2017 Resolution: Let’s Tidy up Around Here

The islands of Aotearoa are  much separated from the rest of the world, not merely spatially but also temporally. I’m taking advantage of this by posting at midnight NZDST on January 1st, thus ensuring this will be the first unread blog post of 2017.

In my end of year post, I mentioned hoping to tackle my backlog of unwatched  Korean and Japanese Dramas. Writing that prompted me to see exactly what Dramas I had waiting to be watched.  I was surprised to find that the queues are shorter than I expected.

Unwatched Korean Dramas

Unwatched Japanese Dramas

The lists from China and Taiwan are MUCH shorter:

Taiwan
Black and White

China
Gong
Lan Ling Wang
Ode To Joy

Twenty-seven Dramas in total, a manageable number.  Checking out each and every one of them is one of my New Year’s resolutions. Another of my resolutions applies not only to them but to Dramas coming up in 2017, and entertainment choices in general:

If entertainment doesn’t entertain, DROP IT

That seems so obvious as to be axiomatic, but it’s taken a long time to reach the required ruthlessness. When I started watching East Asian Dramas, I wanted to watch as many as possible as quickly as possible. Now, I’m older and  a little less naive.  Hence my resolve not to waste leisure time finishing a Drama that is not entertaining me.

The same resolve applies to my reading. My 2016 Goodreads Challenge was a particularly humiliating failure, so the first item on my reading agenda is to get further into each of the books on my “currently-reading” list. I really want to read 50 books this year, finishing these eight would be a good start.

Most of the books on  my currently-reading list and my “to-read” list are non-fiction, things I want to read for fun and mental exercise. That mental exercise is important for two reasons: (1) It’s a lot more fun than the physical variety,  and (2) I have to seriously contemplate getting my brain in shape for tackling Korean and Japanese this year.

Here is where “the Native hue of Resolution Is sicklied o’er, with the pale cast of Thought”. I want to at least try to pick up enough Korean to be able to follow the gist of a Drama or movie even if unsubbed. This is VERY important to me in 2017 because it’s the year that Wang Ji Won‘s debut movie gets released, hopefully. The odds of it getting subbed are not great, so if I want to watch it, I must learn to follow more spoken Korean. That will take time, hence the need to be ruthless about dropping Dramas if they don’t earn their keep by entertaining me.

The idea of even starting Japanese gives me the screaming heebie-jeebies. Any language that can say to itself, “hey, you know what? Having three writing systems is boring baby stuff, let’s add a fourth”  is certainly a Satanically sadistic Sprache.  But again, desperate times call for desperate measures. Increasingly, when I consider the  “absolutely LOVE IT” Dramas I’ve seen, more and more of them are from Japan, a country whose approach to sharing its Dramas with the world can be summed up thusly:

Since Japanese Dramas are often not subbed, if I want to enjoy the short, sweet romcoms they seem to do so well, I may have no choice but to at least give it a try. The punster in me finds it  apt that the phrase “morituri te  salutamus” starts with  a word that sounds vaguely Japanese.

Now that my resolutions and wishes are on record, what are the chances any of them will see completion? Any suggestions on how to tackle them will be VERY gratefully received, so please feel free to share your responses: Suggestions for which Dramas to tackle first, language learning resources for über-Dummies, opening a betting pool on how many of my resolutions last as a long as a week, you name it.

To any who read this, thank you! I wish you a satisfying and successful 2017.  2016 was a mixed year in many ways, including the quality of its Dramas, but it did save one of the very best for last. The excellent and under-appreciated Night Light  features as a theme song for its male lead a song by Dire Straits. That song seems like the perfect way to conclude this post, some melodious good advice in the face of an uncertain future.

Crivens! I’m Done!

Discworld

 

Writing Discworld has taken thirty years of Terry Pratchett’s life. Reading it has taken thirty months of mine. It’s the first time I’ve read thirty-nine novels by the same author, so it seems appropriate to take a look back at the series. In 2012 as part of my fiftyfiftyme challenge, I  wrote up almost every book I read, including eleven of the Discworld series. I read the last ten books of the series in the first five weeks of 2013, finishing with Snuff.

As a long-time fan of all things HHGTTG, I enjoyed the Adams-lite feel to the first few books in the Discworld series. Starting with The Colour of Magic, I was struck by the similarity in style to that of Douglas Adams. Rincewind and his psychopathic luggage are very entertaining characters, and the introduction of the witches in the hilarious Shakespeare-skewering Wyrd Sisters was a portent of better things to come.

DEATH

If the young Pratchett of the early books was to some extent still looking for his own voice, he found it when he started speaking in SMALL CAPS. Pratchett’s Death is one of my favourite literary characters, and his attempts to understand the psyche of humans, who gave him form,  are touching, thoughtful and very, very funny. His fondness for humans and his battles on their behalf with the Auditors of Reality make the Death series my favourite. Even in the most serious of the novels, Death’s cameos can be counted on to lighten the mood. Death’s granddaughter, Susan Sto Helit is another favourite character, and the TV adaptation of Hogfather imprinted its cast as the characters in my mind.

The City Watch

The biggest series arc within Discworld is the City Watch series. It is the vehicle Pratchett uses to most openly and loudly expound his own political and social views. It also features his two most interesting and complex characters, Sam Vimes, Commander of the Watch (and eventually Duke of Ankh-Morpork) and Havelock Vetinari, Patrician (tyrant) of Ankh-Morpork.

Vimes is a street kid made good, and Vetinari is a Machiavelli-type politician with a humorous edge, as in his name, a play on the Medicis. The interplay between Vimes and Vetinari, and their development of an edgy symbiosis, is the real strength of the City Watch series. The  common social message of the novels is the focus on equal rights and tolerance, represented by the Watch hiring officers from all the various species of the Discworld. The political targets of the series include nationalism and patriotism (in Jingo, one of my favourites) and the role of the police in a “free” state (Night Watch).

Kidstuff

As the City Watch books became  more overtly political and serious, Pratchett’s humour found more frequent expression in  books he wrote with younger readers in mind. The Amazing Maurice was a revelation, a thoroughly enjoyable read that at times scared me, even though I’m outside the target audience by three decades or so. The most truly horrific and frightening thing about the book was the afterword that revealed the hideous truth behind the story’s central “villain”. That made me squirm with shame and revulsion.  The Tiffany Aching series that starts with The Wee Free Men is not just an excellently constructed look at growing up, and what it means for a young person to have to assume adult responsibilities prematurely, it’s also very funny. The  Nac Mac Feegle are hilarious, and it was great to once again laugh out loud a lot, something which the later Watch novels provide less opportunity for doing.

My Personal Favourite

After thirty-nine books that amused, entertained and educated me, my favourite remains the one that directly challenged Faith. A thought-provoking and often  funny look at religion and belief, and the way the former can suck the life out of the latter. “Around the Godde there forms a Shelle of prayers and Ceremonies and Buildings and Priestes and Authority, until at Last the Godde Dies. Ande this maye notte be noticed.” Religion and belief have been responsible for horrible atrocities on this world and on Discworld, but throughout the series, Pratchett celebrates belief, and especially the power of belief, even when mocking or teasing it. It’s a theme he comes back to again and again, the idea that “Humans need fantasy to *be* human” and that “You need to believe in things that aren’t true. How else can they become? ” He lauds belief as a wonder of the human imagination, the same miracle factory that produced boredom: “Human beings make life so interesting. Do you know, that in a universe so full of wonders, they have managed to invent boredom.”

The one thing I haven’t touched on is how wonderfully well-written most of the books are. Pratchett writes deft literary zingers with real skill, and draws from all sorts of inspirations. In I Shall Wear Midnight,  I laughed out loud when I realised that he’d paid homage to P.G. Wodehouse with the main antagonist’s back story. His humorous explanations of everything from folklore to physics are clearly the product of careful research and the way he often sneaks them in shows that he loves learning and trying to infuse the same delight in others. The novels featuring The Sweeper are great examples of this, but almost every Discworld story puts a broad range of human knowledge to work entertaining its readers. I know that I’ve laughed out loud at things that many  others would not find funny, and I am certain that I totally missed laugh lines that others would have found hilarious.

Hilariously funny, bitterly angry, poignantly scary, eruditely entertaining, and thought-provoking – Discworld is all these things and more, with lashings of puns and other clever wordplay on the side. From a raven called Quoth who warns people not to say the “N” word, to the multiverse’s most interesting Librarian, the Discworld is filled with characters that will make you think while they make you laugh.  If just one person reads this and decides to look past the “fantasy” genre label and visit Discworld, then I shall have given Sir Terry at least a grain of the thanks I owe him. Ook!

The Summoning Dark

Thud! and Snuff  Terry Pratchett                               fiftyfiftyme2013: Major

 thudsnuff

When I had read about fifteen or sixteen Discworld novels, I mentioned in a Bollywood web forum that I was working through them in publication order. One person replied “It might be best to start at the end and work backwards, as that way they would get better as you read more of them. Well, it’s probably not as bad if you’re in tune with his politics.” By the time I got to the end of the series, I understood why he said that.

The earlier Discworld books are good-humoured satire, with lots of laughs as they poke fun at elements of human society. The later ones are often very much less funny, as Pratchett simply vents his views on serious political issues through a tissue thin covering of “satirical fiction”. Two examples are Feet of Clay and Night Watch. The person who said “work backwards” expressed strong support for the philosophy of Ayn Rand, and Pratchett’s increasingly open statements of his own social and political views would understandably irk someone holding such an opposing view.

In some of the later Discworld novels  though, Pratchett achieves a near perfect balance of the personal with the political, examining what makes a person tick, rather than just society as a whole. Two of the very best examples are Thud! and Snuff, books thirteen and twenty for me in my fiftyfiftyme challenge for 2013.

Thud! has as its political theme racism and the way historical grievances are exploited by those who see personal gain from keeping old hatreds alive, traditionalists and fundamentalists who seek to hold power at any cost. But the really interesting struggle in the book is a very personal one. Throughout the story, an ominous entity known to dwarves as The Summoning Dark keeps appearing, looking for a way in to the mind of someone that it can control. It’s only just before  the dramatic climax of the book that we discover its intended victim is none other than the hero, Samuel Vines, Commander of the City Watch. The description of Vimes’ battle against the essence of Anger and the way in which he eventually triumphed made this one of the most absorbing of the series for me.

The Summoning Dark returns in Snuff. This time, Vimes is transplanted to his wife’s country estate, and Pratchett explores the way power and privilege can warp the view of those born into them. As the ultimate rags-to-riches story, Vimes finds himself struggling with the conflict between his current social status and his view of those who feel they are above the law by virtue of their standing in society. The story involves slavery, drug smuggling and genocidal attitudes, as well as Vimes’ growing acceptance and mastery of his own inner demon, the Summoning Dark, which never left him and quite literally branded him for life. It’s this idea that makes these two books such great reading, I think. Vimes is one of Pratchett’s strongest and most nuanced characters, and these books show him first struggling with and nearly succumbing to atavistic rage, then learning how to channel that powerful force and “keep it in a cage” as  the dwarves say of him in Snuff.

Despite the serious subjects considered, these books are not all unrelenting darkness. There are flashes of the trademark Pratchett drollery (and punnery) in both, but only flashes. What I found especially fascinating was the sense that rather than just a generic “there’s rage in all of us” idea, these books show Pratchett himself getting the mastery of his own anger. His anger at the political, social and economic developments he attacks in the series is more controlled and  expressed with more care and balance in these books than in others, and personalising the struggle makes them read less like rants, more like absorbing stories.

These books prove that, like the real world, Discworld has changed over time. Whether that change is for the better or the worse, only the reader can decide. One thing  I am sure of thanks to books like Thud! and Snuff,  is that no one who reads enough of the series to make their own decision will regret doing so. Reading Discworld will leave its own  permanent brand, just like the Summoning Dark.Enhanced by Zemanta

There’s Glory For You!

One of the things I most enjoyed about last year’s fiftyfiftyme challenge was the opportunity to choose minors and majors. This year’s reduction in the numbers required gives those of us who are grizzled veterans of last year’s campaign the opportunity to reminisce about how much tougher we had it back in the good old days, when a major was a real major of ten, and a minor was a meaningful five, not an namby-pamby three. Clearly fiftyfiftyme, like the English language, is changing for the worse, dumbing down and catering to the lazy, unwashed masses.
That last sentence was total baloney, of course. Fiftyfiftyme is as fun and challenging as ever, and English has not changed for the worse. Languages are not devolving from a Golden Age of eloquence into a Neanderthal series of grunting text messages and inane tweets. Sadly, many people think otherwise, which is why I decided to write about my
books minor for last year’s challenge, in which I elected to read five books
about linguistics.

 

I love languages and linguistics, and have done ever since reading Lord of the Rings for the first time as an impressionable seven-year old. Then, and each of the 18-20 or so other times I read that book, I spent more time devouring the linguistic appendixes than reading the story. Tolkien’s epic gave me the languages bug, and I’ve loved learning about them ever since. Last year’s fiftyfiftyme challenge provided the perfect motivation to indulge my passion by reading more widely on my favourite subject. I hope to read several more this year, enough to count as another minor, I think.

 

Books like Eats, Shoots and Leaves and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style perpetuate the myth that fabricated personal peeves are in fact ineradicable elements of English grammar. From rants against split infinitives to attempts to impose the rules of mathematics on language by insisting that “a double negative equals a positive”; from assertions that non-standard spelling is “a grammatical error” to the promotion of the etymological fallacy by denying the simple reality of polysemy, English has plenty of peeves and peevers. It seems that some people will readily say that everything in the Universe  evolves, but cannot accept that language does too.

 

Happily there are many excellent works written by real linguists for the general public. These books try to address that attitude and to show that as with everything, the only constant in language is change. No language is without rules, but those rules are not arbitrarily imposed by some peevish academic (or Académie) obsessed with imposing artificial order on the organic chaos of language. The beautiful reality is that language is the ultimate democracy – words mean what the majority of their users decide they mean, and every language user gets to be part of the never-ending process of making up the rules as we go along. The mathematician Dodgson was actually being peevish when he put the words of this post’s title into Humpty-Dumpty’s mouth, but he was not far from being right all the same.

 

The endless fluidity and change in language should be celebrated, not mourned or railed against. The history of language is the history of civilisation, and the stories of language are as endlessly fascinating as its creators and shapers.That’s why I urge anyone looking for a non-fiction minor (or major) for this year’s fiftyfiftyme challenge to consider linguistics as a candidate. Here are five of my favourites:

Fiftyfiftyme: My Year in Books

I started blogging this year with the intention of only posting occasionally and only about subjects related to Indian cinema. The fiftyfiftyme challenge changed all that, and taught me a lot along the way. This excellent post makes a distinction between a blogger and a writer, and I’m definitely no writer. But I have found that blogging about the books I’ve read over the last 9 months has proved to be an excellent memory aid, a way to keep track of my progress through a challenge I wasn’t sure I could meet. Now that I’ve met the challenge, it’s time to savour my achievement by reflecting on the highlights.

 

FAVOURITE BOOK / BEST BOOK

There is no contest here. By far the favourite book I’ve read as part of my fiftyfiftyme challenge was the biggest book I read, by far. Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy was an amazing experience, and one of the reasons I’m most grateful to Katherine Matthews from Totally Filmi for mentioning the fiftyfiftyme challenge to me. The challenge provided just the spur I needed to finally get through this mammoth masterpiece. A treasure trove I look forward to revisiting.

REGIONAL WRITING

A Suitable Boy was also one of several books in my list that are set in or related to the subcontinent. The list includes not only my favourite book of the year, but one of the runners-up, the fascinating Life of Pi , a vivid examination of faith that I’m sure the movie will not do justice to. As if to balance the scales, the land of my fathers also supplied my most disappointing and least pleasurable  reading experience. I desperately wanted to like Midnight’s Children, but its self-confessed delight in focusing on and revelling in ugliness, pain and misery made reading it a task to be endured, not enjoyed.

Apart from that bitter read, the rest of my subcontinental reading was a positive experience. From learning much more about the origin and evolution of Hindi-Urdu to a wonderful companion book for my favourite movie of all time, and the delightful return of one of my favourite fictional detectives, India supplied much of my favourite reading. So did the fabled island home of Raavan. A generous Twitter friend gifted me Chinaman, a serendipitous read in every sense of the word, spinning Cricket and Sri Lankan history into a moving and satisfying story.

FAVOURITE NON-FICTION

One of my goals in the challenge was to read five books about linguistics, but my favourite non-fiction read of the year was not one of them. It was a very close call between two exceptional books but in the end, the non-fiction book I enjoyed the most was Reza Aslan’s No God But God. This examination of the history and development of Islam was both fascinating and sad, teaching me much I didn’t know, and providing an insightful look into what happens when a faith becomes a religion.

The book that only just lost out was one that perhaps should have won. Michael King’s History of New Zealand  is truly a must-read for anyone interested in these Shaky Isles. Written for the non-academic public but not dumbed down, reading it was an embarrassing education for me, one that made it obvious why so many New Zealanders have bought it, to finally understand our home better. It really was full of “stuff they didn’t teach in school”.

The only three things I lack to be a writer are in equal measure talent, imagination and discipline. Despite that, I love language and reading about language.  Every gifted producer needs eager consumers, and Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass  was a pleasure to devour, examining the chicken-and-egg  question of whether our perception influences our words or vice-versa.

FAVOURITE DISCOVERIES

One of the rules of the fiftyfiftyme challenge was that all books read must be first time reads to count. By the end of the year, I had come to love this rule. It made the challenge about discovering new authors and not about ticking off numbers. Sure some of the acclaimed classics, like Thoreau’s Walden turned out to be as dull as dishwater and almost as tasty, but  the number of newly discovered authors I know I’ll be returning to more than makes up for the duds.

The challenge of reading fifty books in nine months (thanks to a late start), meant that after the big books early on, I turned to shorter and lighter reads to make up the numbers. In doing so, I reconnected with two of my favourite genres, science fiction and mystery stories. Two authors I’d never read before are now firm favourites, John Scalzi for science fiction,  and Louise Penny for her Chief Inspector Gamache series of mystery novels. The pleasure I got from their works has filled me with anticipation for next year’s fiftyfiftyme.

FAVOURITE FIVE

After looking back through my year’s reading above, here are the books that I think are the stand-outs for me, the ones that made the biggest impression and that I enjoyed the most:

2. No God But God

3. The Life of Pi

4. The Penguin History of New Zealand

5. Bury Your Dead

To all the masochists who’ve waded through my waffle this year, thank you so very, very much, especially to those who’ve gone above and beyond by leaving comments. I am just a playwrite, but knowing that Google Translate’s webcrawler hasn’t been the only visitor is very gratifying. If anybody has discovered a new author or enjoyed a new book as a result of  reading my ramblings, then some good has come out of all the blather. To the wonderful @kaymatthews  profound thanks again for pointing me to the challenge, and to anybody thinking about trying a similar challenge next year, I conclude with the famous words of the ancient Greek God of sportswear: Just do it!

Book 50/50 Bury Your Dead

Bury Your Dead     Louise Penny              fiftyfiftyme category: Other

 

My fiftieth and final book for fiftyfiftyme 2012 proved to be one of the most satisfying reads of the year. A remarkable mystery story, quite different to many. When I reflected on this book it reminded me somewhat of the later Albert Campion stories. For me, there can be no higher praise. I love the nuanced complexity and humanity of Allingham’s detective, and Bury Your Dead seemed to echo that inward focus on the central protagonist.

The book, the sixth in the Chief Inspector Gamache series, sees Gamache on recuperative leave after a police operation that cost the lives of several of his team. The story of what happened and how is told in a series of flashbacks, interwoven with the murder mystery of the previous novel, The Brutal Telling and a new murder related to a  genuine historical mystery.

The genuine mystery is the disappearance of the body of Samuel de Champlain, the founder of Québec. In the story Gamache is in Québec City, distracting himself by doing some historical sleuthing of his own into a possible deal between Louis Antoine de Bougainville and James Cook during the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. While there he gets involved in the investigation into the murder of a man fanatically devoted to finding out what happened to de Champlain’s body.

In The Brutal Telling, Penny worked some of the history of the Haida and Haida Gwaii into the story. In Bury Your Dead, the history of Québec City is the focus, especially the history of the relationship between the Francophone majority and the waning Anglophone minority. Samuel de Champlain’s role as an icon of  Québec and a symbol for the separatists lies at heart of the mystery. Penny’s research was very detailed, as illustrated by an amusing incident she recounts in the acknowledgements. Once again, I finished one of her books knowing a lot more about Québec and its people, even down to small details like why Québécois walk in the middle of the road in winter.

While Gamache is investigating a modern day murder with its roots in the seventeenth century, he asks his deputy Jean-Guy Beauvoir to use his recuperative leave to return to Three Pines and unofficially re-examine the murder that was investigated in The Brutal Telling. During his time there, Beauvoir recounts the details of the operation that cost the lives of several of their team, and uncovers new information on the previous murder.

The Brutal Telling  surprised me by the way the mystery unfolded. Bury Your Dead  impressed and surprised me by building the story around the mistakes and fallibility of the central character. It was this detailed examination of the frailties and failings of the detective, and a focus on the psychological aftermath of failure that reminded me of Allingham’s later Campion stories. Penny makes her detectives interesting people who learn something about themselves as they solve the crimes they face.

This really was an outstanding book, one that thoroughly deserved all the awards it won. I thought The Brutal Telling was exceptional, but Penny lifted her game still further with this one. Very intricately plotted, weaving together three fictional mysteries and a fourth real one, this is the best mystery story I’ve read this year. I look forward to the next in the series as part of my fiftyfiftyme challenge for 2013, and I urge anyone who enjoys good crime fiction to give this series a go. If not the whole series, then at least The Brutal Telling followed by Bury Your Dead. I’m sure you will not be disappointed.

Book 49/50 Night Watch

Night Watch  Terry Pratchett          fiftyfiftyme category: Major

 

This book, the twenty-ninth Dicsworld novel and sixth in the City Watch series reminded me quite a bit of Feet of Clay.  In that book, I felt that Pratchett’s politics overpowered the humour that is normally present in his satire, turning it into a rant against monarchy, rather a ridiculing of it, which would have been a more entertaining read. In Night Watch, Pratchett again seems to have dispensed with the humour component of his satire almost entirely. What radiates out of the book is his anger and frustration with the way things are, and it’s clear that he wasn’t going to be bothered trying to be funny about it.

The story seems Samuel Vimes, Commander of the City Watch, sent back in time, where he has to somehow prevent a pointless revolution, stop a maniacal psychopath and  try to mentor his younger self in how to be a good policeman.  Vimes is one of the most interesting of Terry Pratchett’s creations. I’ve long thought of him as the Yin to Vetinari’s Yang. Not the opposite or anti-Vetinari, but the complement, alike and yet different, and together, the order in Ankh-Morpork. The significance of their interaction and uneasy symbiosis was made very clear in Night Watch, and this interplay was a big part of the reason I enjoyed this book much more than Feet of Clay.

The storyline gives Pratchett scope to tackle a long shopping-list of issues: The roles of the police and the military in a civilised society, the importance of due process in handling criminals, the dangers of a secret police and detentions without arrest, the hypocrisy of political leaders and those would replace them, the evil of torture and of a power structure that enables and permits it,  the power of camaraderie, and quantum physics. With exception of the last item on that list, each of these issues is not really satirised at all. Through Vimes as expositor, Pratchett basically expounds his views on all of them, using the character’s anger and confusion at being temporally displaced as the means to express his own obviously strong sentiments about these issues.

The sheer number of issues addressed makes this book much less fun to read. There are really only a few passages that show the sort of humour I look for in Discworld novels. One was a simple pun:
He hated being thought of as one of those people that wore stupid ornamental armor. It was gilt by association.
The other was a proper Pratchett jab, an amusing swipe at silliness. In this case, the absurdity of those who try to apply the rules of maths to language:
““Tell us about this man Keel,” said the major.
“I don’t know nuffin’,” said Nobby automatically.
“Aha, that means you do know something,” said the major, who was indeed the kind of person who liked this kind of little triumph.
Nobby looked blank. The captain leaned forward to whisper to his superior officer.
“Er, only under the rules of mathematics, sir,” he said. “Under the rules of common grammar, he is merely being emphat—””

I quoted both those passages because they were almost the only flashes of the wit that makes Discworld such a fun place to read about. The book reads like it was written by someone who decided that he was way too angry to try for satirical humour. Despite that, what made this book a better read than Feet of Clay  was the personal focus on Vimes and Vetinari. Vimes is a character any regular reader’s going to care about, and Vetinari is one whose back story is bound to be intriguing, and Night Watch delivers both plenty of situations that make us care about Vimes and plenty of interesting added depth to Vetinari’s story. It also brought back The Sweeper.

The Sweeper is one of the History Monks, the Time Keepers featured in Thief of Time. Clearly the most powerful and gifted of them, he is also seriously cool in a sort of David Carradine meets Ford Prefect kind of way. His explanation of the role of quantum physics in the idea  of the Multiverse was great fun to read, and his character is the one consistently light note in the book.

Night Watch was definitely not my favourite Discworld story, but it was a good read, definitely cast the fascinating Vetinari in better light (which is extremely ironic). I wouldn’t recommend it as a starting point, but for fans of Pratchett, it’s still an important part of the canon.

Book 48/50 The Brutal Telling

The Brutal Telling   Louise Penny          fiftyfiftyme category: Other

 

The fifth in the Inspector Gamache series is my favourite so far. Penny’s Three Pines stories have all been heavy on atmosphere and character analysis, sometimes at the expense of the actual murder mystery, it seemed. This book still had plenty of atmospherics and character, but the mystery itself was what impressed me most.

I really enjoyed the previous book in the series, The Murder Stone (aka, A Rule Against Murder), in part because it was set away from Three Pines, the tiny Quebec village that was the setting for the previous three. Even though it featured the same characters, giving it a new setting seemed to infuse life into the series. So when this story returned to Three Pines, I had concerns about how the story would go. Happily Penny completely upended my expectations. Partly she did that  by once again physically relocating the investigation for a significant part of the story. The part of the story set on Haida Gwaii was fascinating to me. There is a parallelism between  Canada and Aotearoa/New Zealand in their histories with indigenous peoples, both in the sins (of omission and commission) of the past, and in more recent attempts to make amends. Penny gave a wonderfully concise, non-touristy summary of much the history of Haida Gwaii in a way that was relevant to the story,imparting education along with the entertainment.

The real surprise for me, though, was in the murder mystery. As I read, I kept thinking, “oh that means that character must be guilty, because we know that in a series like this you’d never do that”, and so I was very, very impressed when Penny did do that. I literally said “wow!” out loud, and my grumpy pessimism at having cracked the story in the first few chapters was replaced by delight at having been led completely up the garden path. Not by Penny, unless it was in that she knew the sort of clichéd expectations which could  lead  to a wrong conclusion and took her time disabusing the reader of them. The eventual resolution makes sense and is internally consistent. So much so that if this was the first book in the series that someone read, they may well figure out whodunnit very, very quickly.

I can’t go into details without completely spoiling the story, and I don’t want to do that because I hope that maybe someone will start on the series after reading my reviews. I thought that Penny got the balance between atmosphere, character analysis and mystery plotting just right in this story, but the impact of what she did would be lessened if it was the first in the series to be read. One review mentioned some dissatisfaction at clues left under-explained, but the driving force behind the entire series is that the real clues to murder lie within the murderer, and I think that Penny made them clear enough here.  This book is a great advertisement for mystery series, building characters and reader relationships with them. I’m excited for the next one in the series and recommend mystery and crime fans to give the series a go. Just be sure to start from the beginning, please!

Book 45/50 The Murder Stone

The Murder Stone  Louise Penny    fiftyfiftyme category: Other

The fourth in the Inspector Gamache series, this was a welcome return to form from my point of view. I found The Cruelest Month the least satisfying of the three I’d read, but very much enjoyed this one.

Part of the reason for that was the change of locale. The first three were all set in the tiny village of Three Pines. This time, Inspector Gamache and his team end up doing their detecting at an upmarket lakeside resort. The change of setting allows the author a chance to exercise her creativity in describing a different place and different people, and the result was refreshing. Penny’s description of the Quebec forests and lakes added to the atmosphere of the story without overwhelming it, and transplanting some of the Three Pines regulars showed different parts of their personality and back story.

The murder mystery itself was also well-plotted. Both the mechanics of the howdunnit and the motivations of the whodunnit were  internally consistent and satisfying. I found the mystery of how it was done to be a bigger part of the story than in the earlier books, and liked that difference. The characterisations seemed to be to be better in this story too. The personalities and inner conflicts of the characters was solid without being overly intricate, which was my problem with the previous book in the series.The story’s setting at the Gamache’s anniversary getaway weekend allowed for the character of Mrs Gamache to be more fully developed, which was a nice addition to the series.

I know that the next book in the series returns to Three Pines, but I definitely think that the series and the writer benefited from the weekend away at the lakeside chateau. As part of the series, or as a stand-alone murder mystery, The Murder Stone  is a very pleasant recreational read.

Book 47/50 Zoe’s Tale

Zoe’s Tale  John Scalzi                   fiftyfiftyme category: Other

The fourth and final book in the series that began with Old Man’s War, Zoe’s Tale is largely a retelling of the events of The Last Colony from the perspective of Zoe, the adopted daughter of John and Jane Perry.

Retelling a story from  another character’s perspective can be very effective. In my own reading for fiftyfiftyme this year, I particularly enjoyed Jack Campbell’s use of the device in The Tarnished Knight. There was though, more to that story than simply a different perspective. In Zoe’s Tale, there is not much else. That is both a weakness and a strength.

The weakness lies in the paucity of plot. Having read The Last Colony, you quite literally “know how this one ends”. This means that the book stands or falls on its characterisations. I would say it stands, just. Scalzi himself talks in the afterword about the difficulty of being a 38 year old man writing a story from the perspective of a 15 year old girl, but from my even more remote distance, it feels like he did a credible job. Zoe did come across as perhaps a little too adult at times, in terms of her own sense of self, but not implausibly so, and I enjoyed seeing the story through her eyes.

The other thing that makes Zoe’s Tale interesting is the reason Scalzi gives for writing it. In The Last Colony, the interaction with an intelligent local species seems to be artificially forced in its resolution. Scalzi specifically addresses the complaints of deus ex machina in his afterword to Zoe’s Tale, and cites reader dissatisfaction with that element of The Last Colony as one of the reasons he decided to write this fourth book. He insists that the details revealed in this book were always a part of the back story to the earlier novel, and that he just couldn’t fit them in to that book. Whether that is so or not, it was refreshing to read an author candidly acknowledging the validity of some criticism and specifically addressing the criticism by writing another book.

In summary, I’d say that if you  read the first three books of the Old Man’s War series you would not need to read this one, but if the werewolves bugged you, and you want to find out why, Zoe’s Tale could settle that nagging annoyance.