Fantasy · Humor

Raising Steam

by: Terry Pratchett

Hello! It’s been a bit of a busy month for me – it was my first Christmas away from my family, my grandmother, who I was very close to, passed away, and I moved to Australia for a few months to do an internship.  It’s been super hectic and I ended up wanting something that was both comforting and distracting.  Enter Sir Terry Pratchett’s work, Raising Steam.

Fair warning, this review is going to assume you are familiar with Pratchett and his work.

I’d read about half of it before, but hadn’t finished it.  If you’re not familiar with Pratchett, he wrote this incredible comedic fantasy series, Discworld.  He started writing them in the 1980s and in 2007, announced he had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.  Raising Steam was published in 2013, the last book to be published before Pratchett passed away.

After his diagnosis, Pratchett’s writing underwent a fairly noticeable (to me, at least) change, and so the last five books he wrote are distinctly different than the rest of the series.  (A major part of that, I think, was that he found himself unable to physically write and begin dictating instead.)  The first time I tried to read Raising Steam and Unseen Academicals, I didn’t enjoy them, to be quite honest.*  But I saw Raising Steam at the library and figured, since it was a Pratchett book – and you can still tell it’s a Pratchett book – and I hadn’t read it yet, escaping to the Discworld might be exactly what I wanted.

I ended up really enjoying Raising Steam, once I stopped expecting it to be a Discworld novel.  With the progression of the Alzheimer’s and the dictation, Pratchett’s work became much less pithy and more exploratory of themes and messages.  Dialogue took up a much greater percentage of the story than previously – characters now orated for nearly entire pages, whereas in previous books, speeches were limited to a short paragraph, perhaps two.   There’s a distinct shift from presenting situations and observations to using the characters inner and outer monologues to explore morality, depth, and meaning.  I don’t think his later books are necessarily deeper or more meaningful, nor are they less; they just approach things in a very different way.

Once I had that figured out, I approached Raising Steam as if it were a proper novel, instead of a wild romp that would somehow work itself out in the end (the usual method to approaching a Pratchett story) and it suddenly became much more enjoyable.  The quality of the writing hadn’t diminished; it had just changed in unexpected ways.

The book follows Moist von Lipwig, one of my favorite Discworld characters, as he works with Dick Simnel, a young engineer who has invented a steam engine.  In his normal madcap manner, Moist finds himself leading the charge to bring Ank-Morpork, and perhaps the world, into a new era.  We see nearly the entire cast of Discworld, though some only for a page.

The character development is also unusual for a Discworld novel.  Usually, Discworld characters develop through finding or fighting their destiny or purpose, becoming who they were meant to be for the former and who they chose to become, for the latter.  Development is action focused and actions have immediate consequences.  In RS, however, there’s a lot more focus on the morality and meaning of decisions than I’ve seen previously, especially for Moist.  (Dick’s development is much more in line with classic Discworld characters.)  One quibble: the characters weren’t as distinguishable as they normally are; the long speeches and and exploratory tone meant that many of the characters’ dialogues were extremely similar.

The plot was funny, and fast, but much less rompy and with far fewer threads to track and fit together.  I felt like I had a clear idea of how everything fit together the entire time I was reading, which is not my expectation from Pratchett, at least not on the first read.  It was also, as I said, less pithy.  The humor wasn’t quick and snappy, but rather depended upon ridiculous (but completely believable) scenarios and the normal satire found there.

And now we get to the difficult part.  I’m not sure how to recommend this book – it’s an excellent comedic fantasy, of course, and I recommend it to anyone who loves satire, humor, and/or fantasy.  If you like Pratchett’s writing, you may like this – like I said, the writing is still good, just different.  But it is missing what I consider to be that essential Pratchett-ness, that pithy humor and that sense of the reader simply being along for the ride. In conclusion, all I can say is that the first few pages of this book are representative of the rest of it, so read a few pages if you’re not sure.  And it is amazing that Pratchett was able to put out a book that is still one of the best of the genre while in the grips of a terrible and debilitating disease.

*I felt like such an ass for even thinking this.

Children's · Comedy · Fantasy · Humor

Dragons at Crumbling Castle

by: Terry “the fantastically funny” Pratchett

I am always delighted to find a new Terry Pratchett book.  Pratchett passed away (from Alzheimer’s disease) in 2015 and though inevitably there will come a day when I have read all of his works, I refuse to hasten that day any more than necessary, preferring instead to have his books delight and surprise me in the finding as well as the reading.

I found this one in the children’s section of the library, as I was searching out His Dark Materials, and, of course, I checked out it immediately.  I’ve said before that I prefer Pratchett’s adult works to his children’s, and while that’s true, his children’s book are still whimsical and absurdly funny adventures worth looking in to.  This particular book is a collection of short stories Pratchett wrote early on his career, reworked a little before publication as a book.

Dragons at Crumbling Castle contained stories from The Carpet People but there were plenty of other stories as well. I really loved the short story format; the quick reads meant the stories were intently focused on plots and absurdities and they made for a great laugh.  Plus, I read this during a 3-day research workshop, so the short stories were about all my brain was up for.

While the writing was simple and the structure much clearer than Pratchett’s normal style, it didn’t feel like I was reading something that was only intended for children.  Rather, it felt more like an all ages-type writing – clean and structured for kids, but cognizant of the fact that adults exist and might indeed be reading this very book.  Very Pratchett-lite; I could feel the zaniness and humor that I associate with him, but the plot lines were much simpler and the characterizations that I so love just weren’t there.

The stories also go everywhere, from King Arthur’s court to a tiny speck of dust to a living room carpet to a time traveling bus.  I think this was probably the best showcase I’ve read of Pratchett’s ability to set you up in a familiar plot line and then, in the blink of an eye, whiz you somewhere completely unexpected and leave you laughing.  Not every story does this expertly – these are some of his earlier works, after all – but many of the stories.  The stories do vary more than a typical collection of short stories work.  All of them work, but some work uproariously well and others just made me smile a little and turn the page.

I loved the illustrations – simple, funny, and very fitting.  I didn’t like that some words were written in a illustrative font; for instance, “huge” might have been written in giant, bold font, and “waggle” was always written in font with offset letters.  But I could imagine this making the book really fun to read out loud with a child.

If you’re not a fan of absurdist humor, simplistic writing, or thematically loose collections of short stories, then, alas, this might not be the book for you. If you have a child in need of some humor or if you want some funny, easy-on-the-brain short stories,  I would highly recommend Dragons at Crumbling Castle. If you are, for any reason, interested in Pratchett’s craft and his development as a writer, I would strongly recommend this book.  I think there’s a lot of insight to be gleaned from these works into how he developed his wonderful voice and style.

Contemporary Literature · Humor · Nonfiction

Hilarity Ensues


by: Tucker Max

Tucker Max, partier, drinker, and asshole extraordinaire, has written his final book, Hilarity Ensues. If you’ve never heard of Tucker Max, he’s the author of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell and Assholes Finish First.  He’s basically made a living out of drinking, being an asshole, and drunken sexual exploits.  It’s rather impressive.

Max isn’t the best writer but he’s a damn good storyteller.  I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, while not as well-written as Hilarity Ensues, is probably his best book, if only because he put his best stories in there.   Now, Max’s stories are sexist, disgusting, vaguely racist at times (generally him riffing on someone else’s racism to make fun of them), full of drunken debauchery and sex, and crude.  Very, very crude.  They’re also, for most people, hilarious.   Like, laugh-out-loud, oh-my-god, he-actually-did-that, crap-I’m-in-public funny.

And, to be fair, most of the times the butt of his jokes are other party-going drunk people. Which makes a lot of them more palatable.

Hilarity Ensues is a better-written book than his previous ones, like I said, and Max is actually on his way to being a good writer.  He’s also on his way to growing up, because this is the end of his fratire novels.  He is fast running out of stories and no longer making any new ones.

Much of Max’s behavior is so far beyond the pale, I feel glad I wasn’t there, but I’m still laughing at the story.  Outré! Really, very few books have made me laugh like his, though I would say his sense of humor is definitely not for everybody.  He really is offensive. It’s funny for some and unbearable for others.

On the downside, he consistently refers to (drunken) women as whores and annoying or mean women as cunts (words cannot express how much I hate that word), and I definitely was more than a little irked by that.  I finished the book, mind you, but it tested my patience.  I think there was more of that language than in IHTSBIH, but perhaps I’m just more bothered by it.   Max does realize that women are people and it shows in the way he talks about some of the women throughout the book; he just tends to look down upon groups of drunken women in an entirely sexist way.

To be fair, he often makes fun of himself and his male friends, in ways that show he entirely understands his and their shortcomings.  And throughout this book, more so in the other books, I saw that he understood exactly why he behavior was so outlandish, beyond just “people seem shocked.”  Every now and then it feels like he’s riffing on the ridiculousness of how society hides its sexism and other -isms in polite masks.  But not very often.

(Also, Tucker Max’s writing is full of fat-shaming, especially towards women.  So I wouldn’t read this if weight is something you’re sensitive about.)

In short, if you want stories about outrageous drunken exploits with laughs garnered at the expense of polite and politically correct conventions, at the expense of the author and in a very frat-boy mindset, you will find that here.  You will laugh and laugh and occasionally you’ll see a glimmer of something deeper.  If you’re not cool with sexism in any form, if you’re not a fan of crude and wildly inappropriate behavior or sexual antics (and I certainly don’t blame you if you aren’t), this is probably not the book for you.  If you’re not sure, check out Tucker Max’s website, and read a few stories.  If they’re funny, read his books – they’re mostly new material and you’ll laugh.  I promise.  If not, well, his books are just an expansion of his website and won’t be worth your time.

Comedy · Humor · Nonfiction

Hyberbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, and Other Things That Happened


by: Allie Brosh

If you’ve never read the side-splittingly funny blog that is Hyperbole and a Half, you should stop reading my blog and head on over there pronto. Allie Brosh’s deliberately crude drawings and hilarious tales of childhood and life’s misadventures are not to be missed.

Her posts on depression are some of the best takes on the disease that I’ve ever read.  My mom suffers from pretty severe depression and it took me a long time to understand it; I wish Brosh’s comics had been around back then to help. I think the way she writes about it makes the disease really accessible for people who have never been depressed.  The comics are so important: for people suffering from depression – solidarity; for people who are affected by others’ depression – understanding and compassion; and for helping the general public understand depression – de-stigmatizing. (There is nothing more infuriating than someone without any experience with mental illnesses proselytizing that “sad people only need to think happy thoughts!” when the subject of depression comes up. Don’t do that.)  She manages to treat the subject with a kind of gallows humor – you laugh in the middle of these painful posts, but it’s a good laugh.  The kind of laugh that adds to your understanding instead of masking it.

Onto brighter things – the rest of her blog and book deal with rather more lighthearted things.  Childhood exploits, like eating an entire cake in one sitting, or quandaries of adulthood – being an adult is hard, y’all! – are all painted with the same brightly colored, achingly comedic brush.  The book contains probably 50-75% new material.  (Some of it is best of posts from the blog, though.)  I liked reading the old posts in book form – I got the e-book – and if I ever get the chance, I’ll buy the hardback and get a signed copy. Sadly, she’s not heading to my part of the U.S.A. anytime soon.

Some of the others stories made me put my Nook down and just laugh really hard, even the ones I had read before! I was having a really bad night last night – the family dog got accidentally poisoned – and I so desperately needed the laugh.  I was surprised that I laughed as hard as I did, honestly.

The last and biggest part of the book was a story on how she has impostor syndrome as a “good person.”  It was a little long for my tastes and I didn’t really relate all that much, but I suppose many other people will.  It was the only part of the book I didn’t absolutely love – but I still liked it. That is literally my only criticism for the book – so yes, it is that good.

My suggestion is pop on over to her blog and see if you like it. If you do, buy the book! It’s fantastic!  Even though some of the stories are in the blog, it’s nice to have your own copy that you can mark up and access and share anytime, with anybody who reads English.  And if you know someone whose life is being affected by depression, consider sending them a copy of the book or a link to the blog posts. Like I said, it’s a really important work on depression.

(NPR’s Fresh Air did a great interview with Brosh here.)

Comedy · Historical Fiction · Humor


Christopher_Moore_Fool_cover_artby: Christopher Moore

More is another comedic/satire writer that I enjoy, though he doesn’t write fantasy. (I would classify him as general fiction with some fantasy elements tossed in occasionally, though perhaps that’s a bit finicky.)

Fool is Moore’s take on Shakespeare.  It’s a retelling of “King Lear” from, of course, the fool’s point of view.  I will admit, I’m not a huge Shakespeare fan – I’ve seen 3 of his plays, and love watching them but have read only “Romeo and Juliet” and parts of “Julius Caesar.” (“Parts” because my English teacher decided we could skip all the boring battle scenes.)  Anyways, that whole aside is to note that there are multiple Shakespeare references, puns, and jokes that I’m sure I completely missed, due to my unfamiliarity with the Bard’s works. Feel free to note any of your favorites in the comments!

Fool is told from Pocket’s, the jester of King Lear, point of view, first person.  Moore’s work in third person often feels a bit disconnected or even impersonal to me; I greatly prefer his first person narratives.

I was rereading this via audiobook and it wasn’t until the second time around that I realized what a complex character Pocket is.  He does have a bit of that “happy outside, sad inside” clown persona going on, though it’s subtly enough done that it doesn’t feel like a cliche.  But he gets joy from his quick wit and job as a fool; he’s intelligent, observant, and rather lucky.  He is kind in a time and place devoid of empathy; he’s aware of how the world works and is willing to work with the tools that he has

The story, of course, retains its tragic elements but nobody could accuse Moore of writing a tragedy.  Rather, it’s riotous humor tempered by grievous and dire events.  Oh, yes, riotous.  This book is vulgar.  Really, truly vulgar.  It is full of, to quote the fools, “heinous fuckery.”  If you’re not a fan of cursing, bawdy humor, coarse, crude, and licentious language and stories, give this one a pass.  If you blush easily, you may not want to read this one in public.  (And if you are listening to the audiobook in front of children, expect a number of awkward questions afterwards.)

I loved the female characters in this novel.  Goneril and Regan, the two elder daughters of King Lear, drive the plot.  They both enjoy sex, sans inhibitions, without becoming one-dimensional characters whose only defining characteristic is being sexy.  They have several, er, predilections in that arena which are traits, not defining characteristics. They control their husbands, manipulate the king, and plot for taking over the kingdom. But they don’t do so through womanly wiles and feminine deceptions.  Rather, they accomplish things through strength of will and intelligence.  They’re practical and not prone to being controlled by their emotions; instead they use their emotions to further their causes. Well. Regan is vaguely sociopathic, so we’re assuming emotions on her part.  Honestly, either of them could have easily been written as a man, even though throughout the  book it is clear that they are women.  (Which is awesome.  Many female characters are so stereotyped that writing them as men would require a major change in personality.)

Cordelia, King Lear’s youngest daughter, is amazing.  She doesn’t actually appear that much in the novel and probably has the fewest lines of any of the main characters, but even though her page time is limited, the reader gets a clear picture of a well-rounded, intelligent, powerful character who goes after what she wants.   (Ah! I want to go on but not at the risk of spoiling the plot.)

The side characters are written sympathetically and nobody comes off as one-dimensional – eh, perhaps the witches do; I can forgive Moore for that.  There are a few good jabs at those in power, monarchies in general, and the abuse of power; some of them are funny and some of them are not.  This is definitely a book with darker humor in it.

If you like Shakespeare, satires, great female characters, or complex, dark comedies, you should try this one.  If you’re a stickler for history (this isn’t accurate by any standards), if you don’t like lewd humor, if you’re not a fan of violence, or if you like your comedies to be light and fluffy, than, sadly, this may not be the book for you.

Comedy · Fairy Tales · Fantasy

Heroics for Beginners

heroics for beginners

by: John Moore

Something a little lighter after all the war school and traumatizing of children in Ender’s Game.  I’ve read this before (a couple of times, actually – on the recent topic of rereading books) but I was sitting in my living room, thinking of what I wanted to read next and I saw this lying on the floor and thought it was perfect!  Also, books are on my floor because I’m out of bookshelf and trunk space.  I desperately need to  go through and sell some books to Half-Price.

This is a fantasy parody (comedic fantasy?) book – written by a native of Houston! – in which Prince Kevin, son of Eric the Cool, finds himself in competition for the hand of the curvaceous Princess Rebecca.  Unfortunately, whilst at court kissing babies and giving speeches on the foundation of a strong economy, evil Lord Voltmeter makes known his plans to use his Ancient Artifact to take over the 20 kingdoms.  It is only by defeating He-Who-Must-Be-Named (Lord Voltmeter has this thing about pronouns) that Prince Kevin, supply officer extraordinaire, can win the hand of Princess Rebecca.  Luckily for Kevin, he finds The Handbook of Practical Heroics and soon finds himself on his way to defeat Lord Voltmeter, save the princess, and survive the Fortress of Despair, all without buying something horrendously overpriced at the gift shop!

I really enjoy books that poke fun at the all-too-perfect world of fantasy and fairy tales and Heroics for Beginners is no exception.  Moore’s writing is decent – somehow, it’s just not smooth enough to be excellent – but his knack for practical considerations makes the books strike a chord in any writer. He actually reminds me a lot of Terry Pratchett, whom I absolutely adore, although not as good a writer, with much less convoluted plots, and definitely much more American in his style and sense of humor.  Moore has a knack for catching you unawares with a joke or plot point – there were a more than a few times where I just wasn’t expecting him to go where he did.  He also has characters which are delicious parodies of themselves; everyone is over exaggerated just enough to seem funny, without going into the ridiculous and overdone.  Some play on the fairy tale world , as “Dangerously Genre Savvy,” according to TV Tropes, while others play on characters within our world.  (In light of the recent sequester, the evil scientist really tickled my funny bone.) The Evil Assistant plays on the natural conclusion of her character; that is, the reality of a dangerous, whip-wielding woman rather than the fantasy of a leather-clad beauty with a crop.  I laughed at lot at her, though he walked a fine line there.  He does a really great job of walking the reader along the expected fairy tale path and then suddenly stopping to insert a dose of reality.

In short, this is better than most other comedic fantasies I’ve read, though it does fall short of Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett’s work.  If you like fairy tales and comedy, I’d definitely give this one a shot.  If you’ve a high brow sense of humor or if you are a stickler for excellent writing, then, alas, this may not be the book for you.