Sunday, November 14, 2021

Book Review: The Pythons Autobiography

book cover for The Pythons AutobiograpyMy parents are responsible for getting me hooked on Monty Python. I remember seeing the dead parrot sketch, the lumberjack song, the Spanish Inquisition, and so much more on PBS back in the day. But what hooked me forever was Monty Python and the Holy Grail. My parents had a copy of the movie on Betamax. I lost track of the number of times I'd watched the film after about the 40th time.

I even got to see Graham Chapman on a speaking tour in 1987 while I was in college. I don't recall much from it, but one thing still sticks with me. He was talking about the making of Holy Grail and confessed when he realized that he was an alcoholic. They were in the Scottish Highlands. The weight of playing King Arthur was getting to him. He desperately wanted a drink to steady his nerves, but there was nothing available. Between the cold, the dampness, the pressure, and withdrawal symptoms, he was shaking and feverish in his chain mail and wool. He was completely miserable. The auditorium had grown completely silent as Chapman revealed that he was not an invulnerable comedic hero but a human being with all the frailties of mortality.

In October of 1989 he died of cancer.

This book is an account of the group's lives growing up, their days at university, their early pre-Python work, the coalescence of what would become Monty Python, the TV show, the movies, and the inevitable end. Each of the Pythons provided the information in interview format with Chapman's parts taken from previous memoirs and from his brother and his partner. So you would get each of their recollections about events, what they were doing and thinking.

It's clear to me now that postwar English schools were horrid places. Roger Waters, Bruce Dickinson, and the members of Monty Python have all provided details about how miserable these places were. It's almost as if the adults were punishing the children for not having a dour disposition brought on by the travails of the war.

It was really interesting to see how the Python troupe came together, and I'm curious to know how well the pre-Python work holds up. Of course, with the BBC in the habit of recycling all of its tapes back then, I don't know if any of it still exists.

There was a certain joie de vivre that the group back in the days of the TV show, and it was a delight to read about it. But you could see it start to slip away. Certain members didn't want to do the TV show anymore, so others suggested a movie. And for a while they were happy again. Holy Grail was a success and then Life of Brian. They would separate to work on their personal projects, but they would always come back. But they got the work process wrong with The Meaning of Life. Lessons of creation were forgotten. The joy was gone.

When Chapman died, the unraveling of the knot that kept them together quickened. They tried to reunite, but there was always someone to veto a project, whether it be TV, movie, or tour. While they still professed their love for one another, it was clear to me by this book's publication in 2003 that Monty Python had ceased to be as a creative entity.

While there was an abundance of detailed material for their early years, it seemed like when the joy was gone, so too went many of the details. All of these non-Python side projects they were involved in left huge gaps between events in the Python history. The interview format kind of broke down with grudges and hurt feelings creeping in. Subjective accounts obscured objective reality, forcing the reader to deduce what actually happened.

I'm glad that I read it, but now it's more of a reference book than something to revisit for nostalgia's sake, which I guess is why I read it in the first place.

4 stars


Sunday, November 7, 2021

Book Review: Star in Bankruptcy

book cover for Star in BankruptcyJordahk isn't sure who or what he is anymore, and just trying to be “normal” is becoming increasingly challenging. As adulthood looms he'll face his greatest challenges yet both personally and in space.

For Janus hasn't been idle. His schemes within schemes will launch the First Cruiser into the most audacious stratagem since the Sojourners' Crusade. Perhaps only the mystic technology from that era has a chance to stop the Prime Orator's designs.

But neither Jordahk nor his grandfather can currently operate on that level. When the most eclectic space battle in centuries begins, only desperation will bring one side to victory.

This is book three in the Tethered Worlds series. With over a thousand pages published so far, this isn't a series you can pick up in the middle. You really have to start from the beginning. Here are links to spoiler-free reviews for books one and two.

If you've made it this far into the series, you're familiar with the universe that Faccone has built and the factions contending with one another for power in this space opera. You need to be, of course, as Faccone doesn't offer a refresher in what's already been published besides the occasional character reminiscing about past incidents.

Right off the bat we're back with Jordahk's family in the midst of a training exercise. But before you get disgruntled with a "not another one", Faccone throws a cyborg assassin at them. The encounter gives the reader some idea as to how far Jordahk has come in developing his fledgling sojourner skills.

After this confrontation has played out, we learn that trade negotiations are planned at Aventicia, one of the worlds in the Banking Confederation. Janus has plans in place to affect the outcome favorably for the Perigeum and himself, but the Trade Union sends a fleet of their own to provide security. And then a pirate fleet shows up to toss a match on the powderkeg.
"Sadly, war is but politics stripped of every civilized façade
While this is the longest book in the series, 569 pages, I found that it had less filler than in the two previous books. However, the inevitable confrontation that ensues when plans are set in motion takes up about half the book. While one major story arc comes to an end, it's clear that the author has more stories planned for this series.

Characterization, plotting, and world-building all remain strong. Faccone proved that in the first two books. The personalities of the various characters are well-developed and distinct. The setting is rich with detail. Unfortunately, typos remain an issue: My notes highlight misused or missing apostrophes and spelling errors.

Bankrupt Star is a fine addition to the Tethered Worlds series. While there isn't as much exploration or side quest action as the two previous works, the plot is more focused and the stakes are just as high. It's still big and bold space opera with a protagonist you can root for as he grows to fill some very big, heroic shoes.

4 stars.


Sunday, October 10, 2021

Book Review: A Song for Quiet

Book cover for A Song for QuietDeacon James is a rambling bluesman straight from Georgia, a black man with troubles that he can't escape, and music that won't let him go. On a train to Arkham, he meets trouble — visions of nightmares, gaping mouths and grasping tendrils, and a madman who calls himself John Persons. According to the stranger, Deacon is carrying a seed in his head, a thing that will destroy the world if he lets it hatch.

This story really could've been something. The blues mixed with Lovecraft. Definite potential.

We meet Deacon James while he's riding a train to Arkham, famed fictional city of Lovecraft's. Between his recent past and this quote, I connected with him right off the bat.
Deacon looks up as civilization robs the night of its endlessness, finger painting globs of light and farmhouses across the countryside.
I was thinking that this might've been an update to Lovecraft's "The Music of Erich Zahn."
Raw, unevenly syncopated, the music's a clatter of droning notes, looping into themselves, like a man mumbling a prayer.
No trace of the blues, no ghost of folk music, not even the wine-drunk laughter of big-city jazz or the thunder of gospel. Only a hard lump of yearning that snags like fishbones in his throat as he plays, plays, plays, improvisation, frantically straining to wrench the bassline into familiar waters.
But then the story ran into problems. First off, Deacon himself. He struggled to carry the story. He got off to a great start, but then spent the rest of the story running in fear. I didn't need an action hero, but I wanted him to either confront his emotional burden or make a feint towards dealing with the social injustices he regularly encountered. His actions at the climax of the story might've been perceived that way, but it could also be perceived as surrender. I can't say anything more without spoiling it.

And the way Khaw handled him when he first encountered Ana seemed abrupt. There was no parley, no interpersonal recon. He instantly bonded with her as if she were a long lost daughter. That isn't hyperbole.

I was disappointed that Khaw didn't make use of Arkham besides name dropping. There's nothing in the story that really made use of it. This could be set in Anytown, USA, circa 1950.

I really liked Persons in the first book, but here he's pushed into a supporting role. While his narration in the first book could be a bit much at times, it always lent itself to the story. Maybe this book should've been published first with Persons' minor role serving as an introduction to the character, piquing the reader's interest to learn more.

In Hammers on Bone, Khaw used noir and metaphors to set the scene and help build the story towards its climax. But here the noir was replaced by a wall of purple prose. It was wonderful at times ("cutlery scraping over crockery"), as the above quotes hint at, but then it became repetitive. Later, it meandered like so much jazz improvisation that I lost all sense of what was going on. I had to re-read parts a couple of times, scrutinize sentences, to piece together what was actually happening, find some semblance of structure. It was there though, buried beneath a lovely purple blur.

The resolution proved unsatisfying, so all I was left with was a bunch of lovely prose. So, 2.5 stars because I needed more.


Sunday, September 19, 2021

Book Review: Hammers on Bone

book cover for Hammer on BoneJohn Persons is a private investigator with a distasteful job from an unlikely client. He's been hired by a ten-year-old to kill the kid's stepdad, McKinsey. The man in question is abusive, abrasive, and abominable.

He's also a monster, which makes Persons the perfect thing to hunt him. Over the course of his ancient, arcane existence, he's hunted gods and demons, and broken them in his teeth.

The story opens with the kid in Persons' office, looking to hire him for the job. Persons' dialogue is all 1930s-40s gumshoe, including using terms for women that would be considered sexist today ("dame", "skirt", "broads", etc.), but excusable for the time period. Khaw follows it up by creating a juicy noir atmosphere.
The cold feels good, real good, a switchblade chill cutting deep into the cancer of a thousand years' nap.
But as chapter one starts winding down, I realize that the story isn't taking place back then, it's contemporary.
These days, it's all bae and fleek, bootylicious selfies and cultural appropriation done on brand.
It was jarring, and no explanation was given. It would've made more sense to either place the story back several decades or update Persons' slang to something more fitting of the times.

I loved the way Khaw made use of scents to describe how Parsons interacted with his environment.
There's a pervasive smell in the hallway. Not quite a stench, but something unpleasant. Like the remnants of a molly party, or old sex left to crust on skin.
Khaw then uses that scent imagery to let the Lovecraft vibe seep in.
The stink grows strong: less human, more maritime malfeasance. A reek of salt and hard use, of drowned things rotten with new life.
Until it's staring at us, straight in the face.
In his agitation, his skin splits, spreads to frame a moist blue eye, cataracted and lethargically sullen.
From here on, Khaw goes all in on body horror visceral imagery that echoes Lovecraft.
The thing in his neck is a blasphemy, a mutagenic outrage of flesh, an insult to man and beast and all of us that came crawling out of the ocean before.
But by the time the story reaches its climactic battle, I grew weary of the constant fleshy metaphors in the narrative. The whole sinew, squishy flesh metaphors, and too many eyeballs references lost their impact on me. And the battle itself, which had been built up to be this epic clash didn't really feel epic to me. It was kind of over before I knew it.

What I thought was much better was the epilogue. The conversation that takes place there between Parsons (There's a second book and Parsons is in the blurb so that wasn't a spoiler!) and the acolyte was really enjoyable. Khaw brings in a deity that Lovecraft rarely used and thus got to shape said deity in an interesting way that, for me, made up for things.

4 stars.


Monday, September 6, 2021

Book Review: Wizard by John Varley

book cover for WizardThis review will contain spoilers if you haven't read the first book in the series, Titan.

Several decades have passed since Captain Cirocco Jones and her crew had their ship torn asunder and dragged aboard Gaea by one of her sub-brains. Once Cirocco and Gaby made the arduous journey up the spoke to confront her, Gaea apologized for the actions of the rebellious subordinate that committed the attack. In the interim, Gaea has negotiated peace with Earth, established embassies there, and opened herself up to Human tourists, albeit in limited quantity.

Two travelers have come to the world of Gaea in hopes of receiving a cure for their afflictions. One is Chris, who suffers from dissociative identity disorder and was fine until he was forced to go off his meds. The other is Robin, a judgmental epileptic from a lesbian Wiccan society that believes all men are rapists. Neither has quite the meeting they'd hoped for with Gaea and must prove their mettle as "heroes" by completing an epic journey or quest to satisfy the capricious god.

Cirocco was offered—and accepted—the role of Wizard, a position second only to Gaea herself. Cirocco would travel the world of Gaea, acting as her representative and messenger, and granted perpetual youth. But the passage of time and other unfair responsibilities have taken their toll on her, and she's fallen into alcoholism. Gaby has also been awarded perpetual youth, but hers was earned through work as a civil engineer, building and maintaining a trans-Gaean road and way stations. She hates to see Cirocco suffer and resents what Gaea has done to her friend.

Gaby and Cirocco are planning a trip to circumnavigate Gaea, a periodic responsibility, and invite Robin and Chris along in hopes that the journey will give each of them a chance to "do something heroic." Four Titanides also come along for the journey. The multi-sexual centaurs are excellent craftsmen and prove invaluable companions to the Humans. But there's more to this trip than just touring the kingdom and finding opportunities for adventure. For Gaea has far outlived her expected lifespan, and her ability to give a shit is less than her desire to be entertained.

Once again, Varley utilizes a quest as the primary story structure and, like so many journeys, the characters are not the same at the end as they were at the beginning. Robin is forced to re-examine her beliefs and prejudices while Chris must learn how to balance his opposing personalities, in essence, passion versus logic. While Varley uses him as a counterpoint for Robin, he also represents all humans in the complex love-hate relationship the Titanides have with us.
"Humans brought alcoholism to Gaea. We have always enjoyed wine, but the beverage you call tequila and we call"—she sang a brief melody—"which translates as Death-with-a-pinch-of-salt-and-a-twist-of-lime, has addictive properties for us. Humans brought venereal disease: the only malady of Terran origin that affects us."
Varley isn't shy about using the Titanides to point out our species' faults, but he also recognizes that we are capable of so much more.
"And there are among you individuals with life burning so brightly within them that we are dazzled by your brillance."
My one complaint would be that a scene where Gaby discovers the identity of the antagonist who has been orchestrating malevolent events against them and confronts that person took place off screen. While we are later told about the confrontation, it would've been better for the story if the reader was shown it rather than told about it.

While Titan and Wizard were published only a year apart, Varley's writing is so much better. Characterization is much stronger and he did it without sacrificing worldbuilding. In fact, it's even better. There's less focus on numbers and more on substance. And the pacing never drags. Varley figured out how to fill the spaces between dramatic events to hold the reader's interest. The surprise ending is the icing on the cake.

4.25 stars


Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Goodreads' Problem With Trolls and Extortion

I just learned about this today. In a nutshell, indie authors with a high visibility on social media—particularly those with progressive politics—are being targetted by extortionists. Typical message:
Failure to comply with these demands results in authors getting slammed with hundreds of one-star reviews on Goodreads. The company is typically slow in its corrective actions.

All indie authors know how difficult it is to get readers to check out their work. It means putting yourself out there on social media (the introvert's equivalent of smelling sweaty socks) to get the public's attention. Many authors choose to discuss topics of personal interest to them. And if there's anything we've learned over the last few years, doing so puts a target on your back. As their audience grows, the trolls take notice.

Amazon used to have a sock puppet problem, but then it found ways to restrict reviews to verified accounts by simply making use of data it already had (verified contact info, purchasing history, etc.). Since Amazon owns Goodreads and offers potential readers easy to access links to buy said book, you would think that they would make every effort to ensure that the number one social media site for books was free of crippling attacks on their revenue stream.

Thanks to Monica for bringing this to my attention.


Thursday, July 29, 2021

Titan by John Varley

book cover for TitanThe first manned expedition to Saturn discovers a new moon, but closer examination reveals it to be a huge space station.

Wait. What?

All kidding aside, the station is in the shape of a Stanford torus, albeit a thousand times larger. Attempts to dock with the station go horribly wrong for Captain Cirocco Jones and her crew. Stranded on the station, they have no choice but to find who's in charge in hopes of finding a way back to Earth.

Titan was published in 1979 and is the first book in John Varley's Gaea trilogy. I didn't find out that this was a series until after I'd read the third book, Demon. During the 80s, I'd joined a science fiction book club that sold hardcovers for paperback prices. Demon was one of the books I bought along with Varley's standalone Millennium. I enjoyed both, but I didn't find my way back to this series until recently when I'd heard that Varley was having heart surgery. But I digress.

At first blush, Varley's space station comes across as another Big Dumb Object (BDO). I admit to being a sucker for this type of story. Ringworld, Rama, the Halo videogame, etc. In BDO stories, exploration of the BDO is often the story itself. Cirocco's search for her crew runs parallel to her exploration of this strange new, and manufactured, world. But Varley's BDO has more going on that just a bunch of humans poking around in a sterile alien vessel or the ruins of an advanced civilization. Fantastic alien creatures are met. The sentient ones have a unique culture and speak of Gaea, the entity in charge. And so, Cirocco sets off on a quest to find Gaea, whether Gaea is an alien, a committee, or computer.

Varley was one of the few men in sci-fi that wrote strong female protagonists in the 70s. Cirocco Jones is the first woman to command a NASA mission, and the pressure of it weighs on her, though I wish that it had been explored a bit further. Instead, Varley explores sexual freedom among his characters. Bearing in mind that this was written in the 70s, Varley imagines that on long space missions, the crew will likely pursue sexual relationships because that's what people do. Details are light, just enough to give the reader an idea of what's going on. Once on the space station, Varely takes things a step further, not just among the crew but the aliens as well. With regards to the crew, non-binary relationships are explored. Among the aliens, the titanides have multiple sex organs, so keeping their genders sorted out would probably require a spreadsheet.

Personal transformation is another theme explored by Varley. Each of the crew go through some sort of change once they're on the station. While some changes are benign, like suddenly knowing how to communicate with the various alien species, others are darker. Certain aspects of one's personality are magnified. A loner finds herself transformed into one of the alien species who lead a solitary, predatory existence. Another finds his toxic masculinity magnified, leading him to become a rapist (again details are fortunately kept brief). No one in the crew is untouched, and how they respond to adversity under these circumstances is itself a transformative event.

Titan is all about discovery: a new world to explore, new life forms to interact with, self-discovery among the characters. I'll admit that sometimes the story bogs down in the space station details. I felt that Varley had to satisfy the gearheads by throwing out specifications about the place to justify how and why it works. While the place is wondrous, sometimes the wonder wore off with the minutiae. And the quest itself seemed rather long with rather little to offer the reader between momentous encounters. But the payoff in the end was worth it. What Jones discovers about Gaea is far from expected for just a BDO.

3.5 stars