A Book A Day Keeps The Doctor Away

Well, sort of. My flu is gone and I managed to get a whole lot of books read while lying on the couch and getting pampered. I can think of worse ways to spend the time. Okay, I could have done without the blinding headaches, but apart from that…

Two of the books I read were Riotous Assembly and Indecent Exposure, both by Tom Sharpe.

Like Wilt, by the same author, I had read both of them a while ago, back in the regrettable time when I still thought that reading translated books was a good idea.

So?

Yeah. Good. Both of them. Although reading the books back to back makes you realize that they have been written fourteen years apart. The author’s style has changed ever so slightly and a few things don’t quite fit. Nothing major, nothing that would ruin the books, but enough to notice. But don’t let that distract you from the fact that together these books represent 700 pages of the finest, wittiest writing to come out of Britain in a long time.

All in all, Tom Sharpe’s books are just outrageously hilarious. Exhumed sex dolls, exploding ostriches, penile injections, elephant guns, old ladies with rubber fetishes. If it’s lewd and strange, it’s in there. And that is a good thing. I have never, ever in my life read books that are more crazy, and I find that I like it.

So get yourself to a bookshop or internet retailer of your choice and buy some Tom Sharpe. You won’t regret it.

P.S.: And you gotta love the dedication:

For all those members of the South African Police Force whose lives are dedicated to the preservation of Western Civilization in Southern Africa

He’s already mad, at least let him keep his pants!

So, on Friday we went to watch 2012. (Yes, I’m healthy enough to go to the cinema, so I must also be healthy enough to blog.)

To begin with: I like Roland Emmerich. Not because I see it as my patriotic duty or because he and me were, by some freak accident, born in the same country, but because I think he can be a damn fine director. Note that I say “can be”.

I loved Stargate and The Day After Tomorrow and 10.000 BC and I also have a soft spot for Eight Legged Freaks, which he only produced. But it appears that Roland Emmerich is a man at one with the universe, always intent on balancing things out, and so he gave us The Patriot and Independence Day and Godzilla. Balance. The good and the bad. The man would make one hell of a Buddhist.

Anyway. 2012:

The trailer was, to put it in one word: awesome. It had great music, it had pretty CGI, it had a giraffe. What more can you ask for?

A movie that is good. How about that?

Was 2012 a bad movie? Well… not quite. But it wasn’t good either. To come back to the topic of balance: apparently Roland Emmerich has given up on the idea of making good and bad movies in equal amounts and just thought “what the hell,  I’ll be more efficient if I just make a movie that has an homogeneous mix of good and bad scenes”.

Spiffing idea.

I won’t go into detail on the plot, since I don’t feel up to unravelling that particular gordian knot so soon after recovering from the flu, but let’s look at some specific character moments and motivations, just for kicks.

John Cusack plays Jackson Curtis, the man of a thousand coincidences. Not only does he either accidentally meet or already know all the major players of this movie (okay, so three of them are his wife and children), his character also constantly gets abused in most horrific ways by the scriptwriter (hey, wait, that’s Mr. Emmerich too.) To say once, and only once, that it would be a terrible coincidence for a little published writer like Jackson Curtis to make it on the ark ships and then for that guy to actually make it on the ark… well that is already pushing the powers of cliché to the breaking point, but Dr. Adrian Helmsley (played by Serenity-Evil-Übervillain Chiwetel Ejiofor) insists on repeating this line as if he had swallowed a broken record player.  Speaking of cliché…

Dr. Adrian Helmsley: Mr. Curtis, there is only one way to save us all. You have to go on a suicide death dive!

Jackson Curtis: Okay. Death is better than staying with my stupid ex-wife, who’s already smooching me although I let her current husband drop into an oversized gearbox five minutes ago.

Dr. Adrian Helmsley: Your sacrifice will be remembered. I have the president’s daughter with me here, because she’s black, like me, and she didn’t have any action scenes so far. She’ll do the remembering for me, because I can only remember one li… What would be the chances of Jackson Curtis, a little known author, ending up on…

President’s Daughter: Shut up. But I do think you’re kind of cute. Also you’re the only black guy in this flick that isn’t somebody’s dad.

Jackson Pollock Curtis: Hey… guys. I already said yes. Anyway… can I take my kid?

Adrian Healy Helmsley: Sure, of course you can…

Everyone (including the drowning Russian chick that the movie is going to forget about after this scene): What?!?

Jackson Samuel: Well, I thought suicide death dives were the perfect thing to build up a better dad-son-relationship kinda thing.

Everyone (including drowned and now zombified Russian chick): Oh, okay.

Michael Jackson and his son dive through endless tunnels.

(V.O. as they dive): Who was stupid enough anyway to build these arks in a way that you can only start up the engine if all the doors are closed?

Adrian Helmsley sneaks away with an embarrassed facial expression while everyone is trying to figure that one out.

Meanwhile under water on the death dive: Holding your air for so long seems impossible, especially since the movie insists on cutting back to the bridge of the ark for extended dialogue sequences, but they make it to the jammed hydraulics chamber. Bits of Gordon, the kid’s stepdad referenced earlier in this scene, are floating in the murky water.

Jackson Five: Gurgle blubber grargh. (Kid hold the flashlight so that I can see what I’m doing.)

Kid: Blubber, shlubber bubble gurgle. (Okay dad. Will do. Am I blue in the face?)

Jackson Curtis: Gurgle. (Yes.)

Kid:… (Has drowned.)

The ark slams into Mount Everest and everybody on board dies. Since the other two arks are full of multimillionaires, politicians, telephone sanitizers and hairdressers, mankind goes extinct.

Yes, anyway. That took a little longer than I thought it would. Back to the real movie.

I could point out other character and plot inconsistencies by the bucketload. Like the Russian chick that seems to be superglued to her boyfriend. At least he tries to ditch her twice in the movie and they always kind of end up together again, or at least in close physical proximity. Or the fact that the Italian prime minister chooses to stay behind with his people and face the coming apocalypse only armed with his faith in God. That’s Berlusconi for you, Roland Emmerich nailed him perfectly. Or… well, there is actually just one more character that I’d like to talk about.

Charlie Frost aka Woody-nobody-ever-gives-me-serious-parts-Harrelson. Now, here’s your classical mad conspiracy theorist. No one is ever going to do that part better than Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory, but let’s give Mr. Harrelson points for trying. Nice touches all around. And they even resisted the lure of having a motorcycle-out-racing-the-pyroclastic-explosion-sequence (if you’ve seen the movie you’ll know what I mean).  But, and here’s the thing that really, majorly pissed me off:

They have a character like that, who’s clearly off his rocker, who’s kind of funny and tragic and also a little heroic. And they have to ruin his last scene, his death, by doing a f**king ass crack joke. Seriously. Words fail me. He’s already mad, at least let him keep his pants on when he kicks the bucket.

So *takes deep breath* enough ranting. 2012 is, despite all its flaws, a good movie.

Okay. A mediocre movie. It didn’t make me want to kill myself. Jonas agrees. For all its faults it somehow manages to be decent.

With another composer and a slightly better script it might even have been a good movie. The right ideas are all there. And it even manages to look good, except for everything surrounding the suicide death dive, which is out-of-proportion bad. Come to think of it… a new cut, eliminating that entire useless last minute complication, would probably already save the movie.

This one will never enter even the top 100 of my favourite movies, but it won’t make it into the worst 100 either. I don’t regret seeing it. At least I got a review out of it. And it has a giraffe in a spacesuit. Sweet.

Wilt

A while ago I finished reading Wilt by Tom Sharpe. (Yeah, this review has been in the pipeline for a while, and for no good reason at that. Grrrr.)

My first experiences with the writings of Mr. Sharpe lie about fifteen years in the past, give or take a few. Thus it is understandable that I wasn’t sure if I would like them nowadays. That I had read those books in German doesn’t make my memories of them more trustworthy.

But the memories kept resurfacing. Unfortunately I have read quite a few books in German before switching to English somewhen around my fifteenth birthday, and I am trying to get my hands on original-language versions of all the ones that I liked. I feel I owe it to the books; you wouldn’t believe what incompetent translators have done to some of them. Trust me, it’s not pretty. Anyway, back then I read Wilt as well as Riotous Assembly and Indecent Exposure, and during another, recent attack of Sharpe nostalgia I ordered those books in English.

The other day month, at two in the morning and dead tired, I decided to read one of them. Since I couldn’t be bothered to figure out the reading order for the other two, I decided to start with Wilt. And I almost didn’t put the book down until I finished it.

At first I was a little disappointed. I had remembered the book to be more on the bellyache side of laugh out loud, and sadly this seemed not to be the case, but after sixty or seventy pages that quickly changed. The book takes a while to get going, but when it does, oh man is it funny. (Personally I wouldn’t mind some sort of distilled version of Wilt that only features the conversations between Wilt and Inspector Flint.)

Oh yes, and the scene where the blow-up doll is exhumed. Mustn’t forget that. A scene so epically funny that I dare say I have seldomly read three more entertaining consecutive pages in my life.

So. Wilt is good. And a lot more graphic than the German version. I wonder if the censor-fairy had her part in that. Maybe I just misremember things. (On the other hand, my parents did give me the book when I was fourteen or fifteen. Mhm…) I did wonder whether lesbian sex and rubber dolls might have been shocking in Britain in 1976, but have come to the conclusion that they probably weren’t. It was the 70s after all. And in any case, that’s not what this book is about. It is about a downtrodden community college teacher who finds the one thing in his life that he is certain about. That he drives the staff of the local police station potty in the process is only a pleasant side-effect of that.

There are more Wilt books out there and I think that that makes the world a brighter place somehow. Right now I have other stuff to read. Work stuff, research for my next novel, but after that I can’t wait to read more of Tom Sharpe’s delightful writing.

Lustrum

LustrumI have half a dozen book reviews I still want to write, but I wanted to get this one out of my mind as long as the memory is still fresh.

Two days ago I finished reading Lustrum, by Robert Harris. I am saddened to say that the book was good, so this review isn’t bound to be very funny.

Pompeii, Herculaneum, Paestum, Naples, Capri. Places I’ve been to personally, places that I love. They all have one thing in common: almost two thousand years ago they were thriving, buzzing parts of the Roman Empire.

Rome has held its sway over me for about fifteen years now. It started out as a sort of extra-curricular school trip that sounded like fun and has since then bloomed into a deep and long-lasting fascination with all things Roman (ancient Greek will do at a pinch, I’m not picky). I will, one day, write my own epic set in ancient Rome, but until then I’ll have to make do with the works of others on the subject.

In light of this passion of mine  it was only logical for me to read devour Robert Harris’s book Pompeii (okay, I’ll admit it, it was a gift from Jonas, it was he who pointed Mr. Harris’s work out to me first) and after that the first book of his trilogy on the life and works of the famous Roman politician and orator Cicero.

Marcus Tullius Cicero is a fascinating figure. Lauded by his contemporaries and later generations of historians as one of the most versatile minds of his time, he was a lawyer, translator, politician, orator, philosopher and linguist. What makes him even more interesting as a protagonist for a book is the fact that he was a contemporary of all the great names that one will associate with Rome at fist glance: Caesar, Pompey Magnus, Brutus, Lucullus, Crassus and many others.

While the first book, Imperium, chronicles Cicero’s rise to power through hard work and cunning, told through the eyes of his faithful slave (and friend) Tiro, the second book finds him at the height of his career. Newly elected consul, Cicero has to use all his wit to fight against his political enemies and smite down a conspiracy that might well mean the end of the Roman Republic. To say more would unfortunately contain many spoilers, so let it suffice to say that the problems only begin there.

I mention Tiro in the above paragraph, and in that character lies the book’s main weakness. It is a small flaw, one that barely merits pointing out, but I shall still mention it. Tiro, or Marcus Tullius Tiro as he became known after being freed by his master, is a real, historical character. Little is known of his origins, but what is known is that he was (among) the first to ever record a session of the Roman senate in shorthand and that this shorthand system, which was invented by him, gives us many useful words that survive to this day, most notably the ever-popular “etc.” In the book Tiro functions as the narrator, writing down the life history of Marcus Tullius Cicero many years after his death (history tells us that Tiro lived to a ripe age of 99 and died 39 years after his former master). And here lies my principal problem with the book (there is one other one, also connected to Tiro, but I’ll let that slip): our narrator, busily scribbling away at his former master’s biography before he himself croaks of old age, is a bit too intent on pointing out to us that he is writing this many years after the actual events have taken place. A few mentions less of “here my notes record” or “now I myself am old and feeble”, “if only he had known what I know today” etc., would have done the book a great service. Tiro seems to strive above all to destroy our immersion with his constant comments.

Don’t think that the book is bad now, it’s still plenty good. I just was annoyed by Tiro to a certain degree. I also think it gets better as the book progresses.

Back to the book:

Lustrum is, as I already knew, Latin for… well… a whorehouse. What I didn’t know is that is also means “a period of four years”. The book, as you may have guessed, easily accounts for both meanings of the title, and we see a lot more of Cicero than just what happened to him during the twelve months of his consulship.

Although the second part of the book suffers from certain structural issues (which are almost unavoidable since Cicero was, politically speaking, on a decaying orbit after his consulship and is thus demoted from active schemer to passive watcher), the book still manages to go out with  a bang. A bang that left me wishing that Robert Harris would hurry up and write the last part of his Cicero trilogy as quickly as possible.

Lustrum is to a large degree based on the actual historical events and Harris claims that he has taken excerpts from actual speeches by Cicero and his contemporaries as often as possible. I have no reason to doubt him. The book feels authentic and for anyone who shares my passion for Rome and her people it will be a joy to read. I can only recommend the book, but bear in mind that the enjoyment will be all the greater if you also read Imperium, with which Lustrum forms an almost seamless unit.

It Is Done…

RisenWe finished playing Risen yesterday.

The end came quickly and a little too suddenly for my taste. I had been holding on to the faint hope that the game might have more than four paltry chapters until just before the credits started to roll. No such luck, now we’ll have to wait until forever for the sequel. Gnargh!

But I digress. Let’s start at the top.

We’re both huge fans of the Gothic games. Gothic 1 & 2, that is – as far as I’m concerned there is no Gothic 3, and that one didn’t have an expansion either. What? There is such a thing? No, I don’t think so (sticks fingers in ears and starts humming a tune).

Anyway. The first two Gothic games, both of which I played together with my husband due to severely lacking hand-eye coordination on my part, are the pinnacle of the RPG genre. A genre that is prolific enough, but seldomly brings forth anything to be truly excited about. I liked Oblivion to a certain degree, although it was all in all terribly shallow and levelling enemies are the worst idea since reality TV. And Divinity was okay too, in a way. The same goes for Two Worlds, which of these three games is perhaps the one that I enjoyed most. But all of these games seemed to be lacking something: call it depth, call it refinement, call it quality. They weren’t bad, but they were far from brilliant. And just when we had given up hope that the genre would ever bring forth anything awesome again we bought Risen by German developer Piranha Bytes.

Risen starts out when the player character wakes up after being shipwrecked on the shore of a tropical vaguely mediterranean island. After you have fought your way up the beach, past vultures, wolfs and stingrats, the world, or rather the island, lies at your feet. The game offers you the choice of three principal career options: Bandit, Mage or joining the Inquisition.

I picked the Inquisition, power gamer that I am, and my husband, who was playing the game in parallel with me on his computer, chose the bandits.

From what I picked up I must say that the Inquisition seems to be by far the more cushy path. All you have to do is to get inside the city, which in my case was accomplished by running past most enemies on the way and bribing the gate guard with 100 gold, and once you’re inside  you get to work as a glorified errand boy until you feel strong enough to brave the wolves and stingrats outside the city walls. Oh, yes, and until you figure out how to get out again, I should maybe mention that part.

For a bandit life appears to be a lot tougher, since although you also get to run errands in the swamp the errands here involve killing megalomaniac fireflies and something that looks like it escaped from Frank Herbert’s Dune. Suffice to say that it’s not very easy without proper equipment or skills.

As for the mage path: I could not say, since I haven’t quite figured out how to play a mage. (Which is remarkable since I thought the game had tricked me into becoming one for quite a while until I figured out that in that case I should be able to learn rune sigil magic, which I wasn’t.)

One of the nice things, at least from my point of view, is that the story is far from the same for the different classes after that point. Until very late in the game the different factions will ask you to do things that differ from the other paths. Not in a game-changing manner, but enough so that it significantly raises the re-play value.

A slight blemish on the beauty of the game is to be found in the final chapter, however. Not only is it almost exclusively dungeon crawling, with next to no respawn in the actual game world, but the events leading up to the final boss fight, as well as the fight itself, take away almost any difference that the three classes might have had before that. I won’t say much about the actual fight, since spoilers are evil, but let it suffice to say that there is but one way to do it, regardless of whether you’re playing a magic user or a fighter. And I think that is a bad thing. It is a bad thing to the point where I was close to giving up on the game about five minutes before the end. (To be scrupulously honest: my almost giving up was also related to the fact that the final fight is ridiculously difficult and I’m not a good fighter at the best of times.)

That having been said: Risen is, apart form the final showdown, a joy to play. The world is alive with beautiful creatures, not all of them inimical; it also features tons of vertical space: ledges to climb up on and kill enemies at leisure with ranged attacks, mountains with beautiful vistas… and as a bonus everything is one giant cell (meaning no loading times when entering houses, dungeons, etc.). Another big plus are the NPCs. If you manage to disregard the skimpy clothing that the women wear you will find that most of the NPCs have individual dialogue and personalities and sometimes even more than one quest that needs solving (non-generic NPCs is something I can not prize high enough after drudging through 200+ hours of Oblivion). Also the fighting system is reasonably well balanced and gaining skill points truly makes a difference. And last but not least: you get to summon a skeleton named Fred.

Yes, Fred – or Freddy as we have come to call him. Freddy can handle himself in tough situations, is unexpendable when it comes to taking care of some of the stronger enemies. And to sweeten the deal he’s also low maintenance and, due to a rather helpful bug, will heal if you save and load.

Speaking of bugs: the game has none. At least no significant ones. There seem to be some issues with certain older series of Nvidia graphics cards, but that had already been fixed in the first patch. Jonas had some difficulties with his character being unable to tell the difference between what you mean with going into a building or jumping up on the roof (weird bug, I know), but that was an inconvenience at best. And then there is the friendly NPC health regeneration issue, with is highly beneficial to the player, and if it’s cheating to exploit a bug then I don’t care. Besides that, I had one crash in almost 50 hours of playing, which I think is acceptable. So thumbs up for the Piranhas: good work!

All in all my playing experience has been very positive. Risen, like its cousins from the Gothic universe, is not easy to play, especially at an early level. Also, and here it is different from Gothic, it never becomes easy. Even at level 25 you can still walk into a room and get shish-kebabed before you can say Jack Robinson (if you’re not careful). If that doesn’t frighten you, you will get rewarded with a nicely-told and well-written story, stellar voice acting (not as good as Gothic but miles better than anything else out there; at least in the original German), a beautiful gameworld and interesting, diverse quests that go beyond collect-the-seventeen-polkadot-lollipops territory.

I for one am greatly looking forward to the second part of Risen, so hurry up Piranhas.

P.S.: my husband, who is the game designer in the family, is bound to write his own review soon, which is bound to be slightly more analytical than mine, so keep your eyes peeled for that!

Like Phoenix From The Ashes

RisenJust in case any of you have been wondering why I haven’t updated the blog in nearly a week… the reason is called Risen.

Risen in the new game by German developer Piranha Bytes, the makers of Gothic 1 & 2. They are also, unfortunately, the makers of Gothic 3, a game which is pretty high on my list of things that I should undo if I ever were to get access to a time machine. (There’s other stuff higher on the list, but not much.)

Jonas and I bought the game about ten days ago and it is fair to say that it is slightly addictive. Jonas is good about stuff like that, he can still function normally in the presence of a good game. When I’m playing  a good RPG the only way to get me to do something else than play usually involves a crowbar.

Anyway… I solemnly promise to write a more detailed review of Risen when I’m done with the game, which should be in another few days, but for now I just want to say that Piranha Bytes have truly managed to redeem themselves.

It is true: after Gothic 3 I thought they had lost their minds and that putting them in an insane asylum, a really old-fashioned one without any computers, would be a splendid precaution.

But Risen makes more than up for the agony that Gothic 3 has inflicted on us. They graphics are beautiful. The fighting system is well balanced. Levelling is once again something to look forward too. You can climb (big, wonderful bonus!). And the story is sounding good so far.

Last but not least: the game is a Gothic game in all but name. There are a lot of small nods to the Gothic franchise and even the story seems to be based, at least partly, on one of the possible endings of Gothic 3. (No, this is not a spoiler. You get the relevant info in the first cut scene of the game and if you’re concerned that this might spoil your Gothic 3 experience: don’t, the game manages to do that on its own, it doesn’t need my help for that.)

Also, miracles never cease, the game seems to be pretty much bug free. There seem to be certain issues with a few types of graphics cards, but neither of us are affected by that and in any case there’s a patch out already that fixes it. The only other bug I have encountered is rather beneficial to the player, so I won’t complain.

So yay for Piranha Bytes and Risen on all counts. A more detailed review shall follow soon.

Two Hours of My Life I’ll Never Get Back

Land of the LostOkay… first of all, I’m not dead yet. Only very busy. And when I’m not busy I’m playing Risen. And when I’m neither playing Risen nor busy, I’m going to the cinema. Like on Wednesday.

On Wednesday we saw Land of the Lost. And that’s two hours of my life I won’t ever get back. Only it felt more like seventeen.

Why did we go to see that movie, I hear you ask. Did we not see the trailer? Did we not read the reviews? Have we lost our minds? Has our sanity deserted us? Should I maybe stop with the rhetorics and give you a straight answer?

Yes, we did see the trailer, and I admit that it was dreadful. And yes, we read the reviews, and they didn’t sound good either. But trailers can be misleading. (Okay, I’ll admit it, usually in a bad way – I’m thinking of Planet of the Apes here). And if I were to recount all the times in recent years when we absolutely loved a movie that had been trashed to tiny little bits by the reviews, this would be a much longer article.

The chief reason why we went to see Land of the Lost was that its director, Brad Silberling, has done some very impressive movies in the past. Moonlight Mile is one of Jonas’s favourite movies ever and both City of Angels and Lemony Snicket were pretty damn good. (I also loved Caspar to bits, but that was when I was fifteen.)

As for Land of the Lost: You got a director of proven brilliance, dinosaurs, time travel, A Chorus Line, parallel dimensions, lizard people, very good sets and locations and the producer of Eva Longoria Sex Tape as one of the screenwriters. What could possibly go wrong?

Mhm… reading what I just wrote, I can see the flaw in my argument. It’s called Chris Henchy. Not that I don’t think that his colleague, Mr. Alex McNicholas, isn’t equally responsible for this cinematical disaster. (Also he’s one of the staff writers for Saturday Night Live, which makes me think that the casting of SNL regular Jorma Taccone in the role of Cha-Ka the Eternally Awful might be his bad.)

It’s not just that the movie is incoherent – which it is, extensively so. Incoherent to the point where, in the very beginning, I was wondering if we were seeing a damaged cut or if the projectionist had once again mixed up the reels. (It happens. I spent most of my youth thinking that Pretty Woman was a postmodern masterpiece due to such a mistake.)

It’s also not exclusively due to the fact that it has enough poo and sex jokes to make Adam Sandler sick to the stomach. (Sex and poo joke density was measured at 11.73 on a scale of 1 to 10.)

Neither is it that the actors are telephoning in their lines. (Not true, I think they might have been using morse code.)

No, the actual reason for the incredible badness of this movie is the script. Our cat – yes you heard me, our fucking CAT – could have written a better script. She could have written a better script in her sleep, her paws behind her ears and drooling on our sofa.

We’re talking bad here on a level of  “the rustling of the popcorn bag in the row behind us was more interesting than the dialogue.” And I wish I was kidding, I really do.

The plot had more holes than a sieve. The parts that did make sense (in the broadest of terms) were boring. No, it’s not a good idea to have a ten minute speech about the true value of friendship, loyalty and love when a T-Rex is standing right next to you. And french kissing a monkey is not funny. Neither is A Chorus Line, at least not inherently so. (I love the show though, second musical  I ever saw.)  And I don’t want to see Anna Friel’s legs ever again. And the same goes for Cha-Ka, now officially the most terrible, awful, disgusting, dislikeable and stupid movie character ever. If Mr. Taccone would please contact me I’d be happy to give him his award, delivered speedily and with great precision through the barrel of a shotgun.

I can only conclude that Brad Silberling made this movie after falling on very hard times. Maybe he has gambling debts, borrowed money from the wrong people, now the Mafia is after him. He needs money, as quick as possible. Haunted, alone, a prize set on his head, dead or alive, his only chance is to direct a movie. Nothing matters, only the paycheck that will finally get the bounty hunters off his ass. So he does it. He directs Land of the Lost, forever ruining his career, but saving his live in the process. That has to be it. There is no other explanation.

The only question that remains now is this: has he never heard of Alan Smithee?

Not Just About Football

Where to start?

I picked up Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett on Thursday evening and couldn’t put it down again until I finished it. That’s a good start. Says something worth knowing about the book, I think. Otherwise? Well…

First of all: The synopsis is a bit on the scrawny side and there is nothing on the back at all, so you’re screwed if you see this book without being able to open it. (There are bookshops in Germany that are cruel enough to wrap their merchandise in cellophane to prevent the customers from opening the books.) Of course, I would buy a Discworld book simply because it is a Discworld book. Kind of a no-brainer for me. But anyway, here we go. (There will be some very minor spoilers, so some of you might want to skip the next paragraph only; the rest of the review will be spoiler free, promise.)

Ponder Stibbons, the man that nowadays more or less runs the UU (only that he doesn’t, not officially), notices a slight problem with the bookkeeping. An old grant, one that pays for well over eighty percent of the food budget (and if you know your wizards you know how important that is), is about to be revoked if the wizards don’t play the game of foot-the-ball, and real soon at that. The cheeseboard is at stake!  So a team needs to be formed and trained and again, if you know your wizards you know that there is no W in Team. Also the patrician doesn’t really like the game, but since when has Archchancellor Ridcully ever been afaid of him? And then there is the mysterious Mr. Nutt. No one quite knows what he is and what to make of him, including himself, but a whole lot of important people seem to think he is very interesting indeed. Also he’s from Uberwald, and nothing harmless ever came out of Uberwald (says Igor). And then there’s micromail and the beautiful Juliet, both more multi-faceted than you would think at first sight. And Glenda, the maker of perfect pies. And Trev Likely, the son of the most famous foot-the-ball player the Disc has ever seen, only he’s promised his poor old mum never to play. And, to quote the book, the most important thing about football, pardon, foot-the-ball, is that it is not just about football. But you can read that much on the jacket of the book, so I’m not telling you anything new. (It’s very true, nevertheless, so keep that in mind.)

This is the first Discworld book that I have read since I (and the world) became aware that Terry Pratchett is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Actually it is the first Discworld book since then, period. I read Nation and enjoyed it a lot. But I was wondering if his disease would affect his writing, or rather his dictating, knowing that due to Alzheimer’s he will have to dictate his books from now on.

Did it affect his writing? Yes and no. The first hundred pages or so of Unseen Academicals are slow. And they feel like listening to a lecture read by an inexperienced lecturer. By that I mean to say that the rhythm of the sentences is somehow off. I can’t put it any better. If you hear a “bad” lecture of this kind, the lecturer will forget to put pauses in his sentences, resulting in blocks of speech that are difficult to parse for the listener. The same can happen to writers. The first draft of more or less everything I write reads like that. In the case of Unseen Academicals it means that often I had to go back and re-read sentences or paragraphs, because they were too long or too convoluted. And I don’t mind fancy writing – that’s not what I mean at all. I read Patricia McKillip, for crying out loud.

But then, right around page 116 (we’re talking Doubleday UK edition here) the book undergoes a stunning transformation. I didn’t like the book’s protagonist, Mr. Nutt, very much up until then. I shall try to keep this as spoiler free as possible, so let me just say that there is some question as to his ancestry, which Pratchett seemingly addresses and resolves early in the book. Only… well, he’s done that kind of thing before. I’m thinking of Angua and of Lobsang Ludd, and I’m sure there are others that I can’t remember right now.

Anyway. The character made me groan in the beginning, but I should have had more trust in Pratchett. That’s what happens if you think that one of your favourite authors is losing his edge. Bad, bad reader. Now go and sit in a corner, and you won’t get any dessert.

What happens on page 116? A speech. You don’t need to know what it is about or who gives it. Just read the book and find out for yourself why it is so heart-stoppingly beautiful that it made me weep. And after that it is all joy and brilliance and great storytelling. I can’t promise that it will be the same experience for you, but this is what I felt.

So, now we’ve been to page 116 and have talked about that. We’re left with 283 pages of book. What are they about? Football. Well, in part, anyway.

I don’t like football. Think it is a stoopid thing to get obsessed about. Don’t play it myself, but can see why it could be fun. Me? I’m too afraid to get the ball smack in my face. As for football fans… well, let’s just say that proximity to the sport, even filtered through a TV set, seems to have an adverse effect on the cognitive powers of the subject. That’s my opinion. Sorry.

Will you not like the book if you hate football? Hardly. Because the book is, in my opinion, not about football. At least not that much. That’s just a setting, a backdrop. What the book is actually about is friendship. And loyalty. And, yes, I’ll admit it, it’s about the feeling of being part of a group, such as fanatic football fans or the Unseen Academicals. And about mircomail. Good stuff that, doesn’t chafe.

It’s also about overcoming our differences, both in terms of belief and in terms of race. And it is extremely touching.

I like the recent Pratchetts. A lot of folks tell me that it’s not the same anymore. They’re darker. And more edgy. And less funny. To the first two arguments I say: So what, live with it. To the last one I say: Are you completely off your rocker, you daft nut?! Early Discworld, I mean the first two or three here, is rather crude. I re-read them recently and I saw that god-awful made-for-TV adaptation of The Light Fantastic and The Colour of Magic and it’s just true. They’re more a joke-overburdened spoof of every fantasy cliché that you can think of than books. It’s good that the first Discworld book I ever read was Mort. Now, the middle books, if you can call them that, are great. I love the witches, and Rincewind and the watch. Mort, Pyramids and Small Gods are still among my favourite books of all time. But the later ones, Hogfather being an early example and then more or less everything after The Truth, display a depth that the old books didn’t have, I think. And I like it, I like it a lot. Unseen Academicals is a perfect example of what I mean. It’s still hilariously funny, but it also deals with a lot of heavy topics. Like, for example, racism and coming to grips with your own ancestry.

I hate books, or movies for that matter, where the hero/the heroine/the people find out that they/their granddad/their elders/the founders are not what they previously seemed to be. It always, without fail, leads to a deep crisis of faith out of which the hero emerges, stronger, better, knowing that although his/her/its life is forever and very fundamentally changed by what he/she/it has learned, they are better people for it. And I think it’s utter crap.

Say you’ve been adopted. And on your eighteenth birthday you find out that your real dad was a famous… pilot. Only you’re scared of heights and want to be a painter. Do you go to pilot school the next day? Do you? Depends on if you’re in a book or in real life, I fear. Well, anyway (wiping froth off my mouth), I was pleased to find that Unseen Academicals approaches the subject with a more healthy attitude. And it is a better book for it.

What else remains to be said? Favourite bits, you say? Well, I suppose I have to mention it, so let’s get it over and done with. My favourite Discworld novel so far is Thief of Time. I absolutely love it. One of the chief reasons for that is the love story. I think Lobsang Ludd and Susan hooking up is one of the best things since sliced bread. And now he’s gone and done it again. That’s all I’ll say, promise. Don’t want to spoil anything. (But man is it cute!)

So, bottom line: Unseen Academicals is a wonderful book. It started out a bit slow for me, but I’m still trying to figure out how much of that is due to my own wretched preconceptions, so it might not necessarily feel the same to others. And the rest of the book makes up more than adequately for any faults, perceived or otherwise, that the begining may have. It’s got everything: Vetinari, Ridcully, Death, lots of pies, Rincewind, football, fashion, love and a possessed whistle. What more can you ask for? Not much. Now go and read the book. (Actually, since you ask: another book featuring Mr. Nutt, if you would be so good, Mr. Pratchett.)

Softspoken

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My motto for our Dominican Republic experience seems to have been been “a book a day.”  I read five books all in all, and that is counting two bloody thick novels by Stephen King.

Amongst others I read Softspoken, a novella by Lucius Shepard.

Now, I recently had my say about what I think of Mr. Lucius Shepard, and I still hold to it. The man and I will never be on the same page when it comes to literature or movies. But he sure can write.

Softspoken is a ghost story set in the deep South, and the heat, the moisture, and the thick accents seem to drip from the pages. Reading this book in the Dominican Republic helped, I think. The air must be similar.

Sanie Bullard (spellcheck just offered me Dullard as an alternative; not unfitting, I have to admit) has recently moved to South Carolina with her husband, to give him the peace and quiet to study for the bar. They live in his ancestral homestead with his hick brother and overly timid sister. At first Sanie is bored. Slowly a mystery arises, showing a way out of the boredom – and then there is also the handsome Frank Dean, for whom her husband has nothing but contempt. But all too soon feelings like boredom, curiosity and maybe love are swept away by the horrible secret that the old Bullard Mansion holds.

Softspoken may be a bit of a non-story (as Jonas pointed out to me), but I don’t mind that. It may be over before it begins, and I fear the ending is as solid as an elephant statue made from jelly, but what I’ve always loved about Shepard is there. The superb writing. The atmosphere. The beautiful sentences. I enjoyed Softspoken, despite the occasional stab at Stephen King and other popular writers. Oh do I wish Lucius Shepard were less of a snob.

A few notes on the visuals of the book: the cover art, which is terrible, was done by a man named J. K. Potter, a funny name given the author’s dislike of Rowling’s writing. Also, it would have been nice if someone had taken the time to proofread Softspoken. I find it hard to notice typos, both in my own writing as well in works by others. (That’s what Jonas is there for.) I am the anti-proofreader, so to speak, but in Softspoken even I caught plenty of errors. And don’t get me, started on the, punctuation?

The bottom line is that unfortunately Softspoken has more flaws than are good for it, on a writing level as well as in its physical appearance. It is not one of Shepard’s better works. Yet I still liked it. Why?

Mostly because, although I have never been to the South, I still feel that Softspoken captures the feeling of that region, the slowness and the heat, rather well. Shepard just has a knack for setting the mood. You gotta give him that.

And what about Barnacle Bill?

Barnacle Bill the Spacer

Oh, yes.

Sorry.

Got a bit carried away there.

Where was I?

Barnacle Bill.

My Lucius Shepard experience so far has mostly been limited to short stories, and of those I have read a lot. Also, as mentioned above, two of these count among my favourite pieces of writing in the whole wide world. So naturally my expectations for Barnacle Bill were high. I am glad to say that I was not disappointed.

As with a lot of Shepard’s writing, I would not have minded for some of the stories to be longer. That is especially the case when it comes to the title story, where you only get a glimpse of what our world might look like in the future. It’s not pretty, but I’d like so see more.

As for the other stories: both A Little Night Music and Sports in America suffered from a certain blah-ness, but I suspect that is because I found the topics to be to my disliking. The writing is as always superb.

The Sun Spider is Shepard at his best. I don’t think anything will ever be able to eclipse the story about the sleeping dragon Griaule and Meric Cattanay the man who painted him, but this one comes close. Like Lem’s Solaris or the 2007 movie Sunshine by Danny Boyle and Alex Garland, this story manages to convey the sense of awe and wonder that I imagine has to beset one if confronted with something as mind-boggling as the sun or, as in Lem, a creature too alien to comprehend.

We are taken to Egypt in All the Perfumes of Araby and from there on towards Israel. A setting that made me pause, given the current political situation in that region. The story is twenty years old, true, but from my viewpoint not much has changed in that time, so what would Shepard’s take be? Surreal, is the answer. And once again too short. The story seems to end when the protagonist’s journey is just beginning. If you ever read this, Mr. Shepard, personally I wouldn’t mind reading a novel about Danny Shields. Just so you know.

Finally, maybe the most surprising story of the collection: Beast of the Heartland. I didn’t think much of it when I started reading the story. Actually I was sorely tempted to put the book aside at this point, only that’s against my honour as a reader. The problem was that I could once again tell that this was a subject that didn’t draw me much. Now, after reading the story, I am very grateful that I did read on, because this story about a washed-out boxer is amazing. It’s not too long and not too short, sad and joyful at the same time and full of mesmerizing imagery.

All in all Barnacle Bill the Spacer is a thoroughly satisfying read, although I would recommend the more recent Eternity and Other Stories to first-time Lucius Shepard readers. But then again, if you want to get really hooked read The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule, now there’s a story…