Tuesday, June 2, 2009

JUNE Book Review? Already?

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@Barrie Summy

Heh-heh. I guess this means it's a month since my last post. But, hey, I can sit at the computer without whimpering now, and my brain seems to be my own for the first time in two months. Plus I'm getting out more. Plus my computer's fixed.

So no excuse for NOT turning over a new leaf, right?

Tune in soon for more scintillating posts. And right now...here's the June edition of the Book Review Club. Click on the widget (above) to find other reviews. (The widget won't work until our esteemed founder, Barrie Summy, posts her review. She's in California so there may be a brief delay for us Easterners.)

By Terry Pratchett
HarperCollins, 2008

Thank you, Nation, for finally bringing me to Terry Pratchett.

For years my soul has struggled. I felt that Terry Pratchett was out there, waiting for me to come to my senses and adore him. Time after time, I picked up one of the Discworld novels, found the writing delightful, laughed out loud at least once a page…and threw the book across the room about halfway through, never to return.

Clearly, there was something wrong with me. This is the funniest writer since P.G. Wodehouse, my friends adore him—why was I incapable of finishing his books? I tried Good Omens, which Pratchett team-wrote with Neal Gaiman, and loved it. Tried a Discworld book again. Threw it across the room.

So I approached his young-adult novel Nation with trepidation, reluctant to be toyed with yet again. But it sounded so good, so completely up my alley. I had to try, just one more time.

And, praise Pratchett, I saw the light. Or at least a glimmer of an inkling of why I was having so much trouble with such a marvelous writer.

I then read The Wee Free Men, supposedly a Discworld book (I don’t know how you’d tell) written for kids. Loved it. I retrieved The Colour of Magic, the first adult Discworld book, from an obscure quarter of my bookshelf and tried it again. I finished it, praise Pratchett, but found it tough going in places.

The glimmer became a radiance. I knew what my problem was. Same old problem I always have: character.

Based on four and a half books (I tried to read Monstrous Regiment a couple of years ago but didn’t finish it), it appears to me that Pratchett believes books for younger readers must have real characters, with full histories and known desires and prejudices, while books for adults can be pure farce with characters we know only superficially. That’s why I—unlike, I admit, most reasonable adults— lose interest halfway through…I just don’t know these people well enough to care what happens to them.

In The Wee Free Men, we know all about fledgling witch Tiffany Aching’s childhood, her heritage, her feelings for her grandmother and baby brother, her love for cheese-making…and where she gets her courage. We’re rooting for her from the minute she clangs a water demon over the head with a frying pan. In The Colour of Magic, all we know about Rincewind is that he got kicked out of wizard school and has a big bad spell lodged in his brain. He’s a coward who learns that his survivor skills sometimes could be mistaken for ethics—which is growth, which is good, but not enough. Nobody else in the book learns much of anything.

Which brings us to Nation, where everyone learns and grows, even entire cultures. The writing is funny, because Pratchett can’t help it. (Description of a main character’s Victorian grandmother: “…a mixture of the warrior queen Boadicea without the chariot, Catherine de Medici without the poisoned rings, and Attila the Hun without his wonderful sense of fun.”) But there’s a serious tale to be told here, of two young people learning that other cultures are just the same old people, sometimes venal and silly but mostly deserving of respect.

The story is simple: A nineteenth century tidal wave washes two kids onto a depopulated tropical island, one a Victorian miss in pantaloons, the other a naked islander. Neither of them knows enough about the other’s culture to be anything but suspicious, but they must suspend their doubts and collaborate in order to survive.

Over time, as other refugees wash ashore, they create an island nation that combines the best parts of several cultures. The Victorian miss, who calls herself Daphne because she (justifiably) hates her respectable given name, Ermintrude, discovers that she has a soul and an affinity with island mysticism. She who had never before seen a naked table leg now is capable of birthing babies. Mau, the islander, grows from a grief-stricken, befuddled boy into the thoughtful, flexible leader of a multicultural society. Add a British succession crisis and earth-shaking revelations of an archeological and mystical nature, and the effects of their teamwork become global.

This could have been a preachy novel, but it isn’t. The fact that it isn’t is what makes it such a work of art. Daphne and Mau are just so achingly, humorously, recognizably human—this is unquestionably their love story as well as a coming of age story for them and the human race. And even the secondary characters are fully rounded—we know as much about Daphne’s father’s character in two chapters as we learn about Rincewind in an entire book.

Reading Nation has given me a better sense of Pratchett, which I think will carry me though a few more of his adult novels. I’m revisiting Monstrous Regiment first. If I bog down, I understand there are a couple more Wee Free Men novels to revive me. Praise Pratchett.

PS: This morning, I found out Nation had won the Horn Book/Boston Globe Award for fiction, on top of many other awards. Richly, richly deserved.


Barrie said...

Ellen, glad to hear you're feeling better. And now I must try both an adult and a juvenile Terry Pratchett. To see if we're on the same page (pun intended) character wise! Thanks for reviewing!!

Kathy Holmes said...

Interesting - I see what you mean about the characters - the writing really makes them come alive!

Bee said...

Terry Pratchett was barely on my radar before I started blogging . . . but now I have discovered what a HUGE and worldwide fan club he has. This sounds like a great book to cut my Pratchett teeth on. Thanks for the entertaining review . . . (also entertaining on why you have struggled with TP in the past).

Sarahlynn said...

What a fabulously compelling review. I might be more interested in reading The Wee Free Men than Nation, but I especially loved the bits about Pratchett and character. Thank you!

Alyssa Goodnight said...

This book sounds fascinating! I've never read Terry Pratchett, but I could see how the lack of character development could get to you--I like to know all the nitty-gritty about my characters.

Great review!

Ruth said...

Yay, you're still alive! Glad to hear you (and your computer) are doing better.

As to Pratchett, I have the same problem. Sometimes he seems to be writing solely for the purpose of being funny and clever and that gets on my nerves. It does depend on the book, though. Some of his adult novels are great, I can recommend the ones with the witches in them (Equal Rites, Wyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad). And I've also enjoyed Night Watch (on Martje's recommendation). Wee Free Men and the two sequels are the best, though!

Sarah Laurence said...

This is a really interesting review of an author’s full body of work. You’d think character would matter for all ages. I’m not sure if this author appeals to me, but your blog does.

Speaking of people coming together on the coast, isn’t it funny that 2 Mainers would connect through a blogger in San Diego? Blogging is a bit like nation building too. I love all the multiple cultures that wash onto my cybershore.

gabe said...

Because I loved your book, Ellen, I respect your book review - and I'll try Nation - I've read nothing by Pratchett- but this book does sound interesting.

Donna Hosie said...

Hi Ellen - I'm another one who would dearly love to love Pratchett, but cannot get past more than a couple of pages.
I feel a failure because my husband adores the Discworld series and two shelves are taken up with the novels.
Perhaps some things are just not meant to be!
I hope you feel better.

StarlingUK said...

Have you tried the Guards novels? I love them because of the character development, especially Vimes'.