Book review: Callahan’s Legacy by Spider Robinson

Callahan's Legacy (Mary's Place #2, Callahan's #7)Callahan’s Legacy by Spider Robinson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The next round is on me.

Jack and Zoey are two bar owners expecting their first child last week. The bar’s patrons are also their close friends who hail from all walks of life, time, and weird occurrences involving saving the world. What should be just another fun evening of drinks and song is interrupted by new patrons and trouble.

The Callahan novels were recommended to me via a list of humorous books. The only one I could lay my hands on easily was Callahan’s Legacy, one of the later instalments in the series. It seems to be representative of the rest of the books, as near as I can tell, and fans seem to enjoy it.

I’m really not sure what to say and how to rate this book. It was mildly amusing, the banter flowed freely, and some of the puns were ingenious. But I could pretty fairly say that virtually nothing happened in the story. This was pretty much a novel devoted to documenting an evening of drinks between friends, some of whom are aliens, resurrected early 20th-century scientists, and people from the future.

I’ll be generous and give this 3 stars because I quite liked the joke about the Buddhist Burger Joint that made you one with everything.

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Book review: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

To Say Nothing of the Dog (Oxford Time Travel, #2)To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

And never mind the cat.

The Oxford History Department has changed a lot since the invention of time travel. Ned Henry, a history student, has been tasked by the department’s wealthy benefactor with locating the Bishop’s Bird Stump. But Ned is overworked, time-lagged, and in desperate need of a vacation. So his professor assigns him some R&R in Victorian England… and a very important mission to fix the time continuum before history is completely destroyed.

After finishing The Time Machine Did It, I saw a list of other humorous novels. Ever on the lookout for entertaining reads, I started matching titles with my library’s catalogue. As luck would have it, To Say Nothing of the Dog was available and just desperately wanting to be read.

And it was fine.

The book is light and whimsical without ever being hilarious. The story is solid without ever feeling too tense. And the continual obstacles Ned and Verity have to overcome never feel insurmountable. As a result, I came away from To Say Nothing of the Dog with the sense of having enjoyed myself but not having relished the experience.

Something that I think is worth highlighting is that this book is nice. As in, there are no fights, no evil people doing bad things, no heroes with dark problems, and surprisingly, for a time travel book, not one person ceasing to exist because of time-ripple-magic-stuff. Instead, Willis grounds the conflict in the more ordinary and the stakes in the people vs events. I mention this as it can be quite refreshing to read a book that doesn’t feel the need to be gritty, mean, dark, or focused on people you’d pretend you don’t recognise at a party before sneaking out the upstairs penthouse bathroom window.

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Book review: The Time Machine Did It by John Swartzwelder

The Time Machine Did ItThe Time Machine Did It by John Swartzwelder
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Did we really need more of me to go around?

Detective Frank Burly is terrible at his job. But he is persistent. His new indigent client wants him to find a family ornament that will somehow prove that he is actually a wealthy upstanding member of the community. The sort with buildings named after his family. Frank doesn’t know where to start. And it soon becomes clear that he doesn’t know when to start either.

The Simpsons was heavily influential on me. It screened every evening, sometimes multiple episodes per night, to the point that I could probably quote jokes from just about every episode in the first 10 seasons. And John Swartzwelder was a huge part of that.

As stunning as it is to realise that The Simpsons is still running 25 years after the start of its decline, it’s even more amazing that I’d never picked up one of Swartzwelder’s books. And it was fine.

The Time Machine Did It is absurdist humour from start to finish. Jokes pepper the page in a way that most authors would dream of being able to write. Of course, most writers would also not lean quite so heavily into the absurdity as Swartzwelder in favour of a story that is more engaging.

This is an amazingly off-the-wall book, but the way the story is told and the type of humour does hold you back from really enjoying it. Too many of the jokes are just jokes rather than being part of the story. Other jokes that are part of the story create holes that Swartzwelder fills with more absurdity and jokes. E.g. I’m still not sure if the time travel joke about the old elevator driver becoming a 4-year-old in the same job is genius, dumb, or both. Either way, it was clearly the sort of joke you put in a visual medium and not a wordy one.

I see from the ratings that the Frank Burly series improves with each instalment, so I’m likely to read some more from Swartzwelder in the future.

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Writer’s Block Research

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? It is a crippling and debilitating affliction that rivels writer’s cramp for its perniciousness.

Researchers, knowing the harm that writer’s block can cause, have been undertaking decades of research into potential treatments. The seminal work was written in 1974 by Dennis Upper.

Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1311997/

As you can see, it was a very concise paper that encapsulated the issue perfectly. Upper’s research was semi-influential and spawned several other studies on the issue. This culminated in a meta-analysis in 2014.

The meta-analysis covered all the relevant studies and data from 40 years of research. The study makes it clear that most treatments are unsuccessful at addressing writer’s block. Table 1, below, outlines the body of research and word counts under each treatment setting.

Full paper here.

While these studies and the meta-analysis suggest that there is no hope for those suffering from this disease, we shouldn’t be shuffling those afflicted into a career in programming bitcoin farms. They need to be treated with dignity and respect, not cast aside into worthless activities that destroy the planet.

So, before it is too late for writer’s block sufferers, try to talk to them about how many words Stephen King writes per day. Mention that Enid Blyton wrote over 800 novels in her career, including a period of time where it wasn’t uncommon for her to write a book every two to three days. Or that Ryoki Inoue published 1075 novels and that he writes night and day without any breaks until he finishes a book. 

Book Review: Last Human and Backwards by Grant Naylor

Last Human (Red Dwarf, #3)Last Human and Backwards by Doug Naylor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s cold outside, there’s no kind of atmosphere, I’m all alone, more or less.

Last Human and Backwards continues the adventures of the crew of Red Dwarf after the events of Better Than Life. Doug Naylor tells the tale of Lister reuniting with his crew and adventuring into an alternate universe where they are mistaken for versions of themselves accused of crimes. Rob Grant tells the tale of Lister reuniting with the crew only to be stuck in the backward universe.

After Grant Naylor split up and became Doug Naylor and Rob Grant to write their respective third instalments in the Red Dwarf series, interesting things happened. I’m reviewing both books as one because I read both back to back and wanted to compare the two.

Last Human is the better of the two third instalments (4 stars). The adventure is a challenge for everyone and shows how far all the characters have come. While not as humorous as the previous books, it does manage to revel in the absurdity. I especially like (and remember from when I originally read this book 25 years ago) the luck virus and its part in the story.

Superficially, Backwards is the more absurd and humorous premise (2 stars). The multiverse crossovers, Ace Rimmer, and the Agonoids should make for an amazing adventure. But I found the jokes a bit flat and the story felt like a series of set-pieces – which is unsurprising given the previous instalments and that this was based on episodic TV scripts.

The main difference I wanted to discuss was the pig. I can still remember this mean “joke” from when I first read the series in the 90s. The “joke” in question appears in Backwards and it becomes apparent that the pig was actually a woman who had become morbidly obese and depressed as a result of being sexually assaulted as a teen by Cat.

The first time I read Backwards I felt sad for that character. This time I felt that Grant didn’t like his characters and would go as far as to be unnecessarily mean to them for fun and sadistic “laughs”.

This is also true of Rimmer. In Last Human, Rimmer is still the coward but manages to grow and be the character who says “Smoke me a kipper, I’ll be back for breakfast”. Naylor lets him become more than a joke. Whereas in Backwards, Grant rubs in just how terrible Rimmer is and how one decision had irreversibly led him to be the loser we’re meant to laugh at.

As Grant Naylor, I think the rough edges of both writers were smoothed out. Gestalt really is a great term for their partnership. But without Naylor, I think that Grant became mean (his own books seem to paint people as incompetent and dumb, and his stories are very dark).

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Book review: Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett

Monstrous Regiment (Discworld, #31; Industrial Revolution, #3)Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tactical socks.

Polly Perks joins the army disguised as a boy to find her brother and is assigned to one of the last regiments being sent to fight a losing war. She befriends her fellow soldiers and the legendary Sergeant Jackrum. But interest in this plucky band of warriors is growing as they look set to turn the tide of war. Especially after Polly kicked the wrong person’s sock drawer.

This Discworld novel has been near the top of my TBR for a while now and recently got a shove to the top. I’d say it is in the peak Pratchett period, with the story, satire, nuance and humour at their best.

The reason Monstrous Regiment got the shove to the top was after some media debating whether Sir Terry would have been for or against trans people being allowed to be people. Some were arguing that his pro-women views obviously meant he would have been a TERF (an overly polite term for transphobes). Others, generally those who knew him better, argued his books were littered with support for all peoples being treated well.

The entire plot of Monstrous Regiment can be read as support of not just feminism but LGBTQI+ rights in general. Although, as a man, I’d like to think we men have more to offer than just some particularly good burping and socks in the right places. Like the ability to reach higher shelves and open tight jars!

Anyway, this was a great novel and a wonderful example of how Sir Terry wanted us to accept all people as people. With plenty of laughs along the way.

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Book review: Sweep in Peace by Ilona Andrews

Sweep in Peace (Innkeeper Chronicles, #2)Sweep in Peace by Ilona Andrews
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Gotta wonder if magic would also work to stop weapons manufacturers perpetuating war?

It’s been slow for the Gertrude Hunt Inn since Dina Demille stopped an intergalactic assassin in her neighbourhood. But on short notice, Dina is called upon to host trilateral peace talks for groups who would really like to kill everyone. From looking after one guest to hosting feasts for dozens, Dina is under the pump to not only look after everyone but see that the talks are a success. She’ll be ruined otherwise.

There are times when I really love my library. After finishing Clean Sweep, I put my name on the reserve list for Sweep in Peace. The queue was a month long, so I started another novel in the interim. Just as I was debating whether to persist with that far less entertaining novel, Sweep in Peace was available. I can only assume the quick turnaround of only a few days to be due to how fast a read this series is.

This was quite an ambitious novel. The premise of the conflict is not an easy one to navigate. I especially appreciated the peace negotiation as it is almost the polar opposite of what most novels would do with a war. Diplomacy? Surely we can just shoot the diplomat full of arrows and then commit a genocide?*

While successfully achieving this ambitious premise, Sweep in Peace still manages to retain its fast pace, humour, and charm. The emergent humour that naturally fits within the scenes is particularly good.

I’m already reading book three in the series, One Fell Sweep. That should tell you everything you need to know about how much I enjoyed Sweep in Peace.

* If you don’t get this reference to one of the least subtle comments on diplomacy and promotion of war being awesome, then I’m glad. Old Man’s War was bad on many levels.

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Book review: Better Than Life by Grant Naylor

Better than Life (Red Dwarf #2)Better than Life by Grant Naylor
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The only time watching snooker isn’t boring is when you scale it up.

The crew of Red Dwarf are trapped in the most addictive game of all time: Better Than Life. Most people become trapped because they don’t even realise they are in the game, but Lister, Rimmer, Cat, and Kryten know it. They’ve even thought of leaving. Can they get out before Holly and the Toaster manage to crash into a black hole?

After reading Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers (Red Dwarf #1), I couldn’t help but continue straight into Better Than Life. The former finished with the Red Dwarf crew stuck in BTL, which is something of a cliffhanger. BTL similarly finishes on a bit of a cliffhanger that appears to lead into Backwards (although, Last Human is also a direct sequel to this, because reasons*).

Much like the first novel, this fleshes out ideas and episodes from the first few seasons of Red Dwarf. While it has been quite a while since I watched the show, I think the books do more with the material and rely on less of the banter/insults for humour. And like the first novel, I was pleasantly reminded of just how funny these books (and the show) are.

I’m looking forward to reading Backwards and Last Human soon.

* The reason being that Rob Grant and Doug Naylor had two more books on their contract to deliver and they had decided to separate as a writing team. The exact reasons for the separation are unclear, even to the duo themselves it seems, and Doug Naylor has continued Red Dwarf without Grant.

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Book review: Red Dwarf by Grant Naylor

Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers (Red Dwarf #1)Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers by Grant Naylor
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book review will avoid the temptation to use the word smeg.

When Dave Lister gets drunk, he gets DRUNK. Which is how he ended up on a foreign planet with no money, a passport in someone else’s name, and only a storage locker to sleep in. So when a menial job on the mining ship Red Dwarf comes up, he jumps at his chance to get back to Earth. Pity it is going to take a bit longer than he expects.

It’s so nice to revisit an old favourite and appreciate it all over again. I was a little afraid that too much of the Red Dwarf book series would have dated badly. When I read this and when it was published was, after all, when I was in high school. Not to speak poorly of my younger self, but I can remember enjoying all sorts of trash. Red Dwarf was the good stuff.

The first thing that jumped out at me was the humour. I’d forgotten just how funny these books were. I’ve read too many novels that managed to be joke adjacent instead of decently funny.

The other highlight was how this book didn’t hate its characters. At times, particularly in British humour, satirical and humorous novels focus on having us laugh at the loser or inept protagonists. Even Rimmer, someone who is incompetent and useless, is treated as part of the odd-couple rather than the heel.

I enjoyed this so much that I continued straight into Better Than Life (Red Dwarf 2).

NB: if you get the chance, listen to the audiobook narrated by Chris Barrie. He obviously does a great job bringing the book to life, but he also nails every single character’s voice from the show.

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Book review: Clean Sweep by Ilona Andrews

Clean Sweep (Innkeeper Chronicles, #1)Clean Sweep by Ilona Andrews
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When Tripadvisor reviews could literally kill your Inn.

Dina Demille runs an out-of-the-way inn catering to a very special clientele. The kind that want safety, neutrality, and for the local Texans to not suspect they are aliens. This is threatened when something starts killing dogs in the neighbourhood. She tries to get the local werewolf to deal with it but finds herself roped into the problem. Before she knows it, Dina is fighting a powerful intergalactic assassin to stop a war between vampire clans.

As a fan of the Kate Daniels series, I’ve been meaning to read more from Ilona and Gordan Andrews. My wife’s family had recently devoured the Innkeeper Chronicles and wouldn’t shut up about it. So it seemed like a safe bet that I’d probably enjoy this one.

Yep. It was great.

When my wife first mentioned Clean Sweep, I thought it sounded like Tanya Huff’s Keeper’s Chronicles. Innkeeper vs Keeper’s Chronicles… Young magical woman… Pet that isn’t really a pet… Magical inn… Love interest… And I enjoyed Summon the Keeper, so this totally not a rip-off should be good.

This was such a fun novel. It was fast-paced, plenty of action, the characters bounced off each other well, and everything felt earned. And in a book full of highlights, the Twilight joke at the end was a great touch.

Despite the superficial similarities between the Innkeeper and the Keeper’s series, they are very different. Clean Sweep has a faster pace and more action. Summon the Keeper has more humour and puts all the pieces in play for the final act. I enjoyed both, but Clean Sweep was easily better.

Can’t wait to read the next in the series.

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When kangaroos jump high, how do they secure their baby?

Much like any other commuter in Australia, Kangaroos have to obey certain laws and regulations. One of those laws is that all young must be restrained so that in event of an accident, say a mother Kangaroo misjudging the distance between her and a tree and slamming into it, the Joey isn’t flung about in the pouch.

See these guidelines for more.

The most common restraint for younger Joeys is a capsule, then a three-point restraint seat. See the table below.

carseat_grid

Of course, just as not every adult human wears a seatbelt, not every parent Kangaroo is as concerned with safety as others. Those terrible parent Kangaroos tend to rely on the Joey being small and the strength of the pouch muscles to hold the Joey still. They are also likely to lay off too much bouncing once the Joey gets bigger.

Usually, the final straw is when the Joey defecates too much in the pouch. Then it is time for the Joey to do its own bouncing and let mum have a rest.

Hope that helps.

This helpful answer originally appeared on Quora.

Are Aussies ashamed that they lost a war against Emus?

In answer to “Are Aussies ashamed that they lost a war against Emus” there needs to be some context to how us brave Aussies were able to valiantly defend ourselves to the last against the evil horde of emus.

First of all, as I’ve outlined in a blog post, yes, this Emu War actually happened. Roughly 20,000 emus invaded the Eastern Wheatbelt area, discovering newly cleared farmland filled with crops and watering points for sheep. They liked this supply of food and water and were ambivalent toward the soldier settler (and other) farmers’ tough run of grain prices and droughts.

They turned up their tails at the mere thought that farmers might be doing it tough. They stuck their beaks into food that wasn’t theirs – and don’t give me any of that “they were there first” and “it was their land” and “do you want to see them starve” nonsense. Take your bleeding heart elsewhere, hippy!

6078780208_407d8d5d96_b
Pure Evil

Since these were ex-soldiers facing ruin (from drought, grain prices, broken subsidy promises, and emus – blame the killer emus!), they liked the idea of using machine-guns (2 Lewis Guns) against the birds in the same way they’d used them against opposing infantry in WW1. They wanted to reminisce about mass slaughter, even if it wasn’t against the most deadly of game.

This didn’t go anywhere near as well as expected. Emus are faster, harder to kill outright, and generally not running straight at a machine-gun embankment like some sort of pea-brained… Anyway, their casualties were low.

Two attempts were made at an emu cull, but ultimately the government decided to offer a bounty on emus instead. Later they went with the tried and trusted move of building a fence to keep the emus out of agricultural areas (along with dingoes, wild dogs, rabbits, kangaroos – although the latter laugh at attempts to build a fence they can’t jump over).

These efforts combined with increased land clearing, increased pest species (wild dogs, rabbits, etc), and increased fossil fuel burning slowly baking the entire planet, have led to a decline in all native Aussie wildlifeincluding emus.

That context should show you that the emus may have won the battle but they lost the war.

So, no, Aussies don’t feel bad about losing a battle.

This answer first appeared on Quora.

How To Be An Internet Tough Guy

Have you ever wondered what it takes to be an internet tough guy?

Well, I’ve created a simple DO and DON’T list that should start you on your path to winning at the internet.

DO

  1. Claim to do MMA
  2. “SAY THAT TO MY FACE!!”
  3. “I’LL KICK YOUR ASS!!”
  4. Claim to be the strongest in gym
  5. Claim to be an ex-Marine
  6. Claim to get laid a lot
  7. Claim they were all models
  8. “Do you even lift, bro?”
  9. Subscribe to Guns & Ammo and Blackbelt Magazine

DON’T

  1. Claim to do Taekwondo
  2. Appear in person to talk
  3. Post shirtless pictures
  4. Post lifting video
  5. Claim to be ex-Airforce
  6. Claim they live in another town
  7. Claim they were foot models*
  8. Provide numbers
  9. Subscribe to House & Garden

*Not kink shaming, but this is the internet tough guy wars that only a certain type of guy – always a guy – engages in.

Book review: A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore

A Dirty Job (Grim Reaper, #1)A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tedious job, flexible hours, remuneration package includes invisibility powers, some harassment involved, and if quotas not met world will end in darkness.

Charlie Asher’s world is turned upside down the day he becomes a father. His wife dies, he becomes a grim reaper, his daughter can kill by pointing at things, and he may never get laid again. His new job is confusing – the JDF is in the mail – the forces of darkness are calling to him from the sewers and people are starting to suspect he’s a serial killer. At least the pay is good.

Over the last month, I’ve tried to read several humorous novels, and have only managed to complete two of them. The two I have finished – A Dirty Job and Redshirts – have had similar pros and cons. Both have had a strong premise, were mostly well executed and were reasonably entertaining. But neither were as funny as they thought they were.

Moore’s absurdist writing style is a strength to this novel. But I couldn’t help but feel he didn’t capitalise on that with more humour. And some of the humour that he does inject… Let’s just say that cringy white guy jive-talking or ethnic caricatures probably don’t amuse me as much as they used to.*

I think it was because of this only mildly amusing level of humour that I started nitpicking aspects of the story. The continuous references to ‘beta males’ became tiresome as, aside from being scientifically debunked, it made the author sound like he was posting on Reddit subforums. Another was the use of weapons against the forces of darkness.** Whilst the humour of this was done well, it did trivialise the threat at several points.

So, much like I said in my review of Redshirts, I think A Dirty Job wasted its potential as a comedic novel and was only okay.***

* I’m going to pretend it wasn’t deliberately racist.
** Also, since when does an American not have access to an arsenal of firearms? One handgun? One?
*** I feel as though I’m being a bit too harsh/critical of humorous novels of late. Maybe all the Terry Pratchett I’ve been reading has spoiled regular books for me.

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