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Book Review: Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein

November 22, 2013 1 comment

Man holding mask out away from his face inside a blue porthole against a red planet.Summary:
When out-of-work actor Lorenzo Smythe is approached in a bar by a space pilot with a job offer, he agrees to at least go meet the man’s boss and discuss it.  Quickly, however, Lorenzo finds himself being kidnapped into outer space and impersonating a missing important politician, John Joseph Bonforte, under slight duress.  They must keep the public from knowing the politician has been kidnapped and successfully participate in a Martian adoption ceremony or face interplanetary war.

Review:
I was excited to pick up another Heinlein, and he definitely didn’t disappoint.  Similar to The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Heinlein presents a delightful mix of wit, Hollywood glamor, and thought-provoking political speeches all in a well-imagined and engaging future society.

In this version of the future, space exploration has led to the discovery of inhabited other planets and two distinctly different opinions on how to interact with those lifeforms.  Either dominate in a manifest destiny style or come to mutual cultural understanding and trade.  The politician Smythe must impersonate, Bonforte, is the leader of the latter faction.  This novel could easily have turned preachy with such a premise, but Smythe himself isn’t too keen on being friends with the aliens.  As an actor, he is committed to playing his role beautifully.  As a person, he isn’t sure he agrees with Bonforte.  This position allows Heinlein to explore both sides of the question, as well as the gray area in-between.  No easy answers are presented, but slowly what is more just is revealed.

Juxtaposed with the political plot is the whole aspect of Smythe being an actor who believes fully in his craft as an artform.  Smythe takes himself very seriously even when others do not.  At first, others view him as full of himself, but slowly they come to respect him and his talents.  Smythe’s large self-esteem may at first cause the reader to roll their eyes as well, but it gradually becomes apparent that having confidence in yourself and your abilities as a professional is not a bad thing.

I was a professional, retained to do a very difficult professional job, and professional men do not use the back stairs; they are treated with respect. (loc 1660)

Although characters at first seem two-dimensional, the main characters slowly become more fleshed out and well-rounded.  Nothing and no one is quite as simple as it at first seems, and Smythe is a great example of that.

What really makes the book, though, is its unexpected wit.  It’s not so much a laugh out loud book, but it’s very much a snort of amusement style of humor that takes the book from interesting to highly enjoyable.

My vocal cords lived their own life, wild and free. (location 40)

I was as angry as a leading woman with her name in small type. (location 1068)

The romance lacked creativity or sparkle.  It is easy to spot the instant it comes up, but it doesn’t come across as natural or meant to be.  It mostly feels like the woman transferring her affection for Bonforte onto Smythe.  I found it a bit squicky that she fails to ever really see Smythe as Smythe, not even after falling in love with him.  Thankfully, the romance is an incredibly minor part of the book.  The book is also slightly dated by the overwhelming presence of paper and microfilm.  We’re talking the spaceship has a library with print books and microfilm. In general even classic scifi tends to imagine a future with at least slightly different versions of books and information exchange.  I found it a bit odd that Heinlein failed to do that.

The ending is not unexpected entirely but it is satisfying and with enough fun details to entertain.  Of the various options for an ending to this story, the one Heinlein took is enjoyable and makes sense within the world he has created.

Overall, this is a fun piece of classic scifi that tosses together acting and politics in outer space with Martians who look like toadstools and a heavy sprinkling of wit.  The romance leaves something to be desired, and the tech isn’t particularly predictive or imaginative, but these are minor aspects of the story.  Recommended to fans of witty scifi who don’t mind a dash of political intrigue.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: Mulliner Nights by P.G. Wodehouse (Series, #3) (Bottom of the TBR Pile Challenge)

Cat with red cheeks and a spilled whiskey bottle in the foreground.  Man with folded arms in the back.Summary:
Mr. Mulliner has a wide variety of eclectic relatives, and he’s more than happy to tell snippets of their life stories over a pint at the local pub.  From a freewheeling artist brought into line by a judgmental cat to a timid fellow who accidentally subscribes to a correspondence course on how to get a backbone to a private detective with such a disturbing smile that criminals readily confess their hijinks keep the patrons of Angler’s Rest in stitches.

Review:
This made it onto my tbr pile thanks to a visit to Harvard Books’ used books and remainders cellar.  This was in the remainders pile, and three things drew me to it.  1) It was under $5, 2) The cover has a cat drunk on whiskey on it, 3) I had just read Love Among the Chickens (review) by Wodehouse, which was my first encounter with him, and found him hilarious.  Given this trifecta, I couldn’t resist.  I’m glad I didn’t, as this short story collection didn’t disappoint.

Don’t worry about this being the third in a series.  The only connection among the short stories is the main characters are all a Mulliner (or married to one).  It was completely unnecessary to have read the first two books in the series to get into this collection, although I intend now to read all of the Mulliner books.  I really appreciated how Wodehouse sets up a structure to hold his short story collection together in one unit.  Although they are all self-contained tales, their being together in one collection actually makes sense.  They have more in common than just the author.  They are literally a family of stories.  This helped it hold my interest in a way that many short story collections can’t.

This collection consists of 9 short stories, most of which have some sort of love element.  One person wants to be with (or marry) another and must overcome some sort of obstacle (usually caused by British upper-class culture) in order to be with them.  Hilarity ensues.  My favorite of these was “The Story of Webster,” the cover’s drunk cat.  In this a freewheeling artist has his religious uncle drop his cat off with him while he goes on assignment to Africa.  The judgmental, sullen cat soon starts to reign in the young artist, much to his and his girlfriend’s chagrin.  Everything about this, from the early 20th century fashion and dialogue to the witty commentary on cats and culture works perfectly, particularly for this cat-lover.  The story that I thought worked least-well, and unfortunately wraps up the book, is “Gala Night.”  A pastor Mulliner accidentally helps a young couple who enjoys dancing to acquire the young woman’s parents’ approval of their union.  I didn’t like the religious Mulliner.  He just wasn’t funny to me.  Similarly the catalyst of a mysterious mood enhancing drink just lacked the creativity found in the other stories.  Fortunately, most of the stories fell much closer to the hilarity of the whiskey drinking cat.  However, a couple did fall a bit flat for me, which is why while I greatly enjoyed the book, I wouldn’t say I was totally in love with it.

Overall, this is a wonderfully witty collection of short stories held together by an elderly Mulliner who enjoys telling (possibly tall) tales about his family over a pint in the local pub.  If you enjoy a dry wit and slapstick humor to top off a cute love story, this collection is for you.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Harvard Books

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Previous Books in Series:
Meet Mr. Mulliner
Mr. Mulliner Speaking

Book Review: Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig (Series, #1)

December 21, 2012 2 comments

Woman with hair made of bird silhouettes.Summary:
Miriam Black is an early 20-something drifter with bleach blonde hair and a surprising ability to hold her own in a fight. She also knows when and precisely how you’re going to die. Only if you touch her skin-on-skin though.  And it’s because of this skill that Miriam became a drifter.  You try dealing with seeing that every time you touch someone.  But when a kind trucker gives her a lift and in her vision of his death she hears him speak her name, her entire crazy life takes an even crazier turn.

Review:
This is one of those books that is very difficult to categorize.  I want to call it urban fantasy, but it doesn’t have much supernatural about it, except for the ability to see deaths.  The world isn’t swimming in vampires or werewolves of goblins.  I also want to call it a thriller what with the whole try to stop the trucker from dying bit but it’s so much more than chills and whodunit (or in this case, who will do it).  Its dark, gritty style reminds me of Palahniuk, so I suppose what might come the closest would be a Palahniuk-esque urban fantasy lite thriller.  What I think sums it up best, though, is a quote from Miriam herself:

It starts with my mother….Boys get fucked up by their fathers, right? That’s why so many tales are really Daddy Issue stories at their core, because men run the world, and men get to tell their stories first. If women told most of the stories, though, then all the best stories would be about Mommy Problems. (location 1656)

So, yes, it is all of those things, but it’s also a Mommy Problems story, and that is just a really nice change of pace.  Mommy Problems wrapped in violence and questioning of fate.

The tone of the entire book is spot on for the type of story it’s telling. Dark and raw with a definite dead-pan, tongue-in-cheek style sense of humor.  For instance, each chapter has an actual title, and these give you a hint of what is to come within that chapter, yet you will still somehow manage to be surprised.  The story is broken up by an interview with Miriam at some other point in time, and how this comes into play with the rest of the storyline is incredibly well-handled.  It’s some of the best story structuring I’ve seen in a while, and it’s also a breath of fresh air.

Miriam is also delightful because she is unapologetically ribald and violent.  This is so rare to find in heroines.

We’re not talking zombie sex; he didn’t come lurching out of the grave dirt to fill my living body with his undead baby batter. (location 2195)

As a female reader who loves this style, it was just delightful to read something featuring a character of this style who is also a woman.  It’s hard to find them, and I like that Wendig went there.

While I enjoyed the plot structure, tone, and characters, the extreme focus on fate was a bit iffy to me.  There were passages discussing fate that just fell flat for me.  I’m also not sure of how I feel about the resolution.  However, I’m also well aware that this is the beginning of a series, so perhaps it’s just that the overarching world rules are still a bit too unclear for me to really appreciate precisely what it is that Miriam is dealing with.  This is definitely the first book in the series in that while some plot lines are resolved, the main one is not.  If I’d had the second book to jump right into I would have.  I certainly hope that the series ultimately addresses the fate question in a satisfactory way, but at this point it is still unclear if it will.

Overall, this is a dark, gritty tale that literally takes urban fantasy on a hitchhiking trip down the American highway.  Readers who enjoy a ribald sense of humor and violence will quickly latch on to this new series.  Particularly recommended to readers looking for strong, realistic female leads.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: Valley of Death, Zombie Trailer Park by William Bebb

November 17, 2012 Leave a comment

Red tinted image of a desert valley.Summary:
When Josey arrives a secluded trailer park near Albuquerque to empty their septic tank, it soon becomes apparent that not all is right in the park.  In fact, most of the residents have turned to zombies.  As Josey’s fight for survival goes on, we meet a quirky cast of survivors, bystanders, perpetrators–and zombies: illegal immigrants who call the valley home, their exploitative factory boss, a WWII veteran and grandpa, his young grandson, a paraplegic Vietnam Vet, a boa constrictor, bicycling missionaries, and many more. Will anyone survive the valley of death?

Review:
I have finally found the exception to my don’t-take-book-recommendations-from-other-people rule: my daddy.  My dad texted me and told me he was reading a book about a zombie trailer park and asked if I’d like to borrow it when he was done.  I couldn’t turn that down, so he sent his kindle loan to me as soon as he was finished reading it.  I knew within the first few pages that my dad had picked a winner.  That really shouldn’t surprise me, because, well, it’s my dad, and we’re very similar, but I had been burned a few times with book recommendations recently. Anyway. On to the review!

Bebb’s book is a fresh, engaging take on a zombie outbreak.  The origin is a factory error, which is decidedly different from the more usual government experimentation or voodoo approach.  It’s great commentary on the exploitative practices of factories, not to mention the exploitation of illegal immigrants, without ever being too heavy-handed or preachy.  The zombies are a mix of the rage virus and traditional undead. Before dying they are inexplicably full of rage and will eat almost anything but also when they die they reanimate. It’s a cool mix, and I enjoyed it.

The cast of characters is incredibly imaginative, diverse, and even-handed.  People are truly just people (or zombies) regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity.  And, really, how many books can say they have a WWII vet, a sewer truck worker, a mechanically talented Latina, a wheelchair-bound obese meth chef, a loyal dog, bicycling missionaries, and a pot-growing paraplegic Vietnam Vet. I mean, really. And none of them are two-dimensional caricatures either. They are all well-rounded and presented with thought and humanity. I also never had that problem I sometimes have in books where you can’t tell the different characters apart. Everyone was entirely unique and easy to remember.

The plot is complex. I honestly did not know how it was going to end, and it maintains a fast pace throughout.  I was never bored and was never entirely certain what was going to happen next.  That’s coming from a big zombie fan, so I do think that’s saying something significant about the uniqueness of the engaging plot.

What really makes the book, though, is the sprinkling of humor throughout.  This type of humor won’t match everyone, but it certainly works for me.  I described it to my dad as “Patrick F. McManus with zombies,” but if you don’t get that reference, it’s hard to describe the humor.  So, here are a couple of quotes from the book to demonstrate it.

Your average one armed pot growing hermit who just murdered two men might be thinking about a variety of things. (location 2592)

Crazy cop fuckers done bit off my titty! (location 5423)

That second one….oh man. I laugh every time I see it.

So with all this love, why not five stars?  Well, much to Bebb’s chagrin, I’m sure, there aren’t enough commas.  (His author’s intro states that previous reviews said there were too many and now people will probably think there are too few. Sorry to confirm that suspicion, Bebb!)  Compound sentences tend to run on and on with no commas or semi-colons, which can be a bit frustrating to read.  Also, the book isn’t quite properly formatted for the kindle. Its display varies from section to section.  Similarly, while some sections are clearly divided by a dividing line (such as with tildes “~~~~”), others just have a big gap, which is not what one should use for ebooks.  With the variety of ereaders, it’s important to use something besides space as a signal that the reader has entered a new section, since the space can display drastically differently on different readers.  It’s best to use something like the tildes between sections.  Using empty space is a holdover from print that doesn’t work.  Bebb did use the tilde line in some sections, but not all, so there’s also a bit of a consistency problem.

Overall, though, the formatting and comma issues did not distract me from the wonderfully unique and humorous zombie trailer park story.  I’m so glad my dad discovered this indie author and passed his work on to me, and I look forward to reading more of it in the future. Highly recommended to all zombie fans, provided you like the type of humor outlined above.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Borrowed

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Note: It’s currently listed for free!

ETA: Had a delightful email convo with the author, and we determined that I read an older version of the book. The current one available should have mostly cleared up editing/layout concerns.

Book Review: Chasing the Moon by A. Lee Martinez (Audiobook narrated by Khristine Hvam)

August 2, 2012 Leave a comment

Tentacles holding eating utensils and the moon.Summary:
Diana doesn’t have much going for her–a bad job and perpetual unwanted singledom, plus she’s been sleeping on friend’s couches since losing her apartment.  So when a room in a building with a quirky landlord shows up, she grabs it instantly.  Only to discover that a monster called Vom the Hungry is in her closet waiting for her to let him out, at which point he will probably eat her.  In fact, the whole building is oddly connected to other dimensions full of monsters, creatures, mayhem, and madness….not to mention tentacles.

Review:
I obviously had to read this book.  The cover has tentacles on it, and it’s clearly a Lovecraftverse story.  These are both basically automatic must reads in Amanda-land.

The storyline is fairly straight-forward as far as the Lovecraftverse goes.  There’s a place where the lines between dimensions and reality fade and threaten mere humans with madness.  The monsters that Diana meets within her own apartment are fairly creative.  There’s Vom the Hungry who is pretty endearing, there’s the hedgehog looking guy (whose name I can’t remember and can’t look up because: audiobook) who spawns copies of himself when he’s upset, and of course there’s the giant floating eye with tentacles who tries very hard to be prim and proper.  They’re creative and funny.

The foes–the cult of the moon god–are not so creative.  They’re your typical moon-loving shapeshifters, and the moon god even has three forms just like a certain other god of a religion we’re all familiar with.  Compared to the creativity of the apartment and the apartment’s monsters, it just doesn’t feel like a worthy foe.

Similarly, although I liked Diana and the world she’s living in, she has basically no backstory.  I have a hard time believing she’d have such an easy time mostly abandoning her friends and family from her time prior to the apartment.  I can believe she’s not afraid and can handle the horrors, but it’d be nice if we got at least a toss-up to the concept of her having a family or even a mention of estrangement from them, if that’s the case.  That doesn’t happen, so I was left feeling that Diana is very two-dimensional.

Given these elements, I’m sure I would have skimmed through it very quickly in print and probably missed the humor that it does contain, except that I read the audiobook.  The audiobook narrated by Khristine Hvam. And she is an incredibly talented voice actor.

Every single character had their own entirely unique voice, and the voices perfectly matched the character, even an eyeless faceless omnivorous Vom the Hungry.  Hvam is just….just so amazing to listen to!  I kept listening more to just hear her perform than due to a true vested interest in the story.  In fact, I looked up her voice actor page on Audible after just to maybe get another one of her books.  She mostly narrates scifi/fantasy, unfortunately mostly YA, which we all know I don’t like.  But I will be keeping my eye out for more of her adult work.  She is just so amazingly talented.

So, overall then, the story itself rates 3 stars, but the narration rates 5, so my rating must average those two out.  Be aware, though, that I recommend Khristine Hvam over the book, but if you are intrigued by the book and don’t mind a lack of backstory or average villains, then I recommend picking the audiobook for twice the fun.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Love Me by Danger Slater

December 26, 2011 6 comments

Drawing of a frowning man in a Viking helmet.Summary:
I am awesome. I am the fucking awesomest awesome dude that ever was. I live on a hilltop in my castle made from 300 human skulls.  I sit on the roof and fight with Moon while wearing my Totally Authentic Viking Outfit I bought on ebay.  My tears are cancerous. No really. See how the animals that drink them keel over and die?  I surround my castle with a moat of blood and entrails where my crocoweilers live.  (They’re crocodiles cross-bred with rottweilers).  The thing is, I’m kind of lonely. So maybe I should go have some adventures around the world and do shit like invent Christianity? Yeah, that sounds like a plan.

Review:
This book is definitely intended for a narrow audience. But for that audience it is hilarious and awesome.  You have to love swearing, gross-out humor, complete zaniness, and have an ability to overlook certain discrepancies like the fact that Christianity did not originate in America and if the whole world was at nuclear war why is there suddenly a fully functional president in the White House?  I’m sure that all sounds crazy and bizarre because it is.  But it’s also hilarious.

It’s incredibly hard to describe and articulate just way such a zany book is awesome to read, so I’ll let a couple of quotes speak for themselves.

Three days later Jesus used his magic/zombie/God powers to come back from the dead. All the Romans were like, “No fucking way!” And Jesus was all like, “Fucking way, bro!” (location 662)

My heart, once again, whimpers. It gets all emo and grows an unattractive beard and starts writing bad poetry. My heart is looking very Cat Stevens. (location 1964)

I bind my novel in the hide of the now extinct Caspian tiger just so the publishers will know, Whoa, this dude is serious, and I mail it out. (location 529)

But it’s not just all zany humor.  Slater also demonstrates a clear understanding and knowledge of the rise of Western society and culture.  Passages periodically toss out allusions to not just pop culture and religious history, but also to parts of the Western Canon, such as Greek Mythology:

I welcome the unctuous numbness into my body. It offers me relief. I let the Charon of alcohol ferry me across the River Styx. I let it guide me deeper into Hell. (location 2879)

Underneath the humor and the allusions though what the book really is is a parable for anyone who ever searched for the meaning of life and wound up agnostic or atheist.  Parts of it truly speak to the experience of finding and losing religion. Of then investing yourself into other ideals that just don’t work out for you either until you’re left with the only solution, that life’s purpose is….

to exist in any way you see fit, plain and simple. (location 1391)

The one drawback to the novel is that this small indie press work needs an editor (or another editing swoop from Slater).  Although his writing itself is very good, there are a few misspelled words, typos, etc…. that, alas, interfere with the book’s good qualities.  Please listen to this reviewer and either do it yourself or find a friend to!  Your work is too good for such an easily fixed short-coming.

Overall this book is a delicious, zany, humorous parable of the agnostic/atheist journey through Western society in a search for the meaning of life.  If that sounds like it’d appeal to you and swearing and dick jokes don’t offend you, then I highly recommend it.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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

December 13, 2010 6 comments

Person looking into river.Summary:
Ned Henry is a time-traveling historian at Oxford, who has unfortunately been assigned to Lady Shrapnell’s quest to recreate an historic church.  For the last…god knows how long, he’s been searching for the bishop’s bird stump in the 1940s.  He finds himself suffering from time-lag and is promised a vacation in Victorian England where Lady Shrapnell can’t find him.  Of course, the Oxford historians need him to take care of one teeny tiny little incongruity caused by fellow time-traveling historian, Verity, who just so happens to be as beautiful as a naiad.  Of course, that could just be the time-lag talking.

Review:
Wow.  Wow.  I literally hugged this book multiple times as I was reading it.  I love it that much.  You know that old Looney Tunes cartoon with the abominable snowman who finds Bugs Bunny and then scoops him up and rocks him saying, “I will hug him and love him and squeeze him and call him George” ?  If I was the abominable snowman, this book would be my Bugs Bunny.

It is incredibly witty in that highly intelligent manner that expects you to be educated to get the joke.  Multiple references to classic literature, historic events, and more tossed around as quips and comparisons to events characters are currently going through.  It also features the put-upon hero, Ned, who maintains a good sense of humor about the whole thing in that lovely self-deprecating way that makes me wish the character could pop out of the book and be my best friend.

Additionally, I love history as long-time readers of this blog know.  History was one of my two majors in university.  I was the 7 year old girl who sat around watching war movies and PBS documentaries.  I also love scifi.  Hence, the entire concept of time-travel is one of my all-time favorite things, and Willis handles it so intelligently and beautifully!  I love that time travel is something only the academics do since everyone else finds it dull once it’s discovered they can’t loot from the past.  It makes so much sense!  I love the implication that non-academics are quite happy with shopping malls while Ned and Verity go traipsing around through the past navigating a world distantly related to our own.  One of my favorite moments is when Ned discovers that Victorians actually used exclamations like “pshaw” that are found in Victorian novels.  It’s a historian’s dream come true!

Finally, a significant portion of the storyline revolves around cats.  Adding an extra layer of awesome to this is the fact that cats are extinct in the future, so Ned has never encountered one before.  He makes the initial mistake of thinking cats are like dogs.  Any cat lovers, I’m sure, can envision the hilarity that ensues from this little thought process.  Also, seriously, Willis clearly understands animals perfectly.  The mannerisms of the cats and the bull dog, Cyril, are written to a T.

Put together humor, time travel, history, and animals, and this is the perfect read.  If you enjoy any one of those things, but definitely if you enjoy more than one of them, you absolutely must give this book a chance.  I haven’t loved a book this much in years, and I just….I just want to spread the love.  I also want to go re-read it right now.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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