Book Review: Father Christmas’s Fake Beard, by Terry Pratchett

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_father_christmass_fake_beard.jpgFather Christmas’s Fake Beard is an hilarious story made up of emails or memos within Arnco Supersaver Store from various departmental heads regarding the employment of a Mr Nichols. Apparently Mr Nichols is from the north of Lapland and as a Equal Opportunities Employer they were not going to discriminate against someone from Lapland. He will provide his own costume and will not require false whiskers.

Father Christmas takes upon himself to let the children that come to Father Christmas’s grotto “help themselves” from the selection of gifts, and he offers children the chance to ask for different toys. Reindeer droppings appear overnight which in itself is suspicious, as all of the reindeer are made of plastic. Stuff goes missing from the DIY section, and the temperature in the toy department mysteriously seems to be very cold. And what could possibly see an employee need to leave early on Christmas Eve as he has another “job” to go to?

Ten other stories are included in this book. These stories are amazingly wonderful, for either a read-alone or a book for sharing with a younger child. The stories have titles such as The Blackbury Pie,  Judgement Day or Father Christmas, The Abominable Snow-baby, The Twelve Gifts of Christmas (another version of the twelve days of Christmas – I like this one better!)

I’m keeping this aside for 6 ½ year old granddaughter Abby for Christmas. She can read but doesn’t read my reviews – YET!!! She’s going to love it.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Father Christmas’s Fake Beard
by Terry Pratchett
Published by Doubleday

Book Review: The Impossible Boy, by Leonie Agnew

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_impossible_boyVincent Gum exists to one person: 6-year-old Benjamin Grey. But he isn’t your standard imaginary friend: Vincent is corporate – Benjamin and he have conversations, and he is always there to protect him, though he sometimes wishes this wasn’t so. Benjamin is constantly making excuses for him: “It was Vincent! You just can’t see him. It’s not my fault he’s invisible.”

This takes the concept behind Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett, and applies it to an intense time of need for one small boy. Benjamin needs Vincent to exist as his protector after an explosion in an underground train, so Vincent is suddenly thrust into corporeal existence. In Agnew’s previous book, Conrad Cooper’s Last Stand, Conrad is looking for a God to protect him: Benjamin has one. But yet, he isn’t a God.

Benjamin, and by extension Vincent, arrive at the beginning of the novel at an Orphanage, during a long war. The setting is grim: “Bombed-out shop walls are covered with missing-persons posters and army slogans, spray-painted with rebel tags and Civil Defence warnings. When there’s no TV or internet access, people turn their cities into newspapers.” There are regular air-raid sirens, but the Orphanage is attached to a Hospital, so the two sides know not to bomb their building. But there is a darkness within the building: the Hangar Man, the closet monster is alive and well and living in a cupboard near where Benjamin sleeps.

While there is food and necessities provided, the orphans that Benjamin falls in with are stealing for the black market, to provide themselves with ready cash should they need to move quickly to another place. This activity of stealing (under innocent-sounding names like Hospitals, Bombing Raids, etc) drives the majority of the action in the novel, as well as Vincent’s search for understanding of what, exactly, he is.

Vincent is, by his nature, an unreliable narrator. He is an interesting character to be inside the head of – he has The Knowing, which gives him infallible knowledge about everything, except what is going on in others’ heads. He only understands partway in that if Benjamin stops believing in him, he no longer exists. The Hangar Man persuades him that he needs to make others believe, to ensure his corporeal future.

Here’s the thing: I have read my fair share of war-time fiction, mostly written for Young Adults. The best of them pull you right inside the setting, and make you feel deeply for the characters as they navigate an impossible situation from the point of view of innocence. The Impossible Boy just doesn’t give me enough context, somehow. Perhaps this could be explained by the fact that all that matters to Vincent is Benjamin: and Benjamin is only six, so all that matters is how the war applies to his life. And Agnew is certainly not writing for teens, so perhaps all that was missing was the grit that comes with an older readership.

Though I admit to these misgivings, I still consider Leonie Agnew to be a brilliant writer. She has firm control of her storyline, and the mixture of fear and intrigue that is guaranteed to pull her reader through the darker passages of the novel. I would recommend this for anybody who has needed an imaginary friend, and anybody who seeks to understand the impact that war has on innocent minds.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Impossible Boy
by Leonie Agnew
published by Puffin
ISBN 9780143309062

Book Review: Raising Steam, by Terry Pratchett

Available in bookstores.

I have a long history with Pratchett’s Discworld novels. cv_raising_steamI read my first one aged 14, it was called Maskerade, featuring the witches of Lancre and based on Phantom of the Opera, and I never looked back. They have long been my favourite companions on bus journeys from Dunedin to Christchurch, and Christchurch to Westport (10 hours in total, about the length of time it took me to read one); on long-haul flights to the UK, and basically anytime I need a light book that will make me laugh and learn something about humankind in the process.

I was sad to hear that Terry Pratchett had been diagnosed with Alzheimers, and amazed when despite this diagnosis, he recently signed a 10-book deal with his publisher. Looking into this, he has stated in twitter though that ‘The rumours of my 10 book deal have been greatly exaggerated…the majority have already been published in the UK’.

Regardless, when I saw Pratchett had a new book out, I jumped on the chance to read and review this. Particularly because it stars one of his more recent lead characters, Moist von Lipwig, one of the most lovable shysters ever written. Moist came to light in Going Postal, carried on the good work in Making Money, and now tackles the industrial age with Raising Steam.

The brilliant thing about writing in a made-up world seems to be that you have endless inspiration provided by the real world. Ankh-Morepork, the major city, can be read as any major city in Europe in the age of change. The city is constantly changing, growing, gobbling up everything it finds in its path. There is cultural diversity provided by dwarves, goblins, trolls, vampires, werewolves, and Nac Mac Feegles; and there is spiritual diversity provided by the Oi Dong Monastry and the Small Gods. This book is ostensibly about the introduction of the steam engine, but what it is actually about is the prevention of civil war, and how things that seem to be a big deal actually aren’t, when it comes down to it.

The dwarves are being driven against each other by factions of grags (read fundamentalists), who don’t believe that dwarves should mix freely with trolls, goblins, et al. Though it isn’t clear from the book, they believe that they should stay in the deep mines and live traditionally. This doesn’t sit well with the King of the Dwarves Rhys Rhysson, and what comes to play is a drama based on the creation of a train service to reach the other side of Discworld in time to stop the grags claiming the traditional throne (the Scone of Stone).

Pratchett’s work is driven by witty one-liners, pithy sentiments, and happy endings. You feel as though each and every one of his many hundreds of characters live in his head and talk directly to the page. Sometimes he curates the story well, and sometimes there are holes in the plot you could drive a car through, but I have never read a book of his that fails to entertain.

This isn’t the book I would suggest those who have never read a Discworld book in their lives pick up* – but it is a good addition to the longest-running fantasy series in history.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

*I would recommend Equal Rites if you like witches; Soul Music if you like twisty philosophy (Pratchett’s Death is brilliant); and Small Gods for wizardry and idiots.

Raising Steam
by Terry Pratchett
Published by Doubleday
ISBN 9780857522276