Going Postal…

My latest Discworld read focused on Moist Von Lipwig, a new character for me. Moist is a scheming conman, but he’s also kind of sweet(!) and he has a good  conscience lurking somewhere beneath that money mad exterior. Being a conman was, in a way, an addiction for him, offering him a constant ‘thrill of the chase’ feeling. Lord Vetinari puts a stop to all that when he forces Moist into becoming the new Postmaster of Ankh Morpork. Well…it was either that or death..and after some consideration, Moist chose the post.

This story does not move along quite as well as some of the other Discworld tales, but it is humorous all the same, and has some classic characters. Post office worker, Stanley, is one of a kind: he obsesses over his pin collection and is liable to have one of his ‘fits’ if perturbed in any way. The golem characters, (workers made from clay) which were also new to me, were quite endearing too.

Maybe it was because I was reading this at work, and thus, wasn’t able to give it my full attention but some of the details were way over my head. Clacks towers anyone? These form part of a telegram type system which threatens the post office’s future, but fortunately the towers are constantly breaking down. Cue some long winded explanations and theories about clacks technology. I just read it without taking it in…

Definitely not the best Discworld book but still enjoyable and I’d like to see more of Mr. Von Lipwig.

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The Excursion Train

The Excursion Train by Edward Marston is an old fashioned detective story set in Victorian England. It has everything you might expect from such a tale: Cockney accents abound, officious Scotland Yard detectives dip their toe in the seedy underbelly of London, great big steam engines are the locations for nasty murders…It all has a warm familiarity to it and makes an easy read, but the characters and dialogue remain stifled and lack any real charisma. The central character, Detective Robert Colbeck (another Robert!), is described as a dandy type; handsome and well dressed. You would imagine him, then, to have luck with the ladies, and this he does, having secured the affections of Madeleine Andrews. But there’s not a hint of passion between the two young people: in fact, the passion lies in the world of the killers and those related to them; in other words, among the lower classes. Marston seems to highlight the class difference by keeping Colbeck’s emotions in check, thus ensuring us that he is a gentleman. Well, he may be a gentleman, but he’s a bore..by the end of the book, I was thinking, “Just kiss her already..!”

Back to the important stuff, however, and the mystery at hand is quite an intriguing one. A man named Jacob Guttridge is found dead on an excursion train scheduled to bring a crowd of Cockney troublemakers to a prizefight. His death, strangulation with a piece of wire, is gruesome and pointed…Guttridge was a hangman by trade and so had many enemies, particularly as he wasn’t the most precise of hangmen, often leaving the victims to hang mercilessly for minutes before they finally passed on. Guttridge’s death leads Colbeck on a trail through the town of Ashford, and other places, where he encounters more murders..and even an attempt on his own life.

The Excursion Train is a light read, and particularly suited if you like old fashioned settings, or…trains! Colbeck isn’t known as The Railway Detective for nothing. There’s a prequel to this book (The Railway Detective) and a sequel (The Railway Viaduct). After that I think Edward Marston ran out of train ideas…!

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The Da Vinci Code

I had heard from a number of people that Angels and Demons (reviewed below) was a better book than The Da Vinci Code. It was hard to believe after the attention which Da Vinci had received. After reading both, though, I have to agree that Angels and Demons is the superior novel. Da Vinci has all the right ingredients for another spellbinding adventure, but the symbology facts and figures which moved the Angels story along so well simply stifle the Da Vinci plotline. Too much time is spent pondering over Mary Magdalene and holy grails. It’s not surprising that the book gained such publicity when controversial myths, such as that about Mary Magdalene, are brought to the fore. But while these tales are initially shocking, you soon begin wishing for some more action and less talk. Perhaps I’m being a little harsh here; it is a clever story which wraps up nicely at the end, but after the non-stop “I can’t put down the book” antics of Angels and Demons, The Da Vinci Code feels stilted and almost slow moving. The other major problem here is that the basic plot of Da Vinci is just a carbon copy of Demons and Angles. There’s nothing wrong with following a winning formula, particularly in a detective/mystery series, but the characters from Da Vinci are so alike, and follow such similar motivations that it’s almost disheartening. The albino monk, Silas, is reminiscent of the Angels’ killer, even if Silas is more worthy of sympathy. We have another desperate priest in the form of Bishop Aringarosa. Da Vinci’s Teabing, a highly intelligent British cripple replaces the highly intelligent wheelchair bound Kohler and Sophie is a watered down version of Vittoria. Although Teabing, cliched as he is, is an enjoyable character, the others are not so well thought out. One gets the impression that the characters only serve to push forward the plot. This, in fact, is one of the complaints that people had with regard to the film. Now, I can see that any film version of this would have had to take liberties with the script in order to secure decent memorable characters. The major exception is, of course, Robert Langdon. He is as likeable as ever, and I stick by my previous theory that he is, in fact, based on Dan Brown himself!

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Angels and Demons

After all the furore about the Da Vinci Code a few years ago, I felt it was time to read it properly (I had attempted a few chapters before..) and see what the fuss was about. First, however, I turned my attention to Angels and Demons, this being the prequel to Da Vinci. A number of people had assured me it was actually a better book but having only just begun The DV Code, I cannot yet make comparisons..this I will say, however: the basic plots are quite similar so far, following a rather James Bond like adventure, although replacing the suave Bond with the more grounded Robert Langdon. I think I will write an Angels and Demon vs. Da Vinci Code post eventually but for now….Angels and Demons!

The major theme here is the ongoing conflict between religion and science with wizened scientists coming up against equally wizened cardinals, and Vatican City finding a new competitor in CERN (a giant physics lab in Switzerland which is well worth a google) in the fierce debate about creation. Brown does not paint a simple black and white scenario here, though, with many characters, such as the first victim, a priest who is also a physicist, pulling beliefs from both sides. Brown’s novel caused me to conclude that no matter what we believe in, the point is: we need to believe in something. This is emphasised by the fact that even the cold blooded killer of Demons and Angels holds strong beliefs, certain that his killings are for a greater cause.

Robert Langdon, all tweed jacket and Harvard intelligence, finds himself pulled from his bachelor pad and lecture halls, to investigate a murder at CERN, which then leads him on a whirwind chase around Rome and the Vatican. Brown amazes us, as much as Robert(!) with the high tech gadgetry of CERN and even of the Vatican. Toss in some crazy villans, an attractive younger woman and a few near impossible escape stunts and you have James Bond…professor style. Langdon unravels the mystery using his deep knowledge of symbology and art history, but this by no means dampens the spirit of adventure. Langdon himself has to be the most sympathetic character and he rings true, perhaps, because he is somewhat modelled on Dan Brown himself. It’s just a theory but Brown is a smart guy with an interest in art history and Langdon is a smart guy with an interest in art history….

Whether you read Dan Brown novels for excitement or education, however, you will find yourself picking up the most amazing facts, methodically researched by Brown, who is careful to state at the beginning of the novel that certain parts are, indeed, factual. The amazing setting of the Vatican is built up in our imaginations as Brown reels off one mind blowing fact after another. While the novel could simply be a vehicle which Brown uses to show off his insight into papal affairs, among other things, in this case, the facts and stats add to the story and move it along, allowing us to share Robert Langdon’s wonder and awe.

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Going to the Movies

Going to the Movies is written by Syd Field whose extensive knowledge in the field of screenwriting has earned him much acclaim over the years. He is a good source on the movie industry that is Hollywood having worked on several sets over the years and having met such figures as Sam Pekinpah (who gave Syd a first look at the script of The Wild Bunch) and Jean Renoir among others. Although Field has published numerous books on the skills of screenwriting and on how to break into the industry, this book differs in that it acts as a semi-autobiography, thereby flourishing us with anecdotes about the luminaries with whom he conversed, as mentioned above. Although stubborn when it comes to his thesis on screenwriting, Field, at least, does not glorify himself too much with regard to his place in Hollywood or within the academic field. His ever humble way of recounting his stories make this quite an enjoyable read; the reader feels more at one with Field who himself finds it hard to believe that he had the chance to come across such famous film-makers and writers. The one flaw with this book is that when Field discusses his own struggles with research, writers block and screenwriting theories, the story loses its flow and becomes quite tedious in parts. Field seems to be methodical in nature, and I for one could understand his approach to writing, but when explaining this process, Field could easily lose some readers who may wish to simply hear more of his success stories and meetings with the stars. After ‘Going to the Movies’, I had enough of Field’s tales for a while, but I am planning on reading the fruits of his labour and possibly learning something about the art of screenwriting.

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A Warm Bed on a Cold Night (and other stories)

This collection of short stories by John B. Keane, Kerry’s famous playwright and literary master, provides much enjoyment for the reader, who can dip in and out of Keane’s world as they wish. Most of the ‘stories’ are anecdotes mingled with Keane’s own philosophising about everyday events and ordinary people.

Keane ran a pub for many years in Listowel, Co. Kerry, now managed by his son, Billy. It was from this haven that many of his short stories sprung, thanks in part to the comments and tales of the locals who drank there. A good example is one man’s account of the demise of his greyhound pup:

“He was killed,” said his agrieved owner, “by a blackguard of a hare that led him up hill and down dale and finally into a quarry hole filled with slime. That hare killed him as sure as Jack and Jill went up the hill.”

As humorous as this tale, and many others are, I have no doubt that without Keane’s narrative and story-telling talent, the humour could have been lost. He knows when to tow the line on a tale, never milking it in the way that some comic writers do. Having seen Keane on television once, I could imagine his voice recounting the story. These tales are made for the fireside, and possibly would work well if read aloud.

Short stories also provide variety and here Keane discusses everything from umbrellas to dogs and black eyes, and always relating it to his favoured topic: people, their behaviour and their humorous habits. As good an introduction as any to the world of John B. Keane, this book is a good source of light reading that you can come back to again and again.

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The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents

Yet another Terry Pratchett book but this time it’s one that’s aimed at younger readers. Which is surprising really because it’s just as dark as anything you’d read in the Discworld series. It is affiliated with Discworld in that the Death character is present, but other than that there are few recognisable features. In this story, we have a talking cat, a horde of talking rats and a stupid looking boy who together experience an adventure of the toughest kind when they must face up to a rat king, rat traps, dogs and, of course, humans.

At first, I wasn’t so sure about this novel, and I must say that having finished it, I do still prefer the Discworld books, but the little rat characters are so endearing that you can’t help but be entertained by their plight. I never thought rats could be so appealing. Maurice the cat also provides some humour, although the laughs don’t come as frequently as in some other TP novels.

Reading this made me reflect on my childhood reading material: all I kept thinking as I read this was..ooh isn’t that a bit dark/shocking for a kid’s book. But then you remember reading Roald Dahl, an author who left such an impression on all of us because he wasn’t afraid to delve into the dark side now and again. This story does not play it too safe, although a happy ending is secure.

There’s quite a few layers to this tale actually. Adventure story aside, TP looks at the circle of life, spiritual belief, the conscience, the effect of humans on the world and the art of storytelling. Yes really! All these topics are touched, making this a novel ripe for discussion.

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Equal Rites

So, it’s another Disworld novel: this time Equal Rites. I think I liked this better than Witches Abroad even though it was lacking Nanny Ogg. Granny Weatherwax improved on me I have to say. And Esk, though only a child is a memorable little character with a strong heart. I found myself rooting for her in her attempts to secure a place as the first female wizard in the Unseen University.

Pratchett’s humour is such that I find it difficult to describe at times. I have attempted to explain certain discworld characters or events to other people but it is always lost on them.  You just have to read a Discworld novel to understand it. It’s like watching wacky comedy where the actions and expressions are the key to creating a laugh. Pratchett gives us just enough information to create the characters for ourselves in our minds. You can practically hear the accents and see the events unfold but each reader must experience this for themselves. Yet Pratchett’s characters are so distinct and well written that I think everybody’s images must be somewhat similar…in fact any cartoons or sketches I have come across of Discworld characters usually resemble the pictures I have in my head.

With Equal Rites, as with the other novels, Pratchett has commented on familiar issues which plague society and our daily lives. This time around, it is the place of women and their right to equality. The Discworld is rather old fashioned so naturally women are second fiddle to men a lot of the time. This doesn’t stop them making themselves heard of course! Both Esk and Granny have a knack for making the men feel stupid and inferior…and they’re right too! You’d never know I was a girl would you? Go Esk!

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Witches Abroad

Last night I finished ‘Witches Abroad’ by Terry Pratchett himself. I don’t know why I say ‘himself’ but it seems to be a common occurrence when people mention TP, as if he’s going to disappear one day and return as a Discworld wizard or something. This is only the third Discworld novel I’ve read and only the fourth TP book (I read ‘The Carpet People’ some years ago). This was possibly the lightest reading that the Discworld series has offered me, not that you need to be a rocket scientist to enjoy these books…but anyone who’s read ‘Pyramids’ will know that all that bending of time and space gets a tad confusing. ‘Witches Abroad’ offered the comfort of being centred around traditional fairytales making it all the more enjoyable when these tales are twisted and turned by the characters within.

The main characters in question here are three witches by the names of Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg (my favourite) and Magrat Garlick. Together they complement each other nicely with Weatherwax being the most conventional and also the most powerful of the tree, Ogg being the round loveable one with a penchant for banana based alcohol and Garlick the young impressionable witch or the ‘wet hen’ by her own admission. There are plenty other characters to boot but I won’t ramble on about them, even if Greebo the cat deserves an honourable mention.

As is usual with a TP book, this story could be peeled apart and viewed as either a straight out fantasy, a fairytale, a comedy or perhaps a satirical look at society…which perhaps explains TP’s overall popularity. I can’t say that I’m a huge fan of the fantasy genre. I’ve tried to become enthusiastic about a number of fantasy novels but it all seems a bit samey after a while, for want of a better word. If I see another book cover in Waterstones with three rings on the cover and the word ‘Lord’ in the title, I’ll go mad. With ‘Witches Abroad’ however, as with the other Discworld novels, the fantasy element is simply a base for the dozens of memorable characters which TP creates and the humorous aspects of each one.

It’s so nice, in a world where adult reading largely consists of depressingly adult issues, to pick up a Discworld novel and forget about our worries for a while.

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