Book Review: The Grim Company

The Grim Company by Luke Scull

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

What do you get when you cross an aging Northern barbarian trying his best to become a better man, a narcissistic youth with incredible hand-to-hand combat skill convinced of his own importance by a Truman Show caliber lifetime of lies spun by meddling wizards, and a treasonous, jeering cripple with connections to upper government in a crapsack medieval dystopia where a cabal of immortal wizards are perpetually warring for control of the realm?

The First Law, by Joe Abercrombie.

What do you get if you took exactly that, leeched it of all charm and believable dialogue, and cranked the rape dial up to 11?

Ah, now we get to the Grim Company.

I gave it two stars because the writing was sufficiently skillful that I finished the book, but Joe Abercrombie is one of my favorite authors. Even bland First Law fanfiction holds my interest, apparently.

Salazar, obviously, is Bayaz, though more openly fascist. Cole is Jezal, but with constant ridiculous Three Stooges sound effects playing whenever he falls into pig shit or steps on a rake, which is constantly and tactlessly. The barbarian whose name was almost Cole, I don’t remember it, Cohn or something, he was the Dogman, but if the Dogman were Logen instead. The personality was stolen from the Dogman and pasted into Logen’s backstory.

The barbarian’s friend, “The Wolf”, that was Sandor Clegane, the Hound. Woop, left field! Yeah, he’s foul-mouthed, perpetually snarling at everyone around him, miserable, even down to the point where he was covered in burns. It’s that opaque. He was also closet-gay coded and in love with the Dogman character; this was evinced by his being the only character in the rapey grimdark fantasy novel to ever drop the f-slur.

Now, interestingly enough, the Fenris the Feared character, the unstoppable giant in the magic armor, he was swapped out for Gregor Clegane, so he could threaten rape more frequently. This character gouges out the eyes of someone who almost defeats him, just like in that episode of Game of Thrones. He is eventually defeated by the Hound character, also just like in Game of Thrones, though they are not siblings so it doesn’t make for much of a payoff in this. Not that Cleganebowl did in Game of Thrones, either, but that’s another rant for a harsher review that GRRM will get if he ever writes again.

What other baldfaced plagiarism sticks out, let’s see. Oh! The callow manservant/apprentice who travels with the party and hides a dark, sinister secret, the suggestion that he is something more than human and everyone can kind of tell but no one is certain until the big reveal? That’s Malacus Quai. He’s called Isaac in this one, and he’s an alien instead of an Eater. Great.

I’m not sure who Sasha was ripped off from, probably Ardee West, but she didn’t have much of a personality to speak of anyway. She mostly existed to give Cole something to pine after (almost characterization), and to keep the lingering threat of a rape scene constant throughout the book.

Charmless. Gormless. Shameless. And not the good kind of the shameless, where you push the envelope and inspire others to try new things. The kind where you keep stilting situations so your most annoying protagonist gets cock-and-ball-tortured by beautiful women. “Ah, no, mistress, please stop.”

I wouldn’t be this cruel if it weren’t for the dialogue, but holy shit, it’s like he’s never heard a human being talk before. You know what it is? Anime. The dialogue is written like anime. The one character calls the other a bitch or something like that, and she responds with verbatim, “Thanks for the compliment”. I remember the episode of Pokemon where Misty said that, dude. You can just have them say “thanks”. The ‘for the compliment’ part is implied.

I talked myself out of two stars, working my way through this review. One star. It was bad. It was a pale and insulting imitation of one of the greatest fantasy works of our time. I know what Picasso said about good artists borrowing and great artists stealing, but he never really clarified what bad artists do. This, I guess.

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Book Review: Becoming Wild

Becoming Wild: How Animals Learn Who They Are by Carl Safina

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A thoughtful book that, by suggesting that animals are more human than we think, actually winds up reinforcing the truism that you and me, baby, we ain’t nothing but mammals.

We think of “higher emotions” like altruism, familial bonding, and whole-ass Romanticist love as hallmarks of mankind alone, but the fact of the matter is our only monopolies are on pollution and pants.

In the first part of the book, Safina talks about his adventures with a bunch of vegetarian sperm whale researchers and the connections that they formed with the whales. They tagged and recognized the whales, but what’s difficult to conceive of is these 50 foot sea monsters started recognizing them. Eye contact. You’ve looked into the eyes of a dog or cat and you’ve known when it registers, “Hey, I know that guy”. You know the oxytocin is rattling around in those furry, cavernous heads. Consider that same social connection with a 90,000 lb cetacean, because they do recognize you. And if they recognize and socially categorize something as petty and insignificant as a human being, an inconsequential speck trapped in the flat plane of their sky like the Phantom Zone from Superman 3, you can be damn sure they recognize the families they travel, bond, sing, and play with for their 70 year lifespans. Assuming we don’t stab them to death for oil or ambergris in the interim.

Most of this chunk of the book was dedicated to analysis of the whale’s songs, and the cultural mores that develop within them. Different pods of whales have different communication tags for opening and closing their conversations. The examples given from the two groups Safina tagged along to study was a “one, two, cha-cha-cha” clicking, versus a longer “one, two, three, four, five” clicking that designated to the whales where the speaker was from.

“Hey, I’m originally from Scranton. Yeah, where they filmed the Office.”

Whales are doing that.

Their songs are unfathomably loud, traveling for miles, but due to the lives they live if a family member is within 5 miles or so they’re “travelling together”. They protect each other, rush to one another’s aid. They celebrate when reunited after a long time apart. There was a haunting example of a mother who lost calf (to humans, of course), and she pushed the corpse along the surface, through human travel routes, for 14 days.

Sounds like mourning to me.

The next segment of the book was devoted to beauty as a philosophical concept, and the interplay between sexually selected traits to increase reproductive success in other animals (exemplified by macaws, but also by flowers, butterflies, peacocks, etc.) and the weird fact that we also find them beautiful, though not sexually so unless cartoon-exposure imprinting and garden variety childhood trauma badly crossed our wires. Safina waxes philosophical with a beauty for beauty’s sake perspective. I can’t disagree, if only beauty weren’t so damn subjective, but I’m also not an evolutionary biologist or an ecologist nature writer. At best, I’m a boneshaker, and Jungianism can justify just about any philosophy.

It also explores avian intelligence, which is staggering. We all know crows remember people and bring shiny manmade gifts to humans who were kind to them. I didn’t know they understand fluid dynamics and will put objects into a graduated cylinder to displace water until they can grab the food floating on the surface. I didn’t know wild crows design and use hooked tools, which is so advanced that most primates haven’t figured out yet. I certainly didn’t know parrots could be taught geometry, but that’s exactly what they did in the book; the parrots memorized and could distinguish between shapes, and when parts of the shapes were covered, they could still correctly identify them based on the angle they could see. That’s extrapolation.

Part three was an exploration of chimp culture, and their proclivity for warfare despite their preference for peace. Their leadership styles, their predilection for male vanity, their premeditated murder and infanticide, and a whole bunch of other distinctly evil traits that only show up among one other species that we know of. Go on, guess.

There are many books that examine chimp social dynamics in greater detail, so I won’t pull that apart too much here. Suffice it to say, the message at the end was that these animals, who we generally don’t think of as all that intelligent, are just like us, and we’re just like them. No higher, no lower. No tip of the hierarchy. If chimps were around at the same time as proto-hominids, and they got to spears first, it would probably be Planet of the Apes right now.

The take-home is we’re not special, and somehow, that’s reassuring.

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Book Review: Hannibal Rising

Hannibal Rising by Thomas Harris

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Here’s the thing. Lemme tell you the thing.

As a generic action/thriller, it was fine. It served its purpose. The bad guys are Nazi looters, the protagonist is a traumatized war orphan who lost his aristocratic family’s vast estate and became a self-made doctor after a youth punctuated by radical violence characterized by “standing up to bullies” by stabbing them sometimes. Essentially the plot of Harry Potter, but it’s tried and true, and it serves its purpose adequately.

It has nothing to do with Hannibal Lecter.

The orphan protagonist is painted as righteous and heroic through the entire novel, which is not something you can do for the AFI’s number one villain of all time. He is a sadist who eats people to show his contempt for them. Even if you can relate, you’re not relating on a heroic framework.

Even more jarring was how the secondary characters kept making reference to how Hannibal is now “a monster” and how “nothing like him has ever happened before”. Why, because he decapitated a war criminal butcher who degraded his Oedipal geisha aunt? Because he avenged his dead family? Or because he’s good at math?

The character in Hannibal Rising didn’t do anything particularly out of the ordinary, certainly nothing to validate the doomsaying of all these layman personality diviners. He killed people who desperately needed killing, and barely ate any of them. He was an adept liar and left no evidence. That’s not a one-of-a-kind indefinable murder god, that’s a juvenile delinquent with an IQ better than 100.

But, Harris was backed into a corner on this. He didn’t want to write it. He knew he no longer had the chops to write it. But the studio said, “either you write his backstory, or someone else will”, and Harris didn’t want to see his best character burned down by someone else. Instead, he became his very own arsonist.

The worst Hannibal book. Pretend it’s not about Hannibal, and it’s a decent read.

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Book Review: Born to Run

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fun book about the mentally defectives who think running 100 miles through the desert is a good time.

McDougall is a big, affable, somewhat self-effacing dude who sucks at running. He wants to get better at running now that he’s approaching middle age, so he tracks down an insane ex-boxer named Caballo Blanco (white horse) who stalks around the Copper Canyon down in Mexico, living near (though not quite with) an indigenous tribe of reclusive ultrarunners called the Tarahumara.

The book is equal parts biomechanical investigation of running, exploration of Tarahumara culture as seen by a sequence of unhinged gringos, and memoir of a decidedly unpleasant race through secluded badlands in Chihuahua.

Sadly, it coincides with my whole evolutionarily guided return-to-nature vibe (lovingly referred to as “my ungabunga bullshit”) and now I’m investigating minimalist sandals or those stupid little foot gloves so I can emulate barefoot running in Philadelphia without turning my heels into pincushions for discarded heroin needles and broken bottles of Yangler.

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Book Review: Exercised

Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding by Daniel E. Lieberman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Let me begin this by dropping some quotes from the group chat where I was bitching about how much I hated the author:

“Um well ACTUALLY hunter gatherers aren’t that much more fit than modern westerners bc they don’t even like running or training and they only run 50 miles a day once in a while so basically what you’re doing is wet, grotesque nasal snivel really normal and okay”

And he keeps dropping in anecdotes about his life as all these pop sci guys do. The intro was how he was in Hawaii to watch the iron man triathlon and he was gloating about how he got to go back to his hotel and have tropical breakfast while the competitors were doing the 112 mile bike ride

Now he’s on the strength chapter talking about how he lifted for six months and “hated it, the gym was a joyless dungeon and nobody seemed to be having a good time”

We get it, professor. You’re an honorless geek.

Trying to refute the canon that humans have been social sleepers throughout history and didn’t start doing this “one to a room” shit until the past couple centuries by saying “well I’M conditioned to ONLY want to sleep with my WIFE who’s a GIRL (yes she smokes weed)”

“And when the other anthropologists on the safari all slept in the same bed I CHOSE to sleep on the floor”

“I never thought of classifying boxing as a sport because I never thought of it as a sport”. You guys wanna road trip to Massachusetts and jump this dude real quick? We can find him at Harvard, he name-dropped it 12 times so far.

Now that we’re through that, I remember why I put off reviewing this book for so long.

The science was good. Exhaustively researched, well-designed, cited appropriately. The author of the book is a dweeb-ass coward, and I cannot conceive of why they would choose an audiobook narrator with a lisp. I had no choice but to give it two stars because there was nothing wrong with the information, per se, and I did learn some things. Gorillas have a 40 lb colon to extract all the nutrients from their herbivorous diet, which is why they got big ol’ guts and don’t move around too much. Nature’s natty vegan powerlifters.

My issue, aside from a disgust that borders on the innate arachnid reflex, is that Lieberman’s a poisoner. He’s using these exercise studies and vague interpretations of the anthropological record to encourage us to be callow and lazy, and to accept these obvious personal failings in ourselves as “not our fault” and “the result of an evolutionary imperative” because our squishy machinery is designed to minimize effort and, in so doing, minimize caloric expenditure.

Which would be just peachy, if there were any value in convincing people to accept their lack of willpower and fallacious appeal-to-nature lethargy in the midst of the greatest obesity epidemic humankind has ever seen.

But since a third of American children are overweight or obese, and a sixth have diabetes or prediabetes, maybe gently whispering “Shhh, you’re fine just the way you are because of evolution :)” is not only unhelpful, but actively harmful.

It is bad to be lazy. I encourage you to feel bad about it, then take steps to correct it. Our closest primate relatives throw shit around a lot, and an argument can be made that we are evolutionarily predisposed to that, especially with the layout of our pectoral/deltoid throwing muscles. So imagine an evolutionary biologist tells you that it’s totally normal to want to throw shit at everyone at your little cousin’s quinceanera. How you gonna feel about that? How’s she gonna feel about that?

Probably bad.

Like this book. And I was especially disappointed because all the topics covered in the book were pertinent to my interests. I would’ve loved to love it, but the author and the speech impediment of his mouthpiece made it impossible.

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Book Review: Low Town

Low Town by Daniel Polansky

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had a great time. I’m surprised this book is getting panned as much as it is. It’s got Scudder’s hardboiled detachment, but dropped into an Abercrombian grimdark world (you hear that, Joey? I made it an adjective! The big time at last!)

The Warden stalks around a crapsack medieval slum brooding about child murders and beating the hell out of pretty much anyone he can manufacture an excuse to beat the hell out of while abusing high fantasy narcotics and regretting it later. He takes occasional detours to adopt urchins and cuss at wizards.

10/10 a tour de force

Unfortunately, I saw the ending coming from a mile away. It didn’t make it any less enjoyable, but it wasn’t a mystery so much as a memoir for someone who isn’t real. In the literal sense, obviously. Figuratively, the Warden is the realest.

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Book Review: Ash and Bones

Ash and Bones by Michael R. Fletcher

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It stayed fun! My review of the first one still stands, as it was more a review of the series. In this one the various avatars of the gods collect more magic juju DBZ style, sometimes at the cost of appendages.

Who will triumph? Who will be ate? Find out on the next episode of City– of– Sacrifice!

But like, in the voice of the DBZ announcer guy. You know.

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Book Review: Smoke and Stone

Smoke and Stone by Michael R. Fletcher

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

That was fun! City of Sacrifice applies that same pulse of anticapitalist revolutionary rhetoric that’s showed up in every successful YA series since Harry Potter, and that, in conjunction with all the characters being teenagers, had me shook. Fortunately, this wasn’t YA, due largely to the frequent on-screen mutilations and the liberal (though by no means tasteless) use of the fuck word.

The gods are at war, and they’re jockeying for first place in order to have their chosen avatar become King of the Human Farm where they all live, in the middle of the desert. Damnedest thing is I ran a D&D campaign with the same premise, although I swapped out the tiered communofascist dystopia for the metropolitan seaboard equivalent of Deadwood, governed by Peter Baelish. A great artist steals, I’m told.

But whereas my campaign featured such as fan favorites as Jeffostopheles, affable devil from the lower Baator, and Bango Butterbox, halfling god of… something or other, luck maybe, Fletcher draws heavily from animist and Aztec mythology and populates the stands with ominous figurous with many and ambiguous names like Smoking Mirror and Southern Hummingbird. Also, the star of the show, Mother Death, whose name and job description are more direct.

Several high fantasy orphan protagonists are chosen as representatives of the gods for their useful mental illness and pitted against each other for their ability to take enough drugs to become Animorphs or to stab people really, really well.

I loved this audiobook, couldn’t turn it off. I was going to give it four stars because I just read Beyond Redemption and that blew my mind, so it altered my expectations for Fletcher. However, I recognize that if I’d found this one first, I would’ve called it 5 stars off the bat. I don’t wanna tank his Goodreads MMR. Feels like a dick move. Five stars.

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Book Review: Sleep Smarter

Sleep Smarter: 21 Essential Strategies to Sleep Your Way to A Better Body, Better Health, and Bigger Success by Shawn Stevenson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sleep deprivation is probably what’s making you crazy, or miserable, or both. Stevenson wheels out the usual old chestnuts of an isolated ascetic cell of a bedroom utilized only for unconsciousness and sex, no screens for infinity hours before bed, wear ridiculous wraparound blue-light blockers, but he supplements the factory-standard sleep wisdom with applicable nutritional information. Almost as though the body and brain are one interconnected organism and the things we do in one sphere bleed over into all the others.

If you’ve read Why We Sleep, you’ve heard most of this already, though Stevenson ranged out into the esoteric toward the end with his electromagnetic barefoot “earth grounding” Mesmerism stuff. Decalcify your foot ions for a restful slumber and bountiful pineal neurogenesis. Sure, Jan.

Good topic, good science, good message. Two stars off for his unbearable, targeted middle-aged woman humor. Someone told him to write jokes to make this more readable, and that turned out to be a mistake.

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Book Review: Idiot Brain

Idiot Brain: What Your Head Is Really Up To by Dean Burnett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I liked it! The information was interesting, exhaustively researched, and chattily communicated. Burnett is a funny dude, and he did a great job in dumbing down all this advanced neuroscientific garbling for the slack-jawed layman who reads pop sci.

So why only three stars? Well, Burnett is a victim of his own cuteness. His trying to cram a bon mot in every third sentence (almost rhythmically) made it feel a little forced, to the point that, despite all the rest of the things it had going for it, I had a hard time getting through the book.

It builds to crescendo, though. My mans saved the best for last, and the further into the book you get, the better it is. The last few chapters especially, about hallucinations and addiction, are real show-stoppers.

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