Full of life

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Terry Pratchett Johnny and the Dead
Corgi Books 1997 (1993)

With hindsight it’s all too possible to read more into this YA novel than the author intended more than a score of years ago. Is Pratchett’s obsession with death, here and in other of his novels, some kind of premonition of his debilitating illness or, as I suspect it is, merely his continuing exploration of and creative attempts to deal with one of the big questions that we all contemplate at some time or another — namely, is there any kind of life after our departure from this world? And how do we cope with that while we still have this life?

Johnny and the Dead is the second in a loose trilogy about teenager Johnny Maxwell who lives in a Midlands town called Blackbury. Alone among his three friends — Wobbler, Bigmac and Yo-less — he finds he is able to see the dead in the local cemetery. More than that, he is able to speak to them. They are livid — well, as much as the disembodied can be said to be livid — when they discover that the cemetery has been sold to some developers, the distinctly anonymous United Amalagamated [sic] Consolidated Holdings.

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Hell’s Angels meet the Outlaws

angel

Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman Good Omens
Corgi 2011 (1990)

Good Omens is the inventive comic fantasy you’d expect from both these authors, a eschatological novel which in 1990 documented the final week of History. The cast of characters whose individual actions and thoughts gradually coalesce for the final denouement are easily distinguishable, from the angel who guarded the gates of Eden to the angel “who did not so much Fall as Saunter Vaguely Downwards”, from Witchfinders to fortune-tellers, from the group of mostly ordinary kids entertaining themselves over the summer to the Four Horsepersons of the Apocalypse (Equal Opportunities apply to supernatural beings these days too) appropriately sporting Hell’s Angels on their motorcycle jackets. Has Armageddon really arrived? Only this book can tell you. Continue reading “Hell’s Angels meet the Outlaws”

In a distorting mirror

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Holbein Danse Macabre. XLI. The Allegorical Escutcheon of Death (Totentanz. XLI. Das Wappen des Todes) Image: public domain

Terry Pratchett Equal Rites Corgi 1987 (1987)

“This is a story about magic and where it goes and perhaps more importantly where it comes from and why, although it doesn’t pretend to answer all or any of these questions.”

With such a portentous opening sentence, and especially with such a qualifying caveat, it is clear from the start that this a Terry Pratchett novel. The third novel, in fact, in his Discworld series. But, as he goes on to add, it is also a story about sex (something we might have deduced from the punny title) and “primarily” a story about a world (the Discworld, if you hadn’t already guessed). And though this is early on in his series of over forty Discworld novels it’s full of typical Pratchett tics — the humour (both slapstick and sly), the sense of the ridiculous (with occasional sparkles of the sublime), the fast-paced and consummate storytelling (despite the many asides) and the sheer joy of Creation (an irony which would have tickled the professed atheist).

Eskarina Smith is the eighth child of an eighth son, a fact which has marked her out as something special, as special as the seventh son of a seventh son in our world. Except that Esk is a girl. Which means she technically can’t become a wizard because — as any fule kno — wizards are men. Esk’s own granny Esmeralda Weatherwax is a woman and therefore it is only right that she is able to be a witch. But there is a problem: Esk was handed a wizard’s staff at her moment of birth. And that is a very big problem.

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The only certainty

Holbeins Totentanz: der Sterndeuter - Holbein's Dance of Death / Astrologer -
Holbeins Totentanz: der Sterndeuter – Holbein’s Dance of Death: Astrologer

Terry Pratchett Mort Corgi 1988 (1987)

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get round to Terry Pratchett. Maybe it’s because the comic fantasy I’ve sampled up to now has elicited a lukewarm response, humour being such a personal thing. I like word play as much as the next reader, along with left-field concepts, but key literary ingredients such as plotting, a sureness with words and above all characterisation are a must for me; their lack becomes a triumph of superficiality over substance.

Pratchett’s Mort I’ve discovered has both substance and sheen. Fourth in his celebrated Discworld series he skilfully blends whimsy, high fantasy, allusions and, yes, wordplay with a rattling good story, peopled with characters that despite some caricature keep the reader interested right through to the end. Continue reading “The only certainty”

Tickling funny bones

clown

The next genre that the creative writing course looked at was Comedy, and as usual I’ll be adding my own take on the discussion in this post. All genres of course vary widely and engender varied reader responses, but comic writing is particularly difficult as humour is very personal: what’s funny to one person can leave another cold. Whether your tastes veer towards physical slapstick and the comedy of cruelty or the maybe more subtle mental ribtickling of wordplay, puns, riddles and exaggeration it pretty much all relies on what the writer Arthur Koestler (in his 1964 study The Act of Creation) called “bisociation”. Essentially this is the bringing together of at least two normally unrelated concepts in an unexpected way, the metaphorical equivalent of an unlooked-for slap in the face that either provokes an understanding smile or a shocked reaction in an explosive guffaw.

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Love potions without number

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Tom Holt The Portable Door Orbit 2004

Tom Holt is a respected comic fantasy writer, whose only other work I was previously aware of was Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? So I was pleased to have this novel recommended to me, if only to see if Holt’s inventiveness extends just to witty parodic titles like Faust Among Equals, Paint Your Dragon and Grailblazers.

The answer is, it doesn’t. Continue reading “Love potions without number”

Quick and quirky guide

Gibbous moon of Jupiter, Europa (NASA image)
Gibbous moon of Jupiter, Europa (NASA image)

Paul Wake, Steve Andrews and Ariel, editors
Waterstone’s Guide to
Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror

Series editor Nick Rennison
Waterstone’s Booksellers 1998

Although getting a bit outdated now (the Waterstones apostrophe, dropped to howls from purists early in 2012, is still there in its full glory) this is a ready reference giving a flavour of the range of authors and works in the three genres. It’s not exhaustive of course — no work could be, especially in these ever-popular genres — but I find it useful to dip into for a quick and often quirky summary of an author new to me. As such it fulfils the aim outlined in the introduction, to answer the question (and variants of it) that staff are frequently asked: “I’ve read Tolkien [or some other big name]. What should I try next?” While of necessity slewed to the UK market as it was in the late 20th century it tries to be as comprehensive as is practical in its 200-odd pages; and, while it’s a mystery why it hasn’t since been reissued in revised editions, I shall be keeping this copy on my shelves for a little while longer.

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A funny thing happened on the way to the post office…

toilet cabin
Stefan Jakubowski
Once Upon A Tyme
Zygmunt Stanley 2009

It’s Tom Tyme’s sixty-fifth birthday and after he has been down to the village post office – while it’s still there – to collect his pension he’s going to become a Time Traveller.
But he doesn’t know that yet.

Doctor Who has his Tardis, Tom Tyme has his … Portaloo. No, this isn’t a Cornish seaside resort — though we do get to visit Tintagel — but a machine for travelling in time and space. Unlike the Tardis, however, there’s not much space inside it and the flush doesn’t do what you’d want it to.

And that’s just for starters in this inventive comic novel, which involves a talking moggie, King Arthur’s sword Excalibur and mistaken identities — from which you’ll gather it’s absolutely pointless giving a plot summary. Continue reading “A funny thing happened on the way to the post office…”

A spoof with serious intent

Diana Wynne Jones The Dark Lord Of Derkholm Gollancz 2000 (1998)

comic fantasy
makes valid point: don’t despoil
the lands you visit

griffinAnyone who is part of a large organisation will recognise the quandaries that Wizard Derk finds himself in when he is appointed Dark Lord in a real-life role-playing game. Despite his living in a world where magic is as natural as breathing, his attempts to cope with the vagaries that are thrown at him by an uncaring Senior Management, and which are deliberately sabotaged by Middle Managers with their own agenda, are familiar to those foot-soldiers in this our own world who are forced to cope with one emergency after another caused either by conspiracy or cock-up. And although crisis management is by its nature very stressful, there comes a point where you feel you have neither the energy nor the inclination to carry on with your goodwill sapped and your moral compass thrashed. Continue reading “A spoof with serious intent”