By Roald Dahl

Rating: 5 stars

Matilda was always one of my favourite Roald Dahl books as a child, and after seeing the musical recently (which is rather marvellous, by the way, and if you get the chance, you should go and see it), I was inspired to re-read the book. I’m very pleased that it holds up very well to adult reading, and still made me laugh as much as it did when I was young. It’s got the trademark Roald Dahl darkness as well, which is just delicious, most obviously in the character of Miss Trunchbull, but also in Matilda’s neglectful parents, who think that books are pointless and who fail to see anything special in Matilda herself.

A fantastic book, that well deserves its place in the canon.

Book details

ISBN: 9780140327595
Publisher: Puffin Books
Year of publication: 1988

Space Opera

By Catherynne M. Valente

Rating: 4 stars

I have very definite feelings about this book. I feel that I need to read it again before I come to any solid conclusions. This book was sold to me as a lightweight Eurovision-in-space. Instead, it starts as slightly poor Douglas Adams pastiche, settles into something very readable but occasionally not just punches you in the feels, but gives them wedgies and steals their lunch money.

Okay, so, yes, it is Space-Eurovision, with an annual galactic song contest to relieve tensions in the galactic community, with the added twist that to avoid recurrence of the sentience wars (in which we, who are People, want to kill you and take your stuff because we think that you are Meat) any newly discovered apparently sentient species has to prove their sentience by not coming last in the Galactic Grand Prix. That in itself is a fascinating idea, giving species the chance to prove themselves by moving the watching fans enough to not come last: to prove that you have and can create empathy.

I nearly didn’t get that far though. The first couple of chapters nearly put me right off. On a first read, they felt like the book was trying (and trying too hard) to be Hitchhikers, and that’s not an easy thing to do. The tone settled down after Decibel Jones, former Brit-pop glamgrinder and the one chosen, along with his band, to be the Last Best Hope for Earth, was introduced and I started to enjoy it a lot more. I get the feeling though, that upon rereading, those first chapters would probably resonate a lot more.

Neither Decibel, nor his bandmate, Oort St Ultraviolet, are particular likeable, but that’s sort of the point. They’ve been through the system, have been chewed up and spat out the other end. They’re damaged goods, struggling to cope without the third member of of the band, Mira Wonderful Star. They make the sort of mistakes and arguments that two people who love/hate each other would do and try their best not to get killed before the main event starts (Rule 20, it’s all about Rule 20).

And between all the glam, and the silliness and really weird alien species, Valante has a lot to say about us. About whether we deserve that last shot at all, about the sort of people we can be at our best, and at our worst.

So, what did I think? I think I need to read the book again. But until then, it left me with a lot to think about and a whole bunch of slightly bruised feels.

Book details

ISBN: 9781472115072
Publisher: Corsair
Year of publication: 2018

The Wee Free Men (Discworld, #30; Tiffany Aching, #1)

By Terry Pratchett

Rating: 4 stars

Another world is colliding with this one and nobody can or will do anything about it. Nobody, that is, except Tiffany Aching. Tiffany Aching who makes good cheese; who hits monsters in the face with a frying pan; and who has the First Sight and the Second Thoughts (much more useful than the other way around). With the help of the Nac Mac Feegle and a book on sheep diseases, Tiffany ventures into the other world to stop the Queen and to save her baby brother.

It’s been years since I first read this book and I had forgotten just how ‘witchy’ that Tiffany is right from the start of the series that begins with this book. A sensible girl who does what needs doing and who stands up to Granny Weatherwax.

For me, the Feegle are as much stars of this book as Tiffany. They could be a parody but in Pratchett’s hands they become more than that. They’re a wonderful creation (especially the swords that glow blue in the presence of lawyers) and a lot of fun.

There’s one line in particular that stands out as totemic of what Pratchett tries to invoke in all of us and which brought a lump to my throat: “Them as can do, has to do for them as can’t. And someone has to speak up for them as has no voices.” Pratchett reminds us with this single line what we’re like when we’re at our best and what we should strive to be.

Book details

Publisher: Corgi Childrens
Year of publication: 2003

Meddling Kids

By Edgar Cantero

Rating: 3 stars

I loved the elevator pitch for this book (basically: Enid Blyton meets H. P. Lovecraft). A group of Famous Five-esque teenage detectives grow up and go back to revisit their last case – it was just a guy in a mask, as always… wasn’t it?

I enjoy the story itself, but like other reviewers on GoodReads, I found the author’s literary ticks distracting. The occasional dropping into screenplay format and meta-textual awareness of being a piece of fiction grated and, for me, didn’t add anything to the story. I found the changes in format and sly winks at the reader distracting and they pulled me out of the story.

The story itself is enjoyable. I read a lot of Enid Blyton when I was young, and loved to see those tropes taken apart and re-examined here (with a bit of Scooby Doo thrown in), as well as the supernatural element. The characters felt real enough to keep me going, despite the author’s antics, with Andy, Kerri and Nate all being drawn well enough to be sympathetic despite their various flaws. Tim(my) the dog was my runaway favourite character though.

Book details

ISBN: 9781785658761
Publisher: Titan Books Ltd
Year of publication: 2017

Leave it to Psmith

By P.G. Wodehouse

Rating: 4 stars

As fond as I am of Wodehouse, I’ve managed to never encounter Psmith (the P is silent) before. However, he’s quickly introduced as a dapper young man, in need of employment (anything but fish) but with impeccable dress sense and a can-do attitude. It’s the usual Wodehouse froth, but with an extra layer of action on top. Involving a “borrowed” umbrella, impersonating poets, diamond necklaces and even a pair of crooks, Psmith gets stuck right into the middle of things, all while trying to avoid the watchful eye of the Efficient Baxter.

Wodehouse characters are charming caricatures. This book doesn’t change that at all, but it doesn’t need to. I already know and love the inhabitants of Blandings (yes, even Rupert Baxter) and Psmith fits right in, as he tries to woo the library cataloguer whilst trying to bring a happy ending for his old pal Jackson (with a little light theft thrown in for good measure).

As always, there are double-crossings, misunderstandings and improbably complex plots, all with lashings of Wodehouse’s trademark whimsy and humour. I know what I want from a Wodehouse book, and they invariably deliver. I’d happily leave my problems to Psmith.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841591254
Publisher: Everyman
Year of publication: 1923

Jingo (Discworld, #21)

By Terry Pratchett

Rating: 5 stars

There’s xenophobia in the air in Ankh-Morpork, and the old warmongers are dusting down their swords; it’s up to Commander Vimes of the Watch to sort things out. It’s been many years since I last read Jingo, and, to be honest, it’s depressing just how relevant it still feels. PTerry was far too prescient with this one, his Ankh-Morpork of this period feels very much like post-brexit Britain, but alas, we don’t have a Sir Samuel or a Lord Vetinari to swoop to our aid.

However, despite all that, PTerry never forgets the story, first and foremost. This is a great fun book, overflowing with wit and humour. It’s really the first time we get to spend some time with Lord Vetinari, and, I think, our introduction to Leonard of Quirm. Vimes is filled with the righteous anger that, well, makes him Vimes and Death makes his obligatory cameo. There’s also the Disorganizer, the Disc’s answer to a smartphone, with added confusion about universes, which I sort of love. It’s the constant cheerfulness of the thing, just trying to do its best in a world where people just don’t read the manual!.

I guess the constant freshness of the book is a reminder that war will probably always be with us. As long as there are people like Prince Cadram and Lord Rust and people willing to line up behind them and march for a nebulous thing like a flag, we’ll have conflict and ignorance. But I hope there will also be the Vetinaris, working quietly in the background to smooth things over and correct misunderstandings before they turn into something bigger.

Book details

Publisher: Corgi
Year of publication: 1997

The Fifth Elephant (Discworld, #24)

By Terry Pratchett

Rating: 4 stars

I haven’t read this book since the first time round, but a friend has been re-reading the Discworld books and suggested I give it another go. Re-reading it has reminded me what I disliked the first time round – Colon’s field-promotion and the Carrot/Angua angst – but also reminded me how good Sam Vimes is when he’s at his best.

There’s a new Low King of the Dwarves being crowned in Uberwald and the Patrician sends his Grace, the Duke of Ankh, aka Sam Vimes of the Watch, as his ambassador. But being Sam Vimes, he can’t keep his nose out of a crime, even when it’s as far off his turf as this. Soon he’s being sucked into politics that could have ramifications throughout the continent, and old, stale ideas are being brought kicking and screaming into the Century of the Fruitbat.

As I say, that’s good bit, Vimes getting stuck into a crime, failing to be diplomatic and generally being a clever bugger. The less good bits are much smaller in number, but obviously stuck with me. The idea of putting Colon in charge of the Watch has comedy gold written all over it, but it doesn’t feel that way, it just feels sad. It’s a perfect example of the Peter Principle, as acting-captain Colon relies on clamping down on the minutiae to cover his own incompetence. While the story moves back to the city more infrequently as the book goes on, it was enough to keep me away from it for years.

There were several of the little things that Pratchett is always so good at that I missed from before, from the name of Leonard’s deciphering machine to Vetinari’s desire for a code that is merely fiendishly difficult, not impossible, to crack.

The stuff with the dwarves and their lack of recognition of genders other than ‘dwarf’ felt a lot more smoothly handled here than it did in Raising Steam, and it was nice to see Cheery back, and the idea that freedom includes the freedom to not wear a dress resonates even more today.

So all in all, a better book than I remember. 3 1/2 from me, rounded up (Vimes’d go spare if I rounded down…)

Book details

ISBN: 9780552146166
Publisher: Corgi
Year of publication: 1999

Raising Steam (Discworld, #40)

By Terry Pratchett

Rating: 3 stars

The railway has come to the Discworld, and Lord Vetinari is determined to make it work for Ankh-Morpork, so he puts Moist von Lipwig in charge, and you don’t want to upset the Patrician, do you? One important thing to note is that this book has major callbacks to both Thud! and Snuff; which is a problem for me because it’s been many years since I read the former, and I’ve not read the latter at all. Still, with the help of the Internet I was able to paper over the cracks and make a decent stab at this.

Also, the politics are hardly subtle, really. Pratchett really gets out the mallet to hammer home the idea that no matter our size, shape and colour, we’re all just people, and those who think otherwise are deluding themselves. The message is a good one, but I feel it could have been delivered better. The plot thread with the deep dwarves also only felt tangentially related to the one about the trains, with the railway to Uberwald having to be completed in time to get the Low King home. Beyond that, the two strands were pretty separate.

The idea of the railway coming to the Disc also felt underused and almost crowbarred in. It didn’t feel as natural as the Post Office, or even the Royal Mint (although I did like the callback to Reaper Man, which is one of my favourite Discworld books). Moist was mostly around to deal with problems that the railway faced, without really being able to do much of his famous fast talking and double dealing. And I felt that Adora Belle Dearheart was criminally underused. Dick Simnel, the engineer with the Great Idea, is quite two-dimensional. We don’t get into his head much and his greatest attribute seems to be being from t’Yorkshire.

I was somewhat confused by the scene between Archchancellor Ridcully and Lu Tze. It seemed to be there, just to get in a couple of well-liked characters. I don’t feel that the scene added anything to the story that we didn’t also get elsewhere in the book.

I started reading Discworld in the early to mid period, when there were sparkling ideas on every page, and belly laughs as often. I don’t think this book made me laugh (well, snort) out loud until after page 100. I know that the style of the books changed as Pratchett got older (not to mention, the embuggerance) but humour has always been a hallmark of the Discworld, and these later books have done little for me because of its lack.

So a Worthy book with a good heart, but muddled and a bit preachy.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552170468
Publisher: Corgi
Year of publication: 2013

Moving Pictures (Discworld, #10)

By Terry Pratchett

Rating: 4 stars

It’s been ages since I read a Discworld novel and the urge came upon me recently to reread this, which I’ve not read in years. It’s got a number of firsts: it’s the first “Wizards” book, in that Ridcully is now Archchancellor and the faculty that we go on to know and love make their first appearance; and it’s the first appearance of Gaspode the Wonder Dog who would go on to pop up again a number of times.

The story is a pastiche on both the film industry in Hollywood and Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, as terrible things awake at Holy Wood Hill, when the last guardian dies and try to worm their way into our reality, via the medium of the clicks. It’s a lot of fun, and as funny as early period Pratchett should be, with more fun to be had playing spot-the-reference to both film and Lovecraft. It’s perhaps not the most memorable of Discworld novels, but there’s still a lot to enjoy, especially for more long-standing fans, who can see see favourite characters, including Detritus, in early roles.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552134637
Publisher: Corgi
Year of publication: 1990

Witches Abroad (Discworld, #12)

By Terry Pratchett

Rating: 4 stars

It’s been a long time since I’ve read this book. In fact, it’s been a long time since I’ve read any classic-period Discworld and going back to this was absolute joy. Although the witches aren’t my favourite characters, they’re still a lot of fun here. Pratchett often plays with narrative and the idea of stories in his novels and this one is the epitome of that. In the far-off city of Genua a servant girl will marry a prince. Well, she would if it wasn’t for the witches of Lancre, including her newly installed fairy godmother. Who says you can’t fight a Happy Ending?

The first half of the book is hilarious travelogue, as the witches make their way across the Disc to Genua, leaving chaos in their wake. Pratchett uses Granny Weatherwax to slyly poke fun at the British abroad but you’re so busy laughing that you almost don’t notice. The pace changes when we get to our destination. Then the idea of story comes much more to the fore, as Granny and co are trying to fight the idea of a Happy Ending, or, at least, someone’s idea of a Happy Ending.

I always loved mid-period Pratchett the most, before he started going for nuance and depth of character. Here, the witches are archetypes, but so cleverly drawn and placed in such a setting that it’s not important. And it’s still laugh out loud funny, rather than the odd chuckle or wry smile here and there. That’s always a key marker of a good Discworld novel for me – how much it makes me laugh, as well as think. These few years are the sweet spot when Pratchett was, as far as I’m concerned, at the height of his powers.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552134651
Publisher: Corgi
Year of publication: 1991

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