Tag Archives: book review

Raising Steam… a book by Terry Pratchett

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Raising Steam 
by Terry Pratchett

5951153 *****

Michael Beyer‘s review

Jul 12, 2017  
Iwas amazing!


Terry Pratchett is always a good choice if you like laughs, thrills, and satire. Raising Steam does not disappoint. It uses familiar characters like Moist Von Lipwig from Going Postal and Commander Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork city watch along with new characters like the engineer Dick Simnel and the goblin Of The Twilight The Darkness (Yes, they like you to use the whole name).

The plot centers around the introduction of steam-powered railroads to the Discworld (the fantasy-world satire series that made Pratchett both a famous best-selling author, and a knight) and a schism between the dwarves who love the old ways of the deep, dark mines and the dwarves who love the new ways of living above ground in the light.

The usual mix of plot complications and themes of science versus magic are thrown about like fireballs to keep the story interesting, and one dark and foggy night aboard the train on a rickety bridge with the deposed king of the dwarves on board headed back to his kingdom sums up the sheer magic of Terry Pratchett’s gift for story-telling.

I recommend this book with six thumbs up… except I wasn’t supposed to reveal the existence of my extra arms.

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Books are Life, and Life is Books

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I just finished reading David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, his novel from 2014.  Just, WOW!  I guess this post is technically a book review… but not really.  I have to talk about so much more than just the book.

You can see in my initial illustration that I read this book to pieces.  Literally.  (And I was an English Major in college, so I LITERALLY know what literally means!)

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Look at this face.  Can you stop looking at the beautiful eyes?  I can’t.

I discovered Mitchell as a writer when I happened onto the book and movie pair of Cloud Atlas.  It enthralled me.  I read the book, a complex fantasy about time and connections, about as deeply and intricately as any book that I have ever read.  I fell in love.  It was a love as deep and wide as my love of Dickens or my love of Twain… even my love of Terry Pratchett.

It is like the picture on the left.  I can’t stop looking into it and seeing more and more.  It is plotted and put together like a finely crafted jeweled timepiece.

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And this new book is almost exactly like that.  It is a first- person narrative in six parts with five different narrators.  Holly Sykes, the central character, is the narrator of the first and last parts, in the past in the 1980’s, and in the future in 2043.  The titular metaphor of the bone clocks is about the human body and how it measures time from youth to old age.  And it is pictured as a clock ticking in practically all it’s forms, from a child who is snuffed out at eight years of age to horologists who have lived for a thousand years by being reincarnated with past lives intact.

Fantasy and photographic realism intertwine and filigree this book like a vast kaleidoscope of many colors, peoples, societies, and places.  At one point David Mitchell even inserts himself into the narrative cleverly as the narrator of part four, Crispin Hershey, the popular English novelist struggling to stay on top of the literary world.  He even indulges every writer’s fantasy and murders himself in the course of the story.

David Mitchell is the reason I have to read voraciously and write endlessly.  His works seem to contain an entire universe of ideas and portraits and events and predictions and wisdoms. And he clearly shows me that his universe is not the only one that needs to be written before the world ends.  Books are life, and life is in books.  And when the world as we know it is indeed gone, then they will be the most important thing we ever did.  Even if no one is left to read them.

And so, I read this book until it fell into pieces, its spine broken and its back cover lost.  To be fair, I bought it at a used book store, and the paperback copy was obviously read by previous owners cover to cover.  The pages were already dog eared with some pages having their corners turned down to show where someone left off and picked up reading before me.  But that, too, is significant.  I am not the only one who devoured this book and its life-sustaining stories.  Know that, if you do decide to read and love this book, you are definitely not the only one.  I’d lend you my copy.  But… well, it’s already in pieces.

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Love Stories With Clowns and Elephants

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Yes, this essay is supposed to be a book review of Sara Gruen’s lovely, enthralling circus story Water for Elephants.  But you know me.  My writing gets overwhelmed and filigreed by my obsessive urge to dive into the ocean of things that excite me to purple paisley prose.

It is a fascinating love story involving a depression-era travelling train circus, a young man who suddenly finds himself a penniless orphan days before he can complete his degree in veterinary medicine, an elephant, a beautiful horse-riding show girl and circus star, and her cruel but charming ring master husband.

I don’t think I am spoiling anything by telling you that Jacob Jankowski, the main character of the tale falls in love with both the beautiful Marlena and an apparently untrainable elephant named Rosie.  And I also shouldn’t actually be ruining the ending by telling you that the murderer who ends the story is revealed in the opening pages, but is still a surprise when masterful story-teller Sara Gruen re-reveals the murder at the end.  This is a plot-driven novel that completely catches you up in a doomed relationship, a complicated romance, and an artfully re-created world of depression-era train circuses that ranks right up there with Cecil B. DeMille’s movie spectacular The Greatest Show on Earth.

Yes, I had to equate this book with an old 1950’s movie that I love because of the similarities of plot and spectacle.  Both the movie and the book have a faithful clown friend who lives a tragic life.  Both Buttons the clown, played by Jimmy Stewart in the movie, and Kinko the clown, the dwarf Walter in the book whose only friend is Queenie the dog before he gets involved in the main character’s problems, play a crucial role as a supporting character.  There is a romantic triangle in each.  Jacob, Marlena, and Marlena’s husband August in the book mirror the complex relationship between the circus runner Brad Braden, his girlfriend the trapeze star, Holly, and the circus’s newest trapeze star, the Great Sebastian in the movie.  And in each story there is a huge disaster that threatens the existence of the circus.  But I am in no way suggesting that one is merely a copy of the other.  Each story is unique and enthralling in a thousand different ways.  They are two entirely different stories told by two different master story-tellers that happen to be built on the same basic framework.  And both of those things teach you a great wealth of carefully researched details about the magical world of real travelling circuses.

Oh, yes… And I forgot to mention, the book Water for Elephants was made into a movie in 2011.

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Where I’d Like to Be (a book by Frances O’Roark Dowell)

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This book made me cry. And that is not unusual, even though I am a 60-year-old man. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens made me cry. At the end, not during the funny parts. But this was a book about a lonely eleven-year-old girl trying to make friends. Why should that make me cry?
But it is also a bittersweet tale of memorable child characters who have nowhere left to turn but each other, and their imaginations. The poetic sting of it can make a grown man cry. You should read it. You will understand then.

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Holy Bagumba!

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I have just finished reading a wonderful book.  It is a young adult novel bordering on being a children’s book.  It won the 2014 Newbery Medal for best work of children’s literature.  But it is a book of so many dimensions that it totally defies categories.  Librarians with butterfly nets who want to pin this book down on their library shelves will be pointlessly waving their nets at it like they believe it’s a butterfly, but it will soar away from them like an eagle.

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Flora & Ulysses (the Illuminated Adventures) is a combination book of many different things.  G. K. Cambell’s cartoony paffoonies add to and amplify the story to the point that sometimes it becomes a graphic novel.

Flora herself is a comic-book lover and follower of the adventures of a comic-book superhero named Incandesto.  Ulysses the squirrel is run over by a rogue vacuum cleaner and the accident graces him with super powers (the ability to fly and throw cats and write poetry).  And Flora rescues and befriends this newly minted superhero and sets him on a path that pits him against the only super-villain available, Flora’s own mother.

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At certain points, through metaphor, elegance, and supreme focus, the story itself becomes poetry.  But, of course, when the poem ends with a line about the squirrel being hungry, it becomes humorous poetry, simply by the juxtaposition of the sublime with the ridiculous.

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As a writer, Kate DiCamillo is a master of everything I want to be.  She is as much a masterful story-teller as Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, or William Faulkner.  But many people will be put off by the fact that she is a children’s author.  They will ignore her stories because how could a children’s author affect their lives in any way?  But if you are a reader who can think and feel about things in a book, she will make you laugh and make you cry and make you not afraid to die… for love of a good book.

Let me also suggest a few of her other wonderful, wonderful books;

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Tom Sawyer Abroad (Book Review)

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Yep, I read about being an “erronort” traveling in a balloon while sitting in a parking lot in my car.

Believe it or not, I read this entire 100+year-old book in my car while waiting for my daughter and my son in school parking lots.  What a perfectly ironic way to read a soaring imaginary adventure written by Mark Twain and mostly forgotten about by the American reading public.

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My copy of this old book is a 1965 edition published for school libraries of a book written in 1894.  It tells the story of how Tom and Huck and Jim steal a ride on a balloon at a town fair from a somewhat mentally unhinged professor of aeronautical science.  The balloon, which has space-age travel capabilities due to the professor’s insane genius, takes them on an accidental voyage to Africa.

Of course, the insane professor intends to kill them all, because that’s what insane geniuses do after they prove how genius-y they really are.  But as he tries to throw Tom into the Atlantic, he only manages to plunge himself through the sky and down to an unseen fate.  The result being a great adventure for the three friends in the sands of the Sahara.  They face man-eating lions, mummy-making sandstorms, and a chance to land on the head of the Sphinx.

The entire purpose of this book is to demonstrate Twain’s ability to be a satirical stretcher of the truth, telling jokes and lies through the unreliable narrator’s voice of Huck Finn.

Here is a quoted passage from the book to fill up this review with words and maybe explain just a bit what Twain is really doing with this book;

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Notice how I doubled my word count there without typing any of the words myself?  Isn’t the modern age wonderful?

But there you have it.  This book is about escaping every-day newspaper worries.  In a time of Presidential Candidate Donald Trump, global warming, and renewed threats of thermonuclear boo-boos with Russia, this proved to be the perfect book to float away with on an imaginary balloon to Africa.  And the book ends in a flash when Aunt Polly back in Hannibal wants Tom back in time for breakfast.  I really needed to read this book when I picked it up to read it.

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Benjamin Franklin (a book review)

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I admit to loving dry old history books that most of my contemporaries would wrinkle their noses at and loudly proclaim, “It’s BORING!!!”  But I don’t think the fact that I really really loved this book automatically means that you will detest it.  So bear with me and let me tell you about a book about a historically important and thoroughly fascinating man.

Edmund Morgan is a scholar who believes in using primary source material, and Franklin, as a printer, writer, statesman, scientist, and very sociable letter-writing man left a vast wealth of primary source materials behind to help us understand what was in his mind as he performed some of the most essential services ever given to a country as the United States was being formed.

The book makes us very aware that if history had followed Franklin’s every desire for specific outcomes, we would still be part of the British Empire.  But Franklin was unique among the founding fathers.  He did not serve his own ambitions the way John Adams did.  He did not serve strictly ideological goals like Thomas Jefferson often did.  But his input and pragmatism were essential to helping those two men  create the Declaration of Independence.

He believed in public service as a higher goal.  He carried out not his own will, but the will of the people evident in the debates about where the country needed to go when the government of the British King and Parliament became increasingly unresponsive to the needs and issues of the American colonies.

This was akin to the way he approached science.  He was able to discover enough scientific facts through careful and clever experiments to create practical and life-saving inventions like the Franklin stove and lightning rods.  He led the field for a time in the investigation and understanding of electricity, and the old story of flying a kite in a thunderstorm is not a myth.  It was an actual experiment using what Franklin had discovered about electrical conductivity and insulation to prove that lightning was made up of electrical energy.  Edison and Tesla might never have started if Franklin had not come first.  He never defended, argued, or explained his scientific theories.  He believed in letting experimental evidence speak for itself.  Basically, he became a world-famous scientist by not seeking fame.

Franklin loved to be with people of all kinds, especially intelligent people and female people.  He was a good friend to many, and even maintained respectful friendships with some who chose to be on the other side of the American independence question.  His work on the Pennsylvania constitution, being ambassador to France, and his part in the peace treaty negotiations with England made him as essential to the American experiment as any of the founding fathers who would later take a turn at being president.

All I can really say about this excellent book is that it helps you get to know the man who was Ben Franklin.  And this is a man that most people are bound to love, and every man should know.

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