The Truth (Discworld #25) by Terry Pratchett

I remember, from when I was still living with my parents, my father laughing out loud while reading Discworld novels. This bothered my mother, who was reading something else, so she would scowl at him with a frown that said your reading rights end where mine begin. But he never could keep his composure. I read one or two books in the Discworld series myself, but our resident Pratchett expert is definitely Bella (you can find her review of another Discworld novel here). Because I considered becoming a journalist for a while, Bella recommended The Truth to me, the book in which William de Worde casually invents newspapers and investigative journalism. I still haven’t returned it to her, for which my excuse can now be that I was writing a review about it.

This story is the 25th in a series of books about ‘Discworld’, a fictional world inhabited by a host of colourful characters. The novels are set in different times and places and are about different characters, so they can easily be read independently, but they cross-reference quite a lot: main characters in one book might turn up as a supporting character in another, and occurences in one story are foreshadowed or talked about in the next. This particular story takes place in Ankh-Morpork, a metropolis where creatures from every corner end up, and starts with a spreading rumour that reaches the ears of William de Worde, the disgraced youngest son of a nobleman. He writes it down in his newsletter, which he sends to a few rich people who want to stay informed of the goings-on in the capital. From this humble beginning a series of events (the universe of Disc World is led by a peculiar sort of fate) provides William with a printing shop, employees and a novel idea: a real city newspaper.

With this improvised undertaking comes a realisation: you make news by putting something in a paper and calling it so. People will be equally interested in a picture of a carrot that is shaped like a private body part, as in political events that may have serious implications for their own lives, if not more. People will also believe what you write, just because it is in print. Because The Truth describes the development of a news industry from the point of view of people for whom access to daily printed news is not yet normalized, it puts a spotlight on the peculiarities of our own news circulation, most of which we have long taken for granted. For instance, The Truth reminds us that ‘fake news’ is not a new phenomenon: it’s the oldest thing since the invention of ‘news’.

A book about a budding journalist wouldn’t be half as interesting without some political intrigue. Luckily, a couple of thugs emerge from the shadows to carry out a sinister plot aimed at dethroning the ruler of Ankh-Morpork, Lord Vetinari. The police, led by detective Vimes, tries to find out more about crimes that took place in Vetinari’s palace. Meanwhile, William follows clues himself. Someone has to bring the truth to the public, he reasons, someone who has no personal interest that might make him change the story. He is astonished to learn that the public isn’t really interested in the truth: all they want is good stories, however preposterous they may be. But by the time he realises this, William is already addicted to his exciting new life as a journalist.

Pratchett is famous for his colourful characters. I have to mention two of them especially: Sacharissa Cripslock and Otto Chriek. Sacharissa is a young woman, who wants to be as respectable as possible. It turns out she has a natural talent for journalism and starts working for William. She keeps him grounded, telling him bluntly whenever he is wrong and making excellent suggestions regarding the running of their business. Because she is from a modest but very decent family, she is both practical and concerned with appearances. She can be both sweet and sarcastic, reporting on charity parties as easily as she wields a crossbow. I thought she was even cooler because she operated mostly in the background, discrete but effective, saving the day and claiming her victories.

I developed a crush on Otto Chriek, an ambitious photographer who is also a reformed vampire from the Discworld region Überwald, Pratchett’s play on the name ‘Transylvania’. He is, in his own words, “a vizard in zer darkroom! I am experimenting all the time. And I have all my own eqvipment and also a keen and positive attitude!” How can you not fall in love with that much earnestness? Otto is passionate about his job, except for the unfortunate detail that the flash of his camera sometimes reduces him to dust. Luckily, a few drops of blood can easily return him to his pale, thin body. His experiments in photography might cause some problems, but he makes a loyal and adorable friend when it comes down to it.

I must admit, it took me a while to be immersed in the story. For many readers the characters might be familiar, but I haven’t read much of Pratchett’s work, so I felt a bit lost in the sea of names. Additionally, I had to get used to the writing style. Terry Pratchett is very clever and has a dizzying grasp of the English language, no-one will deny that. But it seemed to me that he literally couldn’t resist making a joke when he thought of one, which got in the way of the story. It sometimes broke a good tension arc (is dat een term?) for a joke that wasn’t as good as it could have been if only he would have delayed the punchline a bit. It might just come down to personal taste though: the funnier you think the jokes are, the less they distract. I suspect this is the case, because in the later chapters I didn’t notice these things anymore, so apparently the jokes worked better for me when I was invested in the story. The fact is, even if his writing style annoys me sometimes, nobody writes like Pratchett does. His style is well-developed and truly unique.

The story itself has so many plotlines that there is again a risk of getting lost. I wouldn’t recommend reading this book in instalments with a lot of time in between. Personally, I’d prefer the book to be less full, of everything really. Although it all comes together cleverly, the storylines and characters and jokes feel a bit crammed and it would, I think, have done Pratchett’s wonderful inventions more justice if he’d have given them more space to develop. I can’t deny that the book did make me laugh out loud all the same. The first time was on page nineteen, when a printing press on a loose cart comes hurtling down a street while its owners scream, for the first time in Ankh-Morpork history, the immortal words “Stop the press!”. I’m sure my father, an actual journalist, could appreciate that, so now I know what to give him for his birthday. Sorry, mum.

Nellie Bly Award, in honour of a great and groundbreaking journalist

Terry Pratchett, The Truth (London, 2000)

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Jo Robin

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Flavia de Luce #1) by Alan Bradley

The first review I ever wrote for this blog was on Artemis Fowl: a twelve-year-old genius and criminal mastermind. Now I’m reviewing the Flavia the Luce series, with Flavia as the protagonist: An eleven-year-old chemistry mastermind and sleuth, with a fascination for murder and poisons. I am sensing a pattern. Coincidentally, I think Flavia and Artemis would make a brilliant, though risky, team.

Flavia de Luce is the youngest of three sisters, raised by their father alone, on their estate Buckshaw. Their father, Colonel de Luce, is a country gentleman, very distant and an avid philatelist. The story is set in the 1950’s and Buckshaw is located near a typical sleepy English village, named Bishop’s Lacey. Flavia has claimed a wing of their manor for her own purposes, after she has found an abandoned chemistry lab there and discovered her own talents for chemistry. Their mother died when Flavia was only one, during one of her many adventures in the mountains. Their father pretty much leaves his daughters to their own devices and he never really leaves his study and his precious stamp collection. The three girls grow up being independent, with the housekeeper, Mrs. Mullet, feeding them and giving them some advice every now and then. And then there’s the wonderful Dogger: once their father’s valet and now handyman, as he is crippled by flashbacks from his wartime experiences. Flavia especially has a soft spot for Dogger, as he has for her. Also, Dogger is the one who takes care of Flavia’s beloved bicycle, Gladys.

This review will be on the first book in the series, but the setting is much the same for each book in the series. These are all classic whodunit tales, but with a twist, in the form of a precocious eleven year old taking the lead. This story starts off when Mrs. Mullet finds a dead jack snipe left at their backdoor, with a Penny Black stamp in its beak. Soon it becomes clear that this was a message, directed at Colonel the Luce, the philatelist, on a theft that took place when he was still at school. Flavia then hears her father argue with a red-haired man in his study, and a few hours later the red-haired man ends up dead in their cucumber patch. As Flavia discovers the body, she thinks to herself: ‘I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.” She then proceeds to smell the dead man (he smells of almonds!), and that’s when her chemistry knowledge is being put to good use. From that moment on, especially when she discovers her father’s history with the victim, Flavia the Luce is determined to find out ‘who dun it’.

The story is set in this British atmosphere, like the one we know from Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, with the little village and all the strange characters living there. There’s even an ever-excited vicar, who drives a Morris Oxford, and his mean wife. But the characters really make this book and they create the feeling of the story being typically English. I was actually quite surprised to read that the author isn’t British, but Canadian, as he managed to capture the England I love and know so well.

I’d like to especially mention Flavia’s older sisters here, because this series focuses on Flavia, but it could have been either one of them. Daphne is thirteen and she is a bookworm. We see her reading literally everything she can get her hands on, she is also incredibly intelligent and mostly provides us with hilarious, cynical remarks. Ophelia is seventeen and Flavia describes her as vain and airheaded. It is true that she has every young man from the village wrapped around her little finger, but she is by no means stupid. I’d rather describe her as quite a calculating, fiercely independent and gorgeous young woman. We see Flavia’s older sisters being incredibly mean to their youngest sister, but when Flavia ends up in actual danger, their English air of indifference disappears. Remember that all these girls were taught to fend for themselves after their mother passed, so each knows how to get by on her own. Their father basically ignores them, they don’t spend much time with each other, and so their childhood is quite lonely in a way. But all three are equally interesting; we just get to know Flavia a bit better. If Alan Bradley ever decided to write a series on Ophelia or Daphne, I would definitely read that as well.

As for the actual mystery, because that’s what this story is about, I enjoyed it very much. It is wonderful to follow clues while being inside Flavia’s head. She has the gift of chemistry and a secret love of poisons. The chemistry processes are described in detail, as Flavia does her sciences up in her secret lab in the ever-cold wing of their drafty manor. I was never that brilliant at chemistry, but I found it educational and pleasurable to read. But Flavia doesn’t stop at just chemistry; she investigates! She talks to people, pretending to be just a little girl and not understanding much, she climbs through windows, searches forbidden areas, places herself in all kinds of danger and, maybe the scariest thing of all, confronts her father for the first time in her life. Like a true sleuth, she is both clever and creative in her thinking.

Lastly, I do think it is significant that Flavia is eleven years old. As I was thinking back on my own experiences, an eleven-year-old girl is a strange creature: you are no longer adorable, but you can still look sweet or innocent if you try, but you have started to grow into your own personality. When you are an eleven-year-old girl you are still trapped in a little girl’s body, but your mind is far beyond that. Strangely enough, the result is that to adults you are invisible. Eleven-year-old girls pass unnoticed, while everything in them goes through a massive transformation. Nobody really notices Flavia and she uses her invisibility to her advantage whenever she can. Also, she acts all innocently when caught, but thinks cynical thoughts to herself in the process. Flavia is incredibly witty and intelligent, but also clumsy and not always too subtle: trademarks that I very much remember from when I was that age. And lastly, she thinks she is absolutely unstoppable, and maybe you have to be eleven to believe that with all your heart. So my advice would be after reading this book: never underestimate the eleven-year-old girl.

Flavia is one of the most original characters I have ever read about. The fact that she is also the narrator, makes for a brilliant British mystery novel. Not only will you adore Flavia, but also the landscape, the manor, the characters and the nearby village will make you homesick for England, even if you have never been there! Audience-wise, this book is a hard one to place in a category. I found this book in the adult section, much to my surprise, but it is written from the childlike perspective of Flavia. I think this book is a great Sunday afternoon read for adults, but quirky eleven year old me would have also enjoyed it very much. I once discussed with my friend whether we would like to adopt Flavia, if we could. We were quite enthusiastic about the idea at first, but, let’s be fair; we couldn’t possibly handle her. No one can.

Marie Curie Award: she would have been so proud of Flavia!

Alan Bradley, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Flavia de Luce #1), (London, 2009)

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Thura Nightingale 

All the birds in the sky by Charlie Jane Anders

This is such a weird book that it totally made sense that there was a love story between an Yggdrasil tree and an artificial intelligence computer (AI). This book is a delightfully weird mix of magic, sci-fi, YA and the dichotomy between magic and technology, all brought together with the beautiful lyrical title ‘all the birds in the sky’.

I listened to the audiobook of this story, narrated by Alyssa Bresnahan. Audiobooks are amazing because who doesn’t like to be read to? And with an audiobook that is always possible, even when there is no obliging friend nearby.  Additionally, it really helps to make a boring activity less so, such as cleaning, which I unfortunately have to do a lot because it’s my job.  Personally, I always have to get used to a narrator, because it is a voice I’m not used to, and with Alyssa it was the same. Especially because she made some of the characters, especially Patricia, sound really whiney and annoying in the beginning of the book. The beginning of the book was slow at any rate. But soon I became fascinated by the story, because so much is happening at the same time!

The story is about two people, Patricia and Laurence, who meet as children, and connect over the loneliness they both have, because they are both outsiders in their own way. Patricia spoke with a bird in the woods one day and suffered from that, because nobody believed her. However, she keeps believing she actually talked to a bird. Laurence is a nerdy boy with strict parents who do not understand his passion for science. They worry because he does not make friends. At a certain moment he sneaks away to see a rocket launch and he invents a two-second time machine. Also he eventually builds the AI mentioned before in his closet. Naturally, as they should in a YA novel, the two outsiders connect and become best friends. This goes all swimmingly until the day Laurence is packed away towards a militaristic boarding school to become a ‘normal’ boy. The only good thing that happens on that school is that Laurence manages to give live to his AI. Further on, the school is horrible and at a certain moment his life is in danger when he gets locked in a closet as punishment. Meanwhile Patricia discovers more about her magical abilities. She even gets the opportunity to go to a magic school to develop her skills, but only if she leaves immediately. She begs to be allowed to stay for a short while to save Laurence, because she knows he is in danger. Saving Laurence is the last thing she does before she goes off to magic school, and it will be years before the two see each other again. At this book the book had my attention, because magic schools are always interesting to read about, however interestingly enough Charlie Jane Anders does not talk much about the school. This was a shame I thought.

Patricia and Laurence represent two ‘parties’, or sides in this story, namely magic versus science, both working towards the same goal: the earth is in danger of ecological breakdown. Both sides are trying to find a solution for the problem. After many years apart, Patricia and Laurence re-connect with each other, and their friendship symbolizes the potential of the two ‘sides’ to work together for a solution. Originally there might be more interest in working against each other, because of a deeply-rooted distrust between the two parties. Patricia and Laurence do not have a relationship immediately, because Laurence already has a girlfriend. Halfway through the book Patricia and Laurence get together anyway, around the time something horrible happens with the planet and shit gets real.

The magic versus technology is nicely executed in this book. The science, for example, is innovative enough to be interesting, but plausible. There is a super fancy personal AI computer everybody owns at a certain point which maximises your life experiences by plotting everything in your life, such as guiding you to places to eat. At those places the computer has even calculated who you will meet and should be friends with to have maximum enjoyment of your life, a bit creepy, I know. This innovation reminded me a lot of the google glasses and other smartphone-related developments. The magic school is interesting as well. Its educational system is based on a balance between healing and trickery, which is a balance every magician should keep. Every magician has the danger of ‘Aggrandizement’, which in this book means that the urge towards trickery overtakes, and one starts to do magic to gain personal power.  The healing side of magic, which manifests in helping people without self-interests, keeps the trickery side in check.

This is shown when, a few years later into the story, Patricia has finished her magic schooling and is living in San Francisco. During the night she walks around the city and saves people from unhappiness with her magic. In the daytime she has annoying jobs to pay the rent. Because of the danger of Aggrandizement she is not allowed to gain any compliments or positive outcomes from the magic she does, because it might lead to arrogance, miss-use of magic and general destruction of the established magician society. Basically the concept tells about the danger of being too proud of one’s abilities as a magician, because that would lead to ‘getting airs’ and believing one can, and should, use magic to gain personal power. Consequently, one is not allowed to do any magic for their personal benefits. The tendency towards Aggrandizement in magicians is kept in check by a board of magicians. Somehow they believe Patricia is in particular danger of Aggrandizement. When Patricia and Laurence meet again their friendship is prohibited, because they are representatives of two different parties in the world and any relationship between the two is dangerous. Laurence, in the meantime, has become a genius whiz-kid kind of guy and works in a very prestigious lab where they invent new technologies, such as an anti-gravity machine. He has his own troubles, because he has a beautiful girlfriend of whom he does not understand why she loves him, and he is trying to save humanity from an ecological disaster.

Part of this book revolves around a looming climatic disaster, which makes this a very interesting take on the dystopic genre, because the dystopic future described in this book is one potentially close to our own future. Events in this book are set somewhere in the next 20-30 years, I would say. It is a climatic dystopia full of epic devastating storms and ecological degradation, as mentioned before. Halfway through the book there is a superstorm which makes clear how bad the status of the earth actually is. Also in the dystopia elements of this book, the idea of magic versus science becomes clear because both sides have a radical different solution to the problem, which I of course won’t tell, because spoilers. So, in conclusion, the technology in this book was plausible and the climate of our planet is already showing some similar problems to the ones in this book, which makes this book a combination between a warning and entertainment, which is an amazingly ambitious attempt of Charlie Jane Anders. Wouldn’t you call that Aggrandizement?

Aggrandizement award because this book has high ambitions, and delivers

Charlie Jane Anders, all the birds in the sky (New York, 2016)

Bella bookworms 2

Bella G. Bear

Ghost Stories by M.R. James

Hallowe’en is over, and I have done nothing special except for staying in and reading an excellent book. But in honour of the season, I read a SCARY book. The holiday has now come and gone, but from where I’m sitting, the weather is grey and dreary and I have some candles burning, so no-one can keep me from staying in its sinister spirit for a while longer. Have a glass of wine and some ghost stories on me!

Because there are altogether thirty-one stories in this collection, all with different characters and playing at different times, I can’t give you a quick introduction to what it’s all about. What I can do, is tell you the premise of one of the stories that I thought was the scariest: ‘Lost Hearts’.

An eleven year old boy, recently orphaned, arrives at a country house in the year 1811. He is to live with his rich old cousin, who is a learned recluse, specialised in pagan religions from the first centuries AD. The man isn’t sociable, but by all accounts a kind guardian who has taken in abandoned children before. The boy has been living in the big house for a few months, in the care of the housekeeper, when this kind lady scolds him for having torn his nightdress. The boy doesn’t know anything about the rips in the cloth. “But,” he said, “Mrs Bunch, they are just the same as the scratches on the outside of my bedroom door; and I’m sure I never had anything to do with making them.” Things escalate from that point.

I am sure that the terrifying sounds and visions from this story could be made into the scariest film ever if someone should try, but M.R. James only needs nine pages to leave you shivering. Every story is like that, whether it plays in the sixteenth century or the twentieth, in London of in a small village in Sweden. The premises are diverse, but most of the plots are based on some kind of historical object or ancient building. When they are disturbed, intentionally or by accident, weird and threatening things start happening. The protagonist usually starts out rationalising these occurences and when he finally realises something fishy is going on, he is already in deep trouble.

This particular collection of very short stories was first published in 1931, so obviously before the age of television. Luckily, there are ways to scare people without the visual shock television can provide. You might say that a book relies more heavily on creating an eerie atmosphere, than on giving you a fright, but the result remains the same: you make sure all lights are on when you have to visit the toilet at night. M.R. James tells his stories like historical reports, using fictional eyewitness accounts and records from the archives. He takes the reader with him through all the steps of his research and takes great care in mentioning every possible detail he could find, acknowledging when there is some missing information that has been lost in time. Not only did I love this storytelling device because I’m an aspiring historian myself, but it also greatly enhanced the tension. The scientific, business-like style in which they are recounted makes the gruesome aspects of the stories that much scarier.

In between the scary parts, now and then, there is actually some dry humour. It is usually subtle, so it doesn’t interrupt the story, but keeps it entertaining. It might be a description of an oblivious servant, or the conversation between a middle-aged gentlemen and his dictatorial wife, or the portrayal of a professor whose strong unbelief in the supernatural takes some hits in spite of himself. Again, the contrast between the unremarkable and the matter of fact on one side, and the strange occurrences on the other is specially frightening.

Throughout the stories, it becomes abundantly clear which things in life interest M.R. James, who was a medievalist and actor, and which don’t. Architecture and archeology, for instance, are evidently subjects he knows a lot about, so he describes every house, church and ancient ornament in great detail. Even if you couldn’t say if ‘wainscot oak’ is something special to save your life, like me, you still get a good sense of your surroundings before some ghost or monster appears and makes them terrifying. Golf, on the other hand, is not the author’s cup of tea but was a popular pasttime in his age (it probably still is) and so many of his characters play the game. M.R. James makes fun of this in several tales, pretending to leave out parts of fictional conversations that his ‘witnesses’ recited to him because they are about golf, or replacing them with generic ‘golf jargon’ because he supposedly couldn’t be bothered to remember the exact words.

Of course, I did not like all the stories equally. Some of the evil creatures, most of them hooded and operating in the shadows, were quite unpleasant, but I noticed that I found the stories containing actual, physical monsters less scary than those with some kind of ghost or witchcraft. The build-up to the revealing of the monster was usually scarier than the thing itself. Isn’t that always the case?

Additionally, certain elements felt repetitive sometimes, like the scenes in which a man, from pure terror, is bedridden for days. The first time a formerly strong and sensible fellow was reduced to a shivering heap in that way, it added to the horror, but after a few times I was hoping for a different reaction. Then again, I can’t really blame these characters because I would definitely not leave my house ever again if I encountered one of the terrible creatures that lurk in the ancient churches and obscure artwork of M.R. James’ imagination.

All in all, the book made me feel scared of my own shadow, which is what I hoped for. I had never heard of the author before I picked up this book from a second-hand bookshop, but now I would love to meet him, partly because I always think writers of horror stories and murder mysteries must be very interesting people, and partly because, from his writing, he seems to have been a brilliant man. Unfortunately, Montague Rhodes James (isn’t that a great name!) died in 1936. I couldn’t find any particulars on his death, however, so I’m still hoping for a final, real life ghost story to be uncovered some day. M.R. James, Ghost Stories (Londen, 1931)

Shot of Whisky Award, because that is what you’ll need after you’ve finished reading this book

M.R. James, Ghost Stories (Londen, 1931)

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Jo Robin