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 vs Movie: Dune – What’s the Difference?

With the new Dune movie coming soon, it’s time to look at the 80s adaptation’s differences from the classic novel.

On the train to work the other day I noticed that in my carriage half the people reading books were reading Dune – mostly the first novel but some were reading other parts of the series. It was somewhat surprising.

Then about a week later I was in a book store and saw that they had an entire shelf of Dune novels and a new edition of the first novel in piles at the front of the store. It was then that I remembered Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation was coming out soon.

Now of course, I’m so ahead of the game that I read Dune *checks notes* 3 years ago. I even discussed the Dune series’ importance just last year.

For me the main thing about the David Lynch adaptation was that it needed to be a political thriller. Instead it was a drama.

Not that the film isn’t without tension and thrills, like the running across the desert without the thumpers and trying to avoid the worms. But the book needed to be stripped back to that political thriller plot to hang the conflict and civil war on.

I’m not sure what Villeneuve plans to do, but he is a very accomplished storyteller. It will be interesting to see if he succeeds where Lynch managed to find himself crying in the corner he’d painted himself into.

Dune is coming back to the big screen while Denis Villenueve and Timothee Chalamet crashing a sandworm into your HBO Max as well, so it’s time to take a look back at the adaptation from David Lynch back in 1984. Based on the Frank Herbert epic, Dune is considered to be one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time. So how did an indie auteur make a big budget Hollywood adaptation out of a dense fantasy epic? It’s time to remember, fear is the mind killer as we ask, What’s the Difference?

Starring Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides, Sting as the space-underwear clad Feyd-Rautha and the soon-to-be Captain Picard Patrick Stewart, Lynch brought together a fascinating group of 80s character actors like Dean Stockwell, Linda Hunt and Jurgen Prochnow to fill out the cast. A critical and commercial failure when it came out, and in light of prior failed attempts to adapt the sci fi fantasy all-timer, which included Jodorowsky’s Dune, the book was long thought to be unfilmable. With the Atreides and Harkonnen rekindling their big screen rivalry in the form of Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Zendaya and a cast as stellar as the one Lynch assembled, we’ll see how 2021’s adaptation fares.

Book review: Science Fiction as Philosophy by David K Johnson

Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as PhilosophySci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy by David K. Johnson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Science Fiction: more than just pew-pew noises.

Science Fiction as Philosophy is a Great Courses series in which each lecture uses an example sci-fi movie or show (plus a few supporting examples) to discuss a philosophical concept. This illustrates both the depth of sci-fi and creates a starting point to draw various philosophical ideas together. David K Johnson presents this broad-ranging series.

The audiobook/lecture series is much like the rest of the Great Courses and includes course notes. The notes book in this instance is presented as a lot of dot points – I don’t remember this being the case in other Great Courses. It was incredibly handy for doing the lateral reading.

This was a fantastic series. The lecturer was able to cover a lot of material in a concise and accessible manner. Johnson also managed to retain a sense of humour that was entertaining in what could have been dry and boring subject matter.

It was great to revisit so many of my favourite sci-fi movies and shows to discuss them with a philosophical eye. This was generally well done and interesting. The deeper insights were not necessarily surprising to sci-fi fans but I generally found a bit more depth to the material here than in the usual pop-philosophy discussions.

That said, there were times where the lectures felt like the cliff notes of philosophy, which isn’t that surprising for something covering a lot of ground. For some topics, I noticed that material was a shortened version of things like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. So this could feel a bit light on if you are familiar with the philosophy being discussed.

Overall, I really enjoyed this Great Courses series and want to dive into some of the other series David K Johnson has made.

Comments while reading:
Lots of great material and subject matter. Highlighted a few of my old favourites, like The Thirteenth Floor.

I have so many issues with the Simulation Hypothesis and 20% chance figure. Personally, I think we should dismiss it in much the same way we dismiss the Devil’s Veil, Brain in a Vat, Matrix, and other similar ideas. Materialism is a much better explanation, as discussed in a previous lecture/chapter.

My main issue with the idea is that the probability matrix and reasoning are essentially Pascal’s Wager (which is predated by several other versions). The problem is that you can use this reasoning to justify just about anything. Replace belief that we’re living in a simulation with belief in magic or god or superman or evil superman or the free market. Nonsense can be granted a “logical” and “rational” foundation which could then be used to justify atrocities – e.g. you could justify killing people because it’s only a simulation.

Pascal’s wager: Believing in and searching for kryptonite — on the off chance that Superman exists and wants to kill you. https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Pascal%…

The section on militarism vs pacifism vs just war is a little disappointing. It starts strong with the castigation of militarism. The pacifism is covered reasonably, the best bit being the dispelling of the idea of pacifism being about just rolling over to violence rather than finding non-violent ways to address violence/militarism. But then Johnson kinda falls prey of several ahistorical factors and militaristic ideas in being critical of pacifism. Which leads into just war as some sort of compromise between the two.

I disagree here. I’d argue that just war isn’t a middle ground but instead a justification for militarism through a pseudo-intellectual justification. Take any of the given requirements of just war and you won’t find a single war (or conflict) that meets the criteria. Even going historically (it’s meant to be used prior and during) you have to be pretty selective in your cherry-picking to get things to fit. E.g. Hitler and the Nazis were bad, so WW2 was all good… well, except the conditions for WW2 were sown at the close of WW1 and could have easily been avoided, the war supplies to Germany could have easily been closed (although that would have stopped the US companies making big $$ from the Nazis), and the Nazis party could have not been internationally endorsed. In other words, the only reason you can meet Just War is if you turn a blind eye for a couple of decades and wait for atrocities to start happening and use those as a post-hoc reason to go to war (they didn’t know about the atrocities until after going to war).

There’s nothing like being reminded of how terrible Robert Nozick’s philosophy was/is. “Rawls was wrong because people earn stuff, even when they cheated or got lucky, and most actually get lucky, BUT THEY EARNED IT DAMMIT!!”

I think Johnson is way off the mark on the luke-warmerism of Snowpiercer. I’m not sure if this is just a really bad take on his part or if he is unaware of the arguments around geoengineering solutions to climate change. Probably a bit of both. Point being, geoengineering is seen by its critics as offering similar unforeseen consequences as the burning of fossil fuels. This means Snowpiercer exists in a world where delay by the powerful required hubristic action that once again disproportionally impacted the poor. Maybe the problem is that Johnson was trying to discuss something fresher, since Snowpiercer has been written about quite a bit from the class struggle perspective, and was trying to fit within his lecture structure.

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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 vs Movie: Doctor No – What’s the Difference?

With a new Bond movie set for theaters, it’s time to look back at the first James Bond adventure and ask, What’s the Difference?

I still haven’t picked up any of the Bond books. Previously I’ve mentioned having vague memories of reading a couple when I was younger. But honestly, they could have been Biggles books.

Side note: as a kid I always thought that Biggles and his friends were gay. I didn’t really know what that was exactly, but they were definitely it. Monty Python agreed. Pity it wasn’t championed a bit more.

Seeing the differences outlined between the Dr No book and film does highlight an issue with plot vs character adaptation. Especially for a series. Change one and you have to change the other.

Although, it would be interesting to see how a cardboard thin character could be slotted into any plot without change. Like say the majority of Jason Statham’s roles.

No Time to Die finds James Bond, Her Majesty’s most infamous double-oh, retired in Jamaica. But we’re going all the way back to the first time Sean Connery as 007 found his way to the Caribbean Island in 1962’s Doctor No. But while it was the first Bond adventure in the film franchise, it was the sixth book author Ian Fleming published. So how did the filmmakers set about adapting the middle of Bond’s novel career for the beginning of his film escapade? Dust off your license to kill because it’s time to ask, “Difference… What’s the Difference?”

Book review: The Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Z Muller

The Tyranny of MetricsThe Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Z. Muller
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Measuring contests are also exaggeration contests.

In The Tyranny of Metrics, Jerry Muller attempts to argue that the introduction of managing by metrics had unforeseen consequences. By mandating “progress” against these metrics we forgot about the unmeasured and unmeasurable aspects. Which was bad. The solution is to be less caught up in managing to metrics and have bosses who use experience and judgement.

This book is a real mixed bag. I’m not sure my rating is fair but I will try to explain why I think this book fails to support its own argument which is pretty self-evidently true.

I wanted to read this book after seeing a short excerpt in Aeon magazine. This essay hinted at covering more broadly something one of my university professors had talked about.

My professor wrote a piece about how the introduction of what has come to be termed “publish or perish” was a terrible idea. He pointed out how it favoured some fields of research over others and established researchers over those early in their career. This obviously risked the very future of academia.

The metrics my professor was concerned about was the use of Impact Factor and number of papers published as part of staff performance measures. Sounds reasonable for academics to publish a certain amount in quality publications, doesn’t it? Except, some fields can produce a research paper in a month or two, while others need several years of experiments. That means the longer production timeline results in fewer papers, fewer citations, and the journals in those fields will have lower impact factors.

Of course, the universities went ahead with this anyway. Funny that higher education has become a bit of a factory churning out degree holders, with retention of postgraduates steadily declining.

This is all to say that Muller’s argument is not new, is well acknowledged as true, and is a serious problem. So in reading this book, I was hoping for some further insights and potential solutions. Which is why I found The Tyranny of Metrics so frustrating to read. On the one hand, it was able to articulate the problem, give examples, and prove its thesis. On the other hand, it would often misunderstand its own argument and provide yet another example of failing to grasp the problem.

One example I highlighted whilst reading was Muller’s discussion of how the epi-pen had its price hiked to make more money. Rather than look at the full picture of what this profit metric focus had done, Muller only looked at part of the picture, missing the impact on the people who couldn’t afford life-saving medicine.

This failure to take in the bigger picture then undermines his own argued solution to The Tyranny of Metrics. Muller thinks that wise and well-informed managers will be able to use their judgement to something something how good is Ayn Rand blah blah blah. My two-word rebuttal to this assertion was: bigotry and nepotism.

In fact, throughout The Tyranny of Metrics, Muller is full of apologetics for management in a way that is bordering on delusional. This shouldn’t have surprised me as he is a big fan of conservatism and capitalism, having written extensively on the two. Kinda hard to critique failures of those things when you’re in love with them.

I’ve been so frustrated by this book. It’s like watching a guy sidle up to the point and then furiously dash off into a field of rakes.

Overall, I can’t recommend The Tyranny of Metrics. While its thesis is true and fairly well supported and argued, it undermines itself constantly and offers grossly flawed solutions.

Comments while reading:
In defining the problem, Muller has already hinted at what he thinks is the solution. Hey, let’s replace these poorly thought out KPIs with whatever the boss reckons. That couldn’t possibly go wrong…

I mean, history isn’t littered with countless examples of racial, sexual, gender, and ethnic discrimination by bosses. No sir. And the saying, it isn’t what you know it’s who you know, isn’t still applicable.

One wonders where we will find all these amazing managers. Do we train them up internally as Muller suggests? Well, doesn’t that remove your best staff from their role and place them into management? Do we regard management as a career in and of itself? Not according to Muller.

This review raises this critique of the book as well: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show…

Makes a good point about university and the unmeasurable benefits of attending, like meeting friends and spouses. Yep, that is a big one that no one even thinks to measure but are probably a big factor in how people view their university experience.

In talking about health care in the USA, he tries to point out factors that drive health outcomes that aren’t part of health care. One example was gun ownership and how “we need to keep guns out of irresponsible hands”… That’s a very American statement. Most any country would just admit that gun ownership is the problem. End of story.

Another very American moment: the epi-pen cost hike example. Interesting that this was framed in terms of the cost of share price and market value, along with confidence in the company. HOW ABOUT THE PEOPLE WHO DIED BECAUSE THE EPI-PEN WAS TOO EXPENSIVE!?!?!

I’m finding the apologism for senior management, CEOs, etc, with regard to the dark side of performance metrics a little on the nose. There’s an element of “how were they to know?” or “employees rewarded for gaming the metrics” statements that are either untrue or a fraction of the story. And when this is used to explain things like the GFC it kinda makes you want to take the entire segment of the population who got shafted by the GFC round to Muller’s place for a little game of dilly twacking.

There are several assumptions built into this apologism, not least of which is the idea that management can’t be expected to know what’s going on in their organisations. But that isn’t incompetence… somehow… The worst aspect of this to my mind, however, is the direct evidence we have from post-GFC investigations that have shown complicit and explicit knowledge throughout the organisations. It’s a little to easy to blame the metrics and a little too easy to say that these were unintended consequences.

Ugh. Book written in 2018 dead names Chelsea Manning who transitioned immediately after her trial, the thing Muller was discussing. This shouldn’t surprise me as it appears Muller wrote a very academic essay saying “gay people should stay in the closet”. Bigotry isn’t okay. https://www.firstthings.com/article/1…

The point about transparency being bad is bonkers. He’s literally talking about war crimes being covered up and how exposing that is somehow bad. This is probably the worst point he makes in the book and shows how little he understands his own subject.

His argument about transparency isn’t without merit. Muller is correct that being too transparent can be detrimental. FOI requests are often weaponised, often the information released is deliberately misconstrued, especially with cherry-picking. But he misses the point about why we have FOIs and transparency. If governments, companies, and other organisations aren’t held accountable then they can literally get away with murder. This requires transparency so that we can create the checks and balances that are often lacking internally (deliberately or otherwise).

Oh, and the irony of writing a book about how metrics have lead us down a dark path but transparency is too idealistic is amazing. How exactly did we learn about metrics being bad without some transparency there Jerry?

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Why Do People Think Huck Finn Is Racist?

This month’s It’s Lit is going to talk about one of the most controversial classics of literature.

I read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn when I was very young. The former was an easy and entertaining read, but the latter I remember being a slog to get through. When I revisited Huck Finn as an adult I came across some history of the book which suggested Twain had battled to write the book over many years. This was certainly how the novel felt in reading.

Both times I read Huck Finn, I was struck by just how infantalised Jim’s character was. It felt wrong. And giving it any level of thought leads you to conclude that this was the way white people viewed African Americans at the time the book was written.

You could argue that this is to draw the reader in and have them empathise with the plight of African Americans. But then wouldn’t you also have Jim grow to become an adult equal to other people by the end of the novel? Or was that something Twain struggled with, as it may have not being judged “realistic” to his audience?

Previously, I’ve discussed banned books and Huckleberry Finn. Something this video raised is what I had said about schools teaching Huck Finn, and that is the idea of complex discussions. It’s hard to teach an older text, provide the context, provide the complex subject matter, and do it all justice. Especially when that subject and context is something like racism.

People might say they are no longer teaching or will attempt to ban Huck Finn because of the N-word. But realistically, it’s because they aren’t willing to put the effort into teaching a complex topic and text. Double that unwillingness if they are someone who wants to pretend racism doesn’t exist.

I’m still a fan of old Samuel Clemens. But as noted in the video, this book isn’t without flaws and there are plenty of other authors and books who probably need highlighting more than Twain and Huck Finn.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by American author Mark Twain is both considered one of the great American novels and one of the most frequently banned and contested novels due to its use of the N-word and racial stereotypes. This has launched many debates as to if the work should even be taught in schools.

Today we are going to attempt to crack the case: is Huckleberry Finn an anti-racist work? Or is it just plain ol’ racist?

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

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: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Snow CrashSnow Crash by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Religion is a mental virus… Going with the uncontroversial plot ideas:

Hiro Protagonist is a pizza delivery boy, hacker, spy, and master swordsman who meets the courier YT during a last-minute delivery. They team up to try and uncover the secret behind a new drug/computer virus called Snow Crash after Hiro’s friend falls foul of it. Between Uncle Enzo’s mafia franchise, Mr Lee’s Greater Hong Kong franchise, and the Reverend Wayne’s Pearly Gates franchise, there is about to be a war for the future of humanity.

I have been meaning to read Snow Crash for over a decade after purchasing a copy cheap in a sale. It was recommended to me in high school and has been off and on my TBR since then. I’m glad I finally read it.

The opening had me hooked. Somewhere in the midst of the frenetic action and heapings of satire was a world that offered some interesting ground to explore. Stephenson’s cyberpunk world of anarcho-capitalism felt ready for something big.

The big thing that Stephenson poured into this world was the idea of language as a program and religion as a virus. As I was reading, this idea was solid and kept the plot going, gave everything stakes, and was pretty satisfying. But now after finishing, I’m left reflecting on the idea and this world.

What was being satirised here? Cyberpunk? Anarcho-capitalism? Or was it just meant to be absurd for a bit of fun? If the latter, why not keep the absurdity going for other aspects of the novel? If either of the former, I’m not sure Snow Crash managed to say anything. And the language as a program idea felt like a huge plot point to just kinda resolve with a wave. Where was the fallout?

In other words, this could have been better.

That said, this was a highly enjoyable novel. I’m glad I finally read it. I’ll have to dive into some other novels from Stephenson.

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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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Book review: Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth L Powell

Ack-Ack Macaque (Ack-Ack Macaque, #1)Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth L. Powell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Is a monkey with guns better or worse than a monkey with a handful of poo?

Victoria Valois has returned to Great Britain after the death of her ex-husband. She immediately realises that something is up when the killer comes back to murder her as well. Meanwhile across the pond, the prince and his girlfriend break into his mother’s labs to free the sentient AI of Ack-Ack Macaque. Things do not go according to plan. Victoria barely survives her attack and finds her path crossing the prince and Ack-Ack Macaque as they try to stop a cabal trying to wipe out humanity.

One of Gareth L Powell’s novels came up as a recommendation so I tried to find it at my local library. Instead, I found Ack-Ack Macaque. It was a pleasant surprise.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect after seeing the cover art. Are monkies with revolvers dressed in WW2 flight gear representative of sci-fi novels?

Then the first chapter didn’t exactly grab me.

But the novel picks up after that sluggish start and doesn’t let up. This was fast-paced, enjoyable, and toyed with some of the ideas around sentience and what makes us who we are. At 300-odd pages, this was also a very quick read.

My wife also enjoyed Ack-Ack Macaque, although somewhat less than myself. Probably because there is a reasonably large amount of action and all the elements (characters, themes, etc) can feel superficial.

I’m looking forward to reading some more from Powell.

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Book Review: The Patterning Instinct by Jeremy Lent

The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity's Search for MeaningThe Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning by Jeremy Lent
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This isn’t a book about seeing shapes in clouds. Especially not that shape.

In The Patterning Instinct Jeremy Lent argues that we humans like to create “patterns” which informs the way we think about things, which in turn shapes the way the world works. But, hey, did you know that those patterns could be wrong, we could think about things in different ways, and that would change the way the world works?

An interesting book with an interesting thesis.

I decided to read The Patterning Instinct after reading Lent’s rebuttal of the “Everything is Fine” nonsense you see trotted out by agents of the status quo. I was expecting that the book would be something similar to The Divide by Jason Hickel, but it was something quite different.

To summarise the book: why don’t we do better by thinking differently?

There. 600 pages summarised.

Obviously there is a bit more to it than that. Lent goes through our history of thinking, patterning behaviours, how those are shaped, have been shaped, and continue to be shaped. His argument is then that our current patterns of thought are kinda stupid (see problems like systemic racism, environmental destruction, and wealth inequality) and we should change the way we think about things.

For example, instead of thinking that the cost of fossil fuels is the price of extraction plus a little something something for the company, we should instead think of the cost of the extraction, the pollution, the remediation, the deaths caused, the tax evasion, and the political manipulation involved in fossil fuels. If we did this we’d act differently and want a different way of powering our society.

Overall this was a very interesting book.

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Book review: Permutation City by Greg Egan

Permutation City (Subjective Cosmology #2)Permutation City by Greg Egan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Just assume I’m right, I’m the protagonist.

Permutation City is about a guy – I’m sure he had a name, but as most reviews and the back cover indicate, it doesn’t matter – who believes he can create an immortal universe in cyberspace. His doubters think he is a conman, his backers want a copy of themselves there, and his colleagues think he’s still crazy. Can he create an everlasting future in Permutation City?

This was my second attempt at reading Permutation City. A few years ago, this novel and Egan’s work in general, were recommended to me by a friend. I gave up after a couple of chapters. This time I made it all the way through. I’m not entirely sure it was worth it.

Egan is excellent at imaginative and interesting ideas. There is a lot going on in this book that will tickle fans of hard sci-fi in all the right spots. But that was pretty much the only interesting aspect of the book. Everything else was bland or unimportant.

For example, I can’t remember the protagonist’s name nor any character traits. And since I’ve returned the novel to the library, I can’t look it up there. I’d check some of the reviews to remind myself, but none of them mention the protagonist either. There’s a Wikipedia page, which eventually mentions the protagonist (Paul Durham) roughly two thirds through the page.

The main characters didn’t matter.

I can’t recommend this book. Plenty of hard sci-fi fans disagree with me. YMMV.

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To Kill, To Kill a Mockingbird?

So this month’s It’s Lit! talks about the famous anti-racist novel To Kill A Mockingbird.

If you need a quick summary of To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman, I highly recommend these videos from Dr Sparky Sweets:

One of the trademark texts of the American school system is Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird. For decades it has been widely read in high schools and middle schools as a key anti-racist text. But how did this novel, with its Southern Gothic and Bildungsroman elements become a book that in 2006 the British said “every adult should read before they die” ahead of the Bible.

To Kill a Mockingbird was written by Harper Lee and was loosely based on Lee’s real-life experiences, the book tells the story of Jean Louise Finch, better known as Scout, a young girl growing up during the Great Depression in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama with her older brother Jeremy aka Jem, and her widowed lawyer father, Atticus Finch. A name, that will be imprinted on the world … forever.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Book review: Limitless by Alan Glynn

The Dark Fields (Limitless, #1)The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If neurotropics actually worked you just know that only people with yachts would be taking them.

Eddie Spinola is a burnout former addict turned copywriter living it small in New York City. When he bumps into his old dealer and former brother-in-law he is exposed to a new drug. And it changes his life. Suddenly he can think clearly, organise his life, and become anything he wants. So he decides to become rich. But the side effects and his dwindling supply put all his aspirations in jeopardy. Can he overcome before he unravels?

The Dark Fields (aka Limitless) has been on my TBR since I first saw the Bradley Cooper movie. It had an interesting premise and I thought the book would have something more to it than the thriller movie which would make it worth checking out.

To say the book and the movie are wildly divergent is an understatement. On a very superficial level, most of the same story beats are hit. But where the film is basically about how smart people win at capitalism and become awesome, the book is about addiction. And the addiction is money.

It’s interesting to see how this plays out. Where you expect the superbrained Eddie to plan and scheme to come out on top against the loan sharks, the police, and the financial sector, instead you see him put things off and learn Spanish. This increasingly compounds his problems, just like all bad decisions, just like an addict.

I can see fans of the movie being disappointed with this book. It is fundamentally at odds with the movie and is a critique of the things lauded in the film. But I’d say the book is superior for it. Well worth a read.

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Some of my points above, plus several more, are covered in these videos from Just Write. I completely agree with their take on the books versus the movie/show (I did not like the show). See how the books and the adaptations serve as juxtapositions for one another.

Book vs Movie: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – What’s the Difference?

Did you know that Quentin Tarantino had novelised his ninth film? Neither did I. Let’s take a look and What’s the Difference?

As a Tarantino fan since the early 90s – geez, that makes me sound even older than I am – I have to come clean on Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. I didn’t like it.

I’ll even go a step further and say that his previous film, Hateful Eight, wasn’t good either.

Unlike Hateful Eight, which had a decisive moment when the film fell apart (Tarantino’s voice over setting up the third act just ruined everything for me), Once Upon A Time In Hollywood was entirely pedestrian. It always felt like a film avoiding being anything other than a love letter to Hollywood films of the 60s.

In fairness to the movie, Tarantino was clearly trying to subvert many of the usual movie moments and be more about actors making great films. For example, the scene at the ranch was setup for a fight for Pitt’s character (Cliff Booth) and the Manson acolytes. Instead, Tarantino subverts that moment and there is no fight, allowing us plenty more time for DiCaprio’s character to learn about method acting from his child co-star.

That the novelisation is quite different from the film isn’t particularly surprising. It’s pretty difficult to make Brad Pitt into a thoroughly unlikable character in a movie. Something to do with charisma and production credits. But the book is unconstrained by actor charisma, which makes it a good opportunity to throw the character under the bus.

Regardless of Tarantino’s future literary aspirations, I hope his tenth/final film is able to cement his career as one of the greats.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Who is Cliff Booth anyway?

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a celebrated installment in writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre. So when he came out with a book adaptation of the story, we were first in line to read it. But was the book markedly different from the film, and do those differences mean something big? We think so and we’ll explain in this Book vs. Film on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – The New Ending.

Popular Words Invented by Authors

Words are helpful in expressing ideas. So it is no surprise that authors, who sometimes try to express ideas, need to make a few words up. This video from PBS Other Words goes through a few examples.

I’m currently reading The Patterning Instinct by Jeremy Lent. A topic discussed in the book was on how language and culture shape how we think and express ourselves. So the ability to craft out language is an important skill to advance not only language, but also culture and society and potentially the way we think.

Personally, I’m trying to make the word beveragement catch on.

The Unappreciated Female Writers Who Invented the Novel

This month’s It’s Lit covers Amatory Fiction.

This is an interesting video for several reasons. I’m always amused when the topic of rethinking “great authors” comes up and people without pearls start clutching them.

The literary canon excluding certain types of authors and books shouldn’t be news to people. But there always seems to be plenty of reactionary debate making excuses for why, for example, Grapes of Wrath got published while Sanora Babb’s Whose Names Are Unknown (written the same year on the same topic, both using Babb’s notes) took 65 years to be released. Yeah, that was a thing.

I’ve covered this before when calls have been made to increase the diversity of the literary lists for students in the hopes that more diversity of texts will be taught. Getting people who don’t read much to acknowledge that “literary greats” are less about talent than luck (timing, contacts, $$, etc) is a hard task. Trying to get those same people to acknowledge that women, people of colour, and non-Americans might have written books throughout history is often a hurdle they are unwilling to even attempt jumping.

Which brings me around to one of my favourite topics here: snobbery and guilty pleasures. The It’s Lit video shows how snobbery essentially relegated an important part of literature to the unknown and unappreciated baskets of history. Combine that snobbery with a bit of the old bigotry of the pants and you will have people trying to ignore a segment of literature that broke boundaries (e.g. Behn wrote one of the earliest anti-slavery novels).

For more on Sanora Babb’s novel, it is worth watching this video:

The guy typically credited with inventing what we know as the modern novel was Miguel de Cervantes with his cumbersome 800+ page book, Don Quixote. But what if I told you that the real antecedent for the modern novel was created by… ladies.

Before the rise of what would become the modern novel, there was Amatory fiction. Amatory fiction was a genre of fiction that became popular in Britain in the late 17th century and early 18th century. As its name implies, amatory fiction is preoccupied with sexual love and romance. Most of its works were short stories, it was dominated by women, and women were the ones responsible for sharing and promoting their own work.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Book review: Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

Axiom's End (Noumena, #1)Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The scariest phrase you can hear: We’re from the CIA, we’re here to help.

Cora Sabino is a university drop-out barely holding onto temp jobs. Her dad has become something of a celebrity for his self-aggrandising journalism that saw him flee the USA and abandon his family. Ever since the CIA has been keeping an eye on her mother and now her. But then something falls out of the sky. Cora’s dad leaks documents that say it is aliens. Caught between the CIA and aliens, Cora is thrust into the most important role imaginable.

I’ve been a fan of Lindsay Ellis’ video essays for many years now. She has an eye for pop-culture analysis and dissecting the role of media in creating culture. So when she announced that she had written a book, I was interested.

But a few chapters into Axiom’s End I was a little underwhelmed. The novel wasn’t exactly what I was expecting from Ellis, who is often witty and humorous. This was more of a standard sci-fi novel. With that revised expectation, I settled in for the rest of the book. Which continued to be pretty standard underwhelming sci-fi stuff.

Of course, I should have expected this. Many of Ellis’ videos (particularly It’s Lit!) are filmed in front of her bookshelf which is adorned with authors like John Scalzi. It’s just that I’d have hoped she would bring that video essay wit to her novel.

As far as standard sci-fi novels go, Axiom’s End was good enough. I’m starting to accumulate a few books that sit in the category of “Books I have read”. Which is to say, they aren’t bad, but not particularly memorable either. And I think I can narrow down a good example of why (queue the spoilers).

Okay, so there is this scene where Cora is being asked to trust the CIA agent Saul. She accuses him/CIA of wiping minds. Saul does the big laugh at her thing and calls her a conspiracy nut like her dad. She gets understandably angry. But she doesn’t push hard. This was the moment for her to push back.

You see, for a character whose family was literally abducted by the CIA during the middle of the night in black SUVs, who has also been blackmailed/forced to work for the CIA and military, who knows that the CIA has been covering up aliens, who have been spying on her and her family for years, who have forced her dad to flee the country, and who has had her life and future threatened by the CIA agent, this was the moment to tell Saul to fuck off. It felt like we’d been building to this moment, but instead it was a reveal and undermining of her trust in her new alien buddy. (end spoilers)

Essentially, character moments like this were undermined in service of plot machinations that probably could have still worked whilst retaining the flow of the scene. From another author I’d probably have ignored this issue, but I went in expecting more.

I think Lindsay Ellis has the makings of a great author. But Axiom’s End was disappointing for me.

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