Book Review: So Anyway

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I’ve been a Monty Python fan since grade 9, and I discovered I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again on public radio only a couple of years later. I’ve enjoyed Mr. Cleese’s film work as an adult and even took my teenagers to the theatrical broadcast of the O2 show several years back.

Until I received this as a Christmas present, I didn’t even know he’d written an autobiography. Based on where he leaves off, just at the beginning of the Monty Python period, I wonder if there’s going to be another volume. Or two.

And if you’re looking for a recounting of anecdotes and oddities from the Monty Python years, you’ll have to wait for that next volume. This book is about John Cleese, the early years, from boyhood and school, tracing the path that took him into acting, through stage, theatre, radio, and television. It’s all pre-Python, other than a few mentions here and there of things that eventually developed into Python sketches.

A few of those sketches get reproduced in whole or in part in the course of the narrative, and you can hear things in his voice as you read. (The audio version has the original recordings of some of these.)

This is John Cleese as a person, looking back over his early career, young friendships, first marriage, professional relationships. He spends a little more time on Graham Chapman than you’d expect, dismissing a lot of the controversy surrounding his shock at Graham coming out by just making it part of the natural course of things, and talks about hints of the alcoholism that he feels he really should have picked up at the time. You don’t get a lot about his relationships with the other Pythons, but he and Graham went back some years further. Maybe this will come in future books.

In this book, we get his school years and how he almost became a lawyer, a bit of background about his parents, the Cambridge Footlights, how he came to work for the BBC, his time on stage in America, ISIRTA, At Last the 1948 Show, The Frost Report, and other parts of his early career and life. And all of these things, seen in the cold light of history, seem to drag him inexorably forward into comedy and towards the formation of Monty Python.

If you’re looking for a long string of jokes and funny bits, you’re probably going to be disappointed, because that’s not what this memoir is or is supposed to be. Mr. Cleese is walking us along the path that took him from childhood to Python. If he occasionally tangents or is a bit critical of something or someone, this shouldn’t come as unexpected based on the public persona he’s shown over the decades.

Oh, there are jokes and funny bits, don’t worry, but they’re not the ones you might expect, and they often take you by surprise. The book lives in the interesting bits in between, the parts that show us more than just John Cleese on screen. It’s a wonderful read in the main.

Overall rating: 4 stars. This book is part of the story of John Cleese the human being. As such, it doesn’t focus on just John Cleese, the Python. In fact, it doesn’t really focus there at all. And that’s more than okay. It’s a lot of fun.

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Book Review: The Demon-Haunted World

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I don’t know if Tim Minchin has ever read Carl Sagan, but a quote springs to mind that brilliantly summarizes this book, even if it wasn’t intended to: “Throughout history, every mystery ever solved has turned out to be not magic.”

Carl Sagan may have been “darn close” to an atheist, not knowing with certainty there is no god, but stating regularly in interviews and articles that there wasn’t any compelling evidence for god’s existence. I would argue semantics at that point—for a non-interventionist god who merely set things rolling and sat back to watch, there is no evidence and so there is no way to know with absolute certainty.

I wondered, when I started this book, if I would have a better idea of how Sagan truly felt when I finished it, assuming I didn’t get lost in what I expected to be his normal brilliant writing, but he spent very little of the book on religion. This isn’t a book about religion, but about science and the scientific method, and how that method has shone a light on so many things (and continues to) to make the world a less fearful and far more beautiful and interesting place.

Through the various references and anecdotes he presents, Sagan gives the smackdown to UFOs, faith healing, witchcraft, demons and spirits, fortune telling, astrology, and alien abduction, among other things. He probably spends the most time on that last, but remember this book was written in the age of the X-Files, when the truth was out there and everybody knew somebody whose cousin’s former roommate had been abducted by aliens.

Really, the basic theme of the book comes down to a simple statement. While the quote I used from Tim Minchin above is more eloquent, Sagan’s basic premise is that knowledge is better than ignorance. Knowledge dispels fear, builds strength, and increases understanding of the world, the universe, and each other.

There are too many negative consequences to a scientifically illiterate population.

Overall rating: 4 stars. There are moments when his disappointment in our society shows through where he can’t understand why all of this stuff continues to be a problem, continues to hold us back. I can’t help but think he’d be even more disappointed today as the societal elements wanting to deny or roll back progress dig in their heels harder every day.

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Book Review: Grooks

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I finally came up with a copy of the first Grooks collection this year (and now I’m on the hunt for the third).

A tiny bit of background: Piet Hein was a member of the Danish Resistance in World War II, as well as a mathematician and inventor. And a poet. Grooks started to appear in the newspaper shortly after the Nazi occupation of Denmark in 1940. They’re quick, witty, and frequently have more than one meaning if you look.

The collections, this one included, are short enough to be read in one sitting if you really want to, but more fun to draw out and savour over a few days, although that’s hard.

My favourite from this first volume:

Social Mechanism

When people always

Try to take

The very smallest

Piece of cake

How can it also

Always be

That that’s the one

That’s left for me?

Overall rating: 4 stars. Oddly, I like the next collection better (read it last year), but this has a lot of great work in it. Definitely worth anyone’s time.

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Book Review: Uprooted

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My oldest daughter read this book early last year, raved about it, and got it on my to-read list. Winning the Nebula sealed it there and moved it much farther up the queue (and part of my annual reading quest each year is to read the winners of the major awards for the previous year). Reading other reviews, apparently this is a love or hate book. I’m neither, but falling on the high side of centre. There were things that I really liked about the book and things I didn’t, but they balance out to a good read.

I’ve grown to like a variety in my mythologies and the moment I read the main character’s name, Agnieszka, if not a little before, I know I’m getting something I haven’t seen often. There’s going to be an eastern European or Russian flavor to this story, and that makes me happy.

That said, I’m not normally much for fairy tales or retellings of them. This isn’t, quite, but it has elements of it. The book does have a fairly slow start and I found the first several chapters a bit on the dull side, predictable, and, honestly, a little underwhelming. Agnieszka comes across as a bit of a stereotype peasant girl from a folk or fairy tale and the Dragon isn’t really all that menacing if he’s supposed to be. There’s a lot of fairly typical story setup here, and I recognize wanting to build the world for your reader, but I’d rather be thrown in off the deep end and figure things out from hints in the narrative as I go.

Rooted in folklore, there’s far more of that eastern European flavor to the story than just names, and it seems more than passing likely that a lot of research has gone into the background and the setting for the story to take place in. Overall, the worldbuilding is wonderful in places and completely lacking in others. Lots of things, like the great enemy nation of Rosya, are just a word. No depth, and nothing more than a distraction from the actual story.

The story does take a long time to build, though, passing through the standard fairytale tropes into a darker place than a lot of modern folks might be used to in those tales. But then, it’s for an older audience, and we should remember that fairy tales were not originally known for sweetness and light.

The magic system doesn’t get a lot of detail, although that’s okay. It mostly seems to consist of very specific words focusing power unless they’re not specific at all. As in you can alter spells by leaving out syllables or mumbling bits of it. And there are two different types of magic, although they’re related and complimentary, one structured and one free flowing.

On the subject of magic, Agnieszka learns too fast, picking up the basics and then figuring stuff out on her own in only a few months. The dragon has been studying magic for a hundred years or more and frequently seems stunned by the things she pulls off. Plus, because she’s sometimes doing a different kind of magic than he is, she leaps ahead of him in certain ways. Doesn’t work that well for me.

The Dragon himself is a bit flat for most of the story. Basically, he’s an arrogant jerk with magic powers who’s divorced himself from the world. He’s kind of disappointing as a character.

And we’re supposed to buy that there’s a romance going on here, too. Romance? Not so much. Almost a bit of Stockholm syndrome going on here until her best friend is in danger. Dragon aside, from hints dropped here and there, I expected, and hoped at times, the romance to build between Agnieszka and her best friend Kasia. That relationship actually had a lot more depth to it even though we spent a lot less time on it.

Not to mention that he’s something like a century and a half old. How does he not consider being with a 17-year-old girl creepy? Wait, she might be 18 by the time that happens. Still creepy.

The Wood, and what we ultimately learn to be at its heart, makes for a fun, creepy adversary, and get some interesting monsters thrown our way, things called walkers that are sort of entish but nastier, and giant mantises. It’s the conflict with the wood in all of its guises that carries things and makes the issues I’m having small enough to pass over while reading.

Overall rating: 4 stars, or thereabouts, rounding up. Not quite low enough to be 3.5. I had problems with the way things worked and worked out, but very much enjoyed the book. I won’t rule out there being a sequel, and it wouldn’t surprise me. There are still some unanswered questions for the heroine. Baba Jaga and the nature of magic spring to mind.

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Book Review: The Shadow of the Wind

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by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.

So, I found this on several “best genre fiction in translation lists”, and the idea of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books (the title trilogy and a location in the story) intrigued me enough to try the book. I enjoyed the read, mostly, but feel rather mislead. This book is in no way Fantasy. And I don’t mean that it doesn’t suit my definition (which I’m generous with), I mean that there is absolutely no speculative element. None.

This is a work of historical literary fiction. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, at times, it’s a beautiful thing in this book, but it’s not what I wanted, and that’s probably one of the main things that hampered my enjoyment of the book.

The Shadow of the Wind takes place in post-WWII Barcelona and is, ultimately, both a coming of age story and a romance centered, mostly, around the primary character of Daniel, only child of a widowed father who owns a bookshop. At the heart of the book is the mystery surrounding Daniel’s favourite author and why someone is systematically hunting through Europe to destroy every copy of the man’s books. There are other, smaller, mysteries in the story, and other characters with issues and tragedies in their past and present. It’s a sweeping tale that nonetheless has a very human, personal grounding.

The other major issue I have with the book is the way we learn about some of those issues and tragedies. The author has a huge tendency of the author to resolve plot points by telling a story within the story, not in a quick info-dumpy kind of way, but in a long, drawn out fashion going on for pages, or even chapters. Sometimes, by the time you get back to Daniel, you’ve almost forgotten what was going on, it had been so long.

It’s an old device, used heavily in earlier decades and centuries, to frame your narrative as if your hero is looking back from a comfortable old age, or some point later in life and the story is being told to catch you up to that present. I’m more than tired of it, and to have the same device used multiple times in the same story was extremely irritating.

Overall rating: 3 stars. The language used to tell the story is lavish and beautiful and I suspect that means the translation is nothing short of spectacular. But I never quite got over waiting for the fantasy element to slip into the book somewhere and the nested narratives just irritated me. I have to come down overall on the side of liking the book, but not nearly as much as I could have.

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Book Review: Flight of the Nighthawks

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Book one of the Darkwar trilogy, which I plan to read all of this year, just not in a row. I’ve found in the last few years that I need the smorgasbord of my reading to have a lot of variety in it. Too much of one thing, no matter how good it is, can get, if not boring, then temporarily stale. And this start to a new trilogy isn’t quite as exciting as I’d hoped, so we’re not exactly starting in a great spot.

I started this story with the anticipation of visiting some favourite characters I hadn’t spent time with in years. I got a bit of that, but not as much as I’d hoped. Not nearly as much.

This is a strange book with a lot of shorter story arcs, some introducing new characters who will probably become important later in this trilogy. But those story arcs are only loosely held together. I felt all the way through that this was only barely a complete story on its own. It reads a lot more like set up for the book that comes next and reminds us of all that has gone before. There are actually a lot of references to previous stories, maybe too many.

Add to the weakness of the overall plot, there were significant moments, especially near the climax of the novel, where I Mr. Feist was deliberately hiding things from me. Well, not just me, but any reader. Now, an author is supposed to hide things from the reader, building the plot, building suspense, building anticipation. This is good storytelling. Things should be hinted at, happen off screen, or be misrepresented through the eyes of the characters.

But it’s not good storytelling to have one character tell another character something without actually telling them. “Bob explained his plan to Mary, who thought it was a great idea.” End scene. Or something similar. A very weak storytelling device and one that always leaves me flat. This was how we got from setup of the climax to the climax itself so that everything happening would be a surprise. I spent a little time being irritated with the author.

And the Pug of this story, the master magician, while still having hints of the previous character, is a brooding, slightly full of himself, less edgy version of his original mentor, Macros the Black.

Overall rating: 3 stars. With the scattered storyline, mediocre storytelling, slightly disappointing characters, I still enjoyed it while I read it. Less because of the book itself and more because of the feelings of nostalgia it generated. I read the original Riftwar saga as a teenager repeatedly. It’s sometimes a wonderful thing to catch up with favourite characters, but I wonder if I should just do a Riftwar reread instead.

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Book Review: Best SF 1970

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I was born in 1970, but it wouldn’t be for a couple of years that I’d discover television SF and a few more after that before I’d begin to read it seriously. When I did, I’d read voraciously, but I’d eventually find that a lot of the so called New Wave of SF wouldn’t work all that well for me. Happening smack in the middle of the New Wave, I expected a lot of this anthology to fall flat for me. Much of it did, but not all of it. This particular anthology has the added bonus of having a couple of stories available in translation for the first time. Of course, neither really worked well for me, but a translation doesn’t always do the original work justice.

Still, there were some good stories here.

The standouts:

“Black is Beautiful” probably couldn’t be written today, but it’s an eye-opening and mind-stretching look at what could be if all of the white folks left a major city to the black folks who are allowed to be competent and diverse. What might that society look like after a couple of decades?

“Oil-Mad Bug-Eyed Monsters” is a story of a member of an alien species who, collectively, are trying to buy up all of the oil rights on Earth because, well, they need it for the breeding fleet that’s on the way. Better we don’t think about it too closely.

“Traffic Problem” is an exercise in absurdity. What might happen to the rest of society if the American love of the automobile were taken to a ridiculous extreme. Eye rolling and disturbing at the same time.

Most of the rest of the stories were at least readable, though I’d consider more than a couple of them pointless exercises in throwing words at the page to see which of them might form sentences.

Complete contents:

  • Introduction (Best SF: 1970) • (1971) • essay by Harry Harrison
  • Gone Fishin’ • (1970) • short story by Robin Scott Wilson
  • The Ugupu Bird • (1959) • short story by Slawomir Mrozek
  • Black Is Beautiful • (1970) • short story by Robert Silverberg
  • The Lost Face • (1964) • novelette by Josef Nesvadba
  • Mary and Joe • (1962) • short story by Naomi Mitchison
  • Gorman • (1969) • short story by Jerry Farber
  • Oil-Mad Bug-Eyed Monsters • (1970) • short story by Hayden Howard
  • A Pedestrian Accident • (1969) • short story by Robert Coover
  • Traffic Problem • (1970) • short story by William Earls
  • The Asian Shore • (1970) • novelette by Thomas M. Disch
  • Erem • (1963) • short story by Gleb Anfilov
  • Car Sinister • (1970) • short story by Gene Wolfe
  • “Franz Kafka” by Jorge Luís Borges • (1970) • short story by Alvin Greenberg
  • Pacem Est • (1970) • short story by Kris Neville and Barry N. Malzberg
  • The Day Equality Broke Out • (1971) • short story by Brian W. Aldiss

Overall rating: 3 stars, but that’s probably generous. Not enough of the stories were really a good read for me to say I liked the book, but a two-star rating feels like a disservice to the stories I did enjoy.

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Book Review: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

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This is a shorter review than usual, but then, I didn’t finish reading the story.

Winner of the first World Fantasy Award for best novel, I wanted to like this book.

Actually, I really wanted to like this book. It comes from a time in publishing when everything made it to the public library where I did the bulk of my discovering as a kid and into my early teen years.

But the prose was cold and dry and kind of dull. So was the main character. Between the two, they were so cold and dry and dull that I could only get a few chapters in before I had to put the story down down.

Sybel is a sorceress of some kind, who lives on a remote mountain with only a few other people nearby. She collects mythical beasts, a hobby she inherited from her father and grandfather. At sixteen, she’s also an orphan, but powerful, and takes care of the beasts even as they take care of her.

Someone dumps a baby on her doorstep and she gets pressured into raising the child. Somehow, she grows to love him as well, but we skip too much to find out how or why and we’re left to understand that she loves the kid because she loves the kid and that’s what women do. And that’s typical of the first hundred pages or so: there’s not really enough given in the writing to understand Sybel’s motivations or why I should care how she feels about anything. Or if she feels anything at all.

Tamlorn, the baby, is the child of a king, but the king thought he was someone else’s, and there was jealousy and a war and bad blood all around. We never really get the full story of what went on, at least not by the point where I stopped reading, but it’s key to the rest of the tale. I have the feeling that the overall theme of the book is about making choices. There’s a little revenge mixed in, I think, and a mystery of some strange mythical creature only loosely described, but there’s not enough here to hold my interest.

Overall rating: 1 star, because I can hardly give it more if I couldn’t manage to finish it. Maybe if Sybel could have managed to call him something other than, “My Tam”, just once.

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Book Review: The Dispossessed

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In late 2015, I read The Left Hand of Darkness and found myself caught up in Ms. Le Guin’s idea of science fiction as thought experiment rather than the more frequent “if this goes on” model. In that case, the experiment was in building a society around the idea of being genderless. The Dispossessed, however gives us a vision of a society built on anarchy.

It’s not true anarchy, of course, but more an agreement of freedom from interference between its citizens, a path leading through anarcho-communism to a point where centralism and bureaucracy have begun to creep in.

Chapters in the book follow Shevek through two timelines on the harsh and difficult world the Odonians seceded the better part of two centuries ago.

In one, we see a personally dangerous, in more ways than he can consider, voyage to the original home world, Urras (the two inhabited worlds of Tau Ceti) where he finds he’s a famous scientist due to his work towards a General Temporal Theory, which may give the various human races of the galaxy faster than light travel. Here, there is political intrigue (noting the analogs between Cold War US and USSR , and even the Vietnam War), and dramatic cultural misunderstandings. He’s a rugged anarchist among die-hard capitalists, and it’s a lot of work to even begin to understand, even when he finds there are still followers of Odo (who originated the philosophy his society is based on). In fact, then it gets worse as there are protests and riots which he gets caught up in.

The second timeline works us through key moments in Shevek’s past, showing us the shape of Anarresti society through pivotal events in his childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Anarres is a society without government, more or less, though there are collectives and organizations that might almost be called syndicates, and there are power structures slowly forming. It’s getting harder to depart from societal norms, which Shevek finds in the course of his research.

Through Shevek’s experiences, we see that Anarresti are taught from a young age to put the needs of the group and society ahead of personal needs and desires, that there is no personal property, that Mutual Aid is defined as the almost central tenet of their society, second only to the freedom of being answerable only to oneself.

Walls and dividers are a central theme in the book, between people, between nations, between cultures and subsets of those cultures. Ms. Le Guin gives us a juvenile version of the Stanford Prison Experiment, which is nonetheless chilling, to demonstrate this in a blunt fashion, but the motif is present throughout the book, never far from Shevek’s thoughts.

We end with Shevek’s apparent rescue from Urras and his return to Anarres at the hands of the Terrans, a completely neutral party. But we leave off before finding out what kind of welcome he’ll receive when he gets there. His mate and child will certainly be glad to see him, but many people on Anarres regard him as a traitor even for going to Urras, to see the mercenary enemy on its own world.

Overall rating: 4 stars. This isn’t always an easy read, but I’m beginning to think that the author doesn’t intend for her work to be. This is intellectual Science Fiction, Science Fiction as thought experiment. The experiment here is in anarcho-communism and what may happen when the society’s members get comfortable after the revolutionary spirit dies away. It should be difficult to read, and it should make you think, and I think I need more of Ms. Le Guin’s SF.

As a side note, I rather liked the idea of computer generated names. Everyone is given, at birth, a name consisting of six characters, unique on Anarres during their lifetime. No one else in the world at the time will have the name, though it may be used again after their death.

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Review – Caliban’s War

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I read Leviathan Wakes because I really enjoyed The Expanse miniseries. I suppose that’s the root reason I read Caliban’s War, too.

But I almost put it down after the first couple of scenes. I’m glad I didn’t, but it was close.

My reason for almost abandoning the book is one of personal taste. I’ve said before here and there that one of the fastest ways to lose me as a reader (or a viewer) is to kill a kid while I’m reading (or watching). Not interested. Find another way to tell the story or tell a different story.

Caliban’s War starts with a kidnapping and then follows that with a marine platoon getting destroyed by a child-sized engineered creature which, just at the right time to save a POV character, more or less self-destructs.

After that, the story merges into the regular universe and we get all of the great elements from Leviathan Wakes, political tension and potential outright war between rival political powers, a mystery to be solved, realistic representation of a settled solar system and the technology that it takes to maintain things, characters you can care about, and an incomprehensible alien issue, now taking over Venus.

The alien issue is part of the scenery in this story, brought up just often enough to remind us that it’s there, it’s important, and we will be coming back to it. And people shouldn’t go to Venus.

This second book in the series also brings us one of my favourite characters from the series, Chrisjen Avasarala. The TV series tones her down a bit, but you get the full Avasarala in the book, the political expert with a mouth like a longshoreman and grandmother who will do whatever it takes to keep her world safe, because that will keep her family safe.

We also get a great character in Bobbie Draper, the martian marine suffering from PTSD who risks being branded a traitor to Mars by going to work for Avasarala in the cause of stopping the war that’s trying to break out.

Overall rating: 4.5 stars. I’m glad I got past those first couple of scenes, but as much as I enjoyed the book, those almost blew it for me. Persevere and you’ll be rewarded by a great story.

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