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Feb 2014
Raising Steam - Terry Pratchett - Doubleday, 2013
* * * *
I shall never forget reading The Colour of Magic when I was a teenager. The combination of laugh-out-loud one-liners, the gentle satire of well-known fantasy series (Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar, Anne MacCaffrey's Pern and H.G. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos) and an original setting where the consequences were thought through (for example, that a world that was a disc would have an edge that you could explore, and if you were unlucky, fall off) was like nothing else I had encountered. This tension between humorous invention and world-building has permeated every one of the subsequent thirty-nine books in the sequence, and the various admixtures have led to the different strands, with the greater social realism of the Ankh-Morpork-based Vimes and Moist von Lipwig novels being balanced by the funnier and more whimsical "witches" and "death" novels. Being a fan of anything that can make me laugh, I generally much prefer the latter to the former, and it is a sadness to me that Pratchett seems to have chosen to focus exclusively on the realistic mode (a case in point - Discworld has become so real that it now has a proper map showing where Quirm, the Ramtops and Uberwald are in relation to each other, which does not accord with my imagined version of it). But Pratchett is a genius, and even without the jokes and the invention that characterise his best work, this take on the coming of steam and its consequences is an interesting read with important things to say.
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Jun 2010
Nation - Terry Pratchett - Corgi, 2009
* * * * *
This is a very unusual book from Mr Pratchett. It is his first in many years that is not set in the Discworld. Despite being ostensibly a young adult novel, it is also notably more brutal, based as it is on the grim notion of an entire island society being wiped out by a tsunami and clearly inspired by the events of Boxing Day 2004. But it is also a book where Pratchett's philosophical preoccupations are unusually to the fore, and one of the few in which they are properly worked out.
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I've got seriously behind due to exams and other distractions, so here's an extra-long catch-up.
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Jan 2009
Making Money - Terry Pratchett - Doubleday, 2007
* * * *
In addition to his other considerable talents, it appears that Terry Pratchett is something of a prophet. It surely cannot be a coincidence that this satire on banks and the people who run them should be published just a week after problems first became apparent at Northern Rock, the harbinger of the recession that we are currently enduring. So it is a shame that it does not bite as hard as it really should.
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Oct 2008
An Utterly Impartial History of Britain - John O’Farrell - Black Swan, 2007
* *
Anyone who attempts a humorous history of Britain will - however they try to deny it in the introduction - invite comparison with the Sellar and Yeatman classic 1066 and All That. The genius of the latter lay in its acceptance that the overwhelming majority of history is deeply boring to the average reader and its brilliant solution of focusing on the bits that you remember (or mis-remember). Sadly O’Farrell ignores this important observation and attempts a factually accurate re-telling with some humour thrown in, largely in the form of snatches of jokey-blokey dialogue which feel like out-takes from a sub-Blackadder sitcom. This becomes wearisome fairly quickly and the result is a volume which for all its good intentions is almost as long and dull as the history textbooks it is drawn from.

Nov 2008
Mencius - tr. D.C. Lau - Penguin Classics, 1970
* * *
Congratulations if you know who Mencius is, because I certainly didn’t, despite his importance in the development of Chinese political thought. He was a travelling sage and follower of Confucius who lived during the Warring States period and advised the kings of the time. The book is a record of his sayings and stories, and is essentially a primer on how to be a benevolent despot.

In contrast to some of his contemporaries, Mencius believed that human beings possess “heart” which makes them innately predisposed to civilised (“gentlemanly”) behaviour, but that this tendency can be squelched by hostile social conditions. The purpose of a good ruler, therefore, was to set social policies so as to ensure that people’s natural kindness could be expressed. His influence has been immense; all China’s regimes since have espoused this aim. Though the current one may not be so keen on his notion that rulers who failed to promote benevolence could be legitimately deposed.

An interesting read, though perhaps not in this edition which fails to explain adequately the history, geography and personalities of Mencius’ world, nor the principles of Confucianism on which his philosophy is based.

Dec 2008
Wintersmith - Terry Pratchett - Corgi, 2007
* * *
It is interesting that Pratchett has redirected his “Witches” sequence of Discworld novels into the young adult genre, possibly because their rural setting is less amenable to the technology upgrades that drive the development of his other series. His solution is the bildungsroman of Tiffany Aching, a witch of implausibly tender age who can generate new stories by the simple expedient of growing up. Here, as a young teenager, she gives in to her hormones and rebelliously joins the Dark Morris dance, a ritual that powers the seasons. Which turns out to be a bad idea, because in doing so she attracts the attention of the Wintersmith, the spirit of the season. And when an elemental who only knows about ice and snow starts to take an interest in you, things can get out of hand.

The result is a book with some nice ideas but less interest for an adult reader than Pratchett’s other novels. The MacFeegles, Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax all do their music-hall turns, there is an interesting new take on witchcraft (Miss Treason and her boffo) and a good wintry atmosphere. But somehow it all feels a little dumbed down.
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Apr 2007
Monstrous Regiment - Terry Pratchett - Corgi, 2006
* * * *
The presence of Samuel Vimes (albeit in a cameo) indicates that this is another of Pratchett’s “serious” novels, and it is more so than most. The theme - wars and why people fight them - is clearly something that he cares deeply about, which explains the unusual length (500 pages) and the greater focus on the main characters. The result is as close to a great satirical novel as Pratchett has ever got, so it is a shame that the plot hinges almost entirely upon a comedy cliché taken to a ridiculous extreme.
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02 Jul 06
Thud! - Terry Pratchett - Doubleday, 2005
* * *
Of the Discworld books, those starring Samuel Grimes and the Ankh Morpork city watch are in general the ones I enjoy least. My main problem is with Grimes himself, who unlike other Pratchett protagonists is grim, cynical and largely humourless. His positive qualities - loyalty, tactical nous and an understanding of human nature - make for a good generic fantasy hero but do not readily lend themselves to the lead in a comic novel. Pratchett clearly understands this himself because the city watch books are noticeably different from the rest of the Discworld oeuvre, with more overt satirical mapping of real world issues and fewer laugh-out-loud one-liners. They are less silly but also less fun. Most of the Discworld books make me laugh out loud; the city watch novels, at best, raise the occasional smile.

Which is not to say that they are without merit. Having a protagonist who is recognisably an analogue to a real-world police chief allows Pratchett to examine weightier social issues than would be possible with magically-endowed protagonists such as Rincewind or Granny Weatherwax, and in Thud! he tackles the problems of violence caused by tension between ethnic groups. Similar ground to White Teeth, in fact, but from a totally different perspective.
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14 May 2005
Going Postal - Terry Pratchett - Doubleday 2004
* * * * *
All right, Ms Clarke, Mr Mieville, listen up - this is how to create a convincing and likeable fantasy world. First, spend over twenty years doing it. Second, be prolific (this is the 33rd Discworld book). Third, make it funny. Fourth, when it starts to go stale, liven it up by letting technology and social institutions evolve. Fifth, think through the way in which said institutions work so that they can model and satirise their real-world equivalents. Sixth, have a wise and humane view of human nature that recognises both its nice and its nasty aspects. Seventh, make sure it has a postal system.

Okay okay, I'm overstating the case - as a real place the discworld is not particularly convincing, though it is extremely likeable. But as a third generation member of a Post Office family (my grandfather was co-inventor of the speaking clock and brought television to the Midlands, my father was an assistant director in charge of capital expenditure and my brother, though now outsourced, still helps to maintain its IT infrastructure), there was no way that I wasn't going to like this book. Though it helps that this is one of the better recent Discworld comic novels (which have tended to the novelistic than the comical), and that its theme, which is how to be a good Captain of Industry, is both interesting in itself and ripe for satire.
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