Callahan’s Crazy Crosstime Bar

By Spider Robinson

Rating: 5 stars

Even if I didn’t love puns, this would be a clear 4-4.5 star book. This book is compassionate and sweet and I want to hug every character in it. The puns are just the icing on the cake for me. I picked it up at this year’s Eastercon, after chatting to someone at the second hand book stall, and mentioning that I’d never read any Spider Robinson. I can’t remember who recommended this to me, but I’d like to shake them warmly by the hand.

The book is a collection of short stories, all set at Callahan’s Place, a bar where the regulars all have something in common: they go out of their way to help anyone who comes in and asks. They help them work out their problems and make them better people, whether they’re aliens, time travellers (the slow way or the fast way), telepaths or just plain people, hurting and in need of someone to listen.

It’s a life-affirming book, whose last story neatly ties back to the first, bringing the story full circle. There are several more books featuring Mike Callahan (and a couple featuring his wife, Lady Sally). After having had my first taste of Robinson be this good, I will certainly not hesitate to buy anything else of his that I see.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099600602
Publisher: Legend / Arrow
Year of publication: 1989

Agatha Heterodyne and the Heirs of the Storm (Girl Genius, #9)

By Phil Foglio

Rating: 4 stars

Volume nine of Agatha Heterodyne’s exciting adventures see her ensconced in her family seat: Castle Heterodyne. The castle turns out to be a sentient fortress, albeit one that is badly damaged and whose consciousness is fragmented and which is a death trap. Complicating matters are Agatha’s friends who have come in to help her, but who she sees as a burden that she must protect, and her enemies, also in the castle, trying to destroy it. And it doesn’t help that even the bits of the castle that acknowledge her are becoming increasingly erratic.

The story in this ongoing webcomic is becoming ever more complex, and catching up in the hard copy volumes makes it much easier to track what’s going on, and who the various characters are. The love triangle between Agatha, Gil and Tarvek deepens and is becoming more interesting as it goes on, with Agatha being continually embarrassed both by the gentlemen in question, and by the bystanders who Assume Too Much.

My favourite new character, though, is the Castle. Castle Heterodyne is an ancient, somewhat deranged personality with the most awesomely perverse sense of humour. Every time it speaks (possibly with Christopher Lee’s voice), it dominates, even without the physical presence of its many torture machines, death traps and gizmos.

The only thing missing from this volume (as Kaja Foglio acknowledges at the end of the book) are the Jägermonsters, but we do at least get some short strips (and lovely full page art) featuring them at the back.

Book details

ISBN: 9781890856526
Publisher: Diamond Comic Distributors
Year of publication: 2010

Agatha Heterodyne and the Chapel of Bones (Girl Genius, #8)

By Phil Foglio

Rating: 4 stars

In volume 8 of Agatha Heterodyne’s exciting adventures, Agatha is back in her family seat of Mechanicsberg but to hold it, she’ll need the help of the (sentient) castle, which means getting inside it and repairing it, while dealing with the fractured mind that mostly wants to kill things. Meanwhile, Gil Wulfenbach has to hold the rest of the town together, and fend off his father, long enough to let her do her work.

Fun, quick to read and so much more coherent to those with a short memory than a page three times a week. The love triangle between Agatha, Gil and Tarvek is starting to come to the fore, and it’s both hilarious and sweet. The art continues to be lovely and the story is engaging and highly entertaining. What’s not to like?

Book details

ISBN: 9781890856472
Publisher: Airship Entertainment
Year of publication: 2009

Agatha Heterodyne and the Voice of the Castle (Girl Genius, #7)

By Phil Foglio

Rating: 4 stars

Volume 7 of the hard copy of the Girl Genius webcomic sees Agatha Heterodyne recovering her mind from the Other (aka her mother) and making her way to her family’s town of Mechanicsburg to claim her seat and her castle. However, she’s not the first into the castle, as a fake Heterodyne gets in before her, with malicious intent.

It’s been a while since I’ve read one of these graphic novels and they’re awfully good fun. Following the story is so much easier this way, rather than getting three pages a week. The art is still awesome (and I loved the shout-outs to other webcomics on a lovely two-page spread near the start) and suits the steampunk subject beautifully.

Book details

ISBN: 9781890856458
Publisher: Studio Foglio
Year of publication: 2001

To Hold Infinity

By John Meaney

Rating: 4 stars

I’d never read John Meaney until he was guest of honour at Satellite 4 (the 2014 Eastercon), where I attended a few panels/talks/interview that he did and was very impressed with the man. I found several of his books, including this one (which he very kindly signed for me in the bar, later), cheap in the dealers’ room and it was the first out of the (newly enlarged) book pile after the con.

This was quite a fun space opera, with interesting stuff about transhumanism and what augmentation means, especially if it can be applied to a society unequally. Tetsuo Sunadomari is an immigrant to the planet Fulgar from Earth, and is struggling to keep up with the cybernetically enhanced upper class of the world, the Luculentae. He discovers something that he doesn’t quite understand and suddenly finds himself on the run, into the unterraformed wastes of the planet, accused of murder. Meanwhile, his mother, Yoshiko, is coming to Fulgar to try and meet her son, while still grieving over the death of her husband. She gets thrown into the search for her son, as well as local politics and a plot that could affect Fulgar society forever.

That plot summary barely covers the bones of the book. Yoshiko is a great protagonist — much moreso, in my opinion, than her son — and it’s rare these days to find an older woman to be the focus of a book in this way. She’s also interesting for her effect on other people, the ability to get people working with her and on her side, but without manipulating them in any way.

The technology of the Luculentae is interesting, as they implant neural connections to their world-wide information network (the ‘Skein’), but the focus is on what this means for the human condition, and the sharp divide between the upper-class Luculentae, who have access to this technology, and the rest of the inhabitants. The way that this elite can communicate, sharing not just text and voice, but building multimedia messages in the most basic sense of the word: messages that include senses of smell, touch and taste as much as sight and sound.

In the midst of all this, there is Yoshiko, trying to understand this world she’s fallen into while also trying to find out what happened to her son, and dodge the maniacal serial killer who is currently stalking Luculentae society.

A very strong first novel, and I look forward to reading the other Meaney books that I picked up at the same time.

Book details

ISBN: 9781591024897
Publisher: Pyr
Year of publication: 1998

Gorel and the Pot-Bellied God

By Lavie Tidhar

Rating: 3 stars

I’ve encountered Gorel before in audio form (Buried Eyes, on the audio fiction podcast Podcastle) and I’ve been wanting to read more Lavie Tidhar, but despite its short length, I did keep getting somewhat confused and lost in this novella. I still have no real idea of what was going on, but this does feel like a component in a larger story. Perhaps with more knowledge of the character and setting, it would work better.

Book details

ISBN: 9781848631588
Publisher: PS Publishing
Year of publication: 2011

Tales From The White Hart

By Arthur C. Clarke

Rating: 5 stars

Although a fan of Arthur C. Clarke, I’d never heard of this collection before reading Charles Stross’s short story A Bird in the Hand on his blog (well worth reading itself), which was written in homage to ‘Tales from the White Hart’. I’ve encountered a few of the stories before in other collections, but never as a set, and I must say that I really enjoyed them.

The humour in these tall tales and shaggy dog stories is evident right from the word go, many of them are build-ups to a single pun delivered in the last line (and as someone who loves puns, I heartily approve) and even where it’s not, there’s always a good end to the story. The conceit is that Clarke himself is recording these stories, told by Harry Purvis, at a pub in London that was a mix of writers, editors and scientists (primarily physicists and engineers).

Amongst the humour, there’s place for some genuinely touching stories, with ‘The Man Who Ploughed the Sea’ being a great story of a rich man who’s running out of time, and all he wants is a yacht. ‘The Reluctant Orchid’ is genuinely creepy right up until the point it switches and baits and becomes hilarious, while ‘The Defenestration of Ermintrude Inch’ is just good old fashioned farce.

Much like Spider Robinson’s ‘Callahan’s’, the ‘White Hart’ never existed, but if it did, it’s a place I’d love to stop for a drink some time.

Book details

ISBN: 9780283979101
Publisher: Sidgwick & Jackson
Year of publication: 1957

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