Review: A Blink of the Screen by Terry Pratchett

blink of the screen US cover by terry pratchettFormat read: ebook provided by the publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genre: fantasy, science fiction, short story collection
Series: Discworld
Length: 320 pages
Publisher: Doubleday
Date Released: March 17, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

A collection of short fiction from Terry Pratchett, spanning the whole of his writing career from schooldays to Discworld and the present day.

In the four decades since his first book appeared in print, Terry Pratchett has become one of the world’s best-selling and best-loved authors. Here for the first time are his short stories and other short-form fiction collected into one volume. A Blink of the Screen charts the course of Pratchett’s long writing career: from his schooldays through to his first writing job on the Bucks Free Press, and the origins of his debut novel, The Carpet People; and on again to the dizzy mastery of the phenomenally successful Discworld series.

Here are characters both familiar and yet to be discovered; abandoned worlds and others still expanding; adventure, chickens, death, disco and, actually, some quite disturbing ideas about Christmas, all of it shot through with Terry’s inimitable brand of humour. With an introduction by Booker Prize-winning author A.S. Byatt, illustrations by the late Josh Kirby and drawings by the author himself, this is a book to treasure.

My Review:

going postal by terry pratchettIn Going Postal, Terry Pratchett wrote, among many other marvelous things, that, “A man is not dead while his name is still spoken.” If that maxim is true, it will be a very long time before his legacy is finished. This review of A Blink of the Screen is just one of many millions of ways that his spirit is being kept alive.

This collection, finished before the author’s death, contains all of Sir Terry’s published shorter works, including his first published short story, written at the age of 13.

Not many writers would willingly dust off their juvenalia and put it out there again to be commented on and laughed at. The Discworld generally produces laughter, but that is more in the line of “laughing with”. Anything that most of us wrote at 13 would expect to get a great deal of “laughing at”.

While I would not say that The Hades Business is the best thing I have ever read, by Pratchett or anyone else, it hangs together surprisingly well for a story that the author wrote just barely into his teens. It shows the beginning of Pratchett’s trademark sideways humor, and has a darn good payoff at the end.

The two non-Discworld stories I enjoyed the most are The High Meggas and Turntables of the Night. Also Once and Future, as an interesting twist on the Arthurian Tales.

long earth by terry pratchett and stephen baxterThe High Meggas is one of the stories that became the seed of The Long Earth series. It’s a story about survival and cunning in an era where the theory of parallel universes has been proven, and is being used to visit and/or exploit all the survivable parallel Earths in the wake of a catastrophe. The main character is a paranoid survivalist, who is utterly correct in his paranoia – they really are out to get him – unless he gets them first. The way that the parallel Earths are traveled to reminds me of both S.M. Stirling’s Conquistador and Charlie Stross’ Merchant Princes series, both of which very much post-date The High Meggas.

Turntables of the Night is a DEATH story, but it may be the DEATH in Good Omens rather than the one in the Discworld. Or possibly all the various DEATHs speak in ALL CAPS. The part of this story that haunts me is the way that the narrator describes the seduction of DEATH. Not in the physical sense, but in the emotional and psychological sense. Also the poor narrator is unreliable, because she can’t believe what she saw, but can’t quite convince herself that she didn’t see it.

Once and Future is fun because it turns the tables on the classic Arthur stories, but not until the very sharp twist at the end, which really gets you. I expected something to be different, but not this way. This way was better.

Hollywood Chickens has the answer to the age-old question, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” but the method the chickens use is awesome. And only figured out by inference and observation, in a way that was both cool and funny.

Wyrd-Sisters by Terry Pratchett new coverOf the Discworld stories, well, if you have loved any of the Witches stories (start with either Equal Rites or Wyrd Sisters) then The Sea and Little Fishes should not be missed. Nor the deleted extract from the story at the end of the book.

The Sea and Little Fishes showcases the relationship between Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, and shows just how fearsome “good” can be, especially as embodied by Granny Weatherwax. She is the kind of witch who has become very, very sharply good at being good, because if she went bad she would (and certainly could) probably destroy the world. The problem with being very good is that you often expect other people to follow your example, and are quite obviously cross with them if they don’t. Also Granny not only doesn’t suffer fools gladly, she doesn’t suffer fools at all – to the point where they usually know to stay out of her way. The Sea and Little Fishes is a story about what happens when they don’t.

The deleted extract from this story is equally interesting but different. I can see why it got deleted – it doesn’t further the plot of The Sea and Little Fishes at all. At the same time, it shows just how close Weatherwax and Ogg are, and how well they understand each other, even though they are completely different, both as witches and as people. Nanny Ogg takes care of Granny Weatherwax a lot more than one might expect, and it’s terrific.

The short expositions on (and in) the Discworld are not truly stories, but they are absolutely laugh out loud, chuckle, snort funny.

Escape Rating A-: The usual thing about short story collections is that they are uneven – some stories are bound to be better than others. In this particular case, the chronological order of the stories helps that a bit. We expect the stories from the 1980s and 1990s to be better than the bits that Pratchett wrote during his teens. That the stories from the 1960s are in fact not bad is kind of amazing.

And they definitely show the author’s signature humor. For a fan, they are worth reading, but they’re not a good place to introduce people to Pratchett’s work.

The Discworld stories are also more for the fans than for people unfamiliar with the author or Discworld. Many of the short expositions owe at least some of their humor to the fact that we already know these people and this place. The Minutes of the Meeting to Form the Proposed Ankh-Morpork Federation of Scouts is definitely of this type. As is A Few Words from Lord Havelock Vetinari.

But for those of us who are fans, this collection is a treat – including Pratchett’s introduction to each story. We shall not see his like again, and he will be sorely missed.

If you have not yet had a chance to discover the wit, wisdom and wonder that is the Discworld, I envy you. There is a marvelous journey waiting for you.

Get to it!

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Review: A Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott

touch of stardust by kate alcottFormat read: ebook provided by the publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genre: historical fiction
Length: 304 pages
Publisher: Doubleday
Date Released: February 17, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

When Julie Crawford leaves Fort Wayne, Indiana for Hollywood, she never imagines she’ll cross paths with Carole Lombard, the dazzling actress from Julie’s provincial Midwestern hometown. Although the young woman has dreams of becoming a screenwriter, the only job Julie’s able to find is one in the studio publicity office of the notoriously demanding producer David O. Selznick —who is busy burning through directors, writers and money as he begins filming Gone with the Wind.

Although tensions run high on the set, Julie finds she can step onto the back lot, take in the smell of smoky gunpowder and the soft rustle of hoop skirts, and feel the magical world ofGone with the Wind come to life. Julie’s access to real-life magic comes when Carole Lombard hires her as an assistant and invites her into the glamorous world Carole shares with Clark Gable—who is about to move into movie history as the dashing Rhett Butler.

Carole Lombard, happily profane and uninhibited, makes no secret of her relationship with Gable, which poses something of a problem for the studio as Gable is technically still married—and the last thing the film needs is more negative publicity. Julie is there to fend off the overly curious reporters, hoping to prevent details about the affair from slipping out. But she can barely keep up with her blonde employer, let alone control what comes out of Carole’s mouth, and–as their friendship grows – soon finds she doesn’t want to. Carole, both wise and funny, becomes Julie’s model for breaking free of the past.

In the ever-widening scope of this story, Julie is given a front-row seat to not one but two of the greatest love affairs of all time: the undeniable on-screen chemistry between Scarlett and Rhett, and off screen, the deepening love between Carole and Clark. Yet beneath the shiny façade, things in Hollywood are never quite what they seem, and Julie must learn to balance career aspirations and her own budding romance with outsized personalities and the overheated drama on set.

My Review:

gone with the wind movie posterAnyone who is a fan of Hollywood in the Golden Age, or of the movie Gone With the Wind (GWTW) and any or everyone who starred it in should probably read this book. Even though it is fiction, and the story is seen through the eyes of a fictional character, it feels true.

It feels like you are there, in those heady and tumultuous days just before the outbreak of World War II, watching the impossible come to life.

Because that’s what the movies do – they make something nebulous into a script and then a movie – so the unreal becomes real for everyone to see.

We follow the making of Gone With the Wind through the eyes of Julie Crawford, a young woman who has come from Ft. Wayne Indiana to make her fortune in Hollywood. Not, thank goodness, as an actress, but as a screenwriter.

Julie comes from a wealthy and influential family back home, but she does not want that same lifestyle for herself, along with its requirements of marrying the “right” man, raising her children the “right” way and keeping herself occupied by sitting on the boards of the “right” charities.

She wants a life of her own, on her own terms. And Hollywood is the place where people come to reinvent themselves. So off she goes, with a one-year deadline from her parents to either make it or come home. Julie knows that she won’t be coming home, but her parents are of the impression that the girl who leaves will be the same girl they can guilt into submission in a year.

That never happens. Time and circumstances change who we are. We grow up. And so does Julie.

She starts out as a mimeograph girl in the publicity department, but catches the eye of Carole Lombard. The two former Ft. Wayne girls hit it off, and the story takes flight.

We all know that Gone With the Wind was a huge success. (Adjusted for inflation, it is still the most successful film in history) But while it was being made, the picture was a huge gamble.

There were a lot of people who wanted the producer, David O. Selznick, to fail, and fail big. He was a tremendous micro-manager (to use today’s term) and drove everyone to exhaustion with his demands – including himself.

Lombard in 1940
Lombard in 1940

But the central figure in this story was not actually in GWTW. Carole Lombard was actually the cause of some of the publicity department’s bigger nightmares, which is how Julie meets Carole. Hollywood history remembers Gable and Lombard as one its great real-life romances. But when GWTW begins, they are living together while Gable is in the throes of divorce from his first wife. This violation of the morals code then in force, as well as Lombard’s joy in flaunting it in everyone’s face, drove the publicity people crazy.

(The morals code was part of all the actors’ contracts. The star-making machinery of Hollywood was both more invasive and more protective than it is today. But there was still a double-standard. Lombard was on set often during the filming, even though Gable was still married to someone else for part of the time. On the famous other hand, Vivien Leigh had to keep her lover, the still-married Laurence Olivier, very much under wraps during production.)

But Julie Crawford comes to Hollywood with her eyes wide shut. She thinks she knows what she is getting into, but of course she doesn’t. Her eyes get opened in every possible way, as she breaks out of her mold and learns the ropes.

Through her friendship with Lombard, she also sees the insider’s view of Hollywood that mere spectators don’t get to see. It’s Julie’s sisterhood with Lombard that gives her an entree into the business, and the screenwriter Frances Marion who gets her the first rung up the stair of scriptwriting.

And on the brink of World War II, in the steaming hothouse environment of making one of the most expensive and most successful films ever made, Julie falls in love with someone that her parents would find totally unacceptable – and Julie needs to decide who she really is.

Escape Rating A: In case you can’t tell, I loved this one. It’s a story that steps into another world. Actually two other worlds, because the making of Gone With the Wind is a world onto itself. Golden Age Hollywood is also a separate world. The movie-making machinery was at its heyday in the 1930s, and it was trying desperately to ignore the growing clouds of war on the horizon.

One of the things that is not glossed over in the book, is the amount of both racism and antisemitism that was prevalent in Hollywood and the country at large. GWTW whitewashes the period it covers. And even though the production created large numbers of jobs for African-American actors, at the same time all the roles were subservient, and the Black actors, including future Oscar-winner Hattie McDaniel, were not welcome at the opening night gala held in Atlanta. (Looking back, this was obviously not one of Atlanta’s finer moments)

Antisemitism was also rampant in Hollywood, and all over the country. This is both in spite of and because of the number of studios owned and managed by Jews in the pre-war years. The knowledge of what was happening in Europe under Hitler, and the fears that the U.S. might get dragged into another war at least in part as a way of combating the treatment of Jewish people in Nazi Germany, just added fuel to the fire.

This is brought home to readers in the story through Julie’s boyfriend Andy. His grandparents are shipped to the Dachau concentration camp, and he does not know the fate of his brother in Paris. He faces antisemitism at home and a growing fear for his family that will be realized.

Then there is the Gable and Lombard romance. As Carole Lombard’s friend and confidant, Julie has a front row seat for the scenes of what appears to have been a true-life love story. Julie sees Gable and Lombard as a romantic couple who, even though they have their ups and downs, have forged a true relationship in the midst of everything fake about Hollywood. (That readers know the future, and Lombard’s death in 1942, makes the scenes between the two Hollywood icons all the more poignant).

Julie, in many ways, stands in for us. While she does have her own story, an important part of her function as a character is to give us eyes to see this world through. She is able to see both the tinsel and the dross that it covers, and she’s someone you’d like to have a drink or a meal with.

Frances Marion in 198
Frances Marion in 198

However, my favorite scene in the story is where the famous (and quite real) screenwriter Frances Marion gives a mentoring session and coaching class to a group of young women, including Julie, who want to become screenwriters just like Frances. She holds up an Oscar (her own) and shows the women the back of Oscar’s head.

“What I want you all to know first is that Oscar is a perfect symbol for the movies,” Frances Marion said. “He’s a man with a powerful athletic body, clutching a gleaming sword, right? But half of his head, the part which held his brains, is completely sliced off. In other words, my dear ladies, this place called Hollywood is run by men, and they’re not always smart. So don’t be too much in awe of them.”

Neither Frances Marion nor Carole Lombard are too much in awe of the men who run Hollywood. And they teach our Julie not to be, either.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Review: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

dear committee members by julie schumacherFormat read: eARC provided by the publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Length: 181 pages
Publisher: Doubleday
Date Released: August 19, 2014
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

Finally, a novel that puts the “pissed” back into “epistolary.”

Jason Fitger is a beleaguered professor of creative writing and literature at Payne University, a small and not very distinguished liberal arts college in the midwest. His department is facing draconian cuts and squalid quarters, while one floor above them the Economics Department is getting lavishly remodeled offices. His once-promising writing career is in the doldrums, as is his romantic life, in part as the result of his unwise use of his private affairs for his novels. His star (he thinks) student can’t catch a break with his brilliant (he thinks) work Accountant in a Bordello, based on Melville’s Bartleby.

In short, his life is a tale of woe, and the vehicle this droll and inventive novel uses to tell that tale is a series of hilarious letters of recommendation that Fitger is endlessly called upon by his students and colleagues to produce, each one of which is a small masterpiece of high dudgeon, low spirits, and passive-aggressive strategies. We recommend Dear Committee Members to you in the strongest possible terms.

My Review:

It’s the incredibly funny snark of Dear Committee Members that is being called out in reviews and summaries. And the book is an absolute screaming hoot for anyone who has ever had to navigate the “hallowed halls of academe” or any arcane, entrenched bureaucracy.

Each of the individual letters in Professor Jason Fitger’s voluminous collection of Letters of Recommendation (LORs) is bitingly funny and sarcastically skewering, sometimes both at the same time.

Fitger is honest to a fault about the qualities of the various candidates, as well as painfully and painstakingly clear about the situation in which he finds himself and his reasons for being willing to write the letters.

Because while Fitger is recommending (or sometimes damning with very faint praise) his current and former students for positions for which they may or may not be either qualified for or happy with, he also manages to couch his lack of enthusiasm in language of honesty and eloquence.

Especially the skewers.

At the same time, the situation at his college is dire, dangerous and emblematic of the problems facing the humanities in colleges today. The English Department doesn’t make money and doesn’t produce graduates who can donate large sums of money to the alumni fund.

And they are part of the national trend in replacing tenure-track positions with hordes of underpaid adjunct faculty who have no benefits and receive paltry stipends. All the money is going to marquee faculty in science and technology fields.

Fitger and his colleagues are being squeezed out, not just in a war of attrition, but also by being forced to work in a hazardous waste site. (The fax machine dies when a block of concrete crashes down from the ceiling above).

Through it all, Fitger writes letters. Each individual letter is funny as hell, but the overall picture he paints of the future of the college and of his own past carries an element of tragedy to it.

Underneath the snark, there is a cry for help and a sense of regret for things both done and not done. Underneath the paint, the clown is crying.

Escape Rating B+/A-: This is a hard book to rate. I read through it in a couple of hours, as I couldn’t wait to see Fitger’s trenchant take on his student’s capabilities. I was also mining each letter for clues about Fitger’s life and view of the world.

He’s looking both back and forward, and he’s not happy with either view. But he still keeps trying to save what can be saved, and to rage against the loss of what cannot. In the end, his reward (or perhaps punishment) for all his letters and voluminous attempts to save his department is totally fitting.

Read the letters for the laughs. You’ll be left with both a smile and a tear.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.