Tom Holt is among my favorite contemporary writers. It's his prose style that does it for me. When I write fiction, it's his voice that I try to emulate, more than any other writer. He sets up his words in such a way that an ordinary sentence turns into a vehicle for comedy.
Under pseudonym K. J. Parker, he writes fantasy novels that are laugh-out-loud funny, but it's hard to persuade anyone of that, what with the high body count and catastrophically tragic story lines. As Tom Holt, he writes science fiction novels that feature somewhat less slaughtering.
For example, although the protagonist of When It's a Jar does at one point take a mortal wound, it's not a permanent condition. He's able to free himself from Valhalla after a few weeks, so no harm done.
This is the second book in Holt's YouSpace series, which can be roughly summarized as: madcap escapades through the multiverse. Or putting it another way, this is like A Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but funnier. And Ray Sawyer's audiobook narration is pitch perfect.
A version of this post originally appeared on April 22, 2023.
A Man Called Ove--written by Fredrik Backman, translated from Swedish to English by Henning Koch, and narrated by J. K. Simmons--lives up to the hype.
I hesitated to try this one. Literary fiction is a hit-or-miss genre for me, skewing toward misses. Character studies can show how clever an author is, which is great for workshopping ten pages in your undergraduate fiction class, not so great for a whole novel. I do not have the patience to hear the same chord through an entire symphony.
Most of all, I was leery of the facile type of story where a cranky old person is transformed by the power of love and saves Christmas. I have never seen a Hallmark movie but I am confident I'm not their audience.
I'm delighted to announce I was wrong. For one thing it's a birthday he saves, not Christmas.
What could have been superficial sentiment becomes weighty, thanks to a somber thread. The main character, pronounced OOH-vuh, is determined to take his own life. His wife died six months ago and he just got laid off. This is not a sentence I get to type very often, but: his suicide attempts go hysterically wrong. For a book heavy with death, mourning, loneliness, and rejection, I sure did laugh a lot.
One criticism: Backman as storyteller chose to indulge in stereotypes about fat people, where he otherwise showed sensitivity and nuance. One of the secondary characters is fat, and he's always eating, always hungry. Without this fatphobia, it would have been a perfect book.
Apart from the lazy stereotyping, I was charmed by this novel. Strong plotting, wonderful characters, emotional depth, and humor that comes not just from the ridiculous situations but from the dryness of the prose.
A version of this post originally appeared on April 1, 2023.
In anticipation of turning 42 next Thursday, I reread The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
As a young teen I found it hysterical, absurd humor mixed with running gags. Douglas Adams hit all the right chords when I was developing my sense of humor, and familiarity with Hitchhiker signified inclusion in a science fiction in-group, back when nerd fandom was more in the margins.
It was like recognizing Led Zeppelin’s Lord of the Rings references, back before Peter Jackson made his movies, when obsessively listening to an album was the only way to learn lyrics. Knowing that the answer to life, the universe, and everything was 42 marked you as a special type of nerd.
As an adult: the book is still funny. I frequently laughed out loud to Stephen Fry’s audiobook narration.
And that’s all. There’s no depth. It’s a diverting story. I would still gladly suggest it for anyone wanting a laugh, especially a younger someone who would enjoy it as much as I did thirty years ago.
But if you want speculative fiction with pathos and deep meaning in addition to laughs—well. I need to catch up on the Christopher Moore books I haven’t read yet, for starters. And it sounds like I’m talking myself into a re-read of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.
When Covid first hit, I started doing book talks on social media as a way to keep in touch with people. I never got out of the habit. I don't discuss books by my clients, and if I don't like a book, I won't discuss it at all. While I will sometimes focus on craft or offer gentle critical perspectives, as a matter of professional courtesy, I don't trash writers. Unless they're dead. Then the gloves come off.