Sep 30

A Six Pack of Old Friends

As a follow on to my general Recommended Book List, I wanted to dive in on why the first six books are favorites.

To recap, here’s the first six books on my all-time “recommend to others” list.

  1. Myth Adventures by Robert Asprin
  2. The Stainless Steel Rat, by Harry Harrison
  3. Callahan’s Lady, by Spider Robinson
  4. Retief, by Keith Laumer
  5. Phule’s Company by Robert Asprin

These books are also what my mom would call “old friends”.  They are some of the few media items that I could pick up at any time and just read.  Many of them I could flip to any page in any of them, and just start reading from there.

Why are these books so re-readable?

A Good Laugh

All of these books are funny.  They are all in what some have called the “humorous sci-fi/fantasy” genre.

Given even a year away from the book, the jokes and humor in these stories wraps you up and cuddles you, and it’s humor that doesn’t need to put someone else down, or gross you out, or make you cringe.  It just makes you smirk, grin, and feel good about the world.

The Difference is Readability

Unlike the “poster children” for this genre, like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, or Discworld by Terry Pratchett, the books on my list are also highly readable….and not English.  I enjoyed Adams and Pratchett, but I’ve not real desire go back and read them over and over.

Every one of the books on my list is written with (for the time they were published, at least), smooth, flowing prose, with just enough humor to keep a near-perpetual smile on your face, but without so much political commentary, farce or forced jocularity that it distracts from the narrative or the characters.

Characters You Want to Spend Time With

And it’s the characters that really make the stories work, and make these books “friends” rather than just “fun reads”.

Every book is filled with people that you want to spend time with.  Characters with problems that seem funny on the surface, but end up reminding you not to take your own problems so seriously.

Human Tales

These stories may be set in alternate or fantastic or future realities, but they all use that setting to make their tales of human interactions more timeless.  They distill human interactions to their core, and set them against a tale of adventure to give those interactions motion.

Robert Asprin makes the list twice with two different books, both of which spawned series.  Let’s start with him.

Farcical Reality with Robert Asprin

While the humor is never far away with Robert Asprin, neither are a plethora of other emotions. He regularly sets up characters to be one thing (a funny stereotype, typically), and then carefully deconstructs that funny assumption for the rest of the story.

Aahz is the big scary demon, who turns out to be a lot more supportive and nurturing than evil and devouring. Asprin carefully nuances Aahz’s personality throughout the series, and eventually, despite a narriative landscape of the absurd, you feel like he could be any of the tough-on-the outside, squishy on the inside guys you know.

The Myth series’s main protagonist Skeeveo starts out young and naieve, and although he’s not clearly a Mary Sue character at the outset, he becomes one more and more as the series progresses, holding up a harsh light to Asprin’s own struggle with alcoholism.

The parade of supporting characters, Tanada, Chumley, Gleep, Massha, Ajax, Markie – they all follow the pattern of setting up a funny stereotype (Tanada is a Trollop), and then deconstucting that stereotype by making that character a ‘real’ person.

In his Phule’s Company world, the characters are as about as farcical on the surface as can be.  You have the rich Captain Jester, who’s attempts to try and save the world are confounded by the fact that he just tries too hard. Mother, the communications expert who can’t talk in the physical presence of anyone else. Chocolate Harry, the tough rocket-biker who constantly cuts black market deals to get supplies.

Like Myth Adventures, the characters in Phule’s Company are not only carefully fleshed out into real people beneath their stereotypes, but the way that Phule works with each of them to take advantage of their talents, and to make them work as a team to overcome their “disabilities” is both funny and deeply heartwarming.

Especially for those of us who manage people or are put into leader roles, it’s like a romantic comedy of leadership.  A little silly, not real in the way an instruction book would be, but real in that you can feel how the relationship Jester has with his people connects with the relationships of people you work with.

Plus the plot has good old fashioned mystery, capers, and that delight when a dozen loose ends all tie up together in the end in a hilarious way.

Linguistic Capers with Harry Harrison

Next on the list is Harry Harrison, an author who has a pretty diverse set of works – his West of Eden series makes my “Recommended with Reservations” list.  His short story Make Room! Make Room! was the basis for the Charlton Heston classic Solyent Green. However, he is primarily known for the Stainless Steel Rat series, which is considerably lighter and funnier than his other works.

Like the other authors on this list, Harrison manages to expertly balance humor and darkness.  For example, “Slippery Jim” diGriz, the eponymous Rat, falls in love with a psychopath, and only after capturing her is she reformed with sci-fi technology so that they can be together.

While later works in the series feel a lot like a sci-fi combination of LeverageOcean’s 11 and The A-Team, the early stories paint a vivid picture of what it takes to be a criminal in the future, where technology has rendered crime obsolete.  Like anime hero “Lupin III”, Slippery Jim is a lovable thief, who uses his talents, willingly or not, for the betterment of the galaxy.

His family, including wife Angelina, and sons James and Bolivar, are solid characters, and although they never get expanded into really deep characters, they are fond friends to readers especially upon repeated readings.

The relationships, capers, and the humor stand up well to repeated readings, and that’s is quite a feat.

Finally, Harrison inspired me in my college years to learn Esperanto, which is used heavily throughout the SSR books.  Learning Esperanto, like all the linguistic things I did in college, expanded my appreciation of language and communication, and set me up to be able to learn both real and computer languages in a way that learning “traditional” languages would not have.

Spider Robinson’s Utopian Drunks and Whores

If you are sensing a theme here, it’s that these are all sci-fantasy books that concentrate more on what people are like in the future or an alternate reality than what technology or the world is like.  Spider Robinson is no exception.

Following in the footsteps of Heinlein, Robinson wonders what kind of world it would take to really let people get along.  His answer is twofold – a bar, and a brothel.  His main Callahan’s series focuses on the bar, while his side works, Callahan’s Lady and Lady Slings the Booze focus on the brothel.

The conceit of the stories is that Mike Callahan and his wife Lady Sally are aliens, who chose to spend their time on earth running a bar and brothel, respectively.  It sounds a bit cheesy, and it is, but in the end, it just feels sweet.

It’s hard to argue with the idea that those two places might be the settings for a pair of fantastic urban utopia – they are certainly the places that many people go to seek out happiness.  While the bar stories are good, and a little closer perhaps to “hard” sci-fi, it’s the brothel stories that really captured my imagination, and keep me reading them over and over.

They are sweetly sexy, sure, but they also create a world where needs get met, and not just sexual ones.  And the characters are delightful.  The working girls, the boy-maid, and Lady Sally herself are people you know in prostitute form.  You want to hang out in Lady Sally’s parlor, even just to swap puns with the priest.  Ah, that’s a good point – Robinson is a master punster, so if such things offend, best read elsewhere. 🙂

The books are both collections of short tales; but they read more like a season of a TV show rather than a short story collection.  The stories build and influence each other, and allow a greater variety of interactions than a time-boxed narrative would.

I think Lady Slings the Booze is the better book, but you really need to read Callahan’s Lady to get the background (and it’s also very good).

Laumer’s Satirical Knight

Keith Laumer was a U.S. Ambassador before he was a sci-fi novelist, and he doesn’t shy away from telling his “horror” stories of the diplomatic corps thinly disguised as fantastic tales.

While all the Retief novels and stories are good, his “origin story” Diplomat-At-Arms, which was published in Issac Asimov’s Cosmic Knights collection is one of those stories that just makes you giggle and dance and read it over and over.

Jaime Retief is a superhero; a diplomat who has no problem scrapping with the bad guys all over the galaxy. And while his larger-than-lifeness could get silly after a while, the fact that he has to deal with his meddling and incompetent boss constantly balances him nicely.

He feels like the Indiana Jones of diplomacy; equally at home at the negotiation table as well as leading revolutionaries to conduct a coup – especially while his boss is trying to negotiate a peace between the government and revolutionaries.

Laumer is a master, like all the authors on this list, of telling a simple human story, set in a fantastic world with heroes that struggle to do the simplest things; but manage the impossible with ease.  As some of the older works on this list, the Retief novels age a bit roughly from their early 70’s-80’s perspective, but any student of history finds this more spice than anything else.

So there you go!  Six books (actually a lot more than that, since all of these are series as well) that you should get to know!  May they become your friends too!

Sep 08

A few of my favorite things…Books!

I love recommending books to people.  Unlike films, unless there is a HUGE buzz around a book, it can be hard to really get a feel for what’s out there.

Many of my favorite books were recommended to me by friends and loved ones, so it’s only fair to share the love!

I’ve broken the lists out into “recommended”, and “recommended with reservations”, in the style of the fabulous Cook’s Illustrated (another favorite thing).

Usually, the “Reservations” are because the book is incredible, but has some component that might offend a big enough chunk of people out there that it’s worth giving you a head’s up before you grab it.  Sometimes, the “Reservations” are because there is something incredible in the book, even though it might have other serious drawbacks.

Without further ado:


1. Myth Adventures by Robert Asprin

2. The Stainless Steel Rat, by Harry Harrison

4. Lady Slings the Booze, by Spider Robinson

5. Diplomat-At-Arms, by Keith Laumer

6. Phule’s Company by Robert Asprin

7. Hellspark by Janet Kagan

8. The Eight by Katherine Neville

9. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman

10. Quarter Share, by Nathan Lowell

11. Storm Front, by Jim Butcher

12. Soulless, by Gail Carriger

Recommended with Reservations

1. Inherit the Stars, by James P. Hogan

2. Kushiel’s Dart, by Jacqueline Carey

3. The True Game, by Sherri S. Tepper

4. West of Eden, by Harry Harrison

5. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein

6. Time Enough for Love, Robert A. Heinlein

7. Furies of Calderon, by Jim Butcher

8. Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffery

Bonus! Guilty Pleasures

1. Sahara, by Clive Cussler

2. Killing Floor, by Lee Child

3. Created, the Destroyer, by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir

4. The Man Who Never Missed, by Steve Perry

5. Pawn of Prophecy, by David Eddings

6. Darkwalker on Moonshae, by Douglas Niles

7. Suite Scarlett, by Maureen Johnson

8. Castle Roogna, by Piers Anthony

9. Key of Light, by Nora Roberts

Bonus Bonus!  Technical Books

1. The Complete HyperCard Handbook, by Danny Goodman

2. Oracle: The Complete Reference, by George Koch and Kevin Loney

3. The Pragmatic Programmer, by Andrew Hunt and David Thomas

4. Coders at Work, by Peter Seibel

5. Thinking in Java, by Bruce Eckel

Short Stories

1. Diplomat-At-Arms, by Keith Laumer

2. Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry

3. Prostho Plus, by Piers Anthony

Scarred for Life Books

1. Anthonology, by Piers Anthony

2. Wizard’s First Rule, by Terry Goodkind

3. Splatterpunks: Extreme Horror, edited by Paul F. Sammon

Jul 20

Torchwood Comments + Countrycide Rant

Well, I’ve seen the first five, and have the
next two to watch tonight. “Cyberwoman” was simply brilliant. The rest
are pretty good – “Small Worlds” reminded me a lot of the best
“monster” eps of “the X-Files”.

I am very impressed with the Jack Harkness character – far more than I ever thought I would be.

The sound on the show is mind-blowing – compared to even Doctor
Who, it’s simply a wall of sound that attacks your senses in all the
right places.

I agree, Eve’s teeth are, um, “British”, and unless you have a
Madonna/David Letterman fetish, they can definitely be distracting.

Also, even though I watch a fair share of British programming,
there is at least one time per episode when I have to roll back the
video to try and parse out what Eve is saying in her Welsh accent.

I will give Torchwood massive credit for one very very important
thing – their stories, while episodic, have gone out of their way to
involve these characters specifically.
Meaning it would be a different episode if there were a different set
of protagonists, because many of the plots infringe on the PCs personal

This is one of my Holy Grails of storytelling. If you could swap
out the PCs for a different group with no noticeable changes in plot,
then you are telling a plot, and not a story (again back to the Fantasy
vs. Sci-Fi thing – much Sci-Fi is focused on the plot ideas, and no so
much on the characters – Torchwood sidesteps that trend nicely).

OK. I must now rant upon the episode
. Having seen 80% of the X-Files episodes, I can say that
this one reminded me a lot of some of the best. Up until one specific


There is a part where Tosh is being chased by the main bad guy, and
is eventually being choked by him. Gwen and Owen show up, guns drawn to
save her. And then they get stood down! They have every chance in the
world to shoot the guy who is choking their close friend, and they
don’t take it. No protestations of innocence that convince them it’s
all a mistake, nothing. I screamed at the TV for 20 minutes. Nothing
from Tosh telling them that this is the main bad guy, or anything. For
pete’s sake, they could have just shot him and his accomplice in the
leg! They submit to being frog-marched back to where they are going to
be surely eaten. WTF!?

In the end, it’s the American alien, Captain Jack that has to break
down the door with a tractor and shoot everyone! And he just wounds

There is a lot of good going for this episode, but it’s amazing to
me (good or bad, I’m not sure), that on British TV, they can show
snogging all day long, but to have a Brit use a gun to shoot a
non-monster just goes too far. Is this really how Brits are? Would
rather be eaten by cannibalistic villagers than shoot someone (even to
wound?). Shocked

And then the ending just made me ill on the character development front. Just Eww.



Jul 20

Favorite “B” Movies

1) “Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter”. Starring Horst Janson and the
delicious Caroline Munro. An enjoyable “medieval” “B” vampire

2) “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad”. Starring Tom Baker and the delicious Carline Munro. Yes, Doctor Who as an evil Arab Prince.

3) “The Gamers”, by “The Dead Gentlemen” – if nothing else, for the “I steal his pants!” scene.

4) “Kull the Conqueror” with Kevin Sorbo. Not a good film if you
treat it as mainstream cinema, but lots of fun as a “B” movie, for
Harvey Firestein if nothing else.

5) Flash Gordon (1980).  I’m a sucker for a Queen soundtrack.

6) The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (2001). It’s a homage to the B movie genre, and deliciously done. Extremely entertaining, as are the rest of the films from Larry Blamire.

What else do people like?


P.S. Captain Kronos quotes:

Carla: “I’m staying… if you’ll have me.”

Kronos: “Oh, I’ll have you.”

Dr. Marcus: “I know you’ve got guts, Kronos. I’ve seen them.”

Jul 20

Shadowmagic Review

I originally posted this review in 2007 elsewhere, but I need to get the word out here as well!

Just back from a week’s vacation . During the drive from here to
Santa Fe and back, we listened to a podcast novel by John Lenahan,
called “Shadowmagic”, which is available for free via iTunes, and

Originally written to read to his son, Shadowmagic is a light,
funny, and touching story of Irish mythology, prophecy, and teenage

To say that the story is addictive would be an serious
understatement. Each chapter is a separate audio file, and Lenahan is a
master of the cliffhanger. Not since early Doctor Who have I been so
interested to see what happens in the next chapter of a serial.

I would compare it quite favorably with Princess Bride, although it is less a love story and more a coming-of-age story.

This is not a dark, evil, story of torture, horror, or blood and
guts. No one gets lead poured down their throat (I’m looking at you
Terry Goodkind). This is a tale of melodrama, fun, and just plain good

Lenahan is a stage magician and comedian, and his stunning ability
read his story (which is in the first person) is one of the main
reasons I recommend this audiobook so highly.

Much of the mythological elements of this tale are taken directly
from Irish mythology, so little of what you hear in that vein will be
shockingly new, but it’s told in a passionate, rollicking way that puts
a new shine on old favorite themes.

Anyway, I just enjoyed it so much I had to share!

Jul 20

Double Share!

If you like audio books, then I can’t help but recommend Nathan Lowell’s fantabuolous free series over on (also available for free via iTunes).

The “Golden Age of the Solar Clipper” stories, Quarter Share, Half Share, Full Share, and the just-released Double Share, chronicle the story of young Ishmael Wang, who chooses a life of sailing the stars by necessity and finds he has quite a knack for it.

He ends up joining the equivalent of the spacefaring merchant
marine, and his adventures trading and learning about life outside of
the sheltered university enclave in which he grew up are a delightful
exploration of economics, personal relationships, learning, and what
being competent really means.

The stories are interesting, poignant, and sweet.  There is very little “action”, no fights, battles, laser swords, or aliens.

The stories are about people, and how they adapt to new situations and how certain, special people can impact the lives of a lot of others.

Much like the Heinlein and Spider Robinson stories that use Science Fiction as a tool to highlight the foibles of humanity, Lowell’s stories are set in the far future, but could really take place just about anywhere.

Lowell’s exploration of co-ed spacefarers to be in the legacy of
authors who explore not only the future of technology, but the future
of human relationships.

That said, Lowell’s sci-fi setting is far from a blase backdrop.  Lowell smartly focuses on the microcosm of a single ship for the first three stories, letting us understand the world piece by piece and the ship travels from world to world.  It’s fascinating to learn about the economics of trade and stocks through the eyes of a spacefarer.  I suspect we’ll learn more about the world in the novels to come.

There is a spin off story as well, called South Coast.  This is a different story – and not really part of the “Share” series, although it is set in the same general mileu, and expands on one of the events from the “main” series.  It’s a good story as well, although I found that it took several episodes for me to really get in to it.  It is worth it in the end, though.

I will say that the stories are not for children…I think that the subject matter would both not catch their interest, and is a little racy in parts for most children.  I think a teen might enjoy them, however.

So if you have a long drive coming up (or even just a week of commuting), I highly recommend Nathan Lowell’s work, and I hope to see him at the upcoming World Science Fiction Convention being held here in Denver!