Clients From Hell 2 (Bryce Bladon)

The full title is actually Clients from hell 2: a collection of anonymously-contributed horror stories from designers by Bryce Bladon. With more capital letters. It’s a little disingenuous to say that the book is written by anyone in particular, given that it’s essentially drawn from user-submitted stories. Perhaps assigned a name for an editor would be more fair.

I’m not sure where I picked this one up. I suspect it was a freebie at some point. Clients From Hell is a reasonably successful blog of “horror” stories detailing the communication issues between designers and clients, especially designers working freelance.

In fact, this book includes quite a bit of commentary from some well-respected freelancers, who offer salient advice to those who are looking to branch out and become freelancers themselves. Much of their advice boils down to maintain a balance, and remember that clients are necessary.

The stories are amusing, albeit a little repetitive. If you’re looking only for a moment of humorous distraction (probably to the extent of a wry smile or a half-chuckle, unlikely to produce genuine laughter), then most of the stories are available on the Clients From Hell site. If you genuinely are seeking some fortune cookie advice on freelancing, then this book has it in spades.

It was an enjoyable hour’s worth of distraction.

Amazon linky:

The Colour Of Magic – Terry Pratchett (Discworld #1)

Allow me to wave hello to my readers. Hi there! In particular to Lauren who decided to write a blog post every day this week. This has spurred me towards making an effort to write more. Since books are generally slightly more than a one day effort (usually :P), I’m doing to write a review of a book from one of my favourite authors, Terry Pratchett.

Author bio stuff: Terry Pratchett, sorry, make that Sir Terry Pratchett was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1998, and was knighted in 2009. His first book, The Carpet People was published in 1971, and the first book of the Discworld series, The Colour Of Magic, was published in 1983 (a good year!) According to his Wikipedia page, he was the best selling author in the United Kingdom during the 1990s until usurped by J. K. Rowling, and is amongst the world’s most-read and most-popular authors. And I think that he’s brilliant. In 2007 he announced that he had early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. He subsequently donated a million dollars (US) to research on the disease, and his fans donated another one million dollars as part of a “Match It For Pratchett” scheme. Various news reports discuss it further, as well as the fan-site.

Let’s jump to the punchline: The Colour of Magic is good. It’s really quite … good. But. And it’s a rather significant but, it is not anything close to his best work. It was his first real attempt at comic fantasy, and the balance isn’t quite right. The world that we are introduced to is a little too generic fantasy. The characters rely a little too much on the standard tropes. Many people hear wonderful things, glowing and effusive praise for Pratchett and the Discworld series, they read the first book (because starting at the beginning is logical, right?) and are left a little cool on the experience. Most of the books are quite stand-alone (there are recurring characters: the Witches books, the Watch books, the Unseen University books, the books that centre on Death, etc, and it’s good to be introduced to those characters in the correct order, but it really isn’t important), and so reading order doesn’t matter here. This is the not the book that should be the introduction to the Discworld series.

The principle characters are Rincewind and Twoflower. Rincewind is introduced as a street-savvy failed wizard who was forced out of the Unseen University due to his inability to retain any spells. Twoflower is a tourist to the city of Anhk-Morpork (you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy…) from the Agetean empire where, well, things are done a little differently. For a start, gold is quite abundant, to the extent that the entire economy of the city is somewhat warped by his presence. And, unfortunately, he makes the mistake of introducing the idea of fire insurance, leading to the city being burned to the ground. (There are more than a few jokes about “echo-gnomics” and “in-sewer-ants”….) Unknown to Rincewind and Twoflower, they are but pawns in a game of the Gods, and are being directed by The Lady, Fate. They are diverted to the Temple of Bel-Shamharoth, where they are rescued by Hrun the Barbarian (hello slight mockery of standard fantasy tropes) who bemusedly acts as their hero and guide in exchange for photographs of himself produced by Twoflower’s imp-driven picture box.

They escape to the upside-down mountain of the Wyrmberg, a gentle parody on Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series (on the list of “things to read”–I’ve only ever managed some of the short stories), where magic rules everything, and there are some very amusing scenes with a cowardly wizard and the child-like curiousity of a genuine tourist who believes that nothing wrong can ever happen to an innocent bystander.

The novel, which is divided into roughly four mini-stories, finishes with our characters being rescued (or, depending on their point-of-view, kidnapped) by the city-state of Krull, where they are accidentally launched into space to determine the gender of Great A’tuin oh damnit I forgot to mention something really really important.

Why is called Discworld? Because the world is carried through space on the backs of four elephants, who are in turn standing on the back of the space turtle, Great A’tuin. No one knows where he (she?) is swimming toward, or what will happen when they get there. There was speculation that the world was a great sphere, which is patently nonsense: all of the people would fall off the bottom half.

Anyhow, Rincewind and Twoflower are accidentally jettisoned into space, and the book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. The cliffhanger is resolved in the following book, The Light Fantastic, the pair of which complement each other quite well, and stand as a neat little Pratchett-package, separate thematically and stylistically from the rest of the series. Well, at least, that is how is feels in my opinion. Pratchett once said that he wanted to do for comic fantasy that Blazing Saddles did for Westerns. It just took him a little while to find that sweet point of comedy and fantasy.

Like I said, it’s a good book, and if you read it, you really should follow it up with The Light Fantastic. But, it probably shouldn’t be considered representative of Pratchett’s work in general. (Actually, if you’re going to start out, don’t start out with the latest works either. They are, in my opinion, a little smug and cheesy. There was a golden period of about twenty years where he wrote amazing literature. He won the Carnegie Medal during that period.)

Postscript: massive points in its favour for this book though as it introduces the Luggage. A magic trunk made of sapient pear-wood, with hundreds of little legs, that will follow its owner anywhere, in any point in space and time. It’s very devoted. And quite quite deranged.

Oh! There was a TV series a little while back that combined The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic: The Color of Magic [Blu-ray]

The books have been republished in some many different formats over the years: I prefer the artwork of the UK versions, but since I’m linking to Amazon, you’re going to get the US-style illustrations: The Color of Magic: A Discworld Novel There were twentieth anniversary special releases a while back. Nice editions. (Again, Amazon won’t let me link to the Kindle version, it exists…)

There was also a graphic novel: The Discworld Graphic Novels: The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic The artwork is very very good.

Magician — Raymond E. Feist (Riftwar cycle #1)

This review has been a long time coming. It’s a long book, and I wanted to do the review justice. (Honestly, that means that I probably should have written it shortly after finishing the book, not two months later. Oh well.)

I’m going to crib the intro stuff from Wikipedia: Magician is a fantasy novel by Raymond E. Feist. It is the first book of the Riftwar Saga and was originally published in 1982. In 1992, it was republished with much of the edited revisions restored (something like 92,000 additional words.) It is the first of many books by Feist set in the world of Midkemia, which was the setting for this book and most of the subsequent Riftwar books. Magician was separated into two volumes for the United States market and published as Magician: Apprentice and Magician: Master. I read the UK (and Australian) edition which is a single volume (we’re not nearly as scared of long books as Americans ;))

Raymond E. Feist is an American author who primarily writes fantasy fiction. He is best known for the Riftwar Cycle. His Wikipedia page is here, his Amazon page is here. He was signing books at Supernova Sydney this year. If the line hadn’t been about one hundred metres long, I might have gotten something signed. Oh well.

Plot summary: Oh dear, this is going to be difficult. Above, where I said that the books is long? That’s not the half of it. It spans a huge amount of time too. Decades. The brief blurb is as follows: Pug, an orphan boy is apprenticed to a master magician. Suddenly the Kingdom is aswarm with alien invaders, destroying the peace of the kingdom. Pug and his friend Tomas are swept up into the conflict, with Pug’s destiny leading him through a rift to a new world.

Yup. That’s technically a summary. It lacks some details and nuances though. We’re introduced to Pug and Tomas, and the town of Crydee, and for a little while, it’s a standard coming-of-age story–there’s a brave rescue, an unobtainable princess, some magic, disappointment from Pug when he’s not chosen as an apprentice to the guards as he desires. It’s all very comfortable, and familiar, and I was very much looking forward to seeing how things develop with Pug’s apprenticeship to a magician, but then! War! Invasion! Rifts through to another world! Lots and lots, and dear gods, lots of characters. There is so much potential for this rich world to be explored, but we’re given such fleeting and tantalising glimpses that I was sulking at the book because I wanted more! I wanted more of the dwarves, more of the elves, more history of the worlds. (I realise that I’m sailing awfully close to Tolkien-esque levels of detail-orientated obsessiveness, believe me, I have no intention of getting there. I find the main series of Tolkien readable, but the surrounding paraphernalia is unreadable to me. (Yes, I know, I think I’m going to have to hand in my nerd card now, but honestly, I found the genealogy and endless histories far too dry and tedious.) I imagine that subsequent books revisit a lot of this, or, at least, I hope that they do!) Over the years, the Midkemians are losing the war with the alien Tsurani. Each year, the Tsurani eek out more and more territory. After a failed attempt to close the rift between worlds, Pug is captured and taken as a slave back to the alien world of Kelewan. Years pass, and he progresses from an ineffectual magician to obtaining the title of Great One. An attempt to sue for peace between the Tsurani and Midkemians is the focus for much of the second half of the book (that is technically true, but there is oh so much more!) We end on a fragile peace.

So, with that rather muddled plot summary done, I must answer the question: is it good? Yes. Oh my words, yes! It’s long, but there is so much detail, so much action, so much pure story that I cannot give any other conclusion than a very resounding positive recommendation. (Note, it’s fantasy. That should be clear–magic, elves, dwarves, alien races, etc, but just in case…. And, I’m not kidding about the decades. It is a little frustrating to be settling into the story to have the narrative yanked out from under your feet (metaphorically speaking), and finding yourself several years and a few dimensions away!)

I don’t understand why Amazon doesn’t let me link to their Kindle editions. Annoying. There are about a hundred versions, variation, and publications for Magician. I’m going to link to a few of them: (first, the separate novels in paperbook, US style)
Magician: Apprentice
Magician: Master (Riftwar Saga, Book 2)
I can’t get the Amazon Associates thing to work with the Kindle edition, so you can buy it from that link, but I don’t get the fraction of a fraction of a cent for you doing so. Huh.

World War Z by Max Brooks

The full title is World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. The wikipedia page is here, the Amazon page is here.

A few initial points. It’s zed not zee. Zombies are beyond a cliche now. And I’ve seen the recent film adaptation of this book. I cannot help picturing Brad Pitt as the protagonist.

If you’ve seen the movie, don’t fear, the book has very little to do with the film. Seriously. The film was okay, but nothing more. It was very disjointed, and apparently half of it had to be re-shot as test audiences couldn’t stand the third act. It showed, as the film went from a Hollywood blockbuster to a tense claustrophobic thriller. Sudden change there!

The book, however, is what I’m supposed to be talking about. I mention all of the above, because it’s nigh-on impossible to view and review these works in isolation. This book has a big cult following. The movie had Brad Pitt! Does that change how I write this? Of course!

Max Brooks is an author and screenwriter, son of the famous Mel Brooks, and has a serious love of zombies. (He has also written The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead.)
His Amazon page is here, his Wikipedia page is here.

Plot summary: the narrator is a UN investigator who survived the outbreak, the apocalypse, world war Z; it has many names. (Strider, Aragon, the king in the north…) It is about a decade after the decade-long uprising of the undead. Or reanimated dead. The story unfolds over many interviews with key figures in the history of the outbreak. This technique provides a quite different approach to story-telling. The little vignettes offer glimpses, snapshots only, into this world, and you’re given just enough to see some of the picture, and you’re expected to fill the gaps yourself. It’s a definite change to have an author who recognises that the reader can do some of the work themselves.

It is unclear where and how exactly the virus came to be, but unchecked movement of the infected, and organ-trafficking from China are two of the main causes of the initial spread. A moderate delay between infection and turning also assisted with the spread. Once the virus spread, countries reacted differently. Israel essentially barricaded themselves in. The USA took a military and social engineering approach. South Africa took a cold-blooded stance, and deliberately sacrificed large parts of their population who did not satisfy the cost-benefit argument to be saved. Canadians fled north, the Iranian government and Pakistani government managed to declare war on each other. None if this is directly revealed, of course, it us expected that the dots are joined as they are presented to you.

There is a problem, and that’s the ending. Now, I don’t want to spoil things, of course, but I’m going to make some general points. First, there’s a scene, world leaders, strategists, and the like: they’re coordinating efforts, and the American stands up and makes a rousing speech. The book notes that if this was a film then there would be a slow clap, building to a crescendo, a bald eagle would fly into the room wrapped in the stars and stripes (okay, I made that bit up), and it’d be “gosh, the solution was just good ol’ fashioned American spirit and a never-say-die attitude”. Very cynical, nice acknowledgement of the standard tropes. But then the book turns around and does exactly that! The Americans decide that enough is enough and they’re Americans goshdarnit, and all this is going to take is a bit of effort. It leaves a real sour taste.

The second point relates to the movie: it has a much better ending. The film, for all of its many faults, turns into a tense, well-paced thriller for the third act. The book finishes very weakly, and takes the gloss off what was otherwise an excellent presentation.

Is it worth it? Sure. The story-telling is good, really good. It’s clever, it’s inventive, it’s different, and that makes it worthwhile.

Amazon links (I get a fraction of a fraction of a cent, apparently, if you buy from this link). The Kindle link doesn’t work, but you can select that option from the paperback option, which is here:

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

The Cuckoo’s Call

Annnnnd we’re back to detective stories ! Very good.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is billed as a Cormoran Strike (the lead character) novel. Perhaps this is going to be a series. I wouldn’t object. (That’s a hint (and summary) for the rest of the review, I guess.) This book was forwarded onto me, and so I came into it with no expectations. (Note: I have found out since that this will likely be a series.)

About the author: most of this review was written on the iOS WordPress app, with gaps left to fill in the details that I needed to look up. The author is listed as Robert Galbraith. Cool. That name rang no bells, so I read the book, and quite enjoyed the book. Wrote the review. Turns out Robert Galbraith doesn’t exist. Galbraith is a pseudonym for J. K. Rowling. Yes, that J. K. Rowling. Okay. Wow. I suppose that she doesn’t need much introduction. She, uh, wrote some books about a boy wizard, a book about depression, misery, and drug-taking in middle England, and apparently is writing detective fiction under a male pseudonym. There’s a quote, “Being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience‚Ķ It has been wonderful to publish without hype and expectation and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name”, which I can’t link to the source, because it’s behind Murdoch’s paywall protecting the Sunday Times.

Cormoran Strike is a contradiction, like all good private detectives. He is physically imposing; large in all dimensions, somewhat brutish, and rather intimidating. This is paired with an incredibly sharp, disciplined mind, and some rather limiting personality flaws. He is ex-Army, physically disabled (these two facts are connected), and recently separated from his cheating, manipulative partner, and is living in his dingy office. His downward spiral is interrupted by Robin Ellacott, a temporary secretary that he can’t afford. Robin is enarmored by the work, but not by Strike himself. A former friend contacts him about the apparent suicide of his (the friend’s) half-sister, Lula Lantry. He is convinced it was murder, and despite initial reservations, Strike investigates. So far, so standard. However, the backdrop of London fashion, nightlife, wealth, and power provide an interesting flavour to the story. Very few of the characters are particularly likeable, with their flaws being highlighted as part of their motivations and character.

It is difficult to discuss the book without talking about the finer details of the story. I don’t want to spoil the narrative, which is one of the biggest issues with attempting to review detective fiction.

I’m in two minds about it: when I was reading it, I found it excellent. The following day, still excellent. When I was first thinking about this review, trying to pinpoint some of the reasons I rated it highly, I struggled. In retrospect, the characterisation was a highlight. There were excellent description passages, the story weaved together nicely, and the dialogue was definitely a notch or two above what is average for this genre.

The denouement is well-done. All of the pieces were there if you had been looking for them. If you were an aficionado of the genre, you may have thought that they were laying it on a bit thick. However, hindsight is always 20/20, so maybe I’m being unfair there.

It’s a good example of modern British character-driven detective fiction. I quite liked it, even if I seem to be unable to quite articulate the reasons why.

Epilogue: I wrote all of that before I know who the author was. I think I still stand by all of it.

Buy the book using these links! (For some unknown reason, Amazon isn’t allowing the link to the Kindle page. It’s available on Kindle, as well as dead-tree editions.)

The Cuckoo’s Calling (Cormoran Strike)