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Guards Guards!

I have listened to Terry Pratchett’s wonderful Guards Guards so many times–each time saying, I’ll just listen to a bit until I have a moment to load up something else, and then there I am, completely entranced as usual, chortling away in the car, trying to stifle my giggles in the subway.
This is where we first meet Sam Vimes and his men–drunk, staggering around their fabulous terrible old town, and slowly becoming–the Guards. Thanks to Carrot Ironfoundersson, the 6 foot adopted (human) son of a dwarf family, who comes to town to learn about being human. Where he is shocked to find dwarfs drinking and acting like loons in a vulgar tavern.

Carrot lowered the offending dwarf to the floor. There were tears in his eyes.

“You’re dwarfs!” he said. “Dwarfs shouldn’t be acting like this! Look at you all. Aren’t you ashamed?”

One hundred bone-hard jaws dropped.

“I mean, look at you!” Carrot shook his head. “Can you imagine what your poor, white-bearded old mother, slaving away back in her little hole, wondering how her son is getting on tonight, can you imagine what she’d think if she saw you now? Your own dear mothers, who first showed you how to use a pickax—”

Nobby, standing by the doorway in terror and amazement, was aware of a growing chorus of nose-blowings and muffled sobs as Carrot went on: “—she’s probably thinking, I expect he’s having a quiet game of dominoes or something—”

And Lady Sybil! Lord Vetinari! The orangutan Librarian! Good lord, the Elucidated Brethren of the Ebon Night!
How can anyone not love this stuff?

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Lovely War, by Julie Berry
I read about this book in the children’s book review section–but YA books do not repel me, and I found it charming. It has a gimmick, but it is a gimmick that delighted me, and though it is in fact a war story, and has its share of explosions and death and mud, it also has jazz and dances and pretty girls in love with handsome boys. The story is set in England and France during WWII, with fictional characters living through real events and encountering real people. Well written, and easy to love. I will leave you to find out what the gimmick is!
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Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
My daughter gave me this book, and I will admit that it is unlikely that I would have come across it otherwise. The author is an ardent feminist, not to mention a leftist intellectual, neither of which attributes inclines me to love her.  
However, the book is witty and well written–and I enjoyed it. It is the story of Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman who goes to university in America, and eventually returns to Nigeria–not unlike Adichie herself. She leaves her high school sweetheart behind–Obinze, a good boy who becomes a good man–and the long and fascinating path she walks eventually takes her back to him. While in America, she develops a blog called ‘Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black” and becomes well known as a result. Many of the posts are quoted in the book, and some are quite sharp. Though as she becomes more political, I found myself skipping through them. And I loved the completely malicious portrait of her earnest American boyfriend, a very whole earth kind of guy, who gradually drains all the joy out of her. Which she regains on returning to Nigeria–along with the charming Obinze. 
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The Ruin of Kings, by Jenn Lyons
One of the comments on this book was “Who wants microwaved Game of Thrones leftovers?”–and, yes, there is a certain resemblance. Not quite as splendid, and not quite as horrifying–though, the prize for splendid and horrifying will always go to Steven Erikson, the master of this genre. This one has none of that elan, though I note that Lyons is involved in writing video games, as was Erikson. Building worlds is what they do for those games, and it is excellent training for building worlds in fantasy land. This one was marred for me by inexpert reading–there were 3 people reading, and the one with the boy’s voice made me wince–he almost lisped! Still, I kept listening, the story is gripping, and as in Erikson’s Malazan series has people coming back from the land of the dead, and living again! Or, not. Also curses and demons and thieves and dragons and princes–all good fun. The novelty is rebirth and resurrection–people die, spend centuries in the Land of Peace–and then are born again! And take up their weapons for the fight, the neverending fight against wickedness. With different names. I must admit that I quickly lost track of who was whose long lost grandfather/uncle/wife/son. But as I said, I kept listening, and was entertained. It has been optioned for a TV show, and I might give it a looksee if it makes it to the screen. Though the bar is very high for this sort of thing! 
Note also that this is billed as book 1 in a series of who knows how many.
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This book is Neil Gaiman telling these familiar stories, just telling the stories. They are not cheery stories, and the terrible last battle, Ragnarok, is when everything and everyone dies in a series of terrible catastrophes–the wolf Fenric devours the sun, the seas cover the earth. But not quite everyone dies! Two humans survived, hiding within the world tree Yggdrisil, a Norse Adam and Eve.
The stories are filled with giants, witches, magical swords, ravishing goddesses and gods: Baldur the beautiful, killed by a tiny dart made of mistletoe–the one plant that his mother didn’t make promise not to harm her beautiful son. The whole world mourns his death, and it is a harbinger of dread Ragnarok.

But my favorite story is of magnificent Thor, the thunder god, with his fabulous hammer–feasting with the giants, he competes in a drinking contest (one of his many skills, drinking). They bring him a horn of mead and he tries to drain it–three times he tries, but each time the level is barely reduced. He is humiliated. Except, as they are leaving, the giant king tells him that he had been drinking the sea, and with his enormous gulps he lowered the level so much that he caused the tides. HA!

I read about Thor and Baldur and Odin as a child, along with stories of the Greek gods–and so many others, Bible stories, Aesop’s’ fables, Grimm’s fairy tales–humans telling each other stories, thrilling one another since the beginning of time with terrifying wonderful stories.
Someone has just to say the words: ‘once upon a time’–and everyone turns toward the story teller, and sits down to listen.

As usual I was searching desperately for something to listen to on my commute–and, I considered Robin Hobb. A couple years ago I read and read her books, in a wild passion to find out what happened next. There are a LOT of them–maybe 15 or so.
YES, they are set in a fantasy world, and let me admit right up front–there are DRAGONS.
Sigh.
At this point the more sensible person says, WHOOPS, just remembered an appointment elsewhere, so long!
But for the less sensible, what an adventure lies before you! Ms. Hobb has built a good sound world, with towns and seaports and believable people.
Well, aside from their magical talents, that is.
And such a series of plots, intertwining and dividing, and filled with chills and thrills! Including an actual return from death. Whew!
I wrote about one of the scenes 2 years ago (here) and still remember how affected I was. Restraining my sobs on the subway! But before that grievous parting, such heroic trials, such joyful companionship!
I KNEW it was probably not wise to start with Book 1 of this fascinating series again, and toyed with other choices. But then pressed START–and there was the fierce grandfather pushing his 6-year old bastard grandson into the reluctant hands of the guard at the grim keep–let his father take care of him, I’ll none of him. Poor little child. His mother crying behind them, but the grandfather refuses to listen.
The father is a PRINCE of course….

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Dickens

I finished Dombey and Son while off gallivanting in New Hampshire—and while I admit that it is sentimental and completely alien to our time and manners–yet, I was always pleased to pick it up (particularly as it was in electronic format, on my light-as-a-feather tablet)–and relished the ridiculous coincidences and wonderful language. The speeches are too long, the story goes on for ever–Florence’s amazing goodness and her father’s amazing badness are quite quite unbelievable. But it didn’t bother me. Dickens keeps my attention, keeps me reading. And there is something delightfully luxurious about a story that is in no hurry at all. And, it often made me smile–Dickens can’t resist the ever present fools about us, and is particularly fond of silly ladies:

“I assure you, Mr Dombey, Nature intended me for an Arcadian. I am thrown away in society. Cows are my passion. What I have ever sighed for, has been to retreat to a Swiss farm, and live entirely surrounded by cows—and china.’ This curious association of objects, suggesting a remembrance of the celebrated bull who got by mistake into a crockery shop, was received with perfect gravity by Mr Dombey, who intimated his opinion that Nature was, no doubt, a very respectable institution.”

LOTS more where that came from.
The story is devilish complicated, and there is a very wicked man who –oh, he does such things, all the while smiling so broadly with his gleaming white teeth. But he receives his just reward!

It is something of a dark story, but the little girl manages to melt her father’s hard heart in the end–and really, Dickens is your man for happy endings! With a certain amount of heartbreak and death first, of course

I always find it hard to read a book when every character is a jerk, as is the case in this book. PARTICULARLY the main character. And yet! The prose is so clever, the author so witty, that I read it cover to cover quick as a wink. The book starts by pointing out that  “This is not an autobiographical novel: it is about some other portly, dissolute, immoral and middle-aged art dealer.” The Honorable Charlie Mortdecai is as disreputable a toad as you can imagine, and as for his thug of a manservant Jock Strapp, yikes. Fabulous paintings are stolen, violence ensues, men are killed. Somehow, none of it is very believable, but what can I say, it is very entertaining. I put some quotes here, and can only say, go ahead and try it. Despicable but never boring–a sort of Bertie Wooster from the dark side.

Kyril Bonfiglioli

These books are filled with entertaining incident–another fantasy series that is begging to be made into a Netflix series. Michael Sullivan can certainly tell a story–I found myself drawn to continue, to find out what happens next. Not much of a stylist–never a moment when you think WHOA, must remember that phrase, that description–but a solid workman, who keeps plodding on. One of our two Invincible-Low-Born-Thief-Heroes is short (Royce), the other is tall (Hadrian). Thus we tell them apart. In the TV series I expect one will be blonde and the other not, which will also make it easier.

I remember reading a comment about Sharon Kay Penman which pointed out that her books are somewhat ponderous–like riding an ox cart–but, you got there in the end. Similarly, these Riyria books are slow and methodical, but you get there in the end. And yes, it’s a fun ride, however slow and bumpy. I should add that I listened to them, excellently well read by Tim Reynolds.

  • We start with Theft of Swords: a king is killed, our 2 heroes are blamed and imprisoned, but rescued and continue on to fresh adventures. In other news, A simple country maid in a simple country village does a great deed.
  • Then comes Rise of Empire. The wicked religious order plots to supplant the weaker kings etc.  Simple country maid now Empress.
  • Heir of Novron finishes off the many stories, and it ends very well. As I said, Mr. Sullivan can tell a story.