Posts tagged ‘book review’

The Girl Detective

Fortune Cookie Magnifying Glass
“There are three kinds of food.”
Secret origins of the girl detective

Firstly, let me apologize for the long hiatus. I’ll try not to do that again. Secondly, this review will be a little different than many of my others. This is a review of a short story that, in addition to being in print, is also available as a free pdf. Therefore, this is going to be less of a spoiler-free review and more of a spoiler-filled dissection. I recommend that before you read this review, you read the story. You can download it here: http://smallbeerpress.com/creative-commons/?did=30 , and “The Girl Detective” is on p. 251 of the pdf. (The rest of the pdf is filled with the rest of the stories from the anthology Stranger Things Happen. It’s a great collection, and I heartily recommend it all!)

Alright, I’m hoping that everyone (if anyone is still reading this) has now read “The Girl Detective”. First off, this is my favorite Kelly Link story yet. It is thick with references, as you can probably tell. Nancy Drew, which seems to be the main influence, but also chinese restaurants, fortune cookies, and
The Twelve Dancing Princesses
are all overt references, but what else? There’s a Hades reference (the fourth kind of food is from the Underworld) and of course the whole Underworld. There’s also some oedipal influences and gender role confusion, as the Girl Detective represents our mothers, our daughters, our wives, our lovers. The Girl Detective could even be a man, says the narrator, or the narrator himself/herself, it actually doesn’t say which gender the narrator is, although I seem to picture the narrator as male on first impression. And there could well be more than one narrator, for all we know. I think that the “DANCE WITH BEAUTIFUL GIRLS” section is from a different point of view. I think that could be the fat man, who is also a detective, and who, we know has a dead wife. At the end of the “DANCE WITH BEAUTIFUL GIRLS” section, the narrator of that section marries one of the twelve daughters. So if there are two narrators, why not more? At least two, the main narrator, who sits in the tree, and the second narrator. Or maybe they are one.

And then there’s the housekeeper, who we know nothing about, but who seems similar to the getaway driver and the stern nightclub woman. And they seem to almost all represent the Girl Detective’s mother, or at the least the mother figure. Are they the same? Perhaps…

So there’s the Girl Detective, the stern getaway driver/housekeeper/nightclub woman/mother, the twelve princesses/daughters/bank robbers/dancers, the waiters, the fat man, the father, and the narrator. Any and all of whom could be the Girl Detective. She shares the same Day of the Week underwear as the bank robbers, she’s a detective like the fat man, she could be her own mother, as she’s certainly, at least sometimes, a mother figure, and she could be the narrator as well. After all, the Girl Detective is a master of disguises…

January 19, 2010 at 10:27 PM Leave a comment

Dungeon Crawlin’ Fools

“Clearly, you must be the leader of this team. Perhaps we could compare tactical notes.”
thog like breaking stuff.
“… Never mind.”

 “We’re magical knights!”
“No, we’re lawyers.”

“She’s wearing red leather. I mean, red leather?? Of course she’s evil!”

 Dungeon Crawlin’ Fools is the first compilation of the webcomic The Order of the Stick (www.giantitp.com). It features the comic strips 1-121, as well as a load of author commentary and bonus strips. The Order of the Stick is a webcomic, as I already mentioned. A webcomic is a comic strip where new strips are posted, usually frequently, on the internet. (These strips vary in size. In Order of the Stick, strips are usually page length. In other webcomics, such as The Unspeakable Vault (of Doom), strips are usually the size of a regular newspaper comic strip, i.e. one line. Some others, such as XKCD, have no standard size and simply vary.) There are generally considered to be two main types of webcomics, gag-a-day and plot-driven. Gag-a-day comics have no real plot. They usually have a set of main characters, but follow no plotline, instead just trying to earn laughs from the audience. Plot-driven comics have a plot, and a strong cast of characters. They may be funny, but humor is not the only goal. The Order of the Stick is interesting due to the fact that it metamorphisized from a gag-a-day comic into a plot-driven comic. And we can see the start of that in this book.

The premise of The Order of the Stick is that the protagonists are a group of adventurers in a world which follows the rules of 3.5 Edition Dungeons and Dragons. The catch is that everyone (or at least everyone intelligent) knows that those are the rules that govern the world. So, of course, they make references to them. The characters are a mixture of your stereotypical group of dungeon-crawlers and subversions of the stereotypical dungeon-crawlers. There’s the cuckoo bard, Elan, the devious female thief, Haley, the verbose ambiguously gendered elven wizard, Vaarsuvius, and the dwarven cleric, Durkon, complete with heinous Scottish accent. And there’s also Roy, the smart fighter, and Belkar, the psychopathic violent halfling.

The first 40 strips are pretty clearly gag-a-day comedy. There’s a couple quick mini-plots, but it’s still gag-a-day. And while it’s funny, it’s only funny to the sort of people who know Dungeons & Dragons, and have played it. In other words, it’s pure nerd humor. Then comes the Linear Guild. To quote the author: What seems to be a quick joke about evil twins turns out to be The Order of the Stick’s  first true plotline. And it’s true. This strip begins the transition.

And from there on out, it’s pretty straightforward. Betrayal, another brief plotline, and onto the big bad himself! Xykon, evil lich sorcerer and b*stard, and his accomplices, Redcloak, goblin cleric, and the mysterious (and childish) Monster in the Darkness. Once they’re beaten, it’s out of the dungeon. (After activating the self-destruct rune to blow the whole place sky-high.) A little bit of foreshadowing the greater forces out there (My blades will be bathed in the blood of those responsible,) and there’s the book.

It’s definitely not the high point of The Order of the Stick, but it’s still funny. With limited money, this is not the book to buy. As of now, with the commentary is near useless and the bonus comics funny but not that funny, you’d be better off spending your money on the later books and read strips 1-121 on the web at giantitp.com. Unless, of course, you’re an obsessive fan. In which case, buy the book!

My Rating: 66/100

Next Up In Order of the Stick Reviews: On The Origin of the PCs

May 17, 2009 at 6:42 PM 1 comment

An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England

From a Professor’s Letter: In summary, then, I wish for you to burn down the Mark Twain House because Professor Ardor believes Mr. Twain to be something of a [and here you could sense the ashamed pause, lurking between the lines] female pudendum.

Then s/he pulled out a lighter, flicked it, and grabbed a clump of his/her hair. *** was setting her/himself on fire, not starting at the feet the way people at Salem did with their supposed witches, but starting with his/her hair. With his/her hair.

The Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England is a brilliant work of literary fiction, as well as being incredibly funny and suspenseful. The book is a first-person narrative from the point of view of  Sam Pulsifier, a resident of Amherst who burnt down the Emily Dickinson House, one of Amherst’s most famous attractions, and in the process killed two people. He served time in a minimum-security prison in Holyoke, and then after ten years was allowed to leave. He made himself a new life, went to college, and found a wife, Anne Marie. He had two kids. But then it all came back at him.

I suppose I should tell you something of Sam’s past. When he was in prison, many people were sending him letters. There were two kinds of letters sent to him. The first kind were the predictable, “you will burn in hell for this” letters. From literary scholars, professors, and citizens of Amherst, they told him how awful everything he did was. But the second kind of letter was more interesting. They wanted him to burn down other houses. The Frost Residence, the Stowe House, the Twain House, and the lot. For most of the writer’s homes in New England, at least one person wanted them gone.

Anyway, back to the plot. Sam’s life slowly begins to fall down around him. He receives a visit from an old enemy, Thomas Coleman. Thomas’ mother was a tour guide at the Dickinson House. She was there after-hours one night, having sex with Thomas’ father on Emily’s bed. That was the night that Sam burned down the House. They didn’t survive the fire. Thomas visits Sam, vowing revenge on him. Next, a group of bond analysts who were in prison with Sam come along. They want his help burning down other writer’s houses, so they can write memoirs about it. He refuses, and they say he’ll regret it. Then, they leave. A few days later, Anne Marie kicks him out of the house. Thomas told her Sam was having an affair with his wife. He goes back to live with his parents, a dysfunctional couple. His father is a drunkard, and his mother “goes to her job” each day despite having been fired. To make matters worse, someone(s begins burning down other writer’s homes in New England. He begins to try to find out who, trying to remove suspicion from himself. This is all chock-full of twists, red herrings, and suspenseful fun. (And someone sets fire to themself!)

This book is stellar. I could barely tear myself away from it. It was both humorous and tragic. Although it’s a reviewer’s cliche, I think I’d even say It made me laugh! It made me cry! It’s a rare book that can truly do both at once. This book especially resonates if you live or have lived in Massachusetts. I live in Massachusetts, and having been to most of the book’s locations, it’s both funnier and feels more realistic. Sam is a brilliant character, entertaining, snarky, and sad. I highly recommend this. However, make sure you don’t have anything important to do the day after you start reading this. You’ll probably be up all night reading this. I was.

My Rating: 83/100

(Edit: Offensive quote removed, new quote added.)

May 10, 2009 at 8:47 PM 1 comment

The Light Fantastic

“You said you could fly one of these things!” “No I didn’t; I just said you couldn’t!”

Cohen was shocked. “Bonfires of books?” “Yes. Horrible, isn’t it?” “Right,” said Cohen. He thought it was appalling. Someone who spent his life living rough under the sky knew the value of a good thick book, which ought to outlast at least a season of cooking fires if you were careful how you tore the pages out. Many a life had been saved by a handful of sodden kindling and a really dry book. If you felt like a smoke and couldn’t find a pipe, a book was your man every time. Cohen realized people wrote things in books. It had always seemed to him to be a frivolous waste of paper.

The Light Fantastic is the second of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. It, unusually for a Pratchett book, takes off from directly where its predecessor left off. The last book, The Color of Magic, left Twoflower and Rincewind falling off of the world, via spaceship. However, that has all changed. This is because the whole world is being changed, using a giant change spell, so as to stop Rincewind from dying. In the last book, it was established Rincewind could not cast spells because of the Great Spell left in his head from a bet. In this book, the Great Spells are revealed to be sentient, and working to keep Rincewind alive until they need him to say the Spell in his head. Rincewind and Twoflower continue to explore the Discworld, discovering new flora and fauna in places such as the Forest of Skund, the Vortex Plains, and even Death’s Domain. But trouble is brewing. A red star has appeared above the Discworld, and no one knows what it will do. Some of the wizards at the Unseen University want to use the spell in Rincewind’s head to stop the problems. Unfortunately for him, this would require either his cooperation with the corrupt and/or bureaucratic head wizards, or his death at their hands. He’s not too keen about either of these ideas, so he decides to solve this like he solves all his other problems. That is, by running away.

This book ups the quality of the Discworld series from the last book in several ways. For one, the humor has improved. Pratchett is no longer simply poking fun at other fantasies in specific, he’s now both poking fun at the general aspects of fantasy, and creating humor through his characters. The second thing that’s better about this book is that it has a plot! I cannot emphasize the importance of this enough. It has a storyline that weaves throughout the book, as opposed to just meandering adventures without a thread tying them together, like The Color of Magic is. Along with Twoflower and Rincewind, the other character in this book who appears in later books is Cohen the Barbarian. Cohen is a parody of Conan the Barbarian. Except for the fact that he’s an octogenarian librarian. Actually, nix the librarian part. That was just a rhyme. No, he’s really like Conan, but older. And with dentures made from troll teeth, which are diamond. This book also features an evil villain named Ymper Trymon, and the first appearance of the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions. (But more on them later…) This is a good Discworld book, but it’s nowhere near Pratchett’s full potential.

My Rating: 76/100

Next Up in Pratchett Reviews: Equal Rites

April 28, 2009 at 5:45 PM Leave a comment

The Pearl

She knew there was murder in him.

The Pearl is a famous novella by John Steinbeck. It features a man named Kino, his wife Juana, and his son Coyotito. They are a poor family, but happy. Kino dives for pearls, while Juana bakes meals and minds Coyotito. One day, though, Coyotito is stung by a scorpion! The family wants the help of the doctor, but they are too poor to afford him. Kino goes diving for pearls, and he finds a magnificent pearl. It is hailed as the great Pearl of the World, and Kino and Juana believe it is worth a lot of money and is the answer to all of their problems. Of course, in reality, their troubles have just started…

Their problems go from bad to worse:

  • The doctor, who they can now pay, realizes that Coyotito has recovered from the scorpion bite. he wants more money, though, so he poisons Coyotito under the premise that it’s a cure for the relapse that he says, lying, that Coyotito will suffer. 
  • The pearl dealers, working to together, decide to cheat Kino out of the money for the pearl. 
  • The pearl causes Kino to become possessive and nasty, even hitting and kicking Juana.
  • Kino then kills a man at night who, he suspects is coming to steal the pearl.

Kino and Juana then attempt to go to the capital, to escape the corrupt citizens of the town and its law enforcement. They bring a few essential supplies, the pearl, and Coyotito. In a complex situation involving a group of trackers, Kino, and Juana and Coyotito hiding in a cave at night, Kino grabs a rifle from one of the trackers and shoots them. He then discovers Coyotito’s head has been half blown-off and that he is dead from the tracker’s shot. He and Juana then go back to the town, after having thrown the pearl back into the water. All is forgiven by the townspeople, and they decide to live in the town again.

Kino, due to the pearl, ends up worse off than he started. His son is dead. His house has burnt down. He has to reforge connections with the other villagers. There are several different problems with this story. The first is the confusion of Coyotito’s death. It requires several rereads to see whether the tracker or Kino shot Coyotito. The second problem is the one-dimensionality of the stories characters. The only character with any depth in him is Kino. No one else has much depth, and even Kino is not that interesting to read about. It really reads more like a fairy tale or a folk tale than a novel or novella. The third problem is the moral of the story. For something that so clearly is supposed to be folk tale of some sort, the moral is not so evident. “Money is bad?” “Be careful what you wish for?” “The world should adopt a barter system?” “It’s a hard life being poor?” “Poor people shouldn’t try to improve their lots?” It’s just not obvious. This is the sort of story that would be better as an oral tale of a bedtime story of old (the bloody Grimms…) than it is as a novel!

My Rating: 38/100

April 25, 2009 at 5:20 PM 5 comments

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Sherman Alexie

This guy was in love with computers. I wondered if he was secretly writing a romance about a skinny, white boy genius who was having sex with a half-breed Apple computer.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is not actually a diary, unlike some children’s/teen’s “diary” books you might see at a bookstores. Diaries have recently become a trend in children’s books, but that’s besides the point. This book is not a diary. It does, however, have picture clippings from the main character, Arnold/Junior’s diary. These add to the flavor of the book, but it’s not a diary on its own. This book is also humor. But not really. It’s more tragic. Perhaps … tragicomic? All the comedy in the story derives from the main character, Arnold Spirit, oft called Junior. If the story was read without his, well, spirit, it would read as a tragic story about drinking and fatalities on Indian reservations in the USA. It’s only Arnold’s comments and attitude that save it from becoming a tragic, angsty funeral of a story. The above quote might be the best summary of Arnold’s humor. He retains this ability, even in most tragic moments. At a few points, especially in the latter part of the book, the tragedy overcomes the comedy. This is not a happy book.

Arnold lives on an Indian reservation. His school is awful, people die frequently, and life is all around lousy. One of his teachers, filled with guilt over failed pupils, recommends that he go to the school in the nearby town where the only other Indian is the mascot. He manages to get there, helped by his strong-willed and lovely grandmother. But his troubles have only begun… He has a hard time, both in becoming accepted at his new school and trying to avoid being hated by the others at his reservation for being a “traitor.” He meets new people at his new school, including Gordy the computer geek and Penelope, who becomes his girlfriend. And life goes on. So does death. I won’t spoil it all, but the latter parts of the book are literally blow after blow.

This book is very different than the other two books I have examined. They are all comedies, but this uses the comedy for more than just blasts of funny. Pratchett does this with his later Discworld books, but the earliest ones are often just pulling for gags. Parents should be warned, however. The treatment of several serious issues is probably not how they should first be exposed to teens. The key example, in my mind, is the treatment of bulimia. Penelope, Arnold’s girlfriend, has bulimia and keeps it hidden. Little more than a page discusses her bulimia, whilst her beauty has much more description and such. This should be emphasized. The characters also casually use swearwords, especially ret*rd and f*ggot. I personally do not care much about that, but parents who are concerned about that sort of thing should keep it in mind. Still, it is a great teen read! (Also, many pictures for those teens who still feel nostalgic for picture books…)

My Rating: 74

April 22, 2009 at 9:58 PM Leave a comment

The Munchkin’s Guide To Power Gaming

There exists a way beyond the path of magic and the path of mental powers. A third way. A way that depends on the intervention of a third party on your behalf. A way that allows – nay, encourages – you to play a bigoted racist psychopath who wishes to cleanse and burn the whole world. This is the way of the Cleric.

The above quote really summarizes the whole book. Funny, roleplaying game themed, and likely to offend anyone who reads it! This book was published by Steve Jackson Games, often abbreviated to SJ Games (www.sjgames.com). SJ Games is a successful and famous gaming company, responsible for releasing many gaming books, board games, and card games onto the world at large. The most successful of these are the Munchkin card game (originally a direct spinoff of this book) and GURPS, a popular roleplaying system. This book is essentially a humorous guide at how to cheat at roleplaying games, such as GURPS or Dungeons and Dragons. It is split into chapters, each encompassing a different roleplaying genre (fantasy, science fiction, horror, superheroes, etc.)

Roleplaying games often emphasize diplomacy, relationships with other characters, and acting as your characters. Munchkins (otherwise known as twinks, gunbunnies, and a variety of other names) really don’t give a crap about all that roleplaying nonsense. They just want to slaughter stuff. This book shows you, in a humorous fashion, how to get around the Games Master (aka GM or DM; basically the referee) and any other players who don’t want to participate in your massacring of everything in sight. It shows you how to cheat directly (flubbing dice rolls, messing up your character sheet) and how to cheat indirectly (arguing with the GM, getting around rules, which skills to pick, etc.)

Although this book is humorous, it’s not worth a ton of money. If you can buy it used for minimal price, do so. I wouldn’t spend the cost of buying it new, though, unless it’s on sale or low priced. That said, it does have some funny parts, especially some of the tables and lists (Uses for Halflings, The Gun is Your Skill List.) You’ll really only appreciate it unless you’re a gamer, though. It’s a specific brand of humor.

My Rating: 55/100

April 21, 2009 at 5:36 PM Leave a comment

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