Tag Archive | book review

“I’m not a lady, I’m a witch” — or, more of why I love sf/f

Photo of a page of a Terry Pratchett book:  “You’d have done the same,” said Lily. “No,”“ said Granny. “I’d have thought the same, but I wouldn’t have done it.” “What difference does that make, deep down?” “You mean you don’t know?” said Nanny Ogg.

Click to embiggen

Many, many years ago a friend was going on and on about this hilarious book he had been reading, and by the end of the conversation had pressed his copy of the paperback in my hand to take home and give it a try. I tried to read it. I really did, but I found it off-putting almost immediately. I think I got about a third of the way through it before I decided it just wasn’t for me. So I gave it back to my friend and confessed that I just hadn’t been able to get into it. He shrugged and we started talking about another book altogether.

About two years later—after I had transferred to university in Seattle—I was involved in a conversation with a couple of different friends who were enthusing about a book and its sequel that they both quite enjoyed. One of them had a copy of the second books with him, and suggested I give it a try. “You don’t need to have read the first book to get this one,” he assured me. The cover looked suspiciously familiar, but I didn’t quite put two-and-two together.

Until later that week when I was trying to read it, and realized that the author of the book was the same as the other book from two years ago, and the protagonist that I had despised before was the main character of this book, too. So I gave it back, thanking my friend from loaning it, but admitting that I hadn’t liked it.

About three years later, on our regular gaming night, a group of friends which included the two guys who had tried to get me into the series before were going on and on and on about this latest book in the series. One of them, however said, “Oh, wait, you already tried these books before, didn’t you?” But one of the other guys chimed in to say that the first three books in the series had not been anywhere near as good as the latest, and the next thing I knew I was borrowing someone’s copy of the eighth book in the series.

Admittedly, the main character of book eight was a completely different character who wasn’t quite as irritating as the other guy had been, but I still found myself getting bogged down and rolling my eyes a lot at things in the book until finally I once again gave up.

A few times over the eight years, some subset of friends or acquaintances in various fannish or gaming situations would talk about the series, including explaining which were their favorites and which they could take or leave. And at least one more time during this interval I picked up another book in the series, but it just didn’t grab me.

I found myself after that in a conversation with another friend about the series. She was a little bit surprised that I didn’t like it, as she thought a lot of the themes the author explored were things I enjoyed. We ended up having a very long conversation about books other people had recommended that we didn’t like, and why we thought that was in various cases. This last conversation happened around the same time that my first husband, Ray, was undergoing chemotherapy. Or maybe it was during one of his surgeries? What I know is that the conversation happened in a waiting room at a medical facility where she was hanging out with me specifically to give me emotion support and distract me a bit.

A few months later, Ray died —just two weeks before Thanksgiving. Just before Christmas, she dropped by one day to drop off a Christmas present, but more importantly, to loan me a few books. Most of the books in the pile I recognized as series that I had been interested in trying one day. And then one of the books was in the series that people had been trying to get me to try for a long time.

She pulled it out of the pile and said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about that conversation we had about why you didn’t like other books in this series. The more I think about it, I think if any of the books will appeal to you, it’s this one. Give it a try. I won’t be offended if you don’t like it.”

It was one of the books I stuck in my suitcase when I went to spent about a week at Mom’s for the holiday. Mom tended to go to bed a lot earlier than I did, at least on the nights that weren’t filled with holiday things with the family. So the first night after Christmas, I was laying in her guest room, trying to occupy myself quietly until I was ready to sleep. And I opened up the loaned copy of Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters. I had intended to just force myself to read it for an hour or so until I go sleepy. Because I was not at all confident that I’d like it any more than any of the other Discworld books I had tried before.

The next thing I knew, I was on the last page of the book. The sun had risen outside. I had stayed up all night, eagerly turning pages to find out what happened next!

I re-read the book from beginning to end two more times before that vacation was over. Shortly after getting home, I was telling my friend how much I loved it and that I knew I needed to get my own copy. A couple days later she dropped by and loaned me the next book from the series with the same character, Witches Abroad. And while at the end of Wyrd Sisters I was a big fan of Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, Magrat, and Greebo the world’s scruffiest cat, by the end of Wyrd Sisters, I was ready to say that Granny Weatherwax was the greatest fictional character ever created.

It was at this point that the friend advised me that there was an earlier book starring Granny Weatherwax, but it was “written while Pratchett was still figuring out the world, so it’s almost like she’s only a similar character who happens to have the same name.”

Over the course of the next few months I read all of the witches books in the Discworld series which existed at that time (Wyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad, Lords and Ladies, and Maskerade). By this time I was dating Michael, and he was as surprised as many other friends had been that it had taken me so long to start reading these books. It was his copy of the first Granny Weatherwax book, Equal Rites, that I finally read. And I could see that my other friend had been correct, if I’d read it before I had come to love the more fully realized Granny, I would definitely not have liked it.

Having reached the end of the witch books available at the time, I was eyeing some of the other books in the series, when the friend who had picked Wyrd Sisters for me said, “Skip the earlier guard books. Start with Feet of Clay, then if you like the characters try circling back to the beginning.”

And that’s how I eventually wound up reading (and buying my own copies of) almost the entire Discworld series mostly out of order. Because the earlier ones did make more sense once I had gotten into the mindset of the series overall.

The earliest books in the series feel like broad parodies of epic fantasy novels. They have their funny moments, but when the jokes clunk, they remind me (at least) of the non-parody fantasy books that I love and make me wish I was reading one of those.

Wyrd Sisters, in my humble opinion, was the first time that one of the discworld books became full-on satire. Parodies always contain satirical elements, but a full literary satire doesn’t lampoon or ridicule an individual person or work—it uses the elements of irony and humor to lampoon society as a whole.

Several of the books immediately following Wyrd Sisters strayed a bit back into more broad parody elements, but by Reaper Man and Witches Abroad, Pratchett had finally found the groove of holding up a mirror to the reader and the world we live in rather than poking fun at individual works.

This post was originally supposed to be about Witches Abroad, why I love it, and how it changed the way I looked at the world, so maybe I should get to those specifics.

The premise: the tiny mountain kingdom of Lancre is served by three witches: Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlik. There are many other witches who live in neighboring and not quite so neighboring communities, but these three form the core of most of the witches books. Nanny Ogg is the ultimate grandmother—she has outlived a rather large number of husbands, has sons working in various jobs in her hometown and the neighboring communities, a large number of daughters-in-law who fear her, and innumerable grandchildren. She loves to drink and is famous for singing a particularly naught song. Magrat is the youngest of the coven, and is prone to trying new and modern things like crystals and meditation. Granny is older, has never married, and would never, ever be described as nice. But she is also the undisputed leader of their coven, and the one that everyone turns to when the situation gets dire.

This particular book is kicked off when a witch who lives in a neighboring county dies, and leaves a powerful magic wand (and the fairy godmothering duties that go with it) to Magrat. And she writes her will in a way that she knows will provoke Granny and Nanny to insist on going with Magrat to help the girl she is now the godmother to.

The middle of the book involves adventures the three witches have traveling through unfamiliar lands (with a lot of funny events along the way). But there is also a growing sense of trouble, as it becomes clear that the goddaughter in the far-off land is under the influence of someone who is quite dangerous, indeed.

When they find the girl (living in a sort of parody of New Orleans), they quickly discover that the other godmother is someone known to Granny and Nanny: Lily Weatherwax, Granny’s older sister.

The image I included above is a bit of dialog from Witches Abroad.

“You’d have done the same,” said Lily.
“No,”“ said Granny. “I’d have thought the same, but I wouldn’t have done it.”
“What difference does that make, deep down?”
“You mean you don’t know?” said Nanny Ogg.
—from Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett

Lily does not fit the mold of villain when we first meet her. She is nice and charming. She claims her only goal is to ensure everyone is happy and get what they want. It becomes clear fairly quickly that what Lily really wants is for everyone to act happy and cheerful and more than content with whatever their lot in life is.

I mentioned above that Granny isn’t nice. She is sharp-tongued and blunt. She is ruthless when going up against someone who is causing harm to others. But she isn’t one of those characters who is rough and mean on the outside and turns out to have a soft squishy golden heart. Granny is granite all the way through, but it is a granite of morality.

In the above quote, Lily just given her explanation for why she uses her magic to force people into the roles she deems them suited for. She has explained how people make foolish mistakes, live inefficient lives, and waste a lot of time and effort of frivolities, often causing themselves misery and trouble along the way. Isn’t it better, she argues, for someone like her who can see how they could be happier, to make sure that they are?

When Granny objects, that’s what causes Lily to say, “You’d have done the same.”

It is this exchange that shows the core of Granny’s hard, granite soul. She knows that she is capable of doing immoral things. She has had those unkind, cruel, manipulative thoughts. And she refuses to give in to them. She can be harsh-spoken, but she is always harsher to herself, and she knows that kindness isn’t about how we talk to people, but what we actually do for them.

In more than one of the books, Granny defines evil not as maliciousness nor cruelty nor depravity. No. Evil, she tells us, begins when you start thinking and treating people like things.

The book hits on many other ideas along the way, but I think the heart of it was the revelation that how you treat and care for each other is what matters. And there isn’t a grey area between treating everyone as a person entitled to dignity and consideration, and treating them as expendable.

It’s okay to like things that make you happy: my review of Good Omens

Bubbles for the Powerpuff Girls exclaims, “I'm not dumb! I just like nice things that make me happy! At last I don't to to fight and be mean all the time like some people!”

(Click to embiggen)

First, I have a few confessions to make. Even though I have been a squeeing fanboy of Terry Pratchett’s books for decades, and a similarly enthusiastic fan of Neil Gaiman’s writing for a similar period of time, I hadn’t read the novel they collaborated on, Good Omens, before this year. This fact caused considerable consternation to my husband shortly after we moved in together nearly 21 years ago as we were combining our book collections. It wasn’t just because I was already such a big fan of both Pratchett and Gaiman, but also because the subject matter: the end of the world as described in the book of Revelation in the New Testament (with a lot of related and semi-related items of mythology)—topics that I had a great deal of interest in.

Why I hadn’t at that point takes a bit of explanation. The year the book was published was a tumultuous time in my personal life.1 Some of my friends who were reading the book recommended it, but all of my attention was focused on other priorities. Then there were other issues for the next few years.3

The upshot of all that is: when Michael expressed shock that I hadn’t read the book, I had to confess that I barely even knew it existed. For the next several years it sat in my queue of books I was going to read someday. But there are always a lot of books in that queue, and I was busy reading new books from my favorite authors and only slowly making a dent in that other pile.

Then Terry Pratchett announced that he had Alzheimer’s disease. And some time after learning about that, I made a decision to set four of the Discworld books that I hadn’t gotten to, yet, and Good Omens in a different category: books I will read if I find myself feeling particularly sad that no new books would be coming from Terry.4

Once Neil announced that Terry had asked him, as his dying request, to make an adaptation for Good Omens to be made into a movie or television show, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to leave the book in that special queue. So earlier this year, as the date for the release of the series approached—not to mention the teasers and trailers and interviews for the series that kept crossing my social media feeds—I finally read the book.

Twice.

Then I downloaded the BBC radio play adaptation that was made before Terry died and listened to that. So, yes, Michael and all the rest of my friends who were flabbergasted that I hadn’t read it were right: it’s a book that I immediately loved.

This last weekend I binge-watched the series, and I can honestly say I love it, too. With Neil writing the script and acting as show-runner5, the series is faithful to the book. A demon and an angel who, rather than being immortal enemies, have forged a friendship during their millenia on Earth, and have grown quite fond of the world and the clever things people keep inventing, set out to stop the apocalypse. Complicated by the fact that they have mislaid the anti-christ. Plus, they don’t have access to the one and only existing copy of the book, The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch.

Most of the cast of thousands of characters from the book made it to the screen (many quite brilliantly cast). And the things that Neil added to keep the emotional arcs running through each episode6 fit nicely and do their jobs.

It’s a fun show. And it still gives you the same kind very wry and wise observations about human nature that Neil and Terry employ subtly in their other works.

I admit, I wish that at least one old trope that underlay the relationships of two pairs of the supporting characters had not remained faithful to the book. I speak of that tired old canard: the competent, accomplished woman who falls for the forlorn, bumbling man who has little, if anything, to recommend him. When I read the book earlier this year, this bothered me most with Madame Tracy—I mean, really, what does she see in Shadwell?

For the other relationship, the version of Witch-hunter Private Pulsifer in the book is given a little more time to demonstrate that he isn’t completely useless. So it didn’t annoy me quite as much as the other relationship–in the book. Alas, much of that is omitted from the series.8

But the central relationships: demon and angel out to save the world (and each other), and the 11-year-old anti-christ who just wants to have fun with his friends (and not understanding his new powers) work splendidly. And don’t let the summary that it’s a comedic look at the apocalypse fool you–the story explores some heavy questions.

The series tell a hilariously engaging story about some serious subjects (what really is the difference between good and evil, do the ends ever justify the means, how many forms that platonic love can take, and so on) without ever tripping over itself. Most of the jokes land as well or better than they did in the book.

I really liked it.

And at the end, just as the first time I reached the end of the book, I felt that if a demon, an angel, and a determined eleven-year-old can save that world, maybe there is some hope for ours.


Footnotes:

1. I had reached a point where I was no longer fooling myself that I was bisexual–but I was also married to a woman2 and there were many reasons that confronting that conflict was being avoided by both of us. I was also experiencing some really weird and frankly frightening health issues.

2. Who remains one of my best friends all these years later.

3. The subsequent separation and divorce, plus the social and financial fallout from that continued for a few years. Then my partner (we called each other husbands, but Ray never lived long enough for us to be legally more than registered domestic partners) was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Again, all my attention was elsewhere.

4. I hadn’t dipped into that pile before this year, though I have re-read a lot of my favorites more frequently than I used to.

5. A job that he said, since he’s never really done it before, he approached thusly: any time there was a decision to be made, he asked himself which choice would have delighted Terry, if he were here to see the final product. And that’s the one he chose every time.

6. Often either things that they decided just to allude to in the original novel, or in some cases sub-plots and characters from the sequel that they planned and plotted but never wrote.7

7. Planned title: 668: The Neighbor of the Beast.

8. The parts I’m thinking of mostly involved him reading more of the archaically worded prophecies from Agnes Nutter’s books and helping Anathema figure out what they mean. Since that kind of scene is difficult to make interesting on screen, I understand why they were minimized.

The Secrets of the Universe

It’s been a really long time since I wrote any book reviews, so I’m going to try to get back in the habit of writing them more often.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, cover by Chloë Foglia.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, cover by Chloë Foglia.

So, let’s start with Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. This novel is set in the late 80s and concerned a Mexican-American teenager named Aristotle “Ari” Mendoza. Ari is the youngest child in his family, but there’s a significant age gap between him and the next oldest. The other kids were born before Ari’s dad went off to fight in Vietnam, while Ari was conceived after his father returned. Ari is troubled by at least two family secrets: his older brother was sent to prison when Ari was too young to understand what was going on, and no one in the family will talk about what happened. The other secretive thing bothering Ari is that his father never talks about his experiences in the war, and many other things which Ari thinks might be important.

Ari narrates the book, and frequently describes himself as having no friends, until one summer day when he met Dante Quintana at the city pool. Dante discovers that Ari is hanging around in the shallow end because he doesn’t know how to swim. So Dante undertakes to teach him, and soon Ari and Dante are inseparable.

Even when Dante confesses he is gay, while Ari assures Dante that he is not, their friendship remains strong.

The official summary the publisher slaps on the back cover is: “Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship – the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.”

That summary doesn’t really do the book justice. But I can’t explain much more about the plot without giving things away which I think a reader will enjoy discovering right along with Ari and Dante. Two different events that could have been tragedies happen over the course of the two summers plus that the book describes. Neither comes out of the experiences unscathed. Along the way both young men make important discoveries. And yes, by the time the book is over, they really do discover secrets of the universe.

One of the things I love about the book is that despite Ari feeling that his father is keeping part of himself distant, the relationship between each of the boys and their families is close. Each set of parents express their love and respect for their sons in different ways, but despite the secrets in Ari’s family, the relationships being shown here are not dysfunctional. That’s refreshing in itself.

The story explores lots of themes. Yes, there’s a coming of age through-line, but the novel also deals with identity (particularly intersectional identity: class, ethnicity, and sexual orientation), social expectations (what does it mean to be a man; what does it mean to be a Latino, et cetera), familial expectations, the nature of friendship, the meaning of the many kinds of love, as well as what it means to find answers. The characters feel real, their problems feel real, and nothing in the plot every requires any of the characters to be stupid. Yes, the teen-age characters (not just Dante and Ari) make foolish choices, but they are realistic foolish choices.

Unlike some books (and movies and series) I could name, none of the characters suddenly start acting idiotically so the plot can go a particular way. This kind of storytelling leaves me, at least, rooting for most of the characters—and that is not at all a bad thing!

I’m hardly the first person to notice that Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is an awesome book. It was awarded a Youth Media Award by the American Library Association, as well as a Pura Belpré Narrative Medal, the Stonewall Book Award, a Michael L. Printz Award for the best writing in teen literature, a Lambda Literary Award, and an Amelia Elizabeth Walden honorable mention. Perhaps the most interesting recommendation I have read of it was a fellow subscriber to a literary mailing list who said that when another award-winning novel had wrenched her heart, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe had restored her soul.

This all may sound like hype, but the novel really is very good. I loved it so much, that after finishing the book, I bought the audiobook (narrated by Lin-Manuel Miranda who does an incredible job), and listened to it again. (Spoiler: I cried and laughed at all the same points the second time through as I did the first).

If you want a story that will restore your faith in humanity—and restore your faith that good books are still to be had—you can’t go better than Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.

Book Review: Countdown City

Cover are for Countdown City.

Countdown City, by Ben H. Winters (book 2 of the Last Policeman trilogy).

Countdown City is a mid-apocalyptic noir. When I reviewed The Last Policeman, I mentioned that I was a teeny bit disappointed, after reading it and loving it so much, to find out the author was working on not one, but two sequels, because I thought the ending of the first book was perfect.

I’m no longer disappointed.

The quick set-up: we’re just 70-some days away from the earth being struck my an asteroid that’s too big and was discovered too late for us to do anything about it. Society has been crumbling for some months, and our hero, Henry Palace, a former police detective in Concord, New Hampshire, is now out of work and living in a world without electricity or much of anything else, where a very militarized police force is in charge of distributing the small amount of food and goods still available.

And the woman who babysat Hank and his sister back in the days after their parents’ death while they were living with an inattentive grandparent, is begging him to find her missing husband. In a world where people are running away to do crazy things before the end, and other people are willing to kill for a stash of coffee beans, she wants him to find a missing person.

The author described the first book as existential detective novel. I continue to prefer my description as a mid-apocalyptic noir. The first book asked the question, what’s the point of solving a murder when the world is about to end. This book poses the question, what do promises and commitment mean when there is no tomorrow?

The answers this book gives, like the answers before, may not surprise you, but by the time you reach those answers, having watched what Hank does to find those answers, you believe them.

If you don’t want the slightest hint about the ending, stop now. Other wise, click the Read More below:

Read More…

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