Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Terry Pratchett, Snuff

terry pratchett snuff

I know I've been tormenting you with only positive reviews recently.  I promise to supply an exception to this trend soon, as the book I'm reading at the moment is already showing some signs of bad literaturiosis, but first I have some catching up to do. 

Today's review will be full of worshipful admiration.  No, don't run yet, Snuff really deserves it. 

I'd better say it sooner rather than later - I believe Terry Pratchett is the most talented writer of our times (and possibly ever, goddamnit!).  I know his Discworld novels almost by heart, I fall asleep to the sound of his audiobooks pretty much every night and I still haven't had enough.  Language is Sir Terry's obedient doggie - it does tricks for him, runs errands and does anything the Big Man wants of it.  Unbelievable.  I can read his books again and again and every time I find something new - a new joke, new double-meaning or comic reference.  It's like mining for gold, which can last for years without bringing the mine any nearer to exhaustion. 

Pratchett is the only author in the whole wide world whose books I'm collecting.  Usually I'm a big fan of libraries and similar institutions - I see no point in spending substantial (for my means) amount of money for a book that will be read once and then collect dust on the shelf for years to come.  Most books fall into this category - they can be unbelievably enjoyable to read, but once you're through, you don't want to read them until you totally forget the storyline.  Terry Pratchett's prose is different.  It's a bit like puzzle solving - decoding yet another reference brings me as much joy as cracking a difficult crossword, only it's far funnier.  I could go on (and probably will, at some other time), but since it's a review of Snuff, not Pratchett's profile, it's high time to focus on the book itself.

If you know the Discworld, please skip the following paragraph - it's meant for the uninitiated and you'll be bored to tears.

Imagine a flat disc, situated on top of four elephants, which, in turn, rest on top of a giant turtle travelling through space.  A world like that simply must be suffused with magic and peopled not only by humans, but other intelligent races as well - dwarfs, trolls, vampires, werewolves, elves, pixies (or, in this particular case, pictsies), bogeymen, golems, orcs, medusas and many more.  Snuff is about goblins.  Well, mostly goblins.  It is also about Commander Vimes, a lifelong copper, going on holidays.  Now, what happens if a policeman takes some time off?  According to the ancient Murphy's Law, crime happens (although this particular copper is more relieved than vexed by this occurrence).  What follows is a criminal story worth of Agatha Christie, set in a magical environment and full of intelligent, semi-cynical sense of humour. I'm not sure if it's a good book to start a Pratchett adventure with - after all it's number 39th on the list and Discworld books are chronologically organised, but if you were to read just one (which is highly unlikely), Snuff is as good as any other.  And since you'll be wanting to read it again and again, you can just as well buy it...

Now back to serious Pratchett fans.  First, let me share my joy and excitement - UAAAUAUAUAUAUA, SNUFF IS OUT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  Finally!!!  I've been counting the days down for months (but, ironically, forgot all about it just before release day and run to the bookshop two weeks later).  I got it, I've read it, I love it. 

Snuff is a Vimes novel (note how I'm NOT saying 'city watch novel' - there's very little of other watchmen and virtually no city).  Some years have passed since events described in Thud.  Commander Vimes has become a worldwide symbol of justice and good coppering.  Sybil, with only a hint of suggestion from Lord Vetinari, decides it's high time for Young Sam (aged six) to learn that food doesn't grow in shops and declares family holidays in the countryside. 
Obviously, Vimes is not too comfortable with such a turn of events.  What, no cobbled streets under his feet? Nobody shouting 'It's one o'clock and all is well'?  And, above all, no crime???
Here, at least,the Commander may soon breathe a sigh of relief.  Crime happens and happens big time (and I'm hereby done with plot spoilers).
You also get closer look at goblins, Quirm, and Young Sam's fascination with poo.
What you don't get - and it is a big surprise, since this character had until now appeared in pretty much every Discworld novel (I need to double check if I can delete 'pretty much' bit) - is Death. 

As classically Pratchett-y as it gets.

Kurt Vonnegut, Armageddon in Retrospect

kurt vonnegut armageddon in retrospect

I was going to start this post by comparing Kurt Vonnegut to Pepsi.  As in - big, recognizable brand, high quality product etc.  Then I thought - no, Pepsi is not a good idea, too much pop culture and too little class.  I'd need to settle for a more elegant beverage, coffee perhaps.  Trouble is, I don't really know any extra posh, generally recognizable brand of coffee (apart from the one procured from cat shit, but I'm not going to compare anyone I like to THAT).  Moral of the story is that I'm not really good in drink metaphors.

I've never met a book by Vonnegut that I didn't like.  I've read quite a lot of them, years ago, and I remember them as funny, enjoyable and as far from sugar-sweet as physically possible (which is the number one compliment on my list).  His writings are dark, rather pessimistic and sometimes heavy like hell, but they read like a dream and make you laugh.  I never could stop myself from reading bits aloud to people around me - they were so good I simply HAD TO share them (besides, if you roll on the floor with laughter and don't tell anyone why, people tend to look at you in a weird way - consider yourself warned).  So yeah, when Armageddon in Retrospect landed on my shelf, I was quite looking forward to the moment when I could finally give it some attention. 

By the time I had reached page 5, I laughed out loud more than ten times.  This doesn't happen very often, and it hardly ever happens when I'm reading foreword.  This particular preface was written by Vonnegut's son  (because Armageddon in Retrospect was published after Kurt Vonnegut's death) and - call me a heretic if you want - it was the best part of the book.  What followed was far more serious. 

Armageddon in Retrospect consists of thirteen brief pieces, mostly short stories, but also a letter to his family and a transcription of a speech.  The book is described as 'writings on war and peace' and indeed most of the stories are set in WWII background, but Vonnegut doesn't spend much time commenting on war itself.  He writes about people who are forced to live and survive in wartime and while you may say it boils down to the same thing, I liked this subtle shift of focus. 

The stories themselves are unsettling.  Happy end doesn't really apply.  Not that they end badly - Vonnegut is simply too close to depicting the reality as it is to make use of such an illusive concept.  Black and white rarely show up in real life and it's highly gratifying to see this mirrored in literature.  Bombing of Dresden comes up in more than one story (Vonnegut survived this catastrophe), so if you liked Slaughterhouse-Five, you can expect to enjoy Armageddon just as much. 

I surely enjoyed it immensely.  I gulped the book down in about three hours, which gives you two important bits of information:

1.  Armageddon in Retrospect is quite a short book, 232 pages of rather large print interspersed with graphics (well, some people are REALLY scared of thick volumes).

2.  The book is damn hard to put down.  Can I recommend it better than that?

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Robert Rankin, Apocalypso

Robert Rankin Apocalypso

I came across Robert Rankin when I was about 13 years old. That means 'a long time ago'. More than a decade ago, to be precise. I wish I could tell you which book I read then, what was the story like, and many other joyous pieces of information that come handy when you're standing in front of a bookshop/library shelf deciding what to choose. Unfortunately, I can't remember a thing.

Mind you, that was more than a decade ago. I can say many glorious things about my 13-year-old self but 'the best literary critic in the world' wouldn't be one of them.

For reasons that have nothing to do with this review, I've spent a lot of time in front of the sci-fi shelf during my last library hunt. Lo and behold, there was Robert Rankin's ApocalypsoSome long-forgotten warm note chimed in my book-filled brain and soon enough there I was, installed snugly in my bed and reading away.

Robert Rankin surely is a comic writer - pretty much every single sentence has 'funny' written all over it. But the type of funny that comes as a bit of a shock, especially if you happen to read him right after anything by Terry Pratchett (like me). After the initial shock wore off, I actually started to enjoy it quite well, although I will probably never again call Rankin's prose 'the most hilarious thing ever written'. We live and learn.

There are bum jokes. There's lots and lots and lots of bum jokes, followed closely by wanking jokes and... Well, that really says it all. THAT'S the type of humour you're getting. Even if it starts with something innocent, a newspaper perhaps or a rubber duck, you can rest assured that there will be a willy somewhere by the end of the page. Apparently, British public loves that kind of jokes (can I hereby ask the British public not to burn me at the stake if the rumour proves to be false?), and although Rankin lacks the absolute genius of Monty Pythons, he's ok once you get used to him. I believe that by the end of the book my laughter outburst actually grew quite loud.

Bum jokes aside, what else you're getting with Robert Rankin's Apocalypso? Predictable, although quite pleasant, plot, following all the rules of light science fiction. Interesting, if not popular, theories about governments (which I believe are mostly true, especially those concerning drugs - read the book if you want to know more), served in light and funny sauce. Numerous alliterations, and I KNOW there are people out there who love this type of word play.

Overall you get pleasant, funny, to-be-quickly-devoured example of comic science fiction and for that alone the book deserves recommendation.