Terry Pratchett: Fact and Fantasy

Snuff - About Dickensian London

Dodger – About Dickensian London

Those of you who regularly follow this blog will know that I don’t generally write book reviews. In fact I subscribe to the view that it’s very difficult for a writer to review a book as a reader might.

However, partly because I want to carry on with the daily blogging, and partly through self-interest (as one of my most visited posts this year is a book review) I’m going to try and write a few on the blog in 2014. I want to concentrate on books where I have no connection to the author – those people I have met through the blog or who I have beta-read for – because I read those books differently. I don’t enjoy them less (probably more, actually) but I’m usually too close to be objective.

But books I’ve picked up at the library, or authors I’ve read for years, well I’ll happily pass on any observations that occur to me and we’ll see how it goes. I suspect it will be more a ramble than a review, such is my style! As a happy coincidence I’ve just finished two books by my favourite author of all time, Terry Pratchett, so that’s a good place to start.

Of the two books – Snuff, A Discworld novel, and Dodger – Snuff was by far the most enjoyable for me. I’ll admit I may not even have read Dodger if I’d bothered to check the blurb and seen that it wasn’t a Discworld novel. I’m glad I did read it, even though it was a struggle to finish, because it made me appreciate Snuff all the more. I also discovered that it isn’t just Terry Pratchett I love, but Fantasy as a genre; particularly his form of Fantasy.

Dodger is set in 19th Century London and includes characters such as Charles Dickens, Disraeli (former UK Prime Minister) and Henry Mayhew (a nineteenth-century English social researcher), based on their real life counterparts. One can then easily imagine that the lead protagonist is meant to be the model for the Artful Dodger and the story feels more about showing the inspiration for Dickens as a writer (at one point Dodger finishes his soup and asks for more), than exploring Dodger as a character, or what it really meant to live in Nineteenth-Century London.

For me, the novel lacked Pratchett’s usual flair for appealing characters, suspense-driven plot or great humour and dialogue. I struggled to finish it even though, as a super fan, I really wanted to like it. The novel felt like a vehicle for some ideas that had been bubbling in the author’s brain, that were then shoe-horned into a story. Or *shudder* like an Eighteenth-Century Bildungsroman novel, like Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. The book seemed to try too hard to be clever, with the references to historical figures and real places. But I may be biased in this view because, when it comes to blending fact and fiction in a novel, I hate it.

I consider myself something of a reluctant historian, as a result of doing both A Level and Degree History, despite discovering a real love for English Literature that resulted in me switching camps in my third year and then for my Masters. As a result I find historical fiction to be too much stuck in both camps. Do I suspend disbelief, as a reader and student of fiction, or do I concentrate on the factual representation, as a Historian? When I read books like this, I find the urge to check details and constantly ask “Is that true?” Or I feel ignorant for not knowing what is and isn’t historical fact.

Snuff - A Discworld Novel

Snuff – A Discworld Novel

Give me allegorical fantasy any day. Because the beauty of the Discworld novels is that they are also based on our society, albeit one that is viewed through some twisted prism (as a former Insurance Manager, the introduction of Inn-sewer-ants in Colour of Magic remains one of my favourites). Quirm for example is based on France, with it’s avec food and it’s rue de Wakening (read it out loud). Some of the best laugh out loud moments are due to recognising the parody, but the stories work without it and therefore don’t make you feel stupid.

That said, I found Snuff harder going than previous Discworld novels, and a bit darker and more heavy handed in the social commentary, focussing as it does on the race of Goblins, and whether they are considered sapient beings or vermin. This might be evidence of an author who despairs of the world, but it’s the social commentary in all the books that makes them so brilliant and poignant.

Samuel Vimes – the lead protagonist in Snuff – is a wonderfully complicated protagonist. Having read all the Discworld novels, I feel I have tracked his progress from a mere Captain of the Watch in Guards! Guards! to Commander Vimes, Sir Samuel, Duke of Ankh, married to Lady Sybil (also a brilliant character) in this book. Alongside my other favourite Discworld character, Granny Weatherwax, Vimes is fascinating for his level of self-awareness and his inner turmoil. Both are characters who battle with personal demons constantly and defeat the bad guys because they know (or at least fear) they’re no different underneath.

Although it took longer to get going, once I was immersed in the story I was swept along to the finish. Some of it was a little predictable (when you’ve read eight or nine books featuring the same character you do learn how they work) but being allowed inside Vimes’ head as he battled his past and his instincts resonated with me. Powerful, brave stuff.

Terry Pratchett has a writing style that doesn’t spell anything out. The nuances are there for the alert, and sometimes that can be frustrating (when you’re not alert, running on a few hours’ sleep!) As a writer, though, I feel it’s an important lesson in treating the reader as someone smart or, as one of my writing books puts it, Resisting the Urge to Explain (RUE). It also means you can interpret the characters and their actions, and be left wondering if you really know them all that well (particularly a character like Vetinari, the tyrant of Ankh-Morpork).

I find the Discworld novels always stay with me after I’ve finished them, with questions and challenges and difficult subjects (something I didn’t feel at all with Dodger). Snuff may not have been up there with the best, but it was still a rollicking good read. Bring on Raising Steam!

Lessons from The Wee Free Men: 2013 365 Challenge #119

Lessons to be Learned

Lessons to be Learned

I finished rereading The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett today and it was wonderful to realise it lost nothing on a second (possibly third) reading. In fact, since I’ve had a daughter of my own, I think the book has changed and grown in significance. It’s up there in the books I’d like my daughter to read as she comes into an awareness of herself.

If you don’t know Terry Pratchatt’s Discworld novels, they are based in a world that’s like a warped mirror of our own, with magic in place of science and technology. Witches hold a special place in the world: they are both central and outside life, revered and feared in equal measure. As their greatest witch – Granny Weatherwax – puts it, they guard the Edges between Dark and Light, Good and Evil, Life and Death. They have First Sight and Second Thoughts. They see what’s really there. Above all, they’re cool. I love them.

Granny Weatherwax is possibly one of the greatest characters ever invented. She gets inside your head and makes you question everything. (If you want to see Granny at her finest, read Carpe Jugulum.)

The Wee Free Men isn’t about Granny, it’s about Tiffany: a nine-year-old girl who lives on a farm on the Chalk, makes cheese and minds are younger brother. She also has First Sight and Second – even Third – Thoughts. And she has to rescue her brother from the Fairy Queen, even though she doesn’t like him very much. I won’t go into the story, just recommend you read it in words much better than mine.

My reason for writing about it here is to explain why I think it’s a must-read for any little girl (or boy possibly) coming to a sense of herself: It explores the voices that exist inside a person’s head, and the difficulty of understanding which of the many voices is Me.

Tiffany is the kind of girl who sits just outside life, watching. The Discworld Witches always are. And Terry Pratchett says That’s okay. In our society, the people in the kitchen at parties – the ones not drinking or joining in, the ones just observing – are a little bit wrong. They are considered aloof, boring, shy, weird, cold. I know because I am that person And all those labels have been applied to me. I’ve been ridiculed for not wanting to get drunk, for not letting go.

There has always been a little voice in my head that watches me and comments on my behaviour. It’s hard to get drunk and be silly when there’s a sober person in your head telling you what a pratt you’re making of yourself. As a result I don’t often drink and I’m rarely the one telling jokes. At my last place of work, and in many other situations in my life, that has meant almost complete exclusion. It’s not a nice place to be, feeling like a freak or someone who didn’t get the memo on how to have fun.

Growing up I read endlessly to live in my own world. I read Sweet Valley High and Lord of the Rings, Famous Five and Mills and Boon. Romance and action/adventure. For some reason ‘thinking’ books – what might be called literary books – didn’t come my way. I don’t know why, although I often feel the need to apologise for it, as if a ten-year-old can control the books they’re exposed to. So I read nothing that told me that having a cacophony of voices in my head was okay, was normal, whatever that is.

What The Wee Free Men explores is the notion that it’s okay to be different. That people who sit outside the group and watch – who listen to the voices in their heads – are the kind of people who speak up for things without a voice, who save the day, even if no one acknowledges it. They are strong people who won’t be beaten. I suspect my daughter may grow up to be a girl who watches, one who doesn’t follow the pack. I want her to know that’s okay. I think she’ll learn that from this book.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog: [Warning today’s post contains strong language.]

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The car felt warm and comforting after the chill of Lavender Farm and the unexpected encounter. Claire looked across at Sky eating her ice cream; her face still showed red mottling from crying, but her eyes were calm. Kids are amazing. I’d still be crying now, if that wanker was my father. She could see her niece’s eyes were heavy and thought a sleep in the car would do her good.

Claire programmed in the SatNav and reached forwards to attach it to the windscreen. Movement in the rear-view mirror caught her eye: It was Chris. She tried to ignore his gestures, but his demeanour dragged her attention. He looked as if he was signalling for her to come out the car by herself. Intrigued – and not unwilling to go and give him a piece of her mind away from listening ears – Claire sat back in the seat and dramatically slapped her forehead.

“Sorry, Sky. I just remembered I left my mobile phone in the shop. Will you be alright here in the car for a moment, if I just run in and get it?”

Sky looked across with fear in her eyes and Claire’s stomach lurched. I really shouldn’t leave her alone, after the shock she’s had. I can hardly take her with me and use all the words I want to use though.

“How about if I lock the doors? I’ll be back before you finish your ice cream.”

After a moment, Sky nodded tentatively and pushed down the button on the door next to her. Sky reached over and locked the others, making sure she had the keys in her hand before she left the car.

It felt good to stalk over to the man who had broken her sister and niece’s hearts. Words of heat and wrath built like fire in her throat. She felt tempted to start shouting before she reached him, but he stood with his arms at his side and his head low. I want to look in his eyes and see that he’s hearing me. Besides, if I start screaming like a fishwife across the car park, Sky might hear.

She stopped three feet away from him, arms folded. Let him start. I want to hear what the bastard has to say to excuse his behaviour. Silence stretched and Claire ached to fill it with hot words. Somehow she knew the quiet was hurting Chris more, so she maintained eye contact and waited for him to speak.

“I had no choice.” His words fell between them, as if he’d pushed them out with effort.

“Bollocks. Everyone has a choice.”

“I…” He stopped and ran his hand through his hair. Claire noticed it was thinner than it used to be. “I wanted it to work. With Ruth. And Sky. And I loved them both, really. But Ruth –”

Suddenly Claire didn’t want to hear it. She’d only ever heard Ruth’s side of the story; honesty compelled her to confess that might have been skewed. Her body language must have given her away because Chris reached out a hand, before letting it drop once more to his side.

“Don’t go. Hear me out, please. Maybe you can help Sky, a little. I saw the pain I caused her.”

“Then why did you reject her? Not stay in touch? Run off with her fucking ballet teacher.” It felt good to shout at this weak man standing before her. To swear with precision and relish and watch him flinch as the truth struck him like pellets of ice.

“Because I wanted to be a Dad more than anything!” The words came out in a rush. “And Ruth wouldn’t let me. Sky was her precious daughter. From the minute she was born it was her and Sky. There was no room for me. She wouldn’t let me do anything – feed her, bathe her – I was barely allowed to touch her. Then, when she started school, Ruth became paranoid something was going to happen to her. I don’t know what she thought would happen. She went almost crazy with it.”

He stopped. Whether because he had run out of words, or because he realised telling Claire her sister was crazy was not perhaps the best move, wasn’t clear.

“Then I met Bryony. She understood. She taught Sky, knew how clingy Ruth was. I asked her for advice, initially. Then we got talking and, well. You know the rest. We have a little girl of our own now, and she’s mine.

“Sky’s still your daughter.” Claire didn’t know what else to say. She didn’t want to feel sympathy for this man. She didn’t want him to have a reason that made sense. She just wanted him to hurt and be sorry.

“Ruth didn’t want me to stay in touch. She said it would be better just the two of them. I send Sky birthday cards and Christmas cards but I don’t know if they get to her.” He inhaled deeply and wiped his hand across his face as if rubbing away the pain. “She’s looking well. I’m glad to see you taking her out in the world. Ruth keeps her too close. Sky doesn’t need me.”

Claire tried to think before speaking, to decide what to do, to interpret how she felt. Despite her best efforts, she could relate to what Chris had said. It wasn’t a stretch of the imagination to see Ruth in that role. Their own parents had been so distant and uncaring, it seemed highly plausible that Ruth wouldn’t want to let Sky out of her sight. She turned and looked back at the car, but couldn’t see inside.

“I have to go, Sky will wonder where I am. Try again, Chris. Try harder. Ruth…” She inhaled, then made a decision. “Ruth’s sick. Real sick. Sky might have need of you. Don’t make her an orphan if it comes to that.”

She watched as all the blood drained from Chris’s face, much as it had from Sky’s earlier, and felt a certain satisfaction. Digging into her purse, Claire retrieved a business card and held it out to Sky’s father. He looked into her eyes as if trying to understand her actions, then took the card and held it without looking at it.

“If you need to reach me, or want to speak to Sky – at least for the next week – you have my number. We’re staying in Hunstanton for the weekend.”

Before he could say anything, find an excuse or backtrack, Claire turned and strode back to the car, her heartbeat hammering loudly in her ears.

***

 

Maurice and Man-Flu: 2013 365 Challenge #104

Poorly Little Martin

Poorly Little Martin

Today is a day when I wish I’d done less cleaning on my last nursery day and remained a Claire post ahead. Because – although the clean house is nice – Family Martin has Man-Flu.

All of us.

We’ve never ALL been struck down simultaneously before. I’ve had to write drug distribution on the chalk board because my brain is fuddled. It hasn’t been divide and conquer so much as Divide and Survive.

Still, being the heroic one who took the kids to the Farm – after a quiet morning and some calpol meant they were too full of beans to be indoors – I got to go back to bed mid afternoon and finish my book. The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents. A marvellous book. I love Terry Pratchett. I love the sophistication of his world building and the insidious nature of his social commentary.

This children’s Discworld novel discusses morality and religion in a way that hasn’t affected me since Granny Weatherwax in Carpe Jugulum. I’m not very good at reviewing books because I can’t tiptoe around spoilers (and I hate spoilers). All I’ll say is this is a book I really hope my children read, as it approaches philosophical questions of what makes me me; ideas and beliefs, shadows and darkness, in an accessible and compelling way. It also deals with Stories: what constitutes a story, the difference between stories and the real world, including a ‘real world’ rather than ‘fairy tale’ ending. Terry Pratchett at his best.

I don’t think it gives anything away to include this quotation, which I believe encapsulates what religion should be about (as someone who isn’t particularly religious):

If there is a Big Rat [God], and I hope there is, it would not talk of war and death. It would be made of the best we could be, not the worst that we are. No, I will not join you, liar in the dark. I prefer our way. We are silly and weak, sometimes. But together we are strong. You have plans for rats? Well, I have dreams for them.

Love it.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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“Auntie Claire, look!”

Claire turned her head at the unexpected sound of Sky giggling. After an hour moaning in the car that the iPad battery was flat and twenty minutes of shoe shuffling and whining in the queue, Claire had forgotten that her niece could laugh. The decision to come to Merrivale Model Village already seemed a bad one, and they’d only been inside ten minutes.

We should have done Sea Life. I could have bought a coffee and left her to it knowing she couldn’t damage anything. If I leave her in here she’ll probably trample on the exhibits or start playing with them. Seeing her niece still waving and jiggling up and down, Claire swallowed a sigh and went to investigate.

“What is it, Sky?”

“Look!” She pointed at the scene in front of them. “That little woman is…” she lowered her voice to a whisper that probably carried to the edge of the village, “showing her boobies! See?”

Claire peered at the tiny model people. Oh god. There’s a half-naked woman being arrested at a football match. Seriously? Don’t these people know kids come here?

As if confirming Claire’s worst fears, Sky took a deep breath and said, too loudly, “why is she showing her boobies, Claire? What are the policemen doing? Did someone steal her clothes?”

Looking round wildly for assistance or guidance, all Claire could see were other parents trying not to smile. Avoiding eye contact, Claire wrapped her arm around Sky’s shoulder. “Don’t talk so loud, darling.”

“Why not?” Sky’s voice would have filled the O2 Arena.

“Other people are trying to enjoy their afternoon out, that’s all.” She hoped her niece had forgotten the interrogation about the streaker, but she was out of luck.

“Why didn’t she have a top on? Was she sunbathing? Sometimes Mummy sunbathes without her top on in the garden.”

“Um. I’m not sure. Why don’t we go and look at the train? Or the high street?” She pulled at her niece’s hand and led her away from the traitorous football match.

“Oh, look Sky, the hospital, let’s go there.”

The Whys didn’t stop: It turned out the hospital was full of realistic details, like some poor man having his leg sawn off. “Why are they cutting his leg, Claire? Is he poorly?” Then, “Why is there smoke coming from that house? Is it on fire? Why haven’t the firemen put it out?” Even the castle let Claire down. “Why does the princess have a pointy hat, Claire?” Unable to remember whether it was called a wimple or a hennin, Claire once more resorted to her stock phrase, “I don’t know, darling,” all the while cursing the quirky nature of the model village.

I guess you have to have a sense of humour to run a place like this. Claire looked at the Boggitt and Scarper builder’s sign and the Lord Help Us Hall and smiled. How much time does it take to put all these people in position? If you couldn’t have a laugh you’d go bonkers. Claire read a tiny sign declaring, “Keep off Grass, Guard Ducks Patrol this Garden, Survivors will be Prosecuted,” and laughed out loud. Maybe the sick humour is to keep the adults amused. God knows it must be boring to be a parent at a place like this. Or anywhere.

She tried to tune out the Whys, but discovered if she didn’t answer quickly enough, Sky’s voice became louder and more shrill. As the question was usually one Claire didn’t want to hear echoing amongst the milling families she had to respond swiftly and with detail. ‘I don’t know, sweetheart,’ had apparently lost its effectiveness.

Claire felt drained and defeated, as if she’d been wrangling in a Board Meeting for two hours, rather than wandering with a six-year-old for twenty minutes. In desperation she gazed round the site, longing for something safe to distract Sky’s inquisitive mind. She caught sight of a sign and her heart lifted.

“Oh look, Sky: A Penny Arcade, why don’t we go there?”

“What’s an arcade?”

Claire thought about the rare visits to Uncle Jim when she was Sky’s age. He would take his nephew and nieces to the amusement arcades, a bag of tuppences hanging heavy in their pockets, gleaming highlights in their eyes knowing their parents would definitely not approve. They would gorge themselves on candy floss and stand at the machines for hours, feet welded to the sticky floor, the smell of cigarette smoke in their nostrils from Uncle Jim’s rolling tobacco.

With her mind and heart full of happy memories, Claire shone a sparkling grin at Sky.

“You’re in for a real treat.”

***