Saturday, 3 January 2015

Missing Review Catch-Up II

It's not been long since I put together my first missing review catch-up blog, but already a few more books have slipped through the cracks. As before, these are things that I skipped for various individual reasons, generally because I didn't feel I could write a half-decent full post about each one. Plus, I am a bit lazy.


The Pratchett Portfolio (1996)
Terry Pratchett with Art by Paul Kidby

When I was a teenager I was already obsessive-compulsive with books, frequently scouring the bibliography page of my favourite authors' books. Even back then Terry Pratchett's was one of the largest, including not only his regular novels but various off-shoot works, and of all of these The Pratchett Portfolio was always the most intriguing- I really had no idea what it was, and I don't think I ever spotted it on ny bookshop shelves. Fast-forward to the present, and I found a copy in the usual charity bookshop place. Alas to my thirteen-year old self, it'd be very disappointing.

Though Pratchett's name dominates the cover, this is mostly the work of artist Paul Kidby. Released a year after he took over from the late Josh Kirby as Discworld cover artist, it features his detailed pencil sketches of the universe's chief characters, each given short biographies written by Pratchett, with the occasional brief bit of interesting design information. The art itself is very good, though I'm no art critic, as Kidby really does put definitive faces to the cast. The problem is that the book is extremely short, as in maybe forty pages long altogether, with Pratchett's writing filling perhaps a quarter of each page. I read the entire thing in about ten minutes, including gazing at the art. It's so short that I can only really describe it as exploitative of fans, who get very little back from their £7. I only bought it for 4, pretty much just so I could review it for this blog, and I still feel ripped-off.


The Ancestor's Tale (2004)
Richard Dawkins

My occasional quest to semi-educated myself through the means of popular science books took on its most intimidating quest yet, with Richard Dawkins' absolutely epic The Ancestor's Tale. This mammoth tome weighs in at a whopping 670-pages of evolutionary information, as Dawkins takes a systematic approach at again trying to hammer some of the important details about evolution into my thick head. The often-controversial author, currently offending about a million people each week on Twitter, attempts to work backwards through the history of life on Earth itself; starting with species of flora and fauna from the present day and moving through stages of evolutionary convergences until receding into the proverbial primordial soup. It would be practically impossible to write a truly comprehensive catalogue of this type, but Dawkins Puts in a herculean effort.

The problem that I have, and thus the cause of this petty excuse for a mini-review here rather than a lovely full-page spread, is that I'm too stupid to keep up with such constant factual information. After a while, with every science book I read, my brain starts to actively rebel against the horror of genuinely educational non-fiction and my reading slows to a crawl. It took me a long while to read the second half of this book, retaining less and less information as I went, so I'm in no position to give this a proper review. I can, however, safely say that The Ancestor's Tale is a superb achievement for Dawkins in putting such an ambitious project to paper. As I do with all of his books, I still finished it feeling I understood more about the nature of life itself, even if I'm not brilliant at articulating it.


 The Castle of Otranto (1764)
Horace Walpole

Curiously just a day after finishing this, an article turned up on BBC News about the importance of this book, so if you want to read about it from people who actually know what they're talking about, go here. Anyway, The Castle of Otranto, like Marlowe's Faustus from last review catch-up, is a book I was first introduced to at university as an important piece of genre fiction. Also like Faustus, I found this particular edition of Otranto included with another related book, 'reviewed' below. The key reason that I'm not giving Otranto a full review is that I don't think it would be fair, since from a normal critical viewpoint it's actually a fairly awful book; meandering, overwritten, with one dimensional characters and a plot that doesn't make any sense. It remains a memorable classic in English literature though for the influence it had by essentially being the first ever proper Gothic horror novel.

Set in a vaguely-defined classically gothic Germanic castle, The Castle of Otranto follows the trials and tribulations of Manfred and his family. Manfred is sent panicking by some ghostly manifestations when his son is crushed by a giant helmet that apparates for no reason, and so tries to reinforce his power by remarrying at any cost. The rest of the plot reads like a series of random events, punctuated by unconvincing, overwrought narration, and as such is both fun and stupid. It's interesting to read this so far in the future and remind yourself of how Otranto and books like it have eventually inundated popular culture completely, but other than that there's not much to take from it.


The Mysterious Mother (1791)
Horace Walpole

As was the case with Marlowe's Faustus and Goethe's Faust last catch-up, Otranto and The Mysterious Mother came together in one volume- though this edition I bought seems to be a study guide-, collecting Horace Walpole's only pieces of fiction. Like Otranto, Mysterious Mother is a gothic horror, but this time in the form of a play. The subject matter is actually rather murky, far more so than Otranto (written almost thirty years earlier), involving the classical crime of incest, leading to murder, drama, and possibly the first ever example in fiction of an evil gothic monk. It also happens to be mostly terrible.

Stylistically, Walpole does what 99% of all other play-writes have consistently done since, and rips off Shakespeare and Marlowe. As a result the dialogue and stage directions are bombastic, epic-sounding declarations meant to capture the audience's attention and emphasise the importance of the drama. Unfortunately trying to live up to the dramatic standards of William Shakespeare is never really going to work, especially for a man who Otranto proved clearly has a limited handle on prose fiction, and as a result the entire play reads as hokey and self-important. I finished it, but may have lost many details in the read through thanks to how dull and unworthy Walpole's writing was. Lacks the charm and importance of Otranto too.


Judge Dredd- The Complete Case Files 12 (2009)

After a good six-month break from this marathon trek through the complete history of Judge Dredd, I was surprised to find upon my return that we'd already reached the late; probably due to the surprising amount of time it took for 2000AD to add colour to the proceedings. Volume 12 catches Dredd in the wake of the Oz saga (collected, of course in vol 11) where his adventures down under have left him with questions about his ability to continue patrolling the super metropolis that is Mega City One. Meanwhile, in the real world, creative differences regarding that saga resulted in the end of the writing partnership of Alan Davis and John Wagner, and as a result authorship of the strips collected here bounces back and forth. It's probably because of that that Volume 12 avoids throwing itself into any similarly-sized epics to instead build for the future.

Most of the stories included are quick two-parters, some of which receive sequels later on to wrap things up. Wagner and Davis stick to the tried and tested Dredd formula of utilizing the dystopian sci-fi as satire (and sometimes almost pantomime), each time exploring a new corner of the city and finding a new unlucky criminal to face Dredd's wrath. As a result there's nothing I'd call essential contained in this volume, at least as it relates to Dredd storyline lore- although it does contain the first appearance of a character set to play a prominent role in the future, in the clone Judge Kraken, and continues the development of quirky 12-year-old serial killer PJ Maybe, resisting the urge to have a Dredd-related payoff in these stories for the sake of building the character up. Other stories involve Dredd visiting Japan, battling a proto-Batman, and performing in a rather twisted Wizard of Oz parody in Twister (a personal favourite Dredd story of mine). So, nothing ground-breaking here, just another year of strange adventures notched on Dredd's belt, in classic Wagner style.