reading, fast-paced, interesting but not incredibly complicated characters, a (for Americans) foreign and (for anyone not uber-wealthy) fantastic setting.

Though realistic about its setting, I didn’t feel like the book veered into Islamophobia – in fact, at times it addressed the negative impact 9/11-empowered Islamophobia had on the characters, especially the children.  All of the characters were flawed but sympathetic (it’s told in third person limited, and every main character gets at least one chapter) and Abdullah is not painted as a monster because of his religion; he’s likeable and self-centered (and that’s attributed more to his power and wealth than anything else.) (let me know if you felt differently, of course!)

Overall, this felt more like a love story dealing with a multicultural couple than a book committed to exploring vast cultural differences.  It made for a fun, fast, interesting read; a Harlequin novel all grown up and dealing with real people and cultures instead of caricatures.

So if you’re looking for an insightful read about the realities of being an American in a Islamic country, a slow and introspective read on an unusual marriage, or beautiful prose with a complex emotional landscape, alas, this book is probably not for you.  But if you want something fun and easy to read, with an unusual setting and premise, that treats stereotypical romantic leads as real people with real problems, and does so without demonizing, I’d highly recommend The Ruins of Us.

Children's · Fantasy · Fiction · Teen Fiction · Urban Fantasy · YA

Lockwood & Co: The Empty Grave

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by: Jonathan Stroud

The Empty Grave is the fifth and final book in Stroud’s Lockwood & Co series. I had put a hold on it at the library but the bookstore I walk by every day was having a 20% off sale after I’d been waiting for what felt like months, so I gave in and bought it.  (This actually isn’t the cover that I have, but I like it so much better than the UK version.)

If you’re not familiar with Lockwood & Co, it’s a YA series (maybe middle school) set in an alternate reality London, where deadly ghosts have suddenly appeared, called the Problem.  Only children can see the ghosts, so children are employed as agents to combat the Problem.  Throughout the series, we follow Lucy, a teenage ghost hunter, as she works with the Lockwood & Co agency.  In this final edition, Lucy and her coworkers are following clues to figure out what the source of the Problem is, using advice from a ghost that only Lucy can hear, and venturing into some of the most dangerous places in – and out – of London.

So unlike other books in this series, there’s not a big, bad ghost to overcome.  (This actually kept me from locking myself in the bathroom to read the book.*) Instead, Lucy is looking at clues for the Source and who or what is behind the Problem.  Though there is a bad guy, this book is more about answering questions the previous four books have set up.  I really enjoyed this approach – it had enough suspense to keep my heart racing but at this point in the series I wanted my questions answered more than I wanted another epic, hair-raising battle against a Big Bad.  And the questions were answered in a slow manner – not a huge info dump at the end, but enough information for the reader to work out with the characters what’s going on as the story unfolds.

By the way, this book would work as a stand-alone but I would highly discourage it – I think the series as whole works really well and I would encourage any reader to start from the beginning for narrative satisfaction. There’s an incredible amount of world and plot building that is best enjoyed when read in the intended order.

Stroud also does a great job of fulfilling some character issues and mysteries. For example, Lockwood, the owner of Lockwood & Co, is a dashing and romantic hero with a tragic backstory. The entire series is written in first person, from Lucy’s perspective, and it’s in this book that Lucy comes to terms with Lockwood’s unusually strong attraction to, and enjoyment of, danger and what that ultimately says about him.  It’s not overdone, but the reader is forced through the discomforting realizations as Lucy processes a new perspective.

This happens for multiple characters this book and adds a good bit of depth to the series as a whole. (It also happened in the fourth book for a different character, Holly.)  These realizations are mostly driven by a captured ghost that only Lucy can hear, which I appreciate, because it means that we get an age-appropriate reaction to an adult observation.  The children never feel uncannily mature or precociously adult but the reader isn’t forced into a world without any adult perspective. (See: A Series of Unfortunate Events.) This allowed Stroud to explore some character development that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible; yet, the ghost was written so that it (he?) doesn’t come off as the wise old adult.  Rather, he’s a wry, untrustworthy, and mysterious character forced into the role of observer.

Speaking of the ghost, Stroud answers most but not all questions posed by the series.  The questions he leaves unanswered are good ones – he gives the reader plenty to go on in order to develop their own theories.  So on the one hand, I appreciate that.  On the other hand – I want to know!  In general, things are wrapped up nicely; he leaves just enough points dangling that you can’t quite let the series go when you finish it.  Crafty, Stroud.  Crafty.

I absolutely loved this book, both as a standalone and as a completion of an incredibly good series. If you’re not into middle-school/YA, if you like dashing plot-driven adventure books with a satisfying romance, or if you like your horror to be Stephen King-level terrifying, then, sadly, this might not be the book for you.  If you’re looking for an excellent mix of character development and plot line, a creepy but fun ghost story, or are looking for a great female-led adventure series, I can’t recommend Lockwood & Co enough.

*but I still stayed up until 3 am to finish it.
Children's · Comedy · Fantasy · Humor

Dragons at Crumbling Castle

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by: Terry “the fantastically funny” Pratchett

I am always delighted to find a new Terry Pratchett book.  Pratchett passed away (from Alzheimer’s disease) in 2015 and though inevitably there will come a day when I have read all of his works, I refuse to hasten that day any more than necessary, preferring instead to have his books delight and surprise me in the finding as well as the reading.

I found this one in the children’s section of the library, as I was searching out His Dark Materials, and, of course, I checked out it immediately.  I’ve said before that I prefer Pratchett’s adult works to his children’s, and while that’s true, his children’s book are still whimsical and absurdly funny adventures worth looking in to.  This particular book is a collection of short stories Pratchett wrote early on his career, reworked a little before publication as a book.

Dragons at Crumbling Castle contained stories from The Carpet People but there were plenty of other stories as well. I really loved the short story format; the quick reads meant the stories were intently focused on plots and absurdities and they made for a great laugh.  Plus, I read this during a 3-day research workshop, so the short stories were about all my brain was up for.

While the writing was simple and the structure much clearer than Pratchett’s normal style, it didn’t feel like I was reading something that was only intended for children.  Rather, it felt more like an all ages-type writing – clean and structured for kids, but cognizant of the fact that adults exist and might indeed be reading this very book.  Very Pratchett-lite; I could feel the zaniness and humor that I associate with him, but the plot lines were much simpler and the characterizations that I so love just weren’t there.

The stories also go everywhere, from King Arthur’s court to a tiny speck of dust to a living room carpet to a time traveling bus.  I think this was probably the best showcase I’ve read of Pratchett’s ability to set you up in a familiar plot line and then, in the blink of an eye, whiz you somewhere completely unexpected and leave you laughing.  Not every story does this expertly – these are some of his earlier works, after all – but many of the stories.  The stories do vary more than a typical collection of short stories work.  All of them work, but some work uproariously well and others just made me smile a little and turn the page.

I loved the illustrations – simple, funny, and very fitting.  I didn’t like that some words were written in a illustrative font; for instance, “huge” might have been written in giant, bold font, and “waggle” was always written in font with offset letters.  But I could imagine this making the book really fun to read out loud with a child.

If you’re not a fan of absurdist humor, simplistic writing, or thematically loose collections of short stories, then, alas, this might not be the book for you. If you have a child in need of some humor or if you want some funny, easy-on-the-brain short stories,  I would highly recommend Dragons at Crumbling Castle. If you are, for any reason, interested in Pratchett’s craft and his development as a writer, I would strongly recommend this book.  I think there’s a lot of insight to be gleaned from these works into how he developed his wonderful voice and style.

Children's · Uncategorized

Embarrassing Book Confessions

What’s your most embarrassing book confession?

I’ll tell you mine – it’s actually an embarrassing book habit at this point.

Jonathon Stroud is one of my favorite (YA) authors and a few years ago he started writing a series entitled Lockwood & Co.  I bought the first one without reading the blurb (I buy by author name a lot) and really enjoyed it! But I was surprised to find out it was a horror story. I don’t, as a rule, consume anything in the horror genre because I am incredibly easily terrified and find it a deeply unpleasant experience.

But I love Lockwood & Co and want to finish it, so every year, without fail, this happens: I buy/check out the latest book in the series and make a firm resolution not to read any of it after dark.  The first day, I’ll usually only read a page or two and things will be fine.  The second day, though, I’ll have enough time to get really into the plot, usually just as dusk approaches. No worries! I’ll get to a stopping point soon.

Invariably, as night truly falls, I’ll resolve to read just a few more pages or maybe to the end of the chapter, just to get to a good stopping point, get caught up in the story and, without fail, end up locking myself in the bathroom, scared witless, lights blazing, so I can finish the story and calm down enough to go to sleep, somewhere around 2 am. (And that’s usually only after listening to some P.G. Wodehouse after I’ve mustered up the courage to race from bathroom to bedroom and turn the lights off.)

Now, the fifth and final book has come out recently and I’ve put a hold on it in my local library.  Of course, this year, I absolutely will stick to my resolution and not read the book after dark.  Never mind the evidence of the past four years – this is the year I will be a sensible adult about things!

(For those of you wondering, I’m 28 and this book series has a target audience of/is appropriate for 12 year olds.)