Walden by Henry David Thoreau
I may have mentioned before that I sometimes arranged my choice of courses in University around which books were on the reading list. Did I want to read that? That was my chance. Walden was one of the books I took a course in order to read. And now I’ve picked up a new copy to see if, as the kids say, the suck fairy has visited. She has, but only a little.
Basically, for a couple of years in the early-mid 19th century, Henry David Thoreau, poet and philosopher, built himself a hut (or bought parts of it and re-erected them) in the woods on the shore of Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts. While he was there he thought a lot, and this book is the result. It’s a recommended read, but I suggest that you get another edition, one that doesn’t have an introduction and annotations by Bill McKibben.
The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones; completed by Ursula Jones
Diana Wynne Jones’ final book, left incomplete at the time of her death, and finished by her younger sister, Ursula. The younger Jones writes a touching afterword, explaining how important Diana’s stories were to her and their yet younger sister while growing up, and how nice it was for her to finally be able help with finishing one of those stories. And then she basically challenges the reader to figure out where, in the story, Diana leaves off and Ursula begins. I admit, I couldn’t. But I know she took over before the ending and the ending is . . weak.
The titular islands area a pseudo-Britain of Logra, Gallis, Skarr, Bernica, and Lone. Lone broke up and sank in an earthquake long ago, and Logra has been sealed off behind a magic force-field for a long while.
The story begins on Skarr, where first-person narrator Aileen is in training to be a wisewoman like her aunt Beck. Almost before we get to meet them, though, they are summoned to the court of the King (who is a distant cousin) and sent off on a quest: to rescue Prince Alisdair, son of the High King, kidnapped by Lograns shortly after the barrier went up (the Lograns are warlike and have tried to conquer the rest of Chaldea once before, so everyone is wondering what they are up to behind their barrier–arming, perhaps?), which means finding a way to bring the barrier down, or at least find a way through it. With them go Prince Ivar (younger son of the King of Skarr, in no way related to the missing prince) and Ogo, a Logran boy abandoned on Skarr back when the barrier went up. Apparently Beck and Aileen can do this (according to a sort of prophecy) if they first journey through all the islands of Chaldea and take with them a man from each isle. So they have to visit two more isles and pick up two more guys. And then they’re off, touring the lands, meeting people, learning magic stuff and heading for an ending most of whose details you can spot as soon as the characters are introduced.
This isn’t a bad book, per se; it’s just not as good as it should be. I’m not sure how much of the fault is Jones the elder and how much is Jones the younger; great as Diana Wynne Jones was she wasn’t faultless and has produced some real stinkers in the past. This isn’t as bad as some of those, and that makes harder the question of recommending it. Should you buy it? Definitely, if you’re a DWJ completionist. Otherwise? I can’t help but feel I’d be happier with, say, Year of the Griffin as the final DWJ book. Mildly not recommended.
Hogfather: a Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett
Another re-read, and by fortunate coincidence, I read it over the Christmas holidays.
The Auditors of Reality are back, and this time they have hired the Ankh-Morpork Assassin’s Guild to — ahem — inhume someone. Specifically, the Hogfather, a pork-product-related Discworld version of Santa Claus. Every Hogswatch Night he travels across the disc, bringing pork products (and presents) to deserving children, in his sled pulled by four massive boars. Fortunately for the Guild, they have someone available who might be able to do the job: Mr. Teatime (“It’s pronounced Teh-ah-tim-eh”), a young psychotic who has given thought to how to kill everyone . . . even Death. Not that he needs to: Teatime’s scheme works quite well and the Fat Man passes away, so Death, seeing a mythic need for the Hogfather, steps into his shoes. It isn’t something he does well, but he does it. Meanwhile, his granddaughter Susan tries to figure out what’s going on and what, exactly, she can do about it.
This is the 20th Discworld novel (pretty much exactly halfway through the series), and the third “Death and Susan”; certainly the best of that short-lived mini-series. It examines the role of belief and story-telling in the human psyche (I’m not sure I agree with its conclusions, or even if I know what conclusions it reaches, or whether Pratchett believed its conclusions, or whether he wanted us to believe those conclusions, and isn’t “conclusions” starting to look really, really weird right now?) and while I don’t think we ever see Susan again, but this is a good tale to go out on.