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Small But Vital Book Reviews

Shakespeare's Insults: Educating your wit

In this book, Cynthia J. Öttchen and Wayne F. Hill have collected 308 pages of insults from Shakepeare's plays. Along with insults collected play by play, there is also a section on name calling and expletives, and a section of ready insults for particular occasions. Some of my favourites are, "You crusty botch of nature!" "Idol of idiot-worshippers!" "You speak an infinite deal of nothing!" and "O viper vile!"

Here's an excerpt from the introduction entitled "How to Handle This Book":

"People need insults. Most people behave so abominably that they cry out for abuse. Charity moves us to meet this need. Abuse is a form of attention, and a little accommodating attention makes anyone feel human again....

Shakespeare gets the last word. He marshals the robust humility that doesn't mind admitting human indignity. Indeed, he points out frailties with subtlety and power. He can lend you just the fulsome, dripping line to drop on your pretentious boss, your mother-in-law, that other driver. The most celebrated pen in the world's most widely spoken language exults in barbs. Indulge yourself. His genius sticks. This book collects the smartest stings ever to snap from the tip of an English-speaking tongue. Go practice. Begin in the mirror."

Three Men in a Boat

To say nothing of the dog!

By Jerome K. Jerome

I picked up this book from the classics section of my local bookstore because it was mentioned in Connie Willis’ excellent science fiction book To Say Nothing of the Dog. I laughed out loud through the whole first chapter, and when I had finished it, I said to myself, “Even if the rest of this book turns out to be trash, it was worth it, just for this chapter.” So you can imagine my delight when I found the second chapter just as pleasurable, and the subsequent ones as well........

One of the things that makes this book so good is the understanding, compassion and humour with which the characters’ human failings and foibles are dealt with. Jerome exposes our everyday delusions with such poignancy and wit that we can’t help laughing at ourselves. His characters are lovable and realistic, and come with a stamp of truth.

20 000 Leagues Under the Sea

by Jules Verne

Reading this was a delight. Though it was written over 100 years ago, the tale still captures the imagination with its description of the wonders of the sea and the brilliant and mysterious figure of Captain Nemo. I particularly liked the moments of humour, such as when Captain Nemo invites the professor to go shark hunting and he becomes so nervous thinking about it that he makes a freudian slip about sharks in a subsequent conversation about pearls with Ned and Conseil. Or when Ned proclaims "I like you, but not enough to eat you." after discussing the merits of cannibalism.

This is one of the earliest tales of science fiction, and Verne's extrapolation of scientific principles is astounding. The submarines we have today were inspired by this book. And like any true classic it passes the test of time with flying colours.


by Neil Gaiman

Written by author of the Sandman graphic novels and the co-author of Good Omens with Terry Pratchett this urban fantasy novel tells the story of a man named Richard who falls into the world of London Below after he helps a girl named Door who had collapsed on a sidewalk. Unable to interact with people in London Above, the normal world, he tags along with Door through many adventures. London Below is a dangerous place where urban myths and things that are ignored or lost in London Above are real. Richard is almost killed by black tendrils coming from the gap between the subway platform and the train. I found this a charming and engrossing story with an interesting speculation on the lives of homeless people, and a different perspective of the city.

Chronicles of the Lensmen Vol. 1

Triplanetary : First Lensmen : Galactic Patrol

by E.E. "Doc" Smith

A trilogy of rippin' yarns, space opera from half a century ago. Galaxies colliding, interstellar starships, space battles, intrigue, it's all here. Great stories, but the attitude towards women is decades out of date. Practically all the characters are men, and the only time women are part of the action is when they are using their charm and allure to try to get what they want, or when they are waiting for men to rescue them. Otherwise women are not mentioned at all, and are presumably taking care of the children and being good and obedient wives. It is astounding to me that one of the main characters can conquer his prejudice towards strange-looking vile- smelling aliens and consider them equals, and still have a condescending and dismissive attitude towards women. It is even more preposterous that the highly evolved intelligent species that gives certain humans a device that allows its wearer to communicate telepathically and decipher any message would refuse to give them to women on the grounds that women are unsuitable for that kind of thing, and that the device is masculine in nature and therefore exclusive to males. Another thing that annoyed me about these books is that although scientists are respected, there is very little science in the actual story. Also, escalating military action is seen as the solution to almost all problems. And so, I have a major gripe about the role that women play, the lack of science, and the glorification of militarism in these novels, but putting that aside on account of this trilogy having been written in different times, I'd have to say that I otherwise enjoyed the stories.

Lest Darkness Fall

by L. Sprague deCamp

A 20th Century archaeologist from America slips through time back to the 4thCentury AD while visiting Rome. Starting with the goal of survival, he soon makes it his mission to spread knowledge and stop the Dark Ages from falling. An enjoyable time-travel novel with a knowledgeable and clever protagonist.

Mrs. Presumed Dead

by Simon Brett

After moving into a new house, Mrs. Pargeter decides that the previous occupant must have been murdered. With the help of her late husband's, ahem, "business associates", the indomitable Mrs. Pargeter sets out to solve the case.

The humor and light tone of the story and Mrs. Pargeter's colourful personality are what I liked most about this book. The mystery is well crafted and this is a very enjoyable read.


by Elizabeth Moon ordinary day at the weather bureau...
...a man wakes up from a rejuvenation to find he has feathers...
...a Knight Templar in the American Southwest...

These stories and more await inside this collection of short stories by one of my favourite science fiction / fantasy writers. By my calculations, Phases is equally abundant in variety and imagination. My favourite story is the one in which a composer uses his music to escape from a starship.

Visit Elizabeth Moon's Homepage.

The Making of the Cretan Landscape

By Oliver Rackham and Jennifer Moody

Informative, clearly written and to the point, this is an excellent book about the geography of Crete, an island in the Mediterranean Sea. Because of my interest in the Minoan civilization that existed on Crete from about 3000 B.C.E. to 1450 B.C.E., I wanted to learn more about the locale and this is the best book I've found on the subject. Topics covered include the island's formation, its rocks, its mountains, its climate, its vegetation, its wildlife, and its domestic animals from ancient to modern times. Crete has a such wide variety of geographical features that it is almost like a miniature continent. The authors' descriptions of its coastlines, mountains, shrub lands (maquis), limestone sinkholes (karst), old gnarled olive trees and many other features painted a detailed picture in my imagination and gave me an appreciation for a land that I have never visited.


by Mike Resnick

In a future where lions and elephants have become extinct, Koriba has a vision of a utopia in which people of Kenya live like their ancestors, the Kikayu, did before their culture was corrupted by contact with Europeans. He works to achieve this by starting a colony on an artificial world called Kirinyaga where the climate and wildlife are just like Africa. As the mundumugu, or witch doctor, of Kirinyaga, Koriba holds enormous power in the community, and he uses it to maintain the Kikayu's traditions and way of life.

Reading this book, especially the stories "For I have touched the sky" and "When the old gods die," I was reminded of a Doukhobor saying that is a tenet of their belief: "The welfare of all the world is not worth the life of one child." It is the opposite view from Koriba's, for he is willing to sacrifice anything for what he believes is the wellbeing of the world, and to him that means holding onto every rule and tradition, even if it causes suffering and loss of life.

A complex look at what makes a society work and the impact of change on people's lives.

Confessions of Arsène Lupin

by Maurice Leblanc

Unlike most of the other books that I have reviewed here, you cannot get this one at, or practically anywhere else for that matter. Like most of Maurice Leblanc's books it is out-of-print, extremely hard to find and exceedingly good. I tracked down the copy I read at a university library and it was the only work of Leblanc's that they had. The original French versions are a bit easier to find but they're not exactly common. Anyway, the focus of these stories is Arsène Lupin, the infamous gentleman burglar, trickster, master-of-disguise, and sometimes detective. Mysterious elements such as secret signals and hidden treasure abound as well as brushes with the law and brushes with death. Lupin takes them all in stride and acts accordingly, which is to say honourably, heroicly, and with considerable intelligence, flair, sangfroid and luck. He is adept at manipulating events to his own advantage, and though he has suffered defeats, and stalemates, most often he is victorious. Sometimes when I am reading fiction I wonder what it would be like to meet a character. I would definitely want to meet Lupin if he existed; he would be a very interesting friend.

Check out the online copy of Arsène Lupin, Gentleman Burglar by Maurice Leblanc at The Prof Contre Arsène Lupin It's definitely worth a read.

Illegal Alien

by Robert J. Sawyer

An excellent science fiction novel that is both a first contact story and a courtroom drama. Comparing it to television, it reads like a cross between Law and Order and Earth: Final Conflict. Friendly relations are established, but are threatened when a human member of the alien entourage is killed. All evidence points to an alien named Hask. Everyone is puzzled. As the investigators piece together the truth, two important questions surface: Why would Hask kill his closest human friend? Do they dare risk antagonizing the (obviously technologically superior) aliens by finding him guilty?

A satisfying read that both mystery fans and science fiction fans will enjoy.

Robert Sawyer's homepage is extensive and has along with information on his books, some of his short stories online, as well as advice for beginning writers and various bits of commentary on the Science Fiction world.

Foundation's Friends: stories in honor of Isaac Asimov

edited by Martin H. Greenberg.

Isaac Asimov is the author that introduced me to science fiction. He is famous for his Foundation series, his robot stories, his mysteries, and his clear and easy-to-read books about science. He has written literally hundreds of books, and has a magazine named after him. This anthology of stories by authors such as Connie Willis, Mike Resnick, Robert Silverberg, Orson Scott Card, and Edward D. Hoch, was published in 1989, and celebrates 50 years of Asimov's writing career. Sadly, Isaac is no longer with us, having passed away in 1992 or 1993, but his ideas and impact on the science fiction community persist. These stories, using Asimov's ideas and characters and written in the style of the grand old man himself are very enjoyable, and a testament to his imagination and wit.

Visit Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine.


by Hideaki Sakata

This is the first origami book that I used, when I was about 4 years old, and so it has a special place in my heart. My mother and I had tried to read the diagrams in other origami books, but it was too complicated, and this is the first book that made it clear enough to understand. The book is full of colourful photographs and I had lots of fun as a kid folding a piece of paper into an inflatable balloon, a pinwheel, a bird or a flower. I still do origami and have learned to fold other, more complicated models since then, but I still consider this book to have the basic repertoire of my skill. I recommend it to anyone who wishes to learn the basics of origami.

There is a lot about origami (Japanese paper folding) on the web. A good place to start is Joseph Wu's Origami Page.

Oh My Goddess! : 1-555-Goddess

by Kosuke Fujishima

A great graphical novel, (that is to say, comic book,) about a japanese student who misdials a phone number and ends up summoning a goddess named Belldandy. This manga is a lot of fun, and it made me laugh out loud.

Roman Blood

By Steven Saylor

The most straight-forward murder mystery in Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa series of novels set in ancient Rome. In later novels, Gordianus the Finder, the protagonist and narrator of the series, becomes embroiled in the politics of the day, but in Roman Blood he has not yet acquired the dubious respectability and good reputation as a private investigator that will later acquaint him with the troubles of the rich and powerful. A man named Sextus Roscius is accused of patricide, a crime for which the punishment is severe. Cicero, the young advocate in charge of Sextus Roscius' defense, asks Gordianus to investigate the murder, with the hope of finding evidence that will establish his client's innocence. Gordianus, in his pursuit of the truth, becomes entangled in a web of tragedy and greed, lust and deceit.

Saylor makes Rome come alive with lush descriptions of her streets, markets and people. The impression given is not of some austere classical setting, but of a bustling city with dirt and sweat and life. I liked it a lot. Check out the other books in the series: Arms of Nemesis, Catalina's Riddle, The Venus Throw, A Murder on the Appian Way, and the short story collection House of the Vestals. I didn't like the newest one, Rubicon, as much as the others.

Dealing with Dragons

by Patricia Wrede

Cimorene is fed up with being a princess, so she runs away to live with a dragon. Along with fending off would-be rescuers, her daily duties of sorting treasure, polishing armour, housekeeping, cooking and cataloguing latin books keep her occupied much more happily than before. Sprinkle in some magic spells and a feud between wizards and dragons and you have an adventure in progress.

This book pokes fun at the conventions of traditional fairy tales, while delivering an entertaining adventure for readers of all ages. I gave it to my 7-year-old cousin, and she loved it. I enjoyed it tremendously and highly recommend it for some light-hearted fun.


by James Alan Gardner

Ever notice how some hapless crew member tends to die on most away missions in Star Trek, or other sci-fi tv shows? Well, what if the military (Starfleet or its equivalent) decided to create a special category for crew members it considers expendable? And to keep up morale, it would only use crew members with some sort of physical disfigurement. Presto! You've got the premise for James Alan Gardner's excellent science fiction novel, Expendable.

Gardner's hero talks with a sarcastic voice about her role in the world, and keeps a running commentary on her adventures. Whether she's dealing with translucent people, or talking about her egg collection, she adds spice to it with colourful descriptions or snide comments. It gives her a fascinating personality and I was totally drawn into the book. I really cared about what happened to her.

Highly recommended for science-fiction fans.


by Connie Willis

As Sandra Forster attempts to do research on the causes of fads, other matters occupy her time and thoughts. The progress of her work is interrupted and intertwined with a hodgepodge of events and ideas including her encounters with Flip, an incompetant and aggravating office assistant, Management sensitivity exercises and acronyms, 22 page forms for requesting paper clips and assorted paperwork, the circumstances of scientific breakthroughs, trends in personal ads, a chance meeting with a chaos theory researcher, the Pied Piper, library books, Targees and iced tea.

Fun, informative, with moments that are at once amusing, satirical, and true-to-life, this book shows why Connie Willis has won numerous Hugo and Nebula awards for her writing. Almost as interesting as the story are the descriptions of fads, one at the beginning of each chapter. Ranging from hula hoops to diorama wigs to marathon dancing to prohibition they add punctuation and flavour to the story. This is excellent and entertaining science fiction and I highly recommend it.

About my book reviews

I review mostly books that I like, because I don't want to give books that I think are rotten more attention than they deserve. Also, I tend to read book reviews because I want to find interesting books to read, and so in writing book reviews I want to share my views on interesting books I have read.

Some of the titles are linked to and if you buy a book after following my link, I get a 15% commission. I haven't received any money from this yet, but the future may yet bring mountains of cash from this source. Or not, but it's nice to daydream. I wouldn't link to if I didn't think it was useful, and there is all sorts of relevant information on their pages such as the publisher and ISBN number of the book, reviews from other readers, and even the occasional interview with an author. is not the only company to sell books online, however. I personally like to buy books from Future Fantasy, an independent bookstore in California. They have a good selection of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Mystery books, their service is good and the shipping costs are cheaper than at, at least in my experience.

Montreal's Nebula books is another online bookstore I have used, and their service was good too.

For origami books, go to the Japanese Paper Place website.

And there are many books whose copyright has expired that have been put online. The Online Books Page has a comprehensive list.

Support your local bookstore! Use your public library! Borrow books from your friends! You don't have to use the internet! There's other ways you can READ READ READ!

Ahem. Just a reminder. ;)

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