Sunday, July 24, 2022

Equal Rites - Terry Pratchett

A major new Pratchett biography is coming out in the Autumn (Rob Wilkins 'A Life With Footnotes') and on the back of that Penguin have been throwing copies of Pratchett's novels at Booksellers like confetti (or possibly half bricks in socks). In my case 'Equal Rites' landed unexpectedly in my letter box and I read it again for maybe the first time in 30 years.

I had a big Pratchett phase in my mid to late teens, and for a couple of years would buy those books in hardback as they came out - if memory serves they cost around £16 then - they'd cost less now and never mind inflation, which tells me something about how much I must have enjoyed them back in the day, but by my early twenties I'd lost interest in the discworld and moved on. I sold my copies of Pratchett along with my Douglas Adams and Robert Rankins - I've occasionally regretted not having The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy to hand, but otherwise, it was the right decision. 

I thought there was no such thing as Young Adult literature when I was a teen, but 'Equal Rites' has made me rethink that. Who were these books aimed at if not students who had grown up with 'The Lord of the Rings' being read to them, and watched if not read Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonja? These were books that delighted sixth formers and undergraduates everywhere. They must also have appealed to a few older readers ready to have gentle fun poked at a beloved genre, and now to older readers who enjoy the nostalgia of them, but to me, they were as Monty Python had been to the generation before me. 

It took me roughly four hours to read 'Equal Rites' last night. I vaguely remember how disappointed I used to be at how quickly I could race through these books when I was 16, now it's a bonus (but this time it didn't cost me what would have seemed like a good days wages). It's still funny, I still enjoy the way that Pratchett built his world and his delight in words, wordplay, and puns is a wonderful thing, but the reasons I stopped reading him are still there too.

As a teen, he introduced me and my circle to all sorts of ideas about social justice in easy-to-understand chunks. He threw in a whole lot of stuff about philosophy, religion, history, politics, and popular culture too, all of it perfect for discussing in a sixth-form common room, but eventually there's a lack of depth to it that made the idea of following 40+ books feel exhausting. A little Pratchett can go a long way.

That said, I'm starting on the copy of  'Guards! Guards!' that was floating around the staffroom just for the fun of the wordplay (and because Grimes boot theory is possibly Pratchett's greatest moment) and it's good to get reacquainted with this particular old friend. These are serious times, and after a depressing episode of listening to the news, there's no better antidote than a writer with Terry Pratchett's kindness and humour. There's a hopefulness about 'Equal Rites' that was even a match for listening to Liz Truss be interviewed. I need that right now, as I think perhaps a lot of us do. 

Thursday, July 21, 2022

The Queen of Nothing - Holly Black

I didn't mean to take a 2-week break from blogging but it's taken me longer than I hoped to recover from covid, and that mixed with work, the record-breaking heat this week, and writing thank you letters for wedding presents hasn't left me with much energy. Basically, I've been asleep for as much time as I possibly can be. 

My reading has been patchy as well; a lot of dipping in and out of things for work but none of them have really held me - which in bookseller speak is "I've just started this one and it's really good so far...". There are a whole lot of started books next to my bed which I really need to do something about - either finish or pass on, as much to get the space back as anything else. 

Holly Black's 'The Queen of Nothing' wasn't part of that pile, I actually read it when it first came out but never got round to writing about it. It was free on audible though so I listened to it again and remembered how much I liked it (I find it's a waste of time listening to books I haven't read, I don't take them in properly, and then struggle to read them because it all seems vaguely familiar).

As someone who doesn't read masses of fantasy or young adult fiction, I'm genuinely a fan of Holly Black's work. I love her world-building, the way she uses folklore and fairy tales, her characters, and I guess her morals for want of a better word. The Folk of the Air series was fun from start to finish, and though everything feels nicely resolved I'm quietly pleased to see there's a duology in the offing that picks up the story of a couple of the younger characters a few years down the line. 

In the very best fairy tale tradition our heroine Jude, the exiled Queen of Fairy fights monsters, breaks curses, finds a bit of magic for herself, and gets a happy ever after. She also gets the character development and growth that she missed out on in the second book - because crucially it was love interest/hero, Cardan who was doing all the growing up in that book. 

I don't want to give spoilers here even though the books been out for ages, but be assured that it's suitable reading for younger teens with adult themes but not too adult, well written, and the sort of thing that anybody might like - as long as they like fairytales. Holly Black has become one of my go-to's for when I'm feeling under the weather and want something absorbing but not heavy to lose myself in.

Thursday, July 7, 2022

The Three Dahlias - Katy Watson

It's been a full-on post covid week - back to work (exhausting, but not without its upsides) and an even more full-on week in politics which I've been glued to, but now the main excitement seems to be over it's maybe time to think about a nice calming book.

In this case, Katy Watson's The Three Dahlias which I managed to read whilst I had Covid and couldn't concentrate on much else. I thought it might be fun, and it really is, a book that for me delivered more than it promised. 

I don't much like contemporary cosy murder mysteries that set themselves in the Golden Age, with so far the single exception of Martin Edwards books I find they try too hard, and there are so many great actual golden age murder mysteries I don't want to mess around with imitations. What Katy Watson does is really cleverly take all the conventions, tropes, and cliches and bring them nicely up to date with all the affection for the originals I could ever want. 

The three Dahlias of the title refer to 3 actresses who have all played the fictional, fictional, character of Dahlia Lively - creation of Lettice Davenport, the one-time Princess of Poison, aristocratic writer, and mystery woman. There are references to Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, Daphne du Maurier (if you take Aldermere to be a sort of Menabilly), and I suspect if I hadn't been full of Covid I'd have recognised more. The Dahlias are Rosalind King, a national treasure who played the lady detective in 3 films in the 1980s, Caro Hooper a 40 something actress who had a 12 year run at her in the early 2000s but isn't known for anything else, and Posy Startling a washed-up child star with a bunch of scandals behind her trying for a comeback in a new film version.

There was a nice symmetry reading about fan reactions to the fictional script whilst the fuss about the new Netflix Persuasion was in full throttle. All 3 actresses find themselves at Aldermere, the country house where Lettice lived, and set her mysteries for a convention, initially they're not impressed with each other, but then someone goes missing and bodies start piling up. The first death might be an accident but it bears a startling resemblance to a Lettice Davenport plot, and the ladies are suspicious.

As the book progresses so does their friendship. They discover they were all being blackmailed, show their professional mettle in various non-murder-related ways, and settle down to use their combined knowledge of the people involved, observational skills, and Dahlia Lively channeling to solve the crime. The police are not impressed - which is one of the clever touches; Watson lets us in on the joke. 

The ending sets up a possible second adventure which I very much hope will come to pass. I'd also love to see this televised. The idea of 3 women of varied ages having fun with this plot on screen is a really delicious prospect. For lovers of classic crime, this is an affectionate homage with a nice twist that makes for an excellent light read. It's rich enough in detail to make me think I'd happily read it again to pick up more references. Altogether I really enjoyed it.