Tag Archives: humor

Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde

After reading The Well of Lost Plots, I wasn’t sure what to expect in Something Rotten.  It surprisingly picks up two years after the previous book, with Thursday having given birth to her son, Friday, and returning to the real world.  It gets back to the main story of Thursday’s life, which, I think, is preferable to the fantastical world of unpublished books.  Something Rotten is superior, and I enjoyed it even more than The Well of Lost Plots.

Thursday returns with a guest — Hamlet, who needs some time away from his play.  Accompanied also by her son and dodos, Thursday comes back to stay with her mother.  She also finds Goliath Corporation trying to make itself a religion, a prophesy that states that if the Swindon Mallets, the local croquet team, doesn’t win its game against the Reading Whackers, the world just might end.  Thursday ends up as manager, since Goliath hires away most of the talent from the team.

Thursday takes advantage of Goliath’s religious aims, asking for an apology and the return of her husband, Landen.  They hold to their word, but he flickers in and out for a while, causing some issues with showing up at his home only to find his parents there instead, who don’t remember their son ever becoming an adult.

With all this going on, Thursday is also chasing down the minotaur that escaped from captivity in the previous book and is chasing down Yorrick Kaine, who has come to significant political power and has started a crusade against the Danes and all things Danish.  She is also being chased down by an assassin called the Windowmaker, who has close ties to one of her good friends.  A loaded plate, to say the least.

I think the best thing about this book is the balance between the crises.  I didn’t have as much of a problem following exactly what was going on in Something Rotten.  That might have something to do with the fact that I’ve actually read more of the books and plays mentioned in this volume than the others, but I also think Fforde has created a more polished book.  Friday’s escapades make more sense and the prose flows more easily.

One thing that confused me a bit was the inclusion of illustrations in the book, which seemed more heavy in the front of the book than in the back.  I suspect these might have been a holdover from the hardcover edition, but, seeing as they weren’t in the other books in the series, it made me a little perplexed.  I would have preferred them be left out; I think that, unless it’s a children’s book or a nonfiction book that needs figures, illustrations aren’t really necessary.

Overall, I really enjoyed Something Rotten.  I found it more clever than The Well of Lost Plots, which is a pretty difficult feat, and I was completely engaged in the narrative.  I can’t wait to get into the next book in the series, to find out what next happens to Ms. Thursday Next.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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The Well of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde

I have to admit, I’m a little rusty on my Thursday Next.  The last time I read one of the books, it was in 2006, and The Well of Lost Plots was just coming out as a hardcover.  Now, here I am, five years later, and I’m having to do some catching up.  It’s well worth it, though, for the world of Thursday Next is one richly filled with all sorts of literary delights.

We start off pretty close to where Lost in a Good Book leaves off.  Thursday is hiding within the Well of Lost Plots to protect her unborn child, the product of a marriage to a man who never existed.  She finds a place to stay within an unpublished mystery novel, taking the place of one of the secondary characters.  The book is not doing well, and Thursday tries to provide a little help before it gets pulled apart for its words.

Thursday is also being trained, by Miss Havisham, to become a literary enforcement agent.  She goes through some pretty grueling training, which can also be amusing — Miss Havisham leads a group therapy session for the characters from Wuthering Heights, which Thursday tags along to.  We then get to see what happens in between the pages, which, for Wuthering Heights, basically means that everyone spends their time hating Heathcliff.

Here is one of the great things about the Thursday Next series:  it’s for people who love to read.  Not just love to read, but love to read novels.  Not just love to read novels, but love to read those books that are considered great literature.  Fforde takes the characters from big books, like Great Expectations or Jane Eyre, and puts his own take on what their personalities are into his versions of them.  It’s really nice … for those of us who have read the books he’s referencing.

This is, thus, one of the biggest downfalls of Fforde’s books, too — you have to be a complete book nerd to get every little thing he puts in.  Otherwise, the only things you’re going to understand are the puns, and that’s no way to go through a book.  A person’s literary well-being can’t be sustained on puns alone.

Fforde does have a very lovable writing style.  His inner circle of characters are pretty well-rounded, and I enjoy the world he has created where foundering books are in a well far below the library of all fiction created (at least, in English).  I think that many well-exposed readers would really enjoy the Thursday Next series; if one doesn’t, I think The Well of Lost Plots has very limited appeal.  Maybe, though, it’s an incentive to read books that are over ten years old — I know I haven’t read Wuthering Heights, and I think maybe it’s about time I do.

Rating: 4/5.

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Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett

I’m a bad Terry Pratchett fan.  I don’t read the DiscWorld books within their subseries; I read them as he published them.  I was, then, a little rusty on what happened during the last book that dealt with the witches — I vaguely remembered it had to do with a fairy godmother and travel on the witches’ parts.  Once I got back into their world with Lords and Ladies, though, I slipped right back into their storyline, and it’s a superb one.

The story is relatively simple — Granny Weatherwax is still a grumpy witch, but this time she’s being challenged by the Queen of the Elves, who wants dominion over Lancre.  This is one of the things that makes Lords and Ladies so good — it’s a more serious, high fantasy-like story, while maintaining a good sense of humor.  The plot is solid, without some of the meandering that occurs in earlier Pratchett books.

Mixed up with the story of the elves trying to take over is the story of Magrat Garlick, the meek, youngest witch of the trio living in Lancre.  She is to be wed to the King of Lancre, Verence II, which came as a surprise.  Magrat is, as Granny is fond of saying, a little drippy and soft.  She holds to a more New Age type of witchcraft, which is not where Granny and Nanny Ogg practice, so they think she’s fairly naïve — which she is.

The two stories collide on the days leading up to the wedding.  Magrat’s entire kingdom is put in jeopardy by Granny not telling her about the elves.  Granny’s having difficulty defeating the Queen.  Nanny is distracted by Casanunda, a blast from the past, and only gets into the action just in time.

One of the best aspects of this story is that Magrat grows as a person.  She becomes stronger in her struggles against the elves, and she becomes, in actuality, quite the impressive woman.  It’s easy to imagine her ruling a kingdom at the end of the story, which is really nice — you just knew that she couldn’t remain a dope forever.

As I stated before, one of the best things about Lords and Ladies is that it feels more serious.  To me, the danger Lancre faced seemed very real, indeed, which is not something I necessarily expect from a Pratchett novel.  There were fewer footnotes, which made the story flow better and turned it into something I liked better.  I never thought I would say that I like a Pratchett novel without large numbers of footnotes, but I really did.  It helped with the flow of the story immensely.

I think it also helps that these characters are ones he’s written about many times in the past.  He didn’t have to establish much in the way of character development before getting straight into the story.  I think that forced him to really think about the plot, which made for a better book all around.

Overall, I think a new Pratchett reader would want to read the other books in the Witch subseries first, and just know that it’s well worth it.

Rating: 5/5.

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Grave Peril by Jim Butcher

I’ll admit it:  I’ve become rather fond of Harry Dresden, the hero of The Dresden Files series.  He’s always off fighting something interesting — rogue wizards, werewolves, toad-monsters … they’re all problematic creatures Dresden has to face.  Grave Peril, the third installment in the series, covers a new type of supernatural creature — the ghost.  The results are spooky and good at the same time.

Jim Butcher starts off the book with Dresden and a friend, Michael Carpenter, going in to a hospital to stop a ghost from smothering the babies in the nursery.  Michael is some sort of paladin — faithful, honest, strong, and steadfast — and his sword is an instrument for smiting evil.  A surprisingly difficult battle with the ghost ensues after they pursue her to The Nevernever, as does a visit from Dresden’s godmother, Lea, who apparently owns his soul and wishes to collect as soon as possible.

Added into this mix is the Nightmare, a sentient ghost-like creature that takes some of Dresden’s power, incapacitates Karrin Murphy, the head of Special Investigations for the Chicago Police Department, and enjoys taking people over when they sleep.  We’ve also got significant vampire activity and the involvement of some back-story that provides for clever surprises with the plot.

One of the attributes I like about Butcher’s series is the humor.  I’m a sucker for puns, so I got a kick out of Dresden’s joke about the vampiress on a diet (“Make hers a Blood Lite”), among others.  Yet this book felt darker to me than the previous two, and I wonder if some of that is because we’re getting to know Dresden better.  It’s harder to joke around with characters when they’ve become established and people have developed attachments to them.  The change toward a more serious tone isn’t bad, and Butcher still keeps his tongue in his cheek a good bit.  This installment is just a little less so.

A couple of things about this particular book made it a little more difficult to like.  The first may seem petty, but it drove me nuts:  Dresden says “Hell’s bells” a lot in this book.  This is the first time I can recall him ever using this term.  He says it, on average, one time per chapter.  That would make for thirty-nine “Hell’s bells”.  It’s not just the term, which I find mildly annoying; it’s also that I don’t think it’s something that the Dresden I knew from the first two books would say.  Maybe I just overlooked it, but, in Grave Peril, the abundance of the comments jarred me out of the narrative each time I read it, which I’m pretty sure isn’t what Butcher was aiming to do.

The second is that quite a bit of time, series-wise, has elapsed between the previous book, Fool Moon, and this one.  That means that there’s a lot of back-story we only have filled in part-way — Michael has been his partner on the exorcisms, but when did they meet?  How?  What’s the full story on the big event that involved Special Investigations?  Is it in a short story somewhere?  Couldn’t it have been part of the story of this book?  That would have been fantastic, and I wouldn’t have spent part of the book wondering why something was the way it was until it was explained through a narrative about past events.

The Dresden Files is an awesome series.  Grave Peril is a fine addition, but not quite as good as its predecessors.

Rating: 3.5/5.

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Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? by Tom Holt

Tom Holt’s Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? is a silly caper story involving a hidden cache of Norsemen, an archaeology graduate student, and their journey together through Britain while trying not to gather too much attention — and failing.  It’s a story that reminds me of Terry Pratchett’s DiscWorld books, which means that it was an entertaining read involving quirky characters and a kooky plot.  This is a good thing.

The entire thing starts with the discovery of a Norse ship uncovered by a construction crew in Scotland.  A rather naive grad student, Hildy Frederiksen, is sent to check it out.  She’s excited to see that the boat is a complete specimen, goes back to her hotel, and then gets the urge to return to the mound.  Once there, she discovers the crew of the boat awake and walking around, which they most certainly should not be doing, having been buried there for twelve hundred years.

The crew really is a well-honed battle group whose slumber has been in place merely until the time is right to prevent a particularly bad person from doing … well, something particularly bad.  Hildy takes on the responsibility of finding food and clothing for the men, as well as shuttling them around and getting them acquainted with the modern world.  This last task, surprisingly, isn’t as hard as it would seem.  The Norsemen take modern technology in stride, thinking it the same as their magic; most likely it is, seeing as they have brooches they connect to electrically-charged chthonic spirits to make things happen.

Mixed in here is the story of Danny Bennett, a fluff-piece reporter who earnestly wishes to write something more substantial.  He stumbles on the Norse gentlemen, and his future gets entwined with theirs.  Also making an appearance is the enemy’s guy Friday, whose experiences help to fill in a little back story (and provides for some nail-biting).

I think this book is really quite good.  The writing is light, pulling just short of treating the plot as inconsequential.  Holt manages to give us a full story with some endearing characters experiencing something very surreal without it feeling like a fairy tale, which is nice.  The end feels as realistic as possible for a fantasy tale; things aren’t perfect, but they turn up good at the end.

A couple of things were a little off with the book, though.  I didn’t quite get why we needed the chthonic spirits (other than to give the plot something to turn on).  If they’re basically little living batteries, why can’t they use batteries when they discover them missing?  They managed to do that with the other brooch, so that was a little confusing.

I also felt like the book was a little light on substance.  It’s one thing to have a breezy feel.  It’s quite another to whisk the reader by points before they get a chance to sink in.  A slightly slower pace would have made Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? a little better.

The last problem I have with the book is that, without an interest in Norse history and literature, you might be a little lost during some sections of the book.  Sure, the person might know “Viking”, but I’m not sure how many know the mythology, the Eddas, and the sagas well enough to pull out some of the more interesting bits of the story.

Overall, though, Holt put together a delightfully humorous story about Norsemen in modern-day Britain.  This makes him okay in my book.

Rating: 4/5.

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Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

Having read Stiff, Mary Roach’s book about the corpse and what living scientists and people do with them, I anticipated Packing for Mars was going to have some humor mixed in with incredible stories about space exploration.  I was especially excited by this for several reasons: I like popular science books; I liked Stiff; and I love astronomy and space exploration.  Roach doesn’t disappoint.  Packing for Mars shows us some of the behind-the-scenes planning of our space programs, goofs and all, and creates a very readable account of the development of a branch of science very new and very much a part of many cultural identities.

In fact, Roach starts off her book not with NASA or cosmonauts but with JAXA, Japan’s space organization.  She takes us there to show us one of the processes that comprises how Japanese astronauts are chosen; they’re put in a room with nine other hopefuls for a week.  Their eating behavior is monitored, their interpersonal skills are evaluated, and their work ethics are examined (in a rather clever way).

This is one of the enjoyable parts of Roach’s book — she got to go to lots of cool places and talk to a lot of interesting people.  Astronauts and cosmonauts abound, as do psychologists, engineers, space program managers, and nutritionists, among others.  Roach has a true gift for putting herself in the interview without being obtrusive about it.  It’s enjoyable to read the accounts of, say, a research subject from a study of what happens if people lay in bed and don’t use their bodies to move around, but it’s even better to get Roach’s observations on the person’s surroundings, their manner of carrying themselves, their way of speaking.  She’s astute, and that eye for detail adds a lot to the book.

In fact, Packing for Mars feels very much like her exploration of the story of space exploration, which is probably my favorite aspect of the book.  It’s obvious that she’s done a lot of research and a lot of digging.  The amount of work she does to track down interesting stories is pretty impressive — from reading old newspaper articles about the primate-space program to trying to track down a Czech porn star who appeared in a film that supposedly featured a scene in a zero-g plane, Roach has her bases covered.

Having done all this research shows.  For the geek in me, I was delighted to see that there was actual science behind the humor and the entertaining stories that make up the history of space exploration.  Roach talks about what researchers do to find out what might happen to the body, for sure, but she also talks about the underlying biological and physical concepts underlying why these things happen.  It’s even better that she does it in an accessible and humorous way.

A couple of writing techniques Roach uses endears her books to me.  One is puns and plays on words.  I’ll always admire a clever pun.  I don’t care what other people think about them.  I like them and admire those who can craft good ones.  Roach has a talent for language control that makes hers very organic; they almost slip by you before you recognize the.  Another charming aspect to her writing is the use of footnotes.  I’m a sucker for footnotes — thus one reason I love Terry Pratchett.  Roach includes some great asides in hers, and I looked forward to pages containing them.

There’s no resisting a book with both science and comedy on its side.  Factor in that the book is well-researched and well-written, and I’m completely won over.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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I’m Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears by Jag Bhalla

I love words.  I love reading about words.  I have a favorite linguist (John McWhorter, for those who are interested), and never turn down a book that discusses language, whether it be English or a foreign one.  Thus I was heartily excited to read I’m Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears.

The author, Jag Bhalla, is extremely enthusiastic about his subject.  He speaks British English, and has an Indian background.  His delight with language, in all its idiosyncrasies, does not stop with his Hindi, however; he’s an equal-opportunity idiom collector.  (Hindi is one of the languages that is featured, however.)

He provides us with a plethora of idioms, most of which are delightfully descriptive.  Some are not so far from those used in English.  For example, in Hindi, you say you have “stomach fire,” when in English you would say you have “heartburn.”  Not so odd.  Others are completely incomprehensible to the English speaker, like when someone “looks like September” in Russia, they look sad.  I found the variety at turns comforting, surprising, and chuckle-worthy.

So, yes, the book is charming.  It did have a couple of negative points.  The first was the narration Bhalla gives us before the lists of idioms.  Yes, he likes his topic, but the exposition is a little too in-your-face with cheekiness.  Especially annoying to me was the use of italics to point out English idioms within his little introductions.  It was distracting to me to have them pointed out, no matter how much Bhalla was trying to show how idioms become a staple of any language.

Another issue I had with the book is that one idiom might be included two or three times.  Often he will have talked about the idiom in an introduction to a chapter, then included it in a list within that chapter, and then later included in a separate chapter.  This is what happened with the Italian idiom, “to reheat cabbage,” which means to rekindle an old flame.  It is mentioned in the introduction of the chapter about love, then in the list within that chapter of “Other Romance-Related Idioms.”  Imagine my surprise when I also found it in the introduction to the chapter about food.  It is as if he either cannot remember he has mentioned it before, or that his reader is dim-witted.

Those problems are not negligible.  They are, however, outweighed by the enjoyable aspects of the book.  I’d recommend it for those who have an interest in language, but probably isn’t for someone who will be aggravated by the repetition or the boisterousness of the author.

Rating:  3/5.

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