Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Lords and Ladies by Sir Terry Pratchett

Lords and Ladies
by Sir Terry Pratchett
Corgi Books, 2013 (originally published in 1992)
400 pages

LOOK! More Pratchett! I haven't forgotten about the Discworld. In fact, I think it basically stays in the back of my head all the time. I putter about my library and in my head, I am always on the watch for the Librarian. I would welcome him with a banana. I would never dare call him a monkey.

One learns all sorts of things from the Discworld, you see. I've been trying to explain these books to a few non-converts lately and I just can't seem to get it right. I'm too deep into the Discworld at this point to be objective, and while I objectively recognize that these books are not for everyone, emotionally I just can't understand why everyone doesn't adore these books the way I do.

In Lords and Ladies, we're back with the witches Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick, who, if you recall Witches Abroad (and you should; it's one of the best) went on a trip, leaving the tiny country of Lancre to get about on her own. This, it turns out, was maybe not such a good idea. It's circle time, meaning the walls between universes are becoming thin. Those walls are there for good reason. On the other side of those walls are laughing, merry, beautiful elves. Beautiful, bloodthirsty, greedy, amoral elves.

As with most Discworld books, amid the merrymaking (some of it quite bloody) and the madcap, slapstick, and occasionally subtle humour, there are serious notes. As with Witches Abroad, Pratchett peels back the layers of stories and what they mean and what they can do, but in a different way here. Memory and its failings is part of it: it's been so long since the elves were in Lancre that no one remembers them as they truly were. They have become laughable and cute, and in some cases glamourous - because elves can make themselves look like what the humans observing them desire. The point that no one remembers the hidden horrors because all they remember is the surface beauty and class of the elves is made a couple of times. Elves are compared to cats: beautiful, classy, charming creatures when they want to be - and mercilessly cruel, deadly, and capricious, too. When all that's left are the folktales and the superstitions, the tales of heroes and villains, then it's quite possible for history to repeat itself. One knows one is supposed to leave milk out for the fairies. One forgets that's because one really doesn't want the fairies to have to come in to the house to get it themselves.

Surfaces and what they mean also make an appearance - what elves are on the surface, what each of us is on the surface. Hard to explain this more without spoilers, but let's just say that when it comes to Magrat Garlick, surfaces matter a lot. And changing the surface helps her change the interior when she needs that change the most. We've probably all been in a situation where the clothes we're wearing help us feel up to the task (or not) - at a job interview, or meeting an important personage - and Magrat suffers an extreme case in the latter part of Lords and Ladies. To cathartic effect.

In the end, I liked this book but I didn't love it the way I've loved some of the other Discworld books I've read. I'm not entirely sure why, though I did find it a bit hard to follow towards the end and had to read a couple of sections two or three times to get exactly what was going on. The danger never felt particularly acute, not in the same way it has in some of the earlier books; I always figured something was going to happen to fix the situation. The solution was telegraphed a bit, too.

But as always, saying that this particular Disworld book isn't quite as good as some of the others is like saying that coconut cream pie is all right: I might prefer pumpkin, but coconut cream is still pretty delicious. And contains enough cream to keep the fairies sated.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Old City Hall by Robert Rotenberg

Old City Hall
by Robert Rotenberg
Recorded Books, 2009
10 discs, unabridged

Here's an interesting case: a book I can acknowledge was not terribly well-written, in the main, but that I still quite liked.

I think I read a lot of things that aren't brilliant writing, and I generally enjoy them if they've got decent characters and a good story. It's pretty rare that I can ignore out-and-out poor writing so comprehensively as I did in this case. But Old City Hall was at least extremely entertaining to listen to, and at best it was great. The writing isn't consistently mediocre; it even has some very good moments. Enough that I have hope for the future books of this series.

And as I said, something did grab me. Maybe I just enjoyed hearing a mystery set in Toronto, or maybe in the end it was the characters - wooden and obscure as some of them felt - that did it.

A newspaper deliveryman arrives at the penthouse apartment in a downtown building at exactly his appointed time, bearing a copy of The Globe and Mail for Kevin Brace, Canada's most famous radio voice. But instead of the usual punctuality and polite chat he has come to expect, Brace meets Mr. Singh late, with blood on his hands and a stunned expression - "I killed her," he says. Sure enough, Brace's younger common-law spouse is naked and dead in the hallway bathroom, a single stab wound to her abdomen. Brace refuses to speak to anyone, including his lawyer, and the pieces in what should be a cut-and-dried case just don't quite fit.

Ari Greene is the lead detective, and the series is named for him, but this story is told from multiple perspectives as well as Greene's, including Nancy Parrish the defence lawyer, Arthur Fernandes the prosecutor, and Daniel Kennicot, a young criminal-lawyer-turned-police-officer. It's a fairly straightforward procedural and steeped in Toronto in deep winter. Because of the multiple perspectives we don't get terribly deep into the heads of any of the characters, and Greene is a bit of a cipher, though the bits with his father are lovely. Daniel Kennicot was the character who really stood out for me, and this is a good thing as things seem set up to continue with him as a main character throughout the series.

The problems come in with the plot, a little, and the writing, a lot. The plot is well-done, except that it starts to spin a little out of hand, as though Rotenberg was trying to jam as much in as he possibly could, and make comments on certain societal things. It gets complicated and I do like that while the mystery wraps up there's still enough messiness to make it believable. And while I enjoyed the procedural aspects of the book a lot, I did find that Rotenberg gets a bit explain-y. He gives the reader too much information - doesn't let us come to our own conclusions, about characters or about events - and he often gets a bit dry while talking about aspects of the legal system, such that he's almost taking the reader aside and saying, "okay, this is how this works, this is why these characters are doing that."

I don't really need to be told how close to reality it is, I'd rather feel it's close to reality, if that makes any sense.

Regardless, I enjoyed, and enough that I'm hoping to get to The Guilty Plea soon. Paul Hecht, by the way, does an excellent job of the narration. I kind of forgot I was driving sometimes, I was paying so close attention. I should probably watch out for that. Recommended for fans of light and easy-to-follow mysteries, especially if you want a different sort of setting, and want to experience a parallel universe where the Maple Leafs are actually kind of a hockey team and not a joke.