26 March 2015

Books: Reaper Man By Terry Pratchett (1991)

In Terry Pratchett's Reaper Man, 11th Discworld novel, and the second featuring Death, we meet the Auditors of Reality, beings who watch the Discworld to ensure everything and everyone, in all the multiverses, obeys The Rules. After the events of Mort, they've suddenly realized that Death is developing a personality. The fear from them is that if Death is allowed to continue, Death may end up "liking" people and that will cause all sorts of "irregularities." So to punish Death, the Auditors send the creature to live like everyone else on Discworld, and he ends up, under the assumed name of Bill Door, working as a farm hand for the elderly and lonely Miss Flitworth.
But because humans need more time to complete their deaths -unlike other species whom creates a new death for them- the life force of dead humans starts to build up; this results in poltergeist in an uptick of ghosts and other paranormal phenomena. Most notable is the return of the recently deceased wizard Windle Poons, who was really looking forward to reincarnation. After several misadventures, including being accosted by his oldest friends, he finds himself attending the Fresh Start Club, an undead-rights group led by Reg Shoe. The Fresh Start Club and the wizards of Unseen University discover that the city of Ankh-Morpork is being invaded by a parasitic lifeform that feeds on cities and hatches from eggs that resemble snow-globes. Bu they have a middle form, shopping carts, and now the Fresh Start Club and the wizards invade must come together and destroy it's ultimate, end form, a shopping mall. 
Pratchett continues his commentary on human nature, our society quirks, our weird desires under the guise of a fantasy novel. Plus he adds an alien invasion of shopping malls that seem to appear from nowhere (and the whole idea that shopping carts are used as way to draw people into shopping for things they do not need is inspired. Through the laughs, Pratchett uses Death and the reality of death (the undiscovered country we will always succumb to no matter what) as an instrument of introspection. There are fe nuggets of wisdom thrown in with other philosophical musings to give the reader a look into why death makes us humans so afraid.
And I think, in someways, my choices to start reading Pratchett again and start with his Death novels was an unconscious choice on my part to see how the writer himself saw death, his death. Yes, this was released in 1991, long before his Alzheimer's diagnoses that would kill him in March of 2015, but I think it's a great look at how he choose to live his life. Like Picard said at the end of the first Next Generation film, what we leave begins is not half as important as how you lived. 
Wisdom, indeed.

19 March 2015

Books: Mort By Terry Pratchett (1987)

Back in August of 1997, when I was in my fourth month of working for Borders Books (and whom I would stay with until their demise in September 2011) I experienced the cause and effect of the death of Princess Diana. Over the years, many unauthorized books were published about her, but mostly, they sold to those hardcore fans of hers who needed to know every detail about her life. The fact that most was made up out of pure cloth did not bother them. But when she died,  phenomena that I'm sure existed before, but was the first time really exposed to it, happened. That is people coming into our store the day after her death looking for all the books they could find on her. But these were not the hardcore fans, of course. Mostly these were the folks who, 24 hours earlier, would have never plucked down money for a tabloid style book about Diana because, well, they were tabloidy (the closest they usually got was when PEOPLE Magazine had her on the cover, which was always one of their high selling issues)
But with her death, people had to have all those books, and for a few months after, we sold many as publishers went back to the press to re-publish some titles that had gone out of print, or, just had small print runs. I called them ghouls in some ways, mostly because it was hypercritical in many ways. You knew, as they stood sheepishly in line to pay for them, that the only reason they were buying them was because she was dead. Maybe they felt that these would be collectibles, but the print runs on books, and other ancillary products with her likeness on them, were usually huge. Nothing, including the dolls that I've seen come through the doors of Goodwill over the last two years, have had any lasting value beyond just creating a lot of dust in someone's closet or attic.
Back in the 1980s when I was reading a lot of fantasy books, I did try to read Terry Pratchett's Discworld series that started out with The Colour of Magic (1983) and The Light Fantastic (1986). I read both of them, but I will admit I found them a bit difficult to understand. Part of the reason I wanted to read them, I think, was because they were British and they were satire, two things I adored back then. Still, I was was reading humorist fantasies of Piers Anthony, Craig Shaw Gardner, Robert Asprin, David Bishop, David Eddings (though not technically a parody, his two series The Belgariad and The Malloreon featured a lot of humor), John DeChancie, Douglas Adams, and the underrated science fiction of Ron Goulart. So I think I used that as an excuse not to read the Discworld novels. Also, though, as the Pratchett continued to push out novels set in his fantasy world, I also thought the series was going to get dull -after all, I could no longer read Anthony's Xanth series after book ten when I realized they were becoming formulaic (And Anthony is still writing them, with the 39th book released in 2014 and two more set for the future). I thought then, probably, how long could Pratchett keep up the joke?
With Pratchett's passing last week, it got me to thinking. Perhaps now was a time to get back into Discworld. And at first, I thought, am I the same ghoul as the folks I accused who bought Diana books after she died? Am I the guy who finally waited until an authors death to read his work? I guess yes. But I did read two of his books a long time ago, so maybe his passing just aided me in getting back into his work. Or as the guy at Illiad's Bookstore put it when I went and grabbed a handful of his novels, someone's got to read them.
Which then presented another problem. Where should I start (at the time of his death, he had published 40 Discworld novels, with one last one due this summer) I knew that Pratchett created a huge world -unlike other fantasy novels that clearly are set on a "planet", Pratchett had a giant turtle, the Great A'Tuin, who is something like 10,000 miles long, that is traveling through space. On it's back stands four elephants, and on the backs of those four elephants sits Discworld. After accepting that, you have a universe that is like many other fantasy novels, where you have villains and heroes. Pratchett, while using the many motifs and themes of other fantasy authors, decided to parody and took inspiration from the works of Shakespeare,  J. R. R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, as well as ancient mythology, folklore and fairy tales. He also took on real-life issues, like politics, religion, the business world, and incorporated them into his fake world. 
He also created a large character base, which meant that while the books appear to be stand-alone in nature, they are all set in the same universe, which meant a character like Rincewind, featured in the first two novels, could and would appear in cameo scenes in other stories. It be sort of like taking a minor character in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series -one who might have one line or two- and expand it into another series that ran concurrent to the main one. And that maybe the reason why I gave up on the series back in the 80s. I liked Rincewind, and wanted more stories about him and did not care (at the time) for anything else. I've done this before, abandoned authors who wrote a series of novels I enjoyed and had finished them and moved onto a new series with new characters, David Eddings was one such author I did that too, as well as Tad Williams and Stephen R. Donaldson. 
But I've grown, I hope, in the last 30 years. And since Terry Pratchett's death, I've discovered that reading his books in publishing order may not be a great idea for newbies. So after stumbling upon a site that put the 40 Discworld novels in some sort of order, I've decided to start with the Death books first, which begins with Mort.
As a teenager, Mort had a personality and temperament that made him rather unsuited to the family farming business. Mort's father, named Lezek, felt that Mort thought too much, which prevented him from achieving anything practical. So Lezek took him to a local hiring fair, hoping that Mort would land an apprenticeship with some tradesman; not only would this provide a job for his son, but it would also make his son's propensity for thinking into someone else's problem.
At the job fair, Mort at first has no luck attracting the interest of an employer. But just before the stroke of midnight, a man wearing a black cloak arrives on a white horse. He says he is looking for a young man to assist him in his work and selects Mort for the job. The man turns out to be Death, and Mort is given an apprenticeship in ushering souls into the next world (though his father thinks he's been apprenticed to an undertaker).
When it is a princess' time to die (according to a preconceived reality), Mort, instead of ushering her soul, saves her from death, dramatically altering a part of the Discworld's reality. However, the princess, for whom Mort has a developing infatuation, does not have long to live, and he must try to save her, once again, since the original reality will eventually reassert itself, killing her in the process. Both the princess and Mort end up consulting the local wizard, Igneous Cutwell, for various methods of assistance with the crisis.
As Mort begins to do most of Death's "Duty", he loses some of his former character traits, and essentially starts to become more like Death himself. Death, in turn, yearns to relish what being human is truly like and travels to Ankh-Morpork to indulge in new experiences and attempt to feel real human emotion with Happiness being the one he finds hardest to understand and so starts some research to try out happiness, something that he has never experienced, he tries a number of very human habits like getting drunk, going to a party, dancing and tries to find a new job that will make him feel happy.
Ultimately, the wizards of Unseen University perform the Rite of Ashk-Ente, which summons both the part of Death that has been taking Mort over, as well as Death himself. Death becomes furious when he learns about Mort's actions, including seducing his adopted daughter Ysabell, and fires him. Conclusively, Mort must duel Death for his freedom. 
Rincewind, who as I mentioned was in Pratchett's first two novels, makes a cameo in Mort -the authors third novel. Death returns in Reaper Man, followed by Soul Music, Hohfather, and Thief of Time.

15 March 2015

Books: Red Seas Under Red Skies By Scott Lynch (2007)

There was a Friends episode where Rachel and Joey go on a boat ride round New York. Joey, of course, wants to have fun. But Rachel, who had to deal with her father's anal retentiveness about the rules of boating, forces Joey to actually learn things no one cares about when actually, you know, boating. 
This was what drove me crazy in Scott Lynch's follow up to The Lies of Locke Lamora. It appears that Mr. Lynch got Rules for Old Timey Wimey Ships for Christmas and decided to spend a good majority of Red Skies Under Red Seas informing the reader every detail about those ships. Listen, if I want to learn about masts, waists -those names for everything- I would take a class, read up on it on Wikipedia and then go to town. Here, it becomes a dull class at the College Resource Center. 
The book is structured oddly as well, opening with a scene extracted from late in the book. I'm unsure why Mr. Lynch chose to do it this way, because it really does not impact the story in any sort of way when you get to that same scene some 470 pages later. Like the first book, this tale has chapters set in the present that is alternated with flashbacks. Again, this is was distracting (the beauty of novels over TV or movies is that they don't have to be told linear. But eventually Mr. Lynch abandons this conceit for no apparent reason, which made me wonder why he used this plot ploy to begin with). So in the end, I think the book would've worked better if told in chronological order instead of the bothersome narrative of flashbacks.  
So Locke and his trusted sidekick, Jean arrive on the exotic shores of Tal Verrar to nurse their wounds. But even at this westernmost edge of civilization, they can't rest for long -and are soon back to what they do best: stealing from the undeserving rich and pocketing the proceeds for themselves. This time, however, they have targeted the grandest prize of all: the Sinspire, the most exclusive and heavily guarded gambling house in the world. Its nine floors attract the wealthiest clientele — and to rise to the top, one must impress with good credit, amusing behavior... and excruciatingly impeccable play. For there is one cardinal rule, enforced by Requin, the house's cold-blooded master: it is death to cheat at any game at the Sinspire. Brazenly undeterred, Locke and Jean have orchestrated an elaborate plan to lie, trick, and swindle their way up the nine floors... straight to Requin's teeming vault. Under the cloak of false identities, they meticulously make their climb -until they are closer to the spoils than ever. But someone in Tal Verrar has uncovered the duo's secret. Someone from their past who has every intention of making the impudent criminals pay for their sins. Now it will take every ounce of cunning to save their mercenary souls. And even that may not be enough...
Still, despite Lynch spending so much time detailing every aspect of a ship, the book remains somewhat fun. But the there is nothing new here -a problem I've had with this genre for a while now. Yes the book shifts from a "caper" novel to Pirates of The Caribbean rather successfully, but in the end the ideas he presents here seem like many missed opportunities to take this genre into a new and exciting direction. 

01 March 2015

Books: The Lies of Locke Lamora By Scott Lynch (2005)

They say that the Thorn of Camorr can beat anyone in a fight. They say he steals from the rich and gives to the poor. They say he's part man, part myth, and mostly street-corner rumor. And they are wrong on every count. Only averagely tall, slender, and god-awful with a sword, Locke Lamora is the fabled Thorn, and the greatest weapons at his disposal are his wit and cunning. He steals from the rich -they're the only ones worth stealing from- but the poor can go steal for themselves. What Locke cons, wheedles and tricks into his possession is strictly for him and his band of fellow con-artists and thieves: the Gentleman Bastards. Together their domain is the city of Camorr. Built of Elderglass by a race no-one remembers, it's a city of shifting revels, filthy canals, baroque palaces and crowded cemeteries. Home to Dons, merchants, soldiers, beggars, cripples, and feral children. And to Capa Barsavi, the criminal mastermind who runs the city. But there are whispers of a challenge to the Capa's power. A challenge from a man no one has ever seen, a man no blade can touch. The Grey King is coming. A man would be well advised not to be caught between Capa Barsavi and The Grey King. Even such a master of the sword as the Thorn of Camorr. 

Despite what the back cover says, Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora is not a caper novel in the vein of Ocean's Eleven. Sure there is some conning, some stealing, but the book is really not about that. It's more about who keeps the power and control of Camorr's assorted criminal activities. It's also about revenge, but that plot point stays on the fringes until the last quarter of the novel. What we get before is a detailed history of Camorr and it's surrounding villages. We get a bunch of good guy thieves who would be right out of the Bowery Boys -that is if they stole and swore like longshore fishermen. The plot meanders, but that's not a bad thing, for it neither fast or too slow. Then there's Lynch's one narrative conceit; we get "interludes" spaced through the book, which gives the reader a look at Locke's past, how he started out. It's a bit distracting at first, this time shift between Lamora of "today" and one from years before. 

The one thing I liked is that I never felt the twists that happen to Lamora and his band of merry men to be contrived in any sort of way. Though, like a lot of today's fiction, Lamora's problems are frequently and too easily resolved. Once again, its not the character's deeply storied life we've read about many of pages, but by the stupidity of his enemies (via the authors word processing program). 

All the characters get a nice fleshing out, and Lynch creates a large group of supporting characters that the reader will like. Mr. Lynch does spend a great time World Building here, and clearly the reason seems to be that he plans multiple novels set in his re-imaged world of Venice (because there is female character named Sabetha who is mentioned dozens of time through out the book, but never makes an appearance. Let us hope that when she does, Sabetha is half as interesting as she written to be). 

The book does, slightly, turn to torture porn, and despite growing up with the works of Stephen King, having read George R. R. Martin (but have not started the last two books), I'm never pleased with this. Yes the hero (or anti-hero depending on your point of view) may have some justification for what he does, but I found it unpleasant and even a bit disturbing. Sometimes it's hard for me to accept the character when he climbs into the gutter he supposedly hates. And While I understand's Lynch's need to create this world in detail, I think it still goes on too long. There are clearly repetitious parts that seem only designed to tell the reader what a clever writer Scott Lynch is and adds nothing for the reader, who already knows the history of Locke Lamora.

And, finally, I've discovered, despite my best efforts, reading multi-volume series again. I've got series going now by Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, John Scalzi, Tana French, Ransom Riggs, along with starting Ken Follett's Century Trilogy, Katherine Kurtz's Deryni saga and Jennifer Hobb's Farseer series. Plus I've got a number of stand-alone novels to read (including the new Stephen King, but that's not due until June). I guess I should turn the TV off and shut down the laptop.