Of Mice and Men and Trolls and Dwarves and Werewolves and Vampires

I read every single book on my nightstand over the course of the last week, including a Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel and several books written by the man who is often called the funniest British writer of the twentieth century. I always have a little trouble when people try and pin that label on anyone; after all the bar was set awfully high at the beginning of the century with the works of Saki and P.G. Wodehouse and picking the funniest or the best or whatever is terribly subjective. Not only that but I think that the work of this writer, the esteemed and wonderful Terry Pratchett, is just getting better and better over time so his most amazing work could well be written in the twenty-first century. But I do think that he is the most accessible and fun satirist working in the English language, with the ability to absolutely skewer society, make you enjoy the experience, and leave you wondering how soon he can do it again.

On the surface Thud is a murder mystery taking place in the Discworld series. A dwarf has been murdered and Commander Sam Vimes of the city Watch needs to figure out who-dun-it. He's got the help of assorted other members of the police force; Carrot, the only six foot tall dwarf around, a werewolf who despises vampires, a vampire who has taken the pledge and swears she won't bite anyone at all, and a troll called Detritus. Unfortunately politics has reared its ugly head and Vimes under a huge amount of pressure. Thousands of years ago the trolls fought the dwarves and the dwarves fought the trolls and to this day they tend to hate each other. A sort of fundamentalist "deep down" group of dwarves have appeared and are preaching the return to the old ways - troll hating, women disguising themselves as men, hiding from the sun, etc. - and dwarves and trolls everywhere are uneasy. The dwarf murder is no ordinary murder, the dead dwarf is one of the ones calling for a return to the old ways and it looks like a troll is the killer. If Vimes can't figure out what happened and keep the peace the entire city will erupt in a new incarnation of the millennium-old war. Savvy readers will of course see similarities to certain religious and racial issues plaguing our world today and will be pleased to see how the problems are handled by the interesting and diverse cast of characters.

Reaper Man tells the story of what happens when Death develops a personality, something that is apparently against the law, and is forcibly retired to await his own death. As he learns more about what it's like to be alive, he is astonished that anyone can tolerate it. How can people continue to live when they know that at any moment it could all end? Why doesn't everyone just sit down and give up and wait for Death to claim them? Meanwhile since there is no death, all of the people, animals and things that have died are just sort of stacking up with nowhere to go and nobody to escort them. Life force is blurting out all over with some bizarre results. Recently deceased, but not quite dead, wizard Windle Poons teams up with some other undead (including a shy banshee) to try and put everything to rights. This book is extraordinarily funny and poignant, with Death delivering some wonderful, you should forgive the expression, deadpan lines. His utter confusion at human foibles and emotions is charming and endearing, to the point where I was almost afraid to finish the book because I didn't want to see him die.

Only You Can Save Mankind is the story of Johnny Maxwell, a 12 year old English boy who has quite a few problems at home. His parents are on the verge of divorce, he drifts through school, rewriting the same paper over and over to suit different topics, trading essays for help with math and mostly living for his computer games. He's been happily playing a new one when suddenly something new happens. The attacking alien fleet asks to surrender instead of shooting at him. Confused and wondering if it's a hacker trick his friend has pulled, he's not sure what to do and fires at the aliens. But over the course of the next few days he discovers the creatures (called the ScreeWee) are real and want only to return to their home space. He is responsible for escorting them to safe space, while every other person playing the video game, anywhere at all, tries to shoot them down. The story takes place at the same time as the first Gulf War and Johnny talks about how the war on television looks like a game and how the game looks real. The author explores the similarities between the enemy in the real world and the enemy in the game, but is never too heavy-handed, with the result that the book is a clever and engaging read and appealed to all members of my family, from the youngest to the oldest.

This week's one sentence reviews come from me and they focus on a couple of graphic novels. The first one is of Summer Blonde, a collection of four stories in comic book form by Adrian Tomine, "The stories end just as they are getting interesting." The second one is of the Pulitzer Prize winning Maus by Art Spiegelman, "Well worth reading; don't put it off for years and years like I did." Have you got a one-sentence review you’d like to submit to Quality Time? Send it in to me at feedback@qualitytimeweekly.com and I'll run the best ones. You don't have to focus on film; you can review books, music, or anything else that fits a family entertainment format.