Category Archives: Book Reviews
Personal reviews and ratings of fiction by others.
The two most noteworthy, or at least uncommon, events of my week were that I played D&D twice (instead of once) and that my washing machine has finally been fixed after being broken for 65 days.
I first began playing the classic RPG game D&D (AD&D 1st Edition) in the early 1980s with a bunch of guys from work. We would get together about once a month at the house of whomever was serving as DM at the time. A single campaign could take over a year. When I moved about 1,000 miles away to take a new job, I had to stop playing. This was over 20 years ago, in the dark ages before high speed internet. But a couple years ago, some members of my old group (who had never stopped playing and were now, like me, all retired) talked about playing online using something called Roll20. It sounded like fun, and we’ve been playing about once a week ever since. Last week we played twice because, due to schedule conflicts, we can’t all virtually meet next week. This isn’t momentous news, but my life has become pleasantly dull, and this fell outside the norm.
The big news is that my washer is working again. The two new bullet points for the week were:
- DAY 61 (June 6th) I receive an email from Whirlpool (MainCorr@whirlpool.com) apologizing for “for any delays in responding” but not for selling me an unreliable appliance that was clearly not designed to be repairable. In fact, they don’t directly answer any of the question I posed in my May 30th email but instead simply repeat that “The manufacturer’s warranty is for repair and not replacement, return or refund.”
- DAY 65 (June 10th) A repairman from Fields Service arrives at 2:00 pm. He’s the same guy who was here a month ago (May 19th). The back of his small service van is full of boxes. He tells me all of them are for the repair of my washer. About two hours later, he tells me he’s finished, telling me he replaced every part of the washer except the outer shell, door, and knobs. He says it should now work. After he leaves, I throw in a load of whites, mostly towels, to check. It seems to work, but somehow I remain wary.
I also finished reading books 9 and 10 of the Skulduggery Pleasant series. Both were enjoyable. Pretty dull stuff, I know, but I’m tying to post something weekly, and I really don’t want to fill my blog with rantings about politics or religion or stuff like that. There’s more than enough of that kind of thing elsewhere.
Last week was an especially eventful one as far as weeks in the life of an old retired guy go. This was mainly because of new TV shows that I found interesting enough to expend a few of my remaining hours watching.
Most of my TV-viewing hours were spent on the eight new episodes of Stranger Things 4 (on Netflix). Like the previous seasons, it’s basically about a bunch of kids saving the world from monsters from a parallel dimension. What I like most about this show is the kids playing D&D, which I can relate to, having played for several years when I was younger and began playing again a couple years ago – but that is beside the point, for now. I found out later that the Dio vest being worn by the kid who plays the DM in this season once belonged to Ronnie James Dio himself, which is also cool because I’ve always been fond of Dio’s music.
I also watched episode 5 of Star Trek Strange New Worlds (on Paramount+). This episode explored identity and empathy and seeing other people’s points of view. It also had a few funny bits. I continue to be impressed by this show especially because of how unimpressed I’ve been with most of the other new Trek Paramount has produced. Although I’ve been something of a Trekker since the original series first aired, I truly hated Discovery. The crew of that ship just did not seem like Starfleet to me. And why did they turn Klingons into orcs? With Strange New Worlds, it’s beginning to look like Paramount is finally getting Trek right.
And then there was the long awaited new episode of The Orville. I’ve enjoyed this show from the beginning, too. It’s always seemed like a homage to the original Star Trek, and Season 3 continues that. It opens shortly after the first Kaylon offensive has been repulsed. This first episode explores guilt, forgiveness, and dealing with trauma as crew members sort out how they feel about Isaac, who, as a Kaylon, bears some responsibility for a great many deaths, but who is also one of the reasons the Kaylon did not succeed. It’s a good start to the new season.
I also read a few books, two fiction and one nonfiction. The two fiction books were uncommonly enjoyable, the nonfiction one, not so much.
Last Stand of Dead Men by Derek Landy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Within the magical community, there are those who believe that magic users should rule the world because they are “better” than ordinary, non-magical people. Others believe that magic-users should remain separate and largely apart from regular human affairs. The polarization between these two camps erupts into a magical civil war in the 8th book in this highly entertaining series. The characters remain interesting, the plot is intriguing, and the pacing (as always) keeps you turning pages. This is very well written.
Mickey7 by Edward Ashton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Colonizing planets is a dangerous business, but colony ships never seem to have trouble attracting highly qualified crew… at least not for most positions. Some of these people might be called brave, some foolish, and some are arguably insane, but only the truly desperate apply for the position of Expendable. Mickey is pretty desperate. Staying on the planet of his birth would mean daily torture until he pays off a substantial gambling debt. This seems to him like a fate worse than dying, even worse than the possibility of dying repeatedly, which is an Expendable’s job. So, he applies for a berth on an outgoing colony ship. Expendable is the only slot open, and he’s the only applicant.
This is a fun science fiction story with a likeable protagonist. It has lots of sciency stuff, not unlike The Martian and other books by Andy Weir, and it also ponders the philosophical question of what makes you you. If you die, and a clone is made and loaded with your memories and personality, is it now you? Even if you feel like yourself, how do others see you? Are you really a person in their eyes?
Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The basic premise of this book, that some jobs are pretty much pointless and that the world wouldn’t skip a beat if they disappeared, is incontestable. But I think the author goes too far on too little evidence. He presents plenty of anecdotal quotes from people who believe their own jobs fall into the bullshit category, but no real assessment of whether or not these job holders are right. Not knowing what the benefit of your work might be doesn’t necessarily mean there is none.
Last, and possibly least, there’s the ongoing issue I’m having with Whirlpool and a washing machine that broke down before it was a year old. Today is the 60th day I’ve been without a working washer, but someone is supposed to come next Friday (10 June) to try yet again to fix it. So, to add to the ongoing bullet list….
- DAY 54 – (May 30th) I send another email to Whirlpool (email@example.com) with cc to Joseph Carrita, Customer Relations Manager (firstname.lastname@example.org) asking how many repair attempts are required, what the cost of repair must be, and how long they believe it is acceptable to make a customer wait before they deem one of their appliances “non-repairable.”
- DAY 56 (June 1) I receive a DM Tweet from Whirlpool asking for my specific address and phone number. I provide them.
- DAY 57 (June 2nd) Whirlpool’s Twitter people call and leave me on hold while they call the service provider. Eventually, they say the service people are still waiting on two parts but will call as soon as they arrive. I ask again why Whirlpool would spend $2,000 in parts and make a customer wait two months rather than replace an $800 machine. The poor unfortunate customer liaison lady refuses to address cost at all and simply repeats that Whirlpool only repairs things under warranty. It does not replace them.
- DAY 58 (June 3rd) The service company calls to let me know that all the parts have been processed in, but the next available appointment to repair my washer is seven days away because of the need to dedicate an otherwise empty truck to all the parts needed, one of which is quite large, to ensure it is not damaged in transit. (This adds transportability and packaging to the list of Whirlpool’s logistic design flaws.) I am told this will be a three-hour job.
I sure hope they manage to fix it, this time.
This has been another fun-filled week for this old, retired guy. The one decidedly un-fun highlight was that another Whirlpool repairman tried and failed to fix my washing machine, which broke over six weeks ago. Since the 1-year warranty doesn’t say how long the manufacturer can take to fix it, I’ve been stuck without one while they try to get the parts they need. (I’ve blogged about this a few times as my frustration has grown.)
I also finished reading a few books last week. Two were mysteries set in 1958 and 1959 London. I gave a 3-star rating to both on Goodreads. They weren’t bad but not ones I’d highly recommend.
Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder by T.A. Willberg
1958 London. An apprentice private investigator for an underground (literally) organization stumbles upon several secrets as she tries to discover who among her coworkers has committed a brutal and seemingly inexplicable murder inside their own secret lair. The recipe for this story starts with a mix of classic Agatha Christie, adds a touch of cozy mystery, a good helping of Harry Potter, and a pinch of James Bond. It may be a bit underdone, but it’s really not too bad. I cant say I was taken by any of the characters, and sometimes their actions and motivations had my scratching my head, but it’s a fine historical mystery written in a classic style.
Marion Lane and the Deadly Rose by T.A. Willberg
1959 London. There’s been a mysterious murder. Miss Brickett’s secret underground detective agency is investigating, but it may have been infiltrated by, well, someone untrustworthy. And someone within the organization is rabble-rousing. Marion lane, apprentice detective, finds herself in the middle of things.
This second book in the series is much like the first. It reads like an old YA mystery (Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, that kind of thing) with a bit of Harry Potter thrown in, but none of the characters are under 20 years old. I can’t say any of them stand out. Actually, neither the good guys or the bad guys come across as especially competent or clever, and their plans and plots often seem to rely heavily on serendipity. There are some cool (albeit unlikely) gadgets and gizmos, including some battery tech that would be impressive even today.
I also read a pretty good nonfiction book about people losing their ability to focus their attention. I gave this one 4 stars and wrote a fairly long review. I won’t share all of that here, but you can see it on either Goodreads or the Avery Slom Philosophical Laboratory site if you are so inclined.
Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention- and How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari
Are we losing our ability to focus? Is it harder now than in the past to pay attention to things? If so, do our work habits, lifestyle, diet, environment, and (especially) social media habits have anything to do with this? The author of this book, a writer and journalist who has consulted with experts in the field of behavioral science, believes the answer to all these questions is “Yes,” and although he brings up many valid points, I’m not convinced he’s entirely right. I think the real problem may be something else. It’s not that we can’t focus, it’s that our basic human instincts are being exploited to manipulate our behavior. A side effect of this is that our focus gets diverted.
You can see the rest of this review here https://philosophylaboratory.wordpress.com/2022/05/18/stolen-focus/ or here https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/4731524969
Last, but not least, I finished the sixth book in the Skullduggery Pleasant Series. I rated this one 4 subjective stars and would recommend it because it’s fun.
Death Bringer by Derek Landy
The necromancers are nurturing a Death Bringer to bring about a better world, but “better” can be a matter of opinion, and what necromancers see as better may not be what most others see as better. Meanwhile, another group is trying to reestablish the Church of the Faceless Ones. Why anyone would want gods like these is difficult to imagine, but some people seem to have a deep need for that kind of thing. And while Skulduggery and Valkyrie are dealing with these threats, both are hiding an inner darkness and very powerful magic, which they are doing their best to suppress. Adding to and slightly complicating these things are a couple of inept zombies for comic relief.
This is another fast paced and extremely entertaining episode in the continuing adventures of the Skeleton Detective and his (still) teenage apprentice. Like the previous books, it is a fest of witty banter and wordplay that sometimes had me laughing out loud. It has it’s dark moments, and the characters (even the “good” ones) can be unpleasantly snarky, inconsiderate, and rude, at times, but these flaws do not dominate their personalities. They still come off as fairly likeable.
View all my reviews
The weather has been lovely here in Florida, and I really should be going outside. Actually, I should be doing yard work (weeding, mowing, that kind of stuff), but I really don’t enjoy any of that. I do enjoy reading, though, so here’s another short book review.
The skeletal detective is trapped in the dimension of the Faceless Ones, and Valkyrie (his teenage assistant) thinks she’s figured out how to get him out. She’s not getting any official help with this, of course. In fact, it seems as if that Thurid Guild (the Grand Mage) and the entire Irish Sanctuary (like the regional Magic HQ) don’t want him back. Meanwhile, Valkyrie’s being recruited by a necromancer who seems all right, but who really knows with sorcerers into all that dead stuff? Also, there’s a temporary alliance of outlaw psychopath sorcerers who are seeking vengeance on Skullduggery, Valkyrie, the Grand Mage, and the Sanctuary in general.
This is another unpretentious fun fantasy adventure with likeable characters. I found it a highly enjoyable light read. So, on to book #5.
View all my reviews
The chronicle of my retirement life continues with a short review of The Faceless Ones by Derek Landy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Teleporters are being murdered. (These are people who can do what a Star Trek transporter does but without the transporter.) Who is killing them and why are the questions skeletal detective Skullduggery Pleasant and his teenage assistant Valkyrie Cain tackle in this third full length novel in the series. Given the title, I don’t suppose it’s a spoiler to say it all has to do with bringing about the return of the Faceless Ones.
This, like the others I’ve read so far, is an enjoyable adventure. It has lots of witty banter and loads of “action” (i.e. superpower hand-to-hand fighting). The characters are distinct and pleasantly quirky, and the plot makes about as much sense as any other fantasy story. It’s a good, quick read. I quite enjoyed it. So, on to the next book in the series….
View all my reviews
I spend a lot of my retirement reading, so, it’s time for another book review. My copy of this one is part of a 9-book boxed set that I bought recently. I think I got a very good deal. It originally sold for £71.91, which equates to about $90.00 US. I paid $58.83. I’m not sure why I’m sharing that, but I do love a bargain. (It’s probably not healthy, but I base a fair amount of my diet around what’s on BOGO sale (buy one get one free) at the supermarket.)
Playing with Fire by Derek Landy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The skeleton detective and his teenage apprentice are back for their second adventure together. This time, they need to stop a sorcerer from bringing back the Faceless Ones (like a bunch of evil gods). Unfortunately, he has minions, magic armor, and possibly an ally (or at least an informant) in the local magical law enforcement organization. The good guys are fun. The bad guys are thoroughly despicable. There’s lots nasty villainous types, loads of witty banter, and several (sometimes too prolonged) superpower fight scenes. This series doesn’t pretend to be great literature. Actually, it doesn’t take itself very seriously at all, which I quite appreciate. My taste in fantasy leans heavily to the light side. This doesn’t have the kinds of insights or real world relevance you often find in a Terry Pratchett novel (for example), but it’s still a quite enjoyable read.
View all my reviews
The God of Lost Words by A.J. Hackwith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Stories have power, which demons crave, which is why Hell’s library is under assault. First, they come for the Arcane wing; next, the Unwritten Branch. The only way to save it, may be to change it, to get other wings of the Library, which are hosted by other afterlife realms, to join them to break free. But to do that, they need a guide, a realm, and a god, and those are in very short supply. In fact, no one has seen an actual god in quite some time.
This is a marvelous fantasy story that reads like a modern creation myth. The characters are delightful and their friendships are inspiring. When I finished reading this final book of the trilogy last night, I experienced something reminiscent of the “Oh, that was wonderful!” feeling I often got at the end of a Terry Pratchett story. That’s a rare thing, indeed. Nicely done, Hackwith. Much appreciated.
View all my reviews
The Library of the Unwritten by A.J. Hackwith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It’s been said that everyone has a book in them, a story only they can write, and although the vast majority of these remain unwritten, all are shelved in a library in Hell. Claire is spending her afterlife as its librarian, presumably for her sins. It’s become something of a routine job for her until an unwritten book escapes and she goes to Earth to retrieve it, and she is then confronted by a fallen angel who mistakenly assumes she’s there for something else entirely, which turns out to be true, although she didn’t know it at the time.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable tale. It reminds me of Pratchett and Gaiman’s Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch in that it’s fairly witty, imaginative, has a certain charm, and features mythological characters from the Abrahamic religions and gives them a bit of personality. I found it to be a very good read.
View all my reviews
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I like to succinctly summarize the main plot of a story for these short reviews, but this one is a bit tough. Anyway, for what it’s worth….
There are two hereditary lines of alien beings of the same species living on Earth. Each is represented by only one “family.” They’ve been here for about 3,000 years. One is male and wants to bring the aliens to Earth, and the other is female and wants to prevent that in order to save humans. (I think it’s actually about human nature and gender and such, but I don’t want to presume or analyze. That can take all the fun out of a story.) Some chapters are from the male perspective, and focus on dark and destructive instincts. They think the female line has some kind of transmitter that will call the rest of their alien species to come here and invade the planet, and they really want to get their hands on it. The female line stresses protection and progress. The female goal is to “take them to the stars,” meaning that they are subtly attempting to get humans to understand and venture out into the wider universe. How this might prevent an alien invasion wasn’t clear to me, and I had other questions, but all in all, I really like this book. Mainly this is because of the underlying hope in human potential that resonates with it but also because of all the embedded history of science type stories it includes. Actually, I think my favorite chapter was the nonfiction “Further Reading” bit at the end. If you’re a fan of stories about human progress and the history of science, you may really like this series.
View all my reviews
A bunch of fairies bestow magical gifts upon a baby princess—in a sci-fi universe with aliens and space stations. Sixteen years later, Rory, the androgynously named aforesaid princess, has grown into a spunky girl, trained in both physical self defense and arithmancy (what other universes might call ‘magic’), and she is not at all pleased when she is called upon to marry a foreign prince as a way to end an interstellar war. She’s all for stopping the war, of course, but the prince was something of dud the one time she had met him. That was when they were both young children; it was the same day a suicide assassin blew up their respective fathers.
It’s difficult to mix humor, fantasy, science fiction, and cultural commentary into a seamless story (I know this first hand), but this book does. The plot makes sense. So do the characters. The protagonist is likeable and relatable. The antagonist is fairly loathsome. It’s not exactly funny, but it is fun. I loved it and hereby endow it with five subjective stars.
This is about as cozy a cozy mystery as you can get. A professional pastry chef flees a philandering fiance in New York and escapes to a small town in Florida, where she picks up a job at a bakery, but not as a baker, as counter help. Oddly, this bakery doesn’t sell pastries or cakes or cookies, which is unfortunate because Kate, the aforesaid pastry chef, has a kind of magic ability; she can tell your favorite kind of cookie just by looking at you. She’s only working there one day before an unsavory customer dies after eating some cinnamon buns that the shop’s owner made for himself. The owner is soon arrested for poisoning the guy.
As far as the mystery goes, I had the the perpetrator, the motive, and the general means pegged pretty much from the start. As for the cozy, it couldn’t get much cozier. When Kate first comes to town, she finds the locals helpful, sharing, encouraging, and just as fond of food as she is. It’s like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood with the warm, fuzzy addition of a friendly community dog that everyone chips into to feed and care for. (It was delightfully refreshing to read about such a lovely imaginary place. I like this about cozies. They’re a nice break from the nonstop action, conflict, and general nastiness you find in so much fiction. But, I digress. Back to the story.) So, in friendly small town spirit, Kate’s new neighbors all volunteer to help her prove her new boss innocent and get him out of jail. A lot of cooking and eating is involved.
I quite enjoyed this book even though it’s almost too cozy and the mystery is fairly predictable. It was a welcome change from the last book I read, but I won’t mention that one here.
Every once in a while you come across a book that you really like but you don’t really know why. This is one of those. There’s nothing overly special or unique about it. It’s a contemporary murder mystery. A woman is notified that her estranged mother has died and left her all of her worldly assets, which includes a shop in a nothing of a town in Arizona. The shop (see title) is only one of several in the area that provide psychic readings and other woo-woo services. The deceased mom was a career con-woman. The daughter would rather not be, although it is what she was groomed for. So, when it turns out that the woman’s death probably wasn’t due to a burglary gone wrong but was, instead, a targeted slaying, the daughter is not surprised, and she begins to investigate.
I like stories with clever, witty, but essentially moral protagonists. The one in this book certainly qualifies. Alanis (possibly her real name, although she’s had many aliases) is given depth in the story through flashbacks to scenes from her childhood, traveling around the country, living in hotels, and playing parts in her mother’s cons. From these you see why she is what she is, and you admire that she’s not been completely destroyed by her experiences, that she’s somehow retained both her sanity and her humanity. One of her first acts upon arriving in Arizona is to make amends with some of the people her mother conned out of money or jewelry. But I think what I find most appealing about this spunky heroine is that she’s a clear thinker, skeptical, logical, perhaps even a bit cynical. She arrives knowing that her mother, her shop, and the mystical stuff the town is known for are nothing more than ways of extracting money from credulous, superstitious tourists. But as she learns more, she wonders if the tarot cards can’t be more than just a con. In the hands of a skilled reader, perhaps they can provide comfort, or motivation, or confidence…. Rather than being used to cheat people, maybe they can be used to help them. Of course they’d need to be in the hands of someone skilled at reading people to do that. Alanis feels that she is.
There are two more books in this series. I just ordered the second, and the third is in my local library system. I’ve added both to my TBR list. I suppose you could consider that an endorsement of this one.
A once-elegant resort hotel in Upstate New York is hosting a rehearsals and a concert to be performed by talented high school kids, and one of them, a true prodigy with a flute, goes missing. Her roommate, one of a pair of fraternal twins, finds her hanging from a pipe by the neck, duplicating the scene of a murder/suicide of a bride and groom exactly fifteen years before. But is it what it looks like? After the roommate runs for help, the body, and all signs of a hanging, are gone. Is the young flutist really dead? Did she stage a suicide to escape her domineering mother? Maybe the girl who witnessed the events of fifteen years ago and has returned to dispel lingering demons has something to do with it. Perhaps the elderly and peculiar hotel concierge is somehow involved. Or the teacher who once shot and killed a former student who broke into her home, or the Scottish orchestra conductor who has one and a half hands… All of them seem to be hiding something. They are all interesting characters in that they are bent or broken in some way. I can’t say I’d want to be friends with any of them. They’re undoubtedly a high-maintenance lot, but as fictitious suspects in a contemporary whodunit, they’re fun. I quite enjoyed this one.
Cas is a super hero. Actually, she’s a super antihero. Her super power is that she is unbelievably (literally) good at math. She knows all the formulas, constants, algorithms, axioms, and whatnot necessary to compute, well, pretty much anything faster than a supercomputer. Combined with her uncanny observational skills and her ability to judge relative distances, atmospheric pressure, wind speeds and directions, and any other pertinent variable, along with her impressive physical strength and apparently superhuman reflexes, she’s close to unstoppable. You really don’t want to annoy her or get in her way because she’ll kill you stone dead without a second thought or a moment of remorse. Like I said, she’s an antihero, so screwed up she makes Batman look psychologically well-adjusted. Cas is the protagonist of this story.
On the other side of the narrative equation is an organization that wants to make the world a better place. Unfortunately, it’s operating under the standard rationalization used by dictators, religious cults and ideologues throughout history: the ends justify the means. They also have a superpower. It’s mind control. They can make you believe whatever they want, which means you’ll do what they want, almost like a puppet on strings. It even works on Cas, although she does have more resistance than most people. The one person who does seem to be immune is her not-friend and ally Rio. Like Cas, he’s a psychopath, but as an added bonus to his uncharming pesonality, he’s also a sadist. The secret organization bent on improving the world wants to recruit him, which is how Cas gets involved. It’s a clever bit of plotting, but we don’t need to go into that for a short book review.
It’s difficult for me to come up with a single star rating for this book. There are parts that I think are brilliant. The story is interesting. The pacing is excellent. The prose is fine. There are no obvious flaws with the editing. But then there are the characters. Since this is a superhero kind of story, you can’t expect them to be believable, but they are comprehensible. They have distinct personalities and understandable motivations (more or less), and yet I found them lacking. The thing is, I like to have good guys in my fiction, at least one character I can like and relate to. It doesn’t have to be the protagonist, and they don’t have to be capital G good. Actually, it’s better if they have flaws and shortcomings and things they are striving to overcome or improve. But they need to have some redeeming qualities, and the main characters in this story really don’t have any. At least the major players don’t. An action story is like a sporting event in which two (or more) players compete, and the reader is supposed to root for one of them to prevail over the other. But in this story, I couldn’t pick a side. Since the story is told in first person from Cas’s point of view, I knew more about her than than the others, but I didn’t feel any sympathy for her. She abounds with negative personality traits. The only positive thing about her that I could see is that she isn’t worse. I certainly didn’t like her. Her primary motivations are self-preservation and revenge. Unlike her opponents, she doesn’t really have an ultimate goal or idea she’s fighting for. As far as the outcome of the fictional narrative went, I didn’t much care which side prevailed.
The Goodreads rating system is based on how much you enjoy the book, and I can’t say I really enjoyed this one. It’s a well-written, action-packed tale with lots of ass kicking, but it doesn’t have much of what I normally look for in a book. There are no endearing, admirable, or even likable characters. It’s not witty or insightful. There is no theme with real-world relevance, a tone I could relate to, or a compelling mood. This may be a great book for readers who like lots of “action,” but I’m not motivated to read any more stories with these characters.
The team from Tripping Magazine is investing another (possibly) weird occurrence, this time involving a pair of twins—one who appears not to be aging (much) and her sister who is. Oddly, the portrait of the younger looking one, which she keeps in a locked room, appears to be tolling the years in her stead. Her sister, who painted the thing years ago, claims not to understand why.
This is a Scooby-Doo kind of mystery, with a team of investigators looking at clues to figure out what’s really going on. Their leader (editor of the magazine) is biased toward finding the most woo-woo version of events possible. The chief writer is far more practical, and the sexy photographer is mainly in it for the fun. I wish there were more books in this series. I find them quite enjoyable.
Women are dying in Edinburgh in the mid-19th Century, but is it murder? That’s the question that Will (our protagonist) asks himself after a lady of negotiable affection, with whom he is well acquainted, dies in apparent agony. His interest is both personal and professional as he has just been apprenticed to an eminent doctor who is the Victorian version of an OBGYN.
The setting and characters are believable. The story moves along well, and the plot is interesting. I was also surprised because the person I had pegged as being behind the dire events wasn’t. The fact that I was wrong and it made sense is certainly worthy of an extra star! I tend to enjoy Victorian whodunits, but it’s the historical medical details that make this one stand out.
January is a tidally locked planet, habitable only along a strip of land running north and south, with frigid cold and perpetual darkness on one side, and endless light and searing heat on the other. Sophie, the protagonist of this story, is a student in one of two major cities in this zone. She makes a life-changing (and story-starting) decision when she takes the blame for a theft committed by a friend. The punishment for someone of her disfavored ethnicity is death, and she is hurled into the freezing dark and certain doom. Except it’s not. Certain, that is, due to the intervention of native monsters who may not be quite as monstrous as people believe.
The chapters in which Sophie provides the point of view are narrated in first person, present tense. The others are in third person, past tense. This felt awkward to me, but not jarring. It was the depressing setting, the oppressive culture, and the essentially unlikable characters that prevented me from actually enjoying the time I spent reading this. Dark stories can still be compelling, but this one was not. I never became emotionally invested in the place, the people, their politics, or even in the aliens, although the latter were interestingly, well alien. The ending, well, can’t give that away, but I can say that I found it less than satisfying.
A fairly average high school boy in central Florida lives next to an unbelievably uncommon girl of about the same age. She’s endearingly clever, but she’s also totally self-absorbed, casually inconsiderate, socially domineering, recklessly adventurous, and inexplicably popular. He is, of course, infatuated with her. It surprises no one when she goes missing just before graduation. She’s done that kind of thing before. But there are circumstances that suggest this time may be different. Fearing that she might be emotionally unstable enough to off herself, the average kid recruits a few friends to help him follow clues she’s left behind, seemingly for his benefit, to try to find her… or maybe her body.
I picked this up at my local library mainly because I recognized the author as the guy who did the entertaining and informative Crash Course videos on YouTube. I had no idea at the time: 1. That it had been made into a movie (so the sticker on the cover claims), 2. That it is set very near where I currently reside (a norther suburb of Orlando), or 3. What a paper town was (actually, I did, but I had never heard them called that).
Because of the age of the characters, the story is shelved as YA, but it’s not juvenile. The prose and pacing are both quite good. The crazy girl may not be overly likeable (although she is, in a way, admirable), and her imaginative pranks may be unbelievable, but her story is quite entertaining.
A Bedouin girl comes down with a mysterious malady, and her father brings her to an unscrupulous magic maker with hope of buying a cure. Centuries later, an unlikable man wants a wife, so he goes to an unscrupulous magic maker to have one made out of clay. . . . Although not necessarily in that order. These events, relayed in flashbacks, provide the backstory of a meeting between a golem bride and a jinni in New York City around 1900. The jinni has no memory of how he got there, or of anything else for the last thousand years. The golem was born only a few days ago. Each is trying to find their place in this strange new world when a chance encounter evolves into a strange friendship between them.
The golem’s plight is especially engaging. She essentially has to invent what she is on her own, figure out if and how to interact with others, and decide on a course for her future. I found the jinni character less interesting overall, but he has his moments. I’m not a fan of flashbacks, and there are a lot in this book, but they’re handled well, providing essential background without confusing or disrupting the flow of the main story (much). Pacing is good, for the most part, although it bogs down a bit in the middle with more emotional turmoil and soap opera angst than seemed necessary. All in all, a good story.
There was a four-year gap between the first Sherlock Holmes story and the next. This well-crafted tale tells us what Arthur Conan Doyle was up to during that time. I’ll give you a hint. It involves Jack the Ripper.
Okay, I know. You’re rolling your eyes. Doyle wasn’t actually involved in hunting down the Ripper. This isn’t a true account. It’s historical fiction. A murder mystery. A Victorian whodunit. And do we really need another Ripper story to add to gazillion already out there? I can’t answer as to need, but we can always use more really good stories, and this is one. The characters have depth. Their words and actions feel real. The setting is vividly drawn and historically accurate (to the extent that fiction can be). The events described are believable. The pacing is good, and the story is intriguing. It tickles your intellect and nudges your emotions. Yeah, this is a good book. I don’t give out a lot of five-star ratings, but this earns one. I’m happy to recommend it to readers who appreciate historical fiction or a good murder mystery.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
In an alternate Victorian British Empire, werewolves, vampires, and mundane humans coexist in staid civility. And then there is Prudence. She has the rare ability/gift/curse of stealing another supernatural person’s form simply by touching them. If she touches a werewolf, she becomes a werewolf, and the person she touches becomes a mortal human for as long as they stay in reasonably close proximity with one another. Although she is said to be something of a scandal to her family (including both of her fathers and her mother), this is a relative assessment. Within the section of privileged society in which she travels, the main concerns are fashion, reputation, propriety, etiquette, convention, manners, and tea. This isn’t quite as funny as it might be because Prudence apparently shares these fatuous values, and it’s difficult to care much about her or any of the other characters presented in the first 200 pages of the story. And when she is sent on an adventure to India in a private, state of the art dirigible to secure a new type of tea…. Well, it’s really not all that interesting. But on her journey, mysteries begin to appear, her character begins to evolve, and by the time her airship arrives, there are signs of a respectable plot emerging. Since revealing what that is would be a spoiler, I won’t. You’ll have to go through the slow buildup to it yourself if you read this. All I will say is that the last third of the book is fairly interesting.
The Invention of Science: The Scientific Revolution from 1500 to 1750
by David Wootton
Hardback first edition Published by Harper Collins 2015
Wootton claims there are two major philosophical camps among those who write about the history of science. He calls them the ‘realists’ and the ‘relativists’. The realists regard science as essentially a formalized application of human common sense. To them, science is a systematic method of asking questions about the natural world, which leads to reasonably accurate answers. As these answers build upon one another, collective human understanding grows. It’s almost inevitable. Relativists, on the other hand, see science as an aspect of human culture. Both the questions it asks and the answers it finds are culturally dependent, so it never obtains any objective knowledge and consequently cannot progress in the sense that it gets us closer to a true understanding of what the world actually is or how it works. Instead, it creates stories about the world that work for a particular culture at a particular time. Relativism, he claims, “has been the dominant position in the history of science” for some time (Pg. 117). (This seems odd to me since, of the two extremes, relativism seems the most absurd, but that’s what he says. Since he’s the expert and I’m not, I’m sadly willing to entertain the idea that he may be right about this.)
Wootton sees some merit in both of these perspectives, and this book is his attempt to reconcile them. His self-appointed task can be summarized in these quotes that appear near the end of the book:
The task, in other words, is to understand how reliable knowledge and scientific progress can and do result from a flawed, profoundly contingent, culturally relative, all-too-human process. (pg. 541)
Hence the need for an historical epistemology which allows us to make sense of the ways in which we interact with the physical world (and each other) in the pursuit of knowledge. The central task of such an epistemology is not to explain why we have been successful in our pursuit of scientific knowledge; there is no good answer to that question. Rather it is to track the evolutionary process by which success has been built upon success; that way we can come to understand that science works, and how it works. (Pg. 543)
And this is what he does in an extensively researched and exhaustively documented account of the development and evolution of science. The way of thinking, which we now call science, truly was new and revolutionary. It emerged primarily in Western Europe between the times of Columbus and Newton. Wootton doesn’t claim a single igniting spark, but he gives Columbus’s voyage in 1492 credit for providing a powerful challenge to the prevailing belief that the ancients had known everything worth knowing. Although Columbus himself never accepted that the land he found by traveling west from Spain was a previously unknown continent, others soon came to this realization, and it showed that the authority of Ptolemy, Aristotle, and Holy Scripture were not as absolute as people believed. Here was an entirely new world, with strange animals, plants, and people, which the respected and authoritative ancients had known nothing about. Possibly just as significant was that the existence of these two huge continents was not found through philosophical reflection or by divine revelation. This new land was ‘discovered’ by a bunch of scruffy sailors—commoners!
From here, he explains that these emerging ideas added new words and new (and modern) definitions to old words, such as ‘discovery’, ‘fact’, ‘experiment’, ‘objectivity’, and ‘evidence’. These all have their current meanings because of the scientific way of viewing the world that emerged between the 16th and 18th centuries. (Personally, I think his discussion of the word ‘evidence’ goes into more detail and greater length than needed to make his point, but for those in academia, it may be helpful).
He also shows how culture influenced the development of scientific thinking. More often than not, the culture of this time hindered rather than helped. Prior to the scientific revolution, philosophical disputes were decided through clever rhetoric, creative verbal arguments, and appeals to tradition and authority. Because of this, early practitioners of science felt it necessary to justify themselves by citing the works of long-dead philosophers like Epicurus, Democritus, and Lucretius. Although none had the authority of Aristotle, they were ancient, which implied a certain respectability. The new scientific way of thinking, on the other hand, “sought to resolve intellectual disputes through experimentation.” (pg. 562)
I am more of an interested observer of science than I am a practitioner, but I have to admit that the realist view seems far closer to the truth to me than does the relativist concept. It is undeniable that science is done by scientists, that scientists are people, and that people are shaped by the cultures in which they live. But modern science originally began by challenging the assumptions of the culture in which it first emerged, and it retains that aspect of cultural skepticism to this day. I suspect that many current scientists are motivated, at least in part, by the dream of possibly overturning a prevailing theory or showing that it is somehow flawed or incomplete. In the 17th century, challenging cultural assumptions could bring a long, uncomfortable visit with inquisitors followed by a short, hot time tied to a stake. Today, it can bring a scientist fame and fortune.
Scientific progress isn’t inevitable, but it can and does reveal culturally independent facts. Scientists are products of their cultures, but the process of science intentionally strives to put those cultural assumptions aside. It may be the only human activity that does so.
People have a natural tendency to seek agency. If something momentous happens, then someone must have caused it. If something complex exists, someone obviously designed and built it. But this natural human way of looking at things leads to unwarranted assumptions. No one, for example, planned the evolution of life.
Ridley extends Darwin’s insight about biological evolution to human culture and invention. No one planned the development of language. No one planned the industrial revolution. No one planned today’s global economy. These things evolved. They weren’t designed from the top down. They emerged from the bottom up. In this book, Ridley specifically argues that Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand guides economics in much the same way that natural selection guides the evolution of life. Both emerge from the complex interplay of individual agents acting out of self-interest with no common goal. They operate without any grand plan, and yet they create (albeit unintentionally) complex, well-ordered, and reasonably efficient systems. He has great faith in the power of the Invisible Hand. Don’t try to direct it, and good things will happen.
To me, his belief in the power of the Invisible Hand seems a bit too…well, utopian. Simplistic. Possibly even a bit mystical. The Hand works in mysterious ways. We don’t know how, exactly, but we must have faith that it is all for the best and let it get on with things. As long as we don’t interfere, all will be well. Society will evolve for the better. The state will wither away, and everyone will live in peace and prosperity. His end state seems ironically similar to the one Karl Marx envisioned, and I think it’s flawed for one of the same reasons Marx’s was—people. They aren’t ready for it…yet. There are those, and I like to believe the number grows with every generation, who do not require coercion or the threat of divine or secular punishment in order to behave properly toward their fellow human beings. But many still do. The state may be an unfortunate necessity at this point in human evolution.
If it’s possible to be a cynical optimist, Matt Ridley qualifies. He makes several valid points in this book. Order can emerge from chaos. Actions motivated solely by self-interest can have unintended and broadly beneficial consequences. Human culture does evolve, and it has progressed and improved over time. But he makes an unjustified leap by concluding that it is therefore a mistake to attempt to bring about cultural change or broad social benefits intentionally. Evolution, both biological and cultural, he seems to argue, are best left to natural selection and the free market. Restraining the Invisible Hand leads to disaster.
Well, it can, except sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the Hand needs a shove. Or maybe it’s better to say that the Invisible Hand has more fingers than he seems to think it has.
Ridley often sounds like a cranky old man grinding philosophical axes*, and in this book, he vents his libertarian spleen on all things that smack of authority. This includes religion and crony capitalism, but his favorite target is government in all its current and historical forms. He doesn’t like government (which seems odd considering that Viscount Ridley is a member of the British House of Lords). He sees it as a top-down intrusion on the proper bottom-up evolution of human society. Let the free market work!
But there is no free market, and I doubt one would last long if there was. (See Saving Capitalism by Robert B. Reich https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/24338377-saving-capitalism) Markets in our modern society depend on governments to protect capital assets and intellectual property. Governments provide the framework within which individuals and businesses negotiate contracts with one another, and they provide legal recourse in the event of contract violation. Governments maintain competition by restricting monopolies so that large corporations cannot eliminate their existing and potential competitors (e.g. through hostile takeovers, dumping goods, or intimidating suppliers). Governments also help bolster the economy by instilling consumer confidence. Because of governmental regulations, you can be fairly sure that the food and medicine you buy isn’t toxic; that your appliances, cars, homes, and other purchases are reasonably safe to use; and that whatever else you buy will function almost as well as the seller claims it will. If you are in the unfortunate position of having to work for a living, your workplace is probably safer, your workday shorter, your pay better, and you may even enjoy some kind of insurance or even paid holidays because of governmental policies.
A firm believer in laissez faire economics might argue that all of these benefits would come about on their own accord through the magic of market forces, but they didn’t, which is why these governmental policies came about. Worker exploitation, sweatshops, child labor, and unsafe working conditions were rampant only a century ago. The case of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City in 1911 is probably one of the most famous examples. (http://www.history.com/topics/triangle-shirtwaist-fire). In a bottom-up effort, voters demanded that something be done. Government responded by enacting laws. (e.g. the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1937, the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, the Consumer Product Safety Act of 1972). Admittedly, these probably did not all work as well as many hoped, and some may have had unforeseen consequences, but these laws and others were passed because the ‘free’ market had not been able to prevent abuses by private businesses that exploited workers and cheated consumers. Clearly, not all business were dishonest or exploitative, but a top-down mandate was needed, not only to protect workers and consumers, but also to establish a level playing field to protect responsible business owners from unfair competition by those who were not.
So, were these societal changes examples of bottom-up evolution brought about by voter demand or were they top-down impositions on the free market by government? Both? Neither?
Personally, I think it’s a false dichotomy. Let me begin by saying that power bases emerge in human society whether you want them to or not. They form from the bottom up. We can’t prevent them, nor do I think we should try. They exist to pursue the interests of their constituents, and in doing so can provide benefits to each member that they cannot obtain as well on their own. But they can also unjustly impose their will on nonmembers. If one group becomes too powerful, or if two or more combine forces, they can oppress or exploit others. Maintaining some kind of power balance so that this does not happen can be difficult.
Prior to the Enlightenment, government, in the form of a monarch and sundry aristocracy, could be seen as a separate power base, as could the Church, landed gentry, craftsmen, and peasants. Each of these had its own unique interests, which they pursued, sometimes cooperatively but often competitively. If you wish to imagine society as something guided by an invisible hand, these would have been its fingers, the two strongest of which were the monarch and the Church.
Modern Western society has different fingers. These can be generalized as workers, consumers, business owners, and bankers. Religion is still with us, of course, and it does have unique interests and it does exert power, so it may be seen as a finger as well. As in the past, these groups may have overlapping constituencies, but they don’t have common goals, and the conflicts between them create the evolutionary pressures that move societies. Together, these five fingers shape human culture in unplanned ways. (I don’t include government as one of these modern fingers for reasons I’ll explain soon.)
All of these fingers represent their members and push society in some way. Consumers want quality products at affordable prices. Workers want secure, well-paying jobs. Religions want to spread their faiths. Businesses and banks want to earn profits for owners/investors. Democratic government is a bit different in that it represents (or should represent) interests common to everyone. As difficult as it may be to imagine at times, and despite the real differences that may exist between them, all people have more interests in common than not…safety, property, opportunity, freedom…or as the U.S. Declaration of Independence puts it, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
A properly functioning democratic government has the unenviable task of ensuring equal rights for all its citizens and for being an impartial arbiter when the goals of the metaphorical fingers come into conflict. Is it more important for consumers to have lower prices or for workers to have higher wages? Are these more or less important than business owners reaping high profits or banks charging high interest? When does a religion’s goal of spreading the faith intrude on the freedom of nonbelievers? These are not hypothetical questions. All have had to be addressed in the past, and it has fallen on governments to do so because market forces can’t, at least not as well. When one group attempts to dominate, exploit, suppress, or even eliminate another, the purely evolutionary solution of allowing the strongest to win is probably not the best one for the long-term survival of a civilization. The government stands in defense of all, regardless of numbers or wealth. It codifies protected rights that apply to all its citizens, and it acts as a societal ratchet to prevent these rights from being denied in the future. Once proscribed by law, such things as slavery, child labor, and racial discrimination are far less likely to reemerge. A democratic government provides a balancing force so that the many cannot dominate the few and the rich and powerful cannot prey on the poor and weak.
The balance breaks down if one societal power base exerts too much influence over governmental policies. Business control of government is just as detrimental to a society as governmental control of business. But democratic governments are self-correcting. They change from the bottom up. The dominating powers will fight to preserve their privileged positions. They’ll try to bend public opinion to maintain their position, but when voters feel that one group has too much influence, they’ll vote for change…and they might even achieve it. We may be seeing something like that happening now in the U.S. Time will tell.
There is much about Matt Ridley’s argument with which I do not agree, but his central point that complex systems evolve in unexpected and unplanned ways is undeniable. They do. No single strategy directed the course of human progress. The scientific discoveries and cultural changes humanity has made since our ancestors first chipped stones into knives two and a half million years ago (or thereabout) have created a world that no one could have imagined, let alone planned. These advancements emerged incrementally, iteratively, one thing leading to another, with all the parts interacting in complex and often unpredictable ways. In short, our society evolved. There was no grand plan, but many of the little steps along the way were planned, which is where the comparison of scientific and cultural progress with biological evolution breaks down. The two processes appear similar from a great enough distance, but they differ in the details.
Biological evolution lacks intent. Cells and microbes can’t imagine the future. They can’t plan. Over time, the individual cells that comprised the earliest forms of life came together, differentiated, and specialized to form larger and more complex organisms. This improved their survivability, but they didn’t adapt to survive. They survived because they adapted. This is an important difference. It’s a matter of cause and effect. It took natural selection billions of years to go from those earliest microbes to creatures like us because it operates without intent. It doesn’t build to a plan. Discrete biological changes (to DNA) are close enough to random to think of them as such, and most of those random mutations are fatal. Natural selection can create astounding complexity in this manner, but it’s hit or miss, and it takes a while.
Cultural evolution is faster. The time span from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens took almost two million years. The time span from steam engines to nuclear power was less than three hundred. Why? Well, a lot of reasons, but complexity isn’t one of them. There are more differences between Newcomen’s steam engine and a nuclear reactor than there are between you and your multi-great grandmother a couple million years ago. A big factor for the difference in time scale is that each evolutionary step from pre-modern humans to us relied on unplanned natural selection. Each development between steam power and nuclear energy was the result of human premeditated action. Each improvement, every new idea along the way was proposed and developed by a human mind with intent.
Ridley summarizes his position in the epilogue of his book. “To put my explanation in its boldest and most surprising form: bad news in manmade, top-down, purposed stuff, imposed on history. Good news is accidental, unplanned, emergent stuff that gradually evolves.”
Ah, if only reality were that simple. The unfortunate truth is that most evolutionary changes are failures. Unplanned evolution doesn’t always bring success but neither does planned change. Most plans people make fail as well. What Ridley’s argument seems to boil down to is that evolutionary changes that have survived are successful. True, but tautological. Extrapolating from this dubious insight by claiming that unplanned evolutionary change is good and that manmade change is bad is simply absurd. It’s like claiming that doctors shouldn’t cut out tumors, prescribe antibiotics, provide vaccinations, or attempt to cure genetically inherited diseases because the bacteria, viruses, and genetic mutations they are trying to eliminate have evolved through natural selection and therefore must be good.
Let me offer an alternate idea. Human culture and technology have advanced rapidly because when people see problems, they take action to fix them. They don’t wait around for the slow plod of evolution to make things better or, alternately and more likely, to drive them to extinction. Humans are toolmakers. The things we create, from hammers to stock markets, are tools that we intentionally design to accomplish certain tasks, and we improve upon them over time to make them work better.
By all measurable criteria, our species’ quality of life has improved over time. People today (on average) are healthier, eat better, live longer, are freer, safer, and enjoy more material wealth than at any time in history. No one planned the current state of human affairs. It isn’t anyone’s imagined end state or ultimate goal. There is no end state. There is no final goal. Evolution is a continuing process. The reason our cultures evolve faster than our biology is partly that they have something biology does not. When it comes to the components of human culture, such as our religions, laws, forms of government, economic systems, philosophies, ethics, educational systems, music, art, inventions, and all other creations of the human mind, an intrinsic part of all of them is that they include an element of intent. People designed them from the top down in response to conditions imposed from the bottom up. They saw situations that they wanted improved, considered ways of adapting what they knew to the problems facing them, and came up with ideas they thought might work. Some did. Some didn’t. Those that work are more likely to survive. Richard Dawkins calls such ideas memes, but the important point is that these ideas do not spring up spontaneously. They originate in human minds. And although each of these ideas may be intended to address separate, seemingly unconnected issues, each forms a small component of a larger evolving system. Unlike biological evolution, human progress has an aspect of intelligent design.
Which brings me back to Ridley’s issue with government and the free market. The Invisible Hand of the free market is not a separate ineffable force any more than the human mind is separate from the brain and body that create it. Both can be seen as emergent properties. But perhaps a better way to view the free market for this discussion is as a process. Just as evolution describes the process of living matter reacting to its environment, the free market describes the process of humans interacting to improve their lives. To do this, they build tools. If those tools don’t work quite as well as we’d like, we try to improve them.
Businesses are tools. Banks are tools. Government is a tool. All of these are designed, built, modified, and used by people in order to improve their lives, and, over time and not at all miraculously, our lives have improved. Since this was and is the common intent, I’d say we’re not doing too badly. Evolution gave us our toolmaking ability. It would be a shame not to use it.
*So am I, but that’s beside the point.
A few recommendations for further reading on this and related subjects:
The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11107244-the-better-angels-of-our-nature)
Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on Earth, by Juan Enriquez, Steve Gullans (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22571741-evolving-ourselves)
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10954979-the-swerve)
The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention, by William Rosen (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7863046-the-most-powerful-idea-in-the-world)
The midwinter holiday on Discworld is Hogswatch rather than Christmas, and the Hogfather is the Discworld’s counterpart of Santa Claus. He climbs down chimneys, gives presents, says, “HO-HO-HO,” and drives a sleigh pulled by four flying pigs. Many children of the Disc believe in him, which is why he exists. (This is a fundamental characteristic of the magical system in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.) Belief causes the thing believed in to exist, and when belief stops, that existence stops. Teatime, an assassin retained to do away with the Hogfather, plans to exploit this metaphysical law to accomplish his assigned task, but first he must break into the Tooth Fairy’s castle and get control of the teeth stored there. With them, he can influence the belief of their former owners through sympathetic magic. (That’s something of a spoiler, but if you haven’t read this yet, you may be thankful for it.)
Hogfather was the first Discworld book I ever read. This was back in 1999, I think. It could have been 2000. I’m not sure. I didn’t buy it. The book was given to me, not so much as a gift, but as a case of, “Here, I’m not going to read this again, but you might like it since I know you like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
A few months later, I decided to give it a try. I didn’t know what to make of the book at first. It wasn’t like anything I had ever read before. I recall thinking when I was about halfway in that I wasn’t sure I liked it. It was obviously fantasy, but it wasn’t like the epic fantasy stepchildren of Lord of the Rings or the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game, which dominated the fantasy genre at the time. Those stories seemed to make a concerted effort to portray their fantasy settings as ‘real’ places, and they were chocked full of dragons, evil warlords and their minions, and powerful magic. Their plots often boiled down to simple, and often bloody, contests between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. The reader didn’t have to think much for most of these. They offered an entertaining escape from reality, but not much else. The plots were often a bit like sporting events in which one side is ‘good’ primarily because it’s from your hometown (although there’s a good chance none of the players are). In some, the biggest difference between the protagonist and antagonist was the point of view that dominated the story.
In any case, that was the kind of fantasy novel I was used to. Hogfather is none of the above. It’s not even like the Hitchhiker’s Guide, but the person who gave me the book was right in one regard. If you like the Hitchhiker’s Guide, there is a good chance you will like Discworld. Both are satirical, funny, incredibly clever, and mind-bending.
But, back to what I was saying. Halfway through my first reading of Hogfather, I was confused. This book was far more complex than the fantasy stories with which I was familiar. The setting was comprehensible but bizarre. I mean—really—a flat world carried on the back of four elephants standing on a turtle? Come on! The plot confused me, and there were subplots and multiple points of view presented by an omniscient narrator. There were even footnotes! This wasn’t like watching a sporting event or a cartoon. I had to pay attention. This book was trying to make me (*gasp*) think! To be honest, I wasn’t sure I was up to the challenge.
Then, about halfway through, I got it. I can’t recall exactly what scene or phrase caused my epiphany, but I finally caught a glimpse of what this story was doing, and it floored me. The author wasn’t trying to draw me into the story to the point of total immersion. The setting was absurd because I wasn’t supposed to believe it was possible. The story was fiction, and I wasn’t being encouraged to suspend disbelief to the point where I felt for a moment that it wasn’t. There’s a kind of honesty to that that I still find refreshing. Yes, the story is set on a fantasy world starring a counterpart of Santa Claus and an anthropomorphic personification of Death, complete with black cloak and scythe, but it’s not ABOUT them. It’s about us!
But at the same time, this ridiculous setting was rich and textured. It was unbelievably believable. And the characters, although they seemed exaggerated caricatures at first, had surprising depth and personality. I recall thinking that this Terry Pratchett fellow must be some kind of genius.
I’ve read all forty or so Discworld books since, all them at least three times, and I still think this is true.
Hogfather, like many of the Discworld books, is far more than it appears at first glance. Here are a few things I noticed:
• It is, of course, a parody of the Santa legend.
• It’s a cultural satire about our traditions and philosophies.
• It’s a not-so-thinly veiled criticism of holiday commercialism.
• It’s a morality tale about duty and the importance of family ties.
• It’s a philosophical statement on the nature of humanity.
• It contrasts rational and irrational ways of thinking.
• It provides a brief comment on emergent artificial intelligence.
• It’s a fantasy story that pokes fun at fantasy, while, at the same time, explaining why fantasy is both meaningful and necessary.
• Oh yeah, and it’s funny.
If you have not read any Discworld books yet, you should. Actually, my advice is to read them all and then to reread them. (I find that Discworld stories are often even more enjoyable the second time.) Before sitting down to write this post, I reread Hogfather for what was at least the sixth time. The Discworld books are incomparable. My only problem with them is that after reading the Discworld stories, all other fantasy stories tend to pale by comparison.
When reading Hogfather, one key point to remember is that time is not necessarily linear where Death (the Discworld character) is concerned. It can be frozen, and causality can work in reverse. The future can change events in the past or cause them not to happen at all.
Hogfather, however, is not the Discworld book I would recommend to newcomers to the Disc. Yes, it was my first, and each book can stand on its own, but Hogfather is a tough go without the background provided by some of the others. I hesitate to recommend any particular Discworld book to start with. I’ve seen some forums in which people can become quite heated about this, believe it or not. I highly recommend all of them, but I will say again that Hogfather probably shouldn’t be your first.
If you’re familiar with Discworld, but have not yet read Hogfather, I suggest doing so now. It’s a great book for the holidays. If you have read Hogfather before, it’s a great one to reread for the Holidays. You’ll be glad you did.
HAPPY HOGSWATCH, EVERYONE! HO-HO-HO!
P.S. Hogfather became a made-for-TV movie in 2006, and is now available on DVD. I have a copy, and I’ll be rewatching it sometime soon.
Some wonderful quotes from Hogfather: https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/583655-hogfather
My Problem with Terry Pratchett: https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/my-problem-with-terry-pratchett/
A Trailer for Hogfather, the movie… 🙂
Title: The Martian
Author: Andy Weir
Genre: Science Fiction
Do you remember the 1964 movie Robinson Crusoe on Mars?
Just as well. It was bad.
The Martian has a similar plot — a lone astronaut trying to survive on Mars and hoping for rescue. Unlike the aforesaid movie, this book isn’t bad. In fact, it’s quite good.
The protagonist (Mark Watney) is almost unbelievably clever, emotionally stable, and indefatigable. Of course most of the story is told through his journals, that is, from his personal perspective, and don’t we all tend to gloss over our own shortcomings? I did not see his portrayal as ‘too good to be true’ a flaw, although I must admit that his achievements did stretch credulity a bit.
There is a great deal of detail about how Watney uses and misuses the technology available to him. I’m not qualified to comment extensively on that or on the raw science behind it, but it all seemed plausible to my inexpert eyes.
Almost all of the other characters in the book are equally admirable. But then most are astronauts or scientists, which are noted for including some of the best examples of what humanity has to offer. These aren’t average people. They’re the cream of the crop, and they are portrayed as such. Most of them are the NASA people back on Earth. They come into the story in scenes that show us how they eventually realize that Watney is not dead (as they initially believed) and how they pull together to keep him that way.
What I like most about the book is that it shows humanity at its best, when people are being clever, inventive, selfless, and cooperating to achieve a worthwhile goal. There should be more stories like this.