Book Review: Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography by Eric Idle

Author: Eric Idle
Title: Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography
Narrator: Eric Idle
Publication Info: Random House Audio, 2018

Eric Idle makes it clear that the purpose of a celebrity memoir is to drop the names of all the famous people one ever knew and the trouble one got into with them. At least he tells it in an entertaining way, especially since he narrates the audiobook.

Recommended books:

  • So, Anyway… by John Cleese
  • The First 20 Years of Monty Python by Kim “Howard” Johnson
  • The Life of Python : And Now for Something Completely Different by George Perry
  • Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years by Michael Palin
  • Nerd Do Well by Simon Pegg

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Star Wars: The High Republic: The Fallen Star by Claudia Gray

Author: Claudia Gray
Title: Star Wars: The High Republic: The Fallen Star
Narrator: Marc Thompson
Publication Info:  Random House Audio (2022)

The third novel in The High Republic series sees the Nihil, a band of pirates lead by the opportunistic Marchion Ro, carry out their boldest attack yet to destabilize the Republic and injure the Jedi Order.  Starlight Beacon, a space station built in the galaxy’s Outer Rim as a symbol the Republic’s culture and unity, is bombed by saboteurs who leave few options for escape and rescue.  The station splits in half, and the better part of the novel involves the actions of the Jedi and others aboard the lower half (including the saboteurs and Nihil prisoners who were on board) to save themselves and others before it crashes on the planet below.  To make matters worse, Ro has placed creatures known as the Nameless aboard the space station who have the power to dampen the connections the Jedi have with the force, effectively making them fight blind.

The novel reads like a disaster movie, like The Poseidon Adventure or maybe even Apollo 13, as the protagonists work to find solutions to cascading failures. I feel like I’m getting a better sense of the main characters than I have before, although there are several new characters introduced who make the proceedings confusing.  Claudia Gray has the advantage of having the backstory established for her, but I also feel she’s the most engaging writer among the three books.  My two favorite characters, Jedi padawans Bell Zettifar and Burryaga Agaburry, get to team up in this book, and assuming the unclear fate of one of these characters is cleared up, I hope they get to be partners again in future novels.

This novel ends the trilogy on kind of a down note, with the biggest victory being that the people of the Republic come together to aid in the rescue and are unified by the disaster.  But it’s still a major defeat for the Republic and the Jedi.  I haven’t been able to figure out if the story is supposed to continue or how it fits in The High Republic extended universe which includes middle grade and early reader novels as well as comics (including one that has the story of what happens on the upper half of Starlight Beacon).  Not sure I have the time or interest in reading them all to see if I’m missing any of the story but I will look for additional novels in the adult line if and when they’re published.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore

Around the World for a Good Book selection for Liberia

Author: Wayétu Moore
Title: She Would Be King
Publication Info: Minneapolis, Minnesota : Graywolf Press, [2018]

This fictional origin story for the nation of Liberia brings together three characters with unique talents. Gbessa, born with red hair in the West African village of Lai, is considered to be cursed and ostracized.  June Dey is born into slavery in Virginia under miraculous circumstances and develops superhuman strength.  Norman Aragon is the child of an enslaved woman and a white British slaveholder who gains an ability to fade from sight.  All three end up in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia founded by the American Colonization Society to resettle freed Black people.  The summary makes it sound like a comic book superhero team, but the book is more nuanced than that.  The book works well as an examination of the ongoing trauma of slavery, Liberia’s intricate ties with the United States, and the interaction of the American Blacks with the indigenous people of that part of Africa.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Review: Star Wars: The High Republic: The Rising Storm by Cavan Scott

Author: Cavan Scott
Title: Star Wars: The High Republic: The Rising Storm
Narrator: Marc Thompson
Publication Info: Random House Audio, June 29, 2001

Picking up where The Light of the Jedi ends, the story centers on the Republic Fair where Chancellor Lina Soh hopes to make a statement on the growing Galactic Republic’s unity.  Meanwhile, Marchion Ro, the leader of loose organization of marauders faces dissension within his ranks and organizes an attack of the fair.  The better part of the book is an action-filled depiction of the Jedi fighting the Nihil and hoping to protect the Republic citizens.  The book ends with a startling revelation that hearkens a darker future.

I had a couple of quibbles with this book.  One is that it still feels like there are a  lot of characters and I’m having trouble connecting with all these different Jedi and their allies.  That may be just be a “me thing” though.  I am growing fond of Bell Zettifar, the Jedi apprentice who cuts himself of from the Force when mourning the loss of his Master.  The other problem with this book is that it has a middle-of-a-trilogy feel to it where it’s just spinning its wheels until it can get to the revelation that sets up the final book.  But overall it’s a fun read.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Star Wars: The High Republic: Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule

Author: Charles Soule
Title: Star Wars: The High Republic: Light of the Jedi
Narrator: Marc Thompson
Publication Info: New York : Random House Audio, 2021.

This is the first in a series of books set in the Star Wars galaxy two centuries before the time period seen in the films.  The Galactic Republic has ushered in an era of peace and prosperity and is expanding into the territories of the Outer Rim.  The book begins with a bang as a freighter called the Legacy Run breaks apart in hyperspace with pieces emerging throughout the galaxy and threatening to destroy the Hetzal system.  Several Jedi arrive to not only attempt to stop the annihilation of planets but save passengers still trapped in the fragmented compartments of the ship.

The crisis leads to the closing of hyperspace lanes which are necessary to connecting the various far flung planetary systems threatens the stability of the Republic.  A group of marauders known as the Nihil take advantage of the crisis. Marchion Ro, known as the Eye of the Nihil, has found a unique way to navigate paths through hyperspace, allowing the raiders to continue their attacks.  But Ro has even bigger plans to consolidate his power that the leaders of the Nihil are unaware of, including facing off with the Jedi.

It’s refreshing to have a piece of Star Wars media that is completely unconnected from the Skywalker Saga (although Yoda is mentioned).  That being said, there are a lot of new characters in this book and I don’t think I ever got a handle on the significant characteristics of each one.  I do like that the Jedi seem more independent from the Republic than they were in the prequel movies, and also a bit more mysterious.  My favorite character is Burryaga Agaburry, a sensitive Wookiee padawan.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Cosmos by Carl Sagan

Author: Carl Sagan
Title: Cosmos
Publication Info: New York Avenel, , c1980

Carl Sagan wrote Cosmos to accompany the television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage that aired in 1980.  This was a groundbreaking program in popular science and as a small child I remember there being a bit of a Cosmos fever. I’ve never watched the series but I hope to track it down and watch it one of these days.

In Sagan’s approachable prose, he is able to concisely break down topic such as:

  • the history of the universe
  • the history of science through the people and groups who made great discoveries
  • the most recent discoveries (as of 1980) of the space program including the Mariner, Pioneer, and Voyager programs he worked on

But Sagan’s great gift is that he always brings it back to Earth.  Discovering extraterrestrial life is important because it will give us a greater understanding of ourselves. Communicating with extraterrestrials is important, but should we not also learn to communicate with terrestrial species like whales and apes? Learning that other habitable planets exist but knowing they’re light years away makes it important to care for the planet we have (Sagan even expresses concern of global warming).

I suppose this book is a bit dated and as popular science it’s a bit oversimplified.  But I found it an interesting summary of some things I knew and an illuminating explanation of some things I didn’t.

Favorite Passages:

“The study of a single instance of extraterrestial life, no matter how humble, will deprovincialize biology. For the first time, the biologists will know what other kinds of life are possible.  When we say the search for life elsewhere is important, we are not guaranteeing that it will be easy to find – only that it is very much worth seeking.” – p. 31


“I am a collection of water, calcium and organic molecules called Carl Sagan.  You are a collection of almost identical molecules with a different collective label. But is that all? Is there nothing in here but molecules? Some people find this idea somehow demeaning to human dignity.  For myself, I find it elevating that our universe permits the evolution of molecular machines as intricate and subtle as we.” – p. 105

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Reviews: Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa

Around the World for a Good Book selection for: Syria

Author: Khaled Khalifa
Title: Death Is Hard Work
Translator: Leri Price
Narrator: Neil Shah
Publication Info: HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books (2019)

During the Syrian Civil War, a rebel leader named Abdel Latif al-Salim dies of natural causes.  His dying wish is to buried by his sister in their hometown of Anabiya.  His son Bolbol, a middle child viewed as weak an indecisive, pledges honor this wish.  Joined by his older brother Hussein and younger sister Fatima set off on a journey with their father’s body.

The normally short trip runs into snags due to the many military checkpoints along the way, as well as religious extremists and even wild dogs.  At one point, Abdel Latif’s body is even arrested for his alleged crimes against the government.  The book is a reflection on the human cost of war and how it interrupts the normal flow of life.  It also depicts a family’s collapse as the siblings who were close as children now find themselves distant.  The book is heartbreaking and more than a little absurd, and very human in its details.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Reviews: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

Around the World for a Good Book selection for Malaysia

Author: Zen Cho
Title: Black Water Sister
Narrator: Catherine Ho
Publication Info: [Prince Frederick] : Recorded Books Incorporated, 2021.

Jessamyn Teoh, a recent college graduate who grew up in the United States after her family emigrated there from Malaysia during her early childhood, faces an uncertain future.  She is moving back to Malaysia with her parents where she has to adjust to an unfamiliar culture, find work, and maintain a long-distance relationship with her girlfriend while hiding that she’s lesbian from her parents.  Things grow more complicated when Jess begins hearing the voice of her deceased grandmother Ah Ma.  Soon Jess finds herself plunged into an adventure featuring a powerful real estate developer, gangsters, and gods.  To put things right, and to find justice for Ah Ma, Jess must become a medium for a vengeful goddess known as Black Water Sister.

Black Water Sister is a unique novel that blends elements of fantasy, mystery, and fish out of water story to tell a story of contemporary Malaysia.  Facets of Malaysian culture such as tradition, religion, and family are woven into the narrative.  Unfortunately for Jess (and others like her), homophobia is also a part of the Malaysian culture.  It’s an interesting and well-written story that I enjoyed.
Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn

Around the World for a Good Book selection for Wales

Author: How Green Was My Valley
Title: Richard Llewellyn
Narrator: Ralph Cosham
Publication Info: [Ashland, Or.] : Blackstone Audio, Inc., 2011. [originally published in 1939]

This novel is a coming-of-age story set in the Welsh coal mining region of the late 19th century that blends sentimental nostalgia with gritty reality.  The narrator is Huw Morgan, the 8th of 9 children and the youngest son in a family of coal miners.  An accident in Huw’s childhood makes him unable to walk for several years and during that time he develops a passion for reading that leads to him going on to higher levels of education than the rest of his family.

Through the novel Huw observes the conflicts between the miners and the companies that own the mines that leads to union organizing and strikes.  Huw’s father Gwilym and some of his brothers are opposed to activism while other brother are labor organizers.  Over time the declining fortunes in the valley lead to Huw’s siblings leaving Wales to try their luck elsewhere.  Huw also observes the environmental degradation to the valley by the mining operations.  The novel also deals with gossip and scandals in the valley such as affairs and unplanned pregnancy.  While Gwilym supports Huw’s education, his mother Beth is firmly against it, especially when Huw’s teacher only speaks in English and discriminates against the Welsh.

There are apparently a whole series of books about Huw Morgan, but I think I’ve had my fill of Huw.  The style of writing is too old-fashioned for my taste although I can see why it’s considered a classic novel.  I once watched the film adaptation of How Green Was My Valley as a teenager (mainly because I had a crush on Maureen O’Hara) but I don’t remember it at all.  I will have to rewatch the movie and see how faithful it is to the book.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique

Around the World for a Good Book selection for the United States Virgin Islands

Author: Tiphanie Yanique
Title: Land of Love and Drowning
Narrator: Cherise Boothe, Korey Jackson, Rachel Leslie, and Myra Lucretia Taylor
Publication Info: Prince Frederick, MD : Recorded Books, [2014]

This historical novel is a multi-generational saga about the Bradshaw family of the United States Virgin Islands.  The story begins in 1917 with the transfer of the islands from Denmark to the United States and the ongoing theme of the narrative is how the Virgin Islands are American but treated as something tangential.  Events withing the story include the enlistment of V.I. men to World War II and the Korean War, the rise of tourism and resort hotels, Hollywood using the islands as a filming locale, and the Civil Rights movement which inspires a movement to occupy the beaches that are being privatized by white American property owners and hotels.

The Bradshaw’s story starts with Owen Arthur Bradshaw, a ship’s captain, and his wife Antoinette, who are part of highly-respectable family on St. Thomas.  They have two daughters, Eona and Anette.  Owen also  fathers a son named Jacob Esau with his mistress. When their parents die (Owen in a traumatic shipwreck), Eona is forced to put aside her desires to raise Anette.  The novel alternates among the three children’s points of view as it follows their story up until the 1970s.  Yanique’s writing feels inspired by Toni Morrison and has touches of magical realism.  There’s also a lot of incest, both knowing and unknowing.

There are parts of this book that are very interesting but also some parts I found quite absurd (the Hollywood movie ends up being a pornographic film, in the 1950s?) and other times that I just wished that Yanique would get on with the story instead of circling around a point.  So, consider this a mixed review.

Recommended books:

  • Tar Baby by Toni Morrison
  • Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge
  • Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid

Rating: **1/2