Steampunk Wodehouse X2

Back in March this collection of mini-reviews included the first book in the Reeves & Worcestor Steampunk Mysteries series. I just finished the next two novella-length books and would highly recommend these hilarious sendups of Wodehouse’s Jeeves & Wooster series (in this universe, Reeves/Jeeves is a steam-powered automaton and Worcester/Wooster has delusions of being a consulting detective on the order of Sherlock Holmes).

Reggiecide (Reeves & Worcester Steampunk Mysteries Book 2) by [Chris Dolley]Title: Reggiecide (Book 2)
Author: Chris Dolley
Genre: Humorous Steampunk Mystery
Pages: 81 (audiobook 2 hours 7 minutes)
Rating: 5 of 5 (audiobook narration 1 of 5)

So far, this is my favorite book in the series in terms of story. It could be read stand-alone, but does reference plot points from the first book: most notably, the existence of Prometheans (reanimated corpses). You can guess the identity of the most recently raised promethean from the cover. Hilarity ensues as Worcester tries to find out where Guy has run off to, what he might be planning, and just what is so menacing about Roger Mortimer with a poker…

I do not recommend listening to the Audible version of this narrated by Kieran Phoenix Chantrey. It is one of the worst audiobooks I have encountered. He gives the suave Reeves an uneducated cockney accent so that rather than sounding like the smartest, poshest person in the room he sounds like a London cabby. The narrator mispronounces words such as: apse (to the detriment of a funny joke), draught, misshapen, and Nebuchadnezzar (absolutely butchered it several different ways…clearly he’s never been to Sunday school). His female voice (for Worcester’s girlfriend: a suffragette who likes chaining herself to things) sounds exactly like Hugh Laurie doing an intentionally bad girl voice in Blackadder. Worst of all, he will start a phrase, realize that the voice or intonation isn’t quite right and repeat the whole thing…without it being edited out of the recording (once starting over multiple times in the course of a single sentence).

Overall, I would highly recommend this book. The author continues his pitch-perfect imitation of P. G. Wodehouse’s style while crafting his own zany steampunk story. Just avoid the audiobook…

The Aunt Paradox (Reeves & Worcester Steampunk Mysteries Book 3) by [Chris Dolley]Title: The Aunt Paradox (Book 3)
Author: Chris Dolley
Genre: Humorous Steampunk Mystery
Pages: 135 (audiobook 2 hours 35 minutes)
Rating: 4.5 of 5

In this installment, things go all wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey when H. G. Wells’s (call him Bertie) aunt steals his time machine. The story pulls in classic time travel tropes from Back to the Future, Doctor Who, and more. The plot is well-written as far as “messing up and then trying to fix the timeline” stories go. I might have to read or listen to it again to see how well it all hangs together, but it was as lighthearted and enjoyable as the first two books in the series.

The narration of the audiobook was much better than in Reggiecide. Paul J. Rose does an excellent job, reminding me of my favorite narrator for the Jeeves & Wooster books (Jonathan Cecil). I highly recommend these books for lighthearted fun; especially if you are a fan of P. G. Wodehouse.

Weirdness Overload

Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel by [Joseph Fink, Jeffrey Cranor]Title: Welcome to Night Vale
Authors: Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor
Genre: Humorous Dystopian Weird Fiction + Urban Fantasy
Pages: 407
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This book reads like the unholy spawn of Douglas Adams and H. P. Lovecraft that was left on its own to watch untold hours of The Twilight Zone. Its quirky turn of phrase, foreboding Southwestern US setting, and mysterious dark forces (eldritch, dystopian, and librarian) come together in one of the strangest things I have read outside of a Franz Kafka novel.

In one of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books, a paragraph ends with the completely irrelevant observation: “A magician wandered along the beach, but no one needed him.” Welcome to Night Vale is loaded with this sort of weird little digression. Some of them may be references to characters and events from the Welcome to Night Vale podcast (which I have never listened to), but mostly they form a tapestry of weirdness against which the bizarre, bordering-on-farcical action occurs.

Characters include angels who are all named Erika [though no one is allowed to believe in angels so forget I said that], a teenage shapeshifter and his mother, and an eternally 19-year-old pawn shop clerk. I don’t know how to describe the plot without spoilers other than to say that it involves trying to figure out what is going on with a strange man who triggers a strange occurrence (though how anything can be considered strange in Night Vale is beyond me). Amid all the weirdness and witty phrases, it explores serious themes of growing up, family relationships, etc.

Overall, it was an entertaining read with its share of wit and wisdom, but it took me longer than usual to get through because I could only take it in small doses. There is so much random weirdness purely for the sake of being random and weird that I needed frequent breaks from the silliness of it all. I’ll probably pick up the next book in the series and/or check out the podcast at some point, but right now I’m all weirded out.

Back with Some Mini Reviews

I’m back! I think that this has been my longest stretch without a post since starting this blog. Pastoring during a pandemic with a major hotspot 45 minutes up the road is no joke, and I was starting to feel pretty burned out. Thankfully, I was able to take almost a week off, including a few days’ getaway with my wife for our 18th anniversary, and I’m feeling a little less stressed. No promises, but maybe I’ll return to my pre-COVID “approximately once per week” schedule. To that end, here are a handful of mini reviews (presented in order read):

Title: “He Descended to the Dead”
An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday
Author: Matthew Y. Emerson
Genre: Theology
Pages: 225 (plus indices etc.)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

The Apostles Creed contains a poorly understood line, variously translated, that says Jesus “descended to hell” or “descended to the dead.” The author takes this as his starting point to examine what the Bible (and Christian tradition as guided by Scripture) says about what happened between Jesus’ death and resurrection. I don’t agree with all of his lines of reasoning (or his condescending tone toward less “creedal” denominations), but overall his discussion was helpful and his conclusions seem biblical.

If you don’t want to wade through all 225 pages, here’s his concise explanation: “Christ, in remaining dead for three days, experienced death as all humans do: his body remained in the grave, and his soul remained in the place of the dead. He did not suffer there, but, remaining the incarnate Son, proclaimed victory procured by his penal substitutionary death to all those in the place of the dead – fallen angels, the unrighteous dead, and the OT saints. Christ’s descent [to the dead / hades] is thus primarily the beginning of his exaltation, not a continuation of his humiliation”

The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors by [Dan Jones]Title: The Wars of the Roses
The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors
Author: Dan Jones
Genre: Medieval British History
Pages: 416
Rating: 4 of 5

Dan Jones knows how to write an interesting history book! He writes on a more-or-less popular level, but not in a way that feels like he is sensationalizing events or dumbing things down. In this book, he engages with the complex series of conflicts commonly lumped together as “the Wars of the Roses.” I’m not sure how his interpretation of events stacks up against other histories since my only other reading on this time period is R. L. Stevenson’s heavily romanticized Robin-Hood-inspired The Black Arrow. Whatever the case, I’d highly recommend this for those interested in Medieval British history.

David Copperfield by [Charles Dickens]Title: David Copperfield
Author: Charles Dickens
Genre: Classic
Pages: 856
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This is one of my favorite Dickens books (second only to A Christmas Carol). It is home to the perfectly loving Mr. Peggotty, eccentric but good-hearted Aunt Betsey Trotwood, completely loathsome Uriah Heep, and so many other unforgettable characters. I must admit that the childish Dora really grated on my nerves this time through, but it’s still Dickens in top form.

Title: Operation Mincemeat
How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory
Genre: WWII Espionage History
Author: Ben Macintyre
Pages: 325
Rating: 4.5 of 5

The first “real spy book” that I remember reading is The Man Who Never Was by Ewen Montagu. It tells the story of a corpse given a fictitious identity and floated ashore to sow disinformation in the Nazi war machine. It is a triumphant self-congratulatory book, written by one of the men involved in the plot. It is a fascinating look at how “all war is deception” and how British intelligence was the master of deception. It is also a load of of half-truths and misinformation.

This is the de-propagandized version of that story. Ben Macintyre digs into recently declassified documents and pieces together what really happened, including the actual identify of the corpse and just how touch and go the operation was. This is another highly recommended true spy tale by one of my favorite authors of the last few years.

Title: The Things They Carried
Author: Tim O’Brien
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 273
Rating: 4 of 5

This fictional memoir of the Vietnam War reminded me of All Quiet on the Western Front. It is a series of loosely connected stories/vignettes  depicting the everyday horrors of war. Diehard “don’t ever criticize Vietnam vets or the Vietnam War” types will not like it at all.

The author blurs the line between fact and fiction by making himself one of the characters and dedicating the book to the men of the (fictional) Alpha Company. Overall, it is a brutal, difficult read but provides a balance to the macho “rah rah war is glorious and the US military can do no wrong” sort of war story.

Dogged Detection

Title: The Giant Collection of the Continental Op
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Hardboiled Detective Fiction
Pages: 769
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I have a weakness for hardboiled detective stories from the 1920’s-50’s, and Dashiell Hammett’s nameless Operative of the Continental Detective Agency is the character that got me hooked. He’s not as well knows as Hammett’s womanizing Sam Spade of The Maltese Falcon or pleasantly inebriated Nick Charles of The Thin Man, but I prefer the tubby little tough guy to either of them. Because he is based on Hammett’s own time as a Pinkerton operative, he’s a bit more believable, and his appearance in 20+ stories and two novels allows for some character development (even if it’s driven largely by meeting expectations of three or four different editors over his career) .

There’s nothing fancy about the Continental Op. He stubbornly plows through the evidence, stepping on toes and poking at suspects to see what happens (usually something violent). Over the years he becomes increasingly cynical and violent, getting the job done even if it isn’t tied up in a nice neat bow.

As with any pulp fiction, you have to be willing to look past some product-of-its-era prejudices, but it’s not as bad as most. The Op’s thoroughly unromantic nature eliminates most of the rapey (or otherwise troubling) womanizing that you see in some older pulp (though unfortunate racial caricatures persist in some stories).

Also, as with any pulp fiction, you probably don’t want to read through all of these too close together or they start sounding too much the same. Hammett is better than the average hardboiled writer (Raymond Chandler is probably the only one in the same league), but there’s only so much you can do with characters and plot when you write for Black Mask. This particular book provides a nice chronologically arranged collection of all the Continental Op short stories: perfect to pick up and read a story or two when you need some escapism.

WH40K Smorgasbord

Title: Forges of Mars Omnibus
Author: Graham McNeill
Genre: Military Sci-Fi (Warhammer 40K)
Pages: 944
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Over the last couple years, the Warhammer 40,000 books have become my go-to series when I’m in the mood for escapist sci-fi. There’s very little complexity in characterization or plot, but it can be a nice violent grimdark read.

*Heresy Alert* I’m not a big fan of loyalist space marines. Their character development pretty much begins and ends with [Role in their squad] + [“FOR THE EMPEROR!!!”], so I tend to gravitate toward books based on other character types. This particular omnibus was a lot of fun in that regard. As you you would expect from the title, the main story revolves around the tech priests of Mars. The three book arc (I wouldn’t recommend reading the books separately) follows an exploratory mission led by an arch-magos of the cult mechanicus. Along for the ride are a rogue trader and his crew, Cadian guardsmen, skitarii, titans, Black Templar space marines, and more. Weave in an eldar storyline and you get a lot of interesting interaction between groups that usually go their own way.

This is definitely worth a read if you are into the WH40K universe and want to explore something other than space marines. I almost gave it 4 stars (an unprecedented rating from me for a WH40K book), but the author was so obviously fishing for a sequel with the way he ended the third book (and even more so in the follow-up novella) that I docked it half a star: 3.5 stars for competent escapist sci-fi that manages a bit more character development than usual.

 

Follow Up

Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. – Isaiah 1:17

This is just a quick follow up to my last post. I am thankful for my community where citizens, law enforcement, and government can peacefully come together to protest injustice and to pray and pursue understanding and change. I was pleased to see about a dozen pastors and at least a handful of my church members there.

Keep praying for our leaders to make courageous, wise choices that promote justice and for concerned citizens to passionately plead for justice in ways that are compassionate and profitable rather than violent or hateful.

Below are a couple pictures from the march and a link to some pictures taken by the local paper.

Link to Times Herald pictures  Here.  

(I’m in the third one down…black mask behind one of my church members who has his mask pulled down)

#georgefloyd

It’s time for another non-book review post (I seem to be doing more of those than usual lately). When I read American church history, I am deeply disappointed and saddened by the silence (at best) of most white conservative churches during the era of slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement. I hate talking politics, but what kind of hypocrite would I be if I kept silent right now? I posted this on my church’s Facebook page yesterday and wanted to share it with you as well.

Also, I don’t know if anyone local follows this blog, but if there is anyone, consider this event:

Protest

Miscellaneous Mini Reviews

Leading a church through the craziness that is 2020 (trying to keep people compassionate, encouraged, safe, & law-abiding) continues to be exhausting, but I have just enough brain power left right now to catch up with several mini reviews.

Title: Agent Zigzag:
A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal
Author: Ben Macintyre
Genre: Spy biography
Pages: 310
Rating: 4 of 5

I enjoy Ben Macintyre’s historical accounts of spies. His A Spy Among Friends and The Spy and the Traitor were two of my favorite non-fiction reads over the last couple years. This one was still interesting, but it lacked some of the “wow” factor of the other books.

The author never gave the impression that Eddie Chapman made quite as big of a contribution to history as the spies in the other two books. I was left with the impression that he was colorful (in a self-promoting, bigtime criminal, womanizing cad kind of way) and bold, but he was just one of many double agents working for British intelligence during WWII. It was still a well-written book, but the stakes didn’t seem as high, which slightly lowered my interest.

All Quiet on the Western FrontTitle: All Quiet on the Western Front
Author: Erich Maria Remarque
Genre: Modern Classic / Historical Fiction (barely)
Pages: 296
Rating: 4.5 of 5

What a horrifying book! The author barely fictionalizes his experiences in the German trenches during the Great War (WWI). This is a soldier’s-eye view of the dehumanizing horrors of war. I was especially struck by the question of “how can we possibly go back to living normal lives after experiencing this?” This is a difficult, disturbing read but an important sobering balance to the “war is glorious” way of thinking.

Title: The Moonstone
Author: Wilkie Collins
Genre: Classic Mystery
Pages: 418
Rating: 2.5 of 5

Reading Victorian era books with enjoyment often requires that you look past product-of-its-era casual sexism, racism, colonialism, etc. This is definitely one of those books with an extra helping of cringe. I think that at times Collins was intentionally satirizing the prejudices of his contemporaries, but other times not so much. I quite enjoyed Collins’  The Woman in White even with all its improbabilities and eye rolling moments, but this classic mystery didn’t work for me. I’m not sure if it was really any worse or if I just wasn’t in the mood to charitably overlook his nonsense.

Interview with the Mobster

I Heard You Paint Houses"; Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran and closing the case on Jimmy ...Title: “I Heard You Paint Houses”:
Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran & Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa
Author: Charles Brandt
Genre: True(?) Crime
Pages: 310
Rating: 4 of 5

I was living in Scranton back when this book came out, and it made quite the splash. Russell Bufalino, who figures prominently in the story, had been a local (I lived within walking distance of the borough where some of the early scenes take place…I miss all those little pizza joints!), and the whole Scranton-Wilkes Barre area still has a pretty corrupt “mobby” vibe even if the Bufalino family is allegedly no longer active (I won’t go into local “open secrets” and things observed while working as a bank teller for 3 years). Anyway, I finally got around to reading this, and even though disappointingly little occurs in the SWB area, it was interesting in a horrifying kind of way.

Most of the book is comprised of huge block quotes from Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, culled from years of interviews with the author. The author occasionally interjects paragraphs of his own to explain events, but this is mostly the story of Jimmy Hoffa’s murder (and tangentially connected events related to the Teamsters, the Kennedys,  Cuba, Nixon, etc.) as told in Sheeran’s own words. Some aspects of Sheeran’s story are annoyingly repetitive or confusingly organized, but given how much interview material the author must have had to sift through and edit into a readable story, it’s fairly impressive in its coherence.

Sheeran is cold and largely remorseless as he casually talks about “taking care of” people for the mob and the Teamsters (and, before that, for the US Army). He paints a disturbing picture of the utter corruption, casual violence, and immense influence of both unions and the mafia in their heyday. (Joe Biden even makes a brief appearance as the Teamsters suppress an edition of a newspaper that was running large-scale attack ads against him when he first ran for congress.)

It’s hard to say how much of Sheeran’s story is accurate and how much is braggadocio. The actual description of events immediately surrounding the murder of Jimmy Hoffa takes up a relatively small number of pages and is probably the most believable part since the author offers some corroborating evidence. Other aspects, like Sheeran’s sexual prowess, number of murders, or minor involvement in the JFK assassination, seem a bit more iffy.

Overall, I don’t think there’s any way to know how accurate this is, but it does provide a darkly fascinating look at power, corruption, and murder.

The Word

Keeping my “flock” encouraged (and law-abiding) and coordinating all the other usual pastor-y things from home continues to take up a lot of my time and creativity. However, I don’t want to fall completely behind on reviewing, so here are two short reviews of a couple short but excellent biblical studies books.

Taking God At His Word: Why the Bible Is Knowable, Necessary, and Enough, and What That Means for You and Me by [Kevin DeYoung]Title: Taking God at His Word:
Why the Bible Is Knowable, Necessary, and Enough and What That Means for You and Me
Author: Kevin DeYoung
Genre: Theology (Applied Bibliology)
Pages: 129 (plus indices, etc.)
Rating: 5 of 5

The subtitle pretty much covers what the book is about. This is an excellent little primer on a conservative Protestant (I would say Evangelical, but that title is freighted with so much political baggage anymore that I hesitate to use it) understanding of the Bible as God’s authoritative Word.

Kevin DeYoung’s passionate, occasionally humorous, pastoral style keeps this from being a dry systematic theology book. It sparkles with a love for God’s Word and contains practical wisdom on taking advantage of God’s gift of “everything needed for life and godliness.”

The book is directed primarily toward Christians who already accept the Bible as God’s self-revelation. However, I would also recommend it to those with other convictions as a means of getting a basic non-caricatured overview of what we believe.

Title: Can We Trust the Gospels?
Author: Peter J. Williams
Genre: Theology (Bibliology)
Pages: 140 (plus indices, etc.)
Rating: 5 of 5

The earliest written sources that we have on the life of Jesus Christ are the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Peter J. Williams argues from a variety of external sources and internal characteristics that it is reasonable to trust their veracity. Along the way he also looks (unfavorably) at the so called Gnostic Gospels.

The overall tone of the book is scholarly rather than pastoral, but it does not require prior knowledge of the topic or use unexplained academic jargon. The author provides a basic overview of the various lines of evidence and offers a wealth of scholarly resources for those who want to dig deeper. I appreciate that he is confident and articulate in his arguments, but humble and reasonable enough to know that he cannot conclusively prove his case. At a certain point it comes down to faith, but it is a reasonable faith.

I would highly recommend this book as a counterbalance to those in the “historical Jesus” field who treat the Gospels as distorted legends that developed over time.