Glorified Fan Fiction

Firefly - Big Damn Hero by [Lovegrove, James, Holder, Nancy]Title: Firefly: Big Damn Hero
Author: James Lovegrove & Nancy Holder
Genre: Glorified Fanfiction
Pages: 336
Rating: 2.5 of 5

What geek wouldn’t jump at the chance for another dip into Joss Whedon’s Firefly universe? This book gives you that opportunity… kind of.

The plot takes place sometime during the original series, so all the main characters are alive. I was going to say “alive and well,” but they all seem to be in especially foul moods and even more prone to violence than usual. Sometimes they act and sound like themselves, but the authors seem incapable of sustaining the right tone (or any kind of consistent tone), jumping from overly-folksy to properly snarky to very vanilla in both dialogue and narration.

Add to this an overlong plot that takes forever to get off the ground as the authors work in references to half the episodes in the original show, and the whole thing feels like glorified fanfiction. Halfway decent fanfiction that offers some interesting backstory and avoids pervy wish-fulfillment, but fanfiction nonetheless.

Indian Evil

Song of Kali by [Simmons, Dan]Title: Song of Kali
Author: Dan Simmons
Genre: Cosmic Horror?
Pages: 320
Rating: 3 of 5

I’m not quite sure what to make of this disturbing tale. In it, an American  travels to Calcutta with his wife (who is Indian) and infant daughter in search of a lost book of poems by an author long thought dead. The plot takes forever to get off the ground, but once it does every parent’s worst nightmare ensues.

The author expertly evokes an atmosphere of human misery, darkness, corruption, and horror (some of it too explicit for my taste) that appears to be driven by a great cosmic evil. There’s just enough wiggle room for possible lying, hallucinations, nightmares, etc. that you can’t be 100% sure how much of what is going on is truly supernatural.

If that was all there was to it I’d probably give it an “amazingly atmospheric but a little too disturbing for me” rating. However, the author also seems to be indicting Indian culture in general as almost completely calloused, corrupt, disgusting, and evil. Putting the fullest expression of that accusation in the mouth of an Indian character doesn’t make it any less insulting.

Overall, the book was horrifying and convoluted enough that I kept reading just to see where it was all going. However, once I was done I felt like I had read the ranting of an ethnocentric tourist who visited India, didn’t deal well with culture shock, and decided to turn his negative experience into a horror story. (Also, this is my fourth book read for the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge).

Nothing but Rabbit Trails

Title: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
Author: Laurence Sterne
Genre: 18th Century Classic
Pages: 540
Rating: 3 of 5

Have you ever wanted to read a book that was one long string of digressions and rabbit trails, detouring through risqué jokes and never quite getting to the alleged point of the story? Then this is the book for you! Our narrator and eponymous hero isn’t even born until somewhere in volume 3 (of 9), and we learn far more about the life and opinions of his absurdly opinionated father and sweet, eccentric Uncle Toby than his own.

The whole series-of-ridiculous-digressions “plot,” naughty jokes (more than half left to the imagination and self-censored with lines of asterisks), and other weird typographical  choices (a marbled page, curly lines representing the plot up to this point, chapter lengths varying from a couple dozen pages to a single sentence, etc.) were amusing at first and made my chuckle occasionally. However, 540 pages of it (and this is a relatively low page-count edition) was a bit much. Also, I read this in an edition completely without explanatory notes of any kind, so I’m sure that a lot of the literary-allusion humor was lost on me. It was interesting to read as an example of British humor before the straight-laced Victorians, but I’d suggest getting an annotated version of some sort if you decide to read it so that you can fully appreciate it.

And one more thing: I’m using this for my Very Long Classic (>500 pages) category over at the Back to the Classics ChallengeMy edition was 540 pages and many (most?) are significantly longer.

Book Haul from TGC19

This year I was doing fairly well at reading books that I already owned and not buying too many new books (though we won’t speak of $3/bag day at the library book sale), and I had just gotten my TBR under 60 books. Then I spent the last three days at the The Gospel Coalition conference. It’s an excellent conference that I would highly recommend if you want solid biblical challenges to live your faith and not just frothy “you can do it!” prosperity gospel.

But bibliophiles beware: all the best Christian publishing houses are there with 2,500+ heavily discounted books, and we’re not talking “bonnet ripper” barely historical romance tripe (I don’t think there was any Christian fiction outside of the children’s tables). I had more or less controlled myself and bought only 7 or 8…and then I got 4 or 5 freebies…and then a friend/enabler told me to go pick out another $75 worth on him…and, long story short, I ended up with 20 new books.

Ten on social issues / applied theology:

Social

…and 10 that are more straight up systematic theology, philosophy, or biblical studies:

Systematic

Have you read any of these? Where would you start?

Neo-Orthodoxy

Title: The Essential Karl Barth:
A Reader and Commentary
Author: Karl Barth & Keith L. Johnson
Genre: Neo-Orthodox Theology
Pages: 384
Rating: 4 of 5 (with serious reservations)
Future Release Date: 4/2/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

I’m not quite sure how to rate this book. As a detailed introduction to Karl Barth’s theology, it is superb. However, I find parts of Karl Barth’s theology itself problematic (e.g. the Bible becomes a means of God personally revealing himself to us but is not itself revelation, the vague answers on the origin/nature of evil and possibility of universalism, taking as a starting point God as “wholly other” who cannot be known through any “creaturely” means, etc.). I have neither the desire nor skill to engage in a detailed critique of Barth’s theology, but suffice it to say that an overall positive rating on this book is by no means an endorsement of his theology.

That said, I think that you can learn more about someone’s views on life, the universe, and everything by reading their writings rather than by reading someone else’s criticism of their writings. The format of this book allows you to dip into significant excerpts from Barth’s massive body of writings and see how his theology grew and changed over time (as well as how it led him to interact with German politics up to and during World War II). Copious endnotes provide a running commentary on the text. I would strongly recommend the electronic version of this over the print version as it is much more convenient for toggling back and forth between text and explanatory notes.

In summary: if you are interested in Karl Barth and his “Neo-Orthodox” theology this works beautifully as an introduction. I would also recommend reading critical responses to his theology, but start with the man himself if you want to know what he actually believed and taught.

Philosophy Wrapped in Story

Resurrection audiobook cover artTitle: Resurrection
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Translator: Louise Maude
Genre: Classic Russian Fiction / Philosophy / Theology
Pages: 398
Rating: 4 of 5

I seldom read modern Christian fiction. With a few exceptions, it tends to be preachy, poorly-researched schlock full of morbid introspection and cheesy romance. I’m not sure where things went wrong, because this Russian classic is most certainly Christian, features quite a bit of morbid introspection, and still managed to wow me. This is one of those books where plot comes in a distant second to the author’s desire to explore and expound philosophical and theological points, but the characters were still sympathetic (or loathsome), and I genuinely wanted to find out what happened to them.

Tolstoy’s tale follows the spiritual journey of a privileged man who realizes that his actions, past and present, have contributed to the downfall of a poor woman: sending her into a down-spiral leading into prostitution and eventual wrongful conviction for murder. We see his inner spiritual struggle over how to rectify the situation as well as the outward struggle of living in a self-centered society that cares nothing for the poor and “criminal class.” To me, Tolstoy’s approach places so much emphasis on doing good that faith (an indispensable part of Christianity) is nearly excluded. However there was much food for thought throughout the book whether I agreed with him or not.

I listened to this as an audiobook read by Simon Vance. His narration was excellent, but I think that I might have preferred reading this myself for the sake of being able to re-read, make notes, etc. when it came to many of the philosophical points.

Overall, even though this had a lot of what I dislike in modern Christian fiction, it worked in the hands of a master like Tolstoy, and I greatly appreciated this book. Also, I am using this for my Classic in Translation category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Prank Ads

Title: Race Me in a Lobster Suit:
Absurd Internet Ads and the Real Conversations that Followed
Author: Kelly Mahon
Genre: Humor / Trolling
Pages: 208
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 3/26/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review).

How much you enjoy this book will depend entirely on your sense of humor. If you like prank phone calls or trolling people in a way that occasionally veers into “blue” territory, this is right up your alley.

The author records her exploits in posting absurd ads (e.g. looking for someone to act as a human piñata) and carrying on increasingly bizarre conversations via email with anyone desperate or curious enough to respond. The conversations mostly involve increasingly difficult, demanding, disturbing, and/or dangerous requests until the responder gets annoyed or weirded-out enough to quit.  At times it’s difficult to tell who is trolling whom. Personally, I thought that most of the ads were funnier than the conversations that followed. Overall, it’s pretty juvenile and occasionally a bit crude for my taste, but I’ll admit that it did have me chuckling in more than a couple places.

Noir, Old and New

The Baby in the Icebox: And Other Short Fiction by [Cain, James M.]Title: The Baby in the Icebox:
And Other Short Fiction
Author: James M. Cain
Genre: Classic Crime Noir (and other random short stories)
Pages: 312
Rating: 3.5 of 5

James M. Cain is best known for gritty crime tales like The Postman Always Rings Twice. If watching guilt-ridden criminals spiral downward into self-destruction is your thing, Cain is your man…though not so much in the first part of this book. This volume collects short stories from various points in Cain’s career, so the first half features vaguely humorous social commentary and back-hills rubes rather than the crime noir you might expect from the title and the ominous fedora-clad silhouette on the cover. Overall, it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing to have some lighter fare at the start because a full 300+ pages of Cain’s typical seedy protagonists and trainwreck lives may have been a bit much. As it was, it was entertaining enough for 3.5 stars, and I can check this off my list for the TBR Pile Challenge.

Title: My Sister the Serial Killer
Author: Oyinkan Braithwaite
Genre: Modern Crime Noir
Pages: “240”
Rating: 3.5

The title gives you the main plot point: our protagonist’s much doted upon younger sister would appear to be a serial killer, and the book follows her life and thoughts as she decides how to handle it. The plot jumps right in with her cleaning up after the her sister’s latest killing. From there it is by turns tense, humorous, and disturbing.

Both the “bond of sisterhood” theme and the Nigerian setting gives a slightly different feel from similar crime noir books, which I appreciated. As far as cultural and language differences go, a few small words such as exclamations, kinds of food, and articles of clothing go untranslated but enough can be gathered from context that they add “color” instead of being annoying.

This is really more of a novella than a full length novel. The page count says 240, but the tiny chapters that cover 1-3 pages with widely spaced lines and manage to spill a few lines onto the next page seem designed to seriously pad the page-count. As a noir story, it is competently executed and worth a read if you don’t mind moral ambiguity, a little grim humor, and loose ends.

The Anti-Philby

Title: The Spy and the Traitor:
The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War
Author: Ben Macintyre
Genre: Espionage History/Biography
Pages: 334 (plus citations & indices)
Rating: 5 of 5

Ben Macintyre spins another true tale of espionage and betrayal. In A Spy Among Friends (one of my favorite reads last year) he told the story of Kim Philby, the Soviet mole who wormed his way into the highest levels of MI-6. Now he focuses on “our” double agent: Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB officer who spied for MI-6 in the waning years of the Cold War.

Macintyre captures the paranoia and internal conflict of a double agent from Gordievsky’s first tentative effort at contacting Western intelligence to the final daring overland escape attempt from the heart of the USSR. Along the way he highlights Gordievsky’s contributions to preventing nuclear war and promoting more cordial relationships between East and West. While a primarily positive portrayal of the spy (especially as compared to Aldrich Ames whose story is interwoven with Gordievsky’s), the book does not completely gloss over mixed motives, the personal toll on family, and other nasty parts of a life wholly dedicated to deception. Overall, this is a fascinating spy story, right up there with anything written by LeCarré… but real!

Explicit & Overwritten

Title: 12 Tales Lie: 1 Tells True
Author: Maria Alexander
Genre: Horror / Supernatural
Pages: 226
Rating: 2 of 5
Release Date: 3/5/2019 according to NetGalley, but it appears to be already available on Amazon (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way influences the content of this review.)

The intriguing title of this collection is what caught my attention, but I don’t think it delivered. I took it to mean “13 relatively believable creepy tales of which one is actually true…” Most of them did start out with a depressingly believable character, bitter and scarred by past trauma and/or abuse. However, rather than sticking with psychological horror, eerie supernatural phenomena, or something else vaguely believable most of them quickly veered into such an over-the top (and/or fairytale inspired) supernatural direction that it was fairly obvious which one was intended as the “true” tale. Maybe I misunderstood the title?

For me, the writing style was overwrought; not exactly gushing “purple prose,” but way too many adjectives. It was as if every noun had to have at least one adjective attached to it. Add to this some pretty explicit language (including a graphically described rape and a BDSM obsession), and this really did not work for me. Your mileage may vary, but I was disappointed (and a bit disgusted).