Stick with Dracula

50048113Title: The Beetle
Author: Richard Marsh
Genre: Victorian Era Horror
Pages: 335
Rating: 2 of 5

The Beetle was published the same year as Dracula and originally outsold it. Having read it, I’m not surprised that Stoker’s masterpiece has endured while this tale of an ambiguously-gendered Egyptian were-beetle seeking revenge on a British MP fell by the wayside.

The book starts out strong with some truly creepy moments involving human misery and supernatural compulsion. Unfortunately, the story became increasingly less interesting as we detour into a Victorian love triangle (or possibly pentagon) complete with a disapproving parent and wealthy spinster. One of our narrators at this point is a mad scientist who talks a bit like Bertie Wooster but whose mad science ends up playing no significant part in the plot (such a waste!).

The author never managed to recover the creepiness of the first quarter of the book. Once the supernatural stuff really picks up again, there’s the usual product-of-its-era casual xenophobia, sexism, etc., an uninspired telegraphing/dashing around trying to find the damsel in distress chase sequence, and a ridiculously abrupt ending.

I was ready to give this 3 stars as passable product-of-its-era Gothic horror if the author could land the ending, but it was so bad that it brought down the entire book. It feels like he couldn’t decide how to end it, got bored with writing, and covered it all up with a couple dei ex machina and a liberal dose of “it was too horrible for words.” Weird/horror stories don’t need to give the reader all the answers, but this ending was a complete cop out. Stick with Dracula!

Gods & Thieves

The Gutter Prayer (The Black Iron Legacy Book 1) by [Hanrahan, Gareth]Title: The Gutter Prayer
Author: Gareth Hanrahan
Genre: Dark Fantasy (Steampunk-ish)
Pages: 544
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Gareth Hanrahan borrows characterization and tropes from across fantasy and horror sub-genres, and somehow combines them into a highly original dark fantasy setting. Worldbuilding was definitely the standout feature of this book. We get to explore the seedy underbelly of the steampunk-ish (trains, guns, alchemy, etc.) old city of Guerdon, inhabited by thieves, Lovecraftian ghouls, stone men (afflicted with a disease like leprosy that slowly turns them to stone), knife-wielding wax golems, and more.

Parts of this world are locked in a horrifyingly destructive “godswar” where deities and their possessed champion “saints” rage across the land, but the city of Guerdon has managed to remain neutral and relatively safe. Of course, things can’t stay that way for long or we wouldn’t have much of a story, so the story opens on a trio of thieves and a heist that goes horribly wrong and drags them into a maelstrom of political and supernatural machinations.

The writing, aside from the worldbuilding, was good, not great. It felt like it really could have used a bit more editing. There were way too many typos and misused homonyms for a final draft, some characters’ motivations/goals didn’t quite make sense or were ill-explained, and a couple sexcapades felt wedged in and cringey. (I’m also not a fan of the “f-bomb” being dropped every few pages, but that’s more about my preferences/standards than an editing issue.)

That said, I enjoyed the book overall. It was dark without wallowing in existential angst. Some plot points were resolved in a very deus ex machina fashion, which usually annoys me, but it worked within the author’s setting. It was a mostly enjoyable first read of the year, and I already have the next one ready to go on my Kindle.

Best & Worst of 2019

This year I set a new personal record for number of books and pages read (134 books, 42,308 pages), and the last book I finished was my 1,000th book since I started keeping track in 2008 (and I didn’t even plan it that way!). Without further ado, here are my best & worst lists for the year (excludes rereads). Let’s start with the worst of the year, so we can end on a positive note:

Worst of the Year (Fiction & Non-fiction)

  1. Why Poetry Sucks: [absurdly long subtitle that I’m not going to reproduce here] by Ryan Fitzpatrick & Jonathan Ball – While trying to show that poetry can be amusing, these authors simply demonstrate how much pretentious experimental poetry does indeed suck.
  2. Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeanette Ng – Why, oh why would you spin such an interesting premise around such a creepy/pervy plot point?!
  3. Grifter’s Game by Lawrence Block – I didn’t bother to review this, but it is essentially crime noir starring an exploitive misogynistic cad who “wins” in the end through mental and physical abuse of a female partner-turned-victim
  4. Preacher Sam by Cassondra Windwalker – This had everything that I dislike about “Christian fiction”: repetitive morbid introspection, shoehorned-in romance, shoddy plotting, etc.
  5. The Little Drummer Girl by John LeCarré – This anti-Israeli thriller earns LeCarré the “honor” of being the first author to appearing on both my best and worst lists in the same year.

Dishonorable Mention: Atonement by Ian McEwan – This is another one I didn’t review. I know it’s supposed to be some sort of literary masterpiece, but I thought it was just overwritten and self-indulgent.

Best Fiction

  1. Mechanical Failure by Joe Zieja – I feel a little silly selecting this ridiculous “military sci-fi” book for top honors, but I guess I really needed a good laugh this year.
  2. O Alienista (The Alienist) by Machado de Assis – My first time reading a Brazilian classic was a great success with this satire about psychiatry & science
  3. Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy – This is basically philosophy wrapped in story. It’s the kind of thing I usually hate in Christian fiction, but Tolstoy makes it work.
  4. Macbeth by Jo Nesbo – The Hogarth Shakespeare series continues to impress. Macbeth retold as a gritty, slightly over the top crime drama works quite well.
  5. Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield – This tale of the glory and horror of war provides a surprisingly humanising portrait of the 300 Spartans and their allies.

Honorable Mention: Agent Running in the Field by John LeCarré – This isn’t anywhere near the level of his Cold War novels, but it was a solid spy story.

Best Non-Fiction

  1. The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre – Macintyre makes the “best of” list two years running with another fascinating true spy story culminating in an edge-of-your-seat exfiltration attempt.
  2. How Long, O Lord: Reflections on Suffering and Evil by D. A. Carson – This provides a compassionate yet solid biblical framework for understanding suffering and evil.
  3. Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion by Rebecca McLaughlin – McLaughlin’s thoughtful answers demonstrate the continuing value and viability of Christianity
  4. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild – I finally knocked this off my TBR. Reading about such exploitation and suffering is difficult, but important. Those who forget history…
  5. The Proverbs of Middle Earth by David Rowe – This fed my Tolkien-geek soul…and it’s based entirely on the books, so that’s an added bonus!

Honorable Mention: Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible by Mark Ward – “King James Onlyism” is one of my pet peeves, and this book ably defends and promotes vernacular Bible translations without denigrating the venerable KJV.

Plans for Next Year

This year the two challenges I was in were fun, but I felt a little locked into reading certain books, so in 2020 I’m not planning on entering any challenges. I don’t think that I’ll read anywhere near as many books because quite a few of the titles on my TBR are in the 500-1000 page range. I’m going to set my goal at 78 books (2 books every 3 weeks) with an average page count around 400 pages/book.

Well, that’s it for this year. Happy New Year, everyone!

Questions & Proverbs

I planned for my next post to be my best/worst of the year wrap-up, but two of my most recent reads were so good that I want to post at least a short review for each of them:

Title: Confronting Christianity:
12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion
Author: Rebecca McLaughlin
Pages: 226 (plus indices etc.)
Genre: Theology
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I hadn’t heard of Rebecca McLaughlin before reading this (her first book), but I’ll definitely be snatching up anything she writes in the future! She addresses common questions/accusations leveled against Christianity (and sometimes organized religion in general) with an erudite blend of statistical data and theological explanations. Topics include diversity, religious violence, homophobia (she herself has been same sex attracted throughout her life), misogyny, slavery, theodicy (existence of evil/suffering), and much more.

Her tone and honesty are refreshing amidst the polarizing, demonizing rants that too often pass for apologetics. She does not shy away from admitting when/where Christians in general have failed to live up to their professed beliefs. Yet, her defense of the truth and value of Christian orthodoxy is firm without being condescending.

I highly recommend this book for non-Christians as a thoughtful counterpoint to “new atheists” (and other common objectors/objections), and to Christians as a help in better understanding your faith and humbly defending it without vitriol and straw-man arguments.

Title: The Proverbs of Middle Earth
Author: David Rowe
Genre: Literary Analysis (Worldbuilding)
Pages: 193 (plus indices etc.)
Rating: 4.5 of 5

David Rowe explores the cultures and people of Middle Earth through their wise sayings. If you aren’t a big Tolkien/LOTR geek, this book probably isn’t for you, but for those of us obsessed with Middle earth it’s fantastic!

Rowe picks out dozens of instances of proverbial wisdom woven into the speech of Tolkien’s characters and shows what they reveal about the speakers and their culture. As with any literary analysis there is some speculation involved. Occasionally it is debatable whether what he picks out are genuine proverbs or just high-sounding wise speech, and a few of this inferences may be a bit of a stretch. However, he makes many astute observations and points out a number of connections that enrich the story.

For me, the fact that you can analyze Tolkien’s world to this extent shows what an amazing “sub-creator” he was. Highly recommended for those who want a deeper understanding of Middle Earth.

Back to the Classics Challenge Wrap-Up

Thanks to Karen at Books & Chocolate for hosting the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge! It’s a great way to make sure I get at least a dozen classics mixed in with the year’s reading. I’ve completed books from all 12 categories (3 entries in the drawing!), so here’s the wrap-up post (click any title for the full review).

19th Century ClassicThe Warden by Anthony Trollope: a witty/snarky take on church politics that shows an understanding of human nature (and a dislike of “troublemaking” reformers like that insufferable Charles Dickens)

20th Century Classic – Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak: A flowery account of horrifying conditions in Soviet Russia, an adulterous love affair, and amazingly convenient coincidences

Classic by a Woman – Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor: Surreal loosely connecting storylines dealing with religion, mysticism, and hypocrisy

Classic in Translation – Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy: everything I generally dislike in Christian fiction (morbid introspection, plot secondary to theology, preachiness, etc.) but in the hands of a master like Tolstoy it works…probably my favorite classic of the year.

Classic Tragedy – Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy: an account of all-too-believable life-destroying obsessive discontent

Classic Comic Novel – The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N by Leonard Q. Ross: The joys and travails of trying to teach a student whose “unique” thought process gets in the way of learning the absurd language that is English

Very Long Classic – The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne: A book made up almost entirely of digressions, asides, and slightly off-color (but self-censored) jokes

Classic Novella – Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad: A horrifying look at colonial exploitation in the Belgian Congo and the evil that lurks in the human heart

Classic from the Americas or Caribbean – The Prince & the Pauper by Mark Twain: Second-tier Twain; less cynical (but less well-written) than A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

Classic from Africa, Asia, or Oceania – The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat: A disturbing descent into murderous insanity

Classic from a Place You’ve Lived – O Alienistsa (The Alienist) by Machado de Assis: Fantastic satire on those who think everything can be perfectly understood by science and fixed by psychiatry

Classic Play – King Lear by William Shakespeare: Grimdark Shakespeare

(on the off-chance I win, I can be contacted here)

TBR Challenge Wrap-up

Thanks to RoofBeamReader for hosting the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge! It gave me a great excuse for finally reading a bunch of books that had been hanging out on my bookshelves unread. I finished 13 of the books on my original list (11 of 12 on the main list plus both alternates), which counts as challenge completed! Here’s the list (click titles for full review):

Main TBR

  1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – This is the one I didn’t get to.
  2. Atonement by Ian McEwan – I finished this one a few days ago, but haven’t reviewed it. Short version: very purple prose, flat unlikeable characters, and a sucker punch of an ending
  3. The Baby in the Icebox and Other Short Fiction by James M. Cain – a decent short story collection by one of the crime/noir masters that contained some of his early, less grim writing alongside the crime fiction
  4. The Case of the Velvet Claws (Perry Mason: Book 1) by Erle Stanley Gardner – a competent tough guy, lawyer, investigator novel…definitely more hardboiled and unscrupulous than the later, fatter TV version
  5. Corum: The Coming of Chaos (Eternal Champion Sequence: Volume 7) by Michael Moorcock – One of the better collections in the Eternal Champion cycle
  6. Ever by Gail Carson Levine – Not as charming as her fairytale-based books, but an interesting take on ancient culture and mythology
  7. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild – Difficult to read about such brutality, but an important work on the exploitation of colonial Africa
  8. The Little Drummer Girl by John LeCarré – Probably my least favorite LeCarré book to date; basically an anti-Israeli screed
  9. Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South by Christopher Dickey – Less spy-oriented than the title suggests, but a fascinating, unusual view of the American Civil War (and a blow to the “Lost Cause” narrative)
  10. The Roads Between the Worlds (Eternal Champion Sequence: Volume 6) by Michael Moorcock – Typical Moorcock preachiness with minimal connection to the Eternal Champion
  11. Song of Kali by Dan Simmons – Depressing xenophobic horror
  12. The Tyranny of the Night (The Instrumentalities of the Night: Book 1) by Glen Cook – An odd alternate history-ish story in which all the names have been changed and all the major events of the Middle Ages happen simultaneously

Alternates:

  1. Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeanette Ng – An interesting premise (missionaries to faerie) spoiled by a pervasive theme that makes pretty much everyone go Eeeeewww!
  2. Unusual Uses of Olive Oil by Alexander McCall Smith – the fourth installment in the Professor Dr. Von Igelfeld series; less entertaining than the first three

SF&F Mini-Reviews

It’s time to take a little break from the busyness that engulfs my life between Thanksgiving and New Year’s and catch up with a few mini reviews. In the order I read them, here are a handful of Fantasy & Sci-fi(ish) books that I read over the last few months:

All Systems Red (Kindle Single): The Murderbot Diaries by [Wells, Martha]Title: All Systems Red
(Murderbot Diaries – Book 1)
Author: Martha Wells
Genre: Survival/AI Sci-fi
Pages: 154
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Meet Murderbot. Our protagonist/narrator is a security cyborg who has hacked its governor module, essentially making it a heavily-armed illegal unfettered AI. All that Murderbot really wants is to be left alone to enjoy its collection of cheap soap opera-esque entertainment…but dangerous, sinister things keep happening on this seemingly routine scientific mission.

I loved the characterization of Murderbot as it tries to keep its independent status a secret while struggling with what it means to be human. I plan on eventually continuing the series, but that brings me to the one downside: the way this is sold feels like a cynical money-grab. This could easily be one longish book rather than spreading it out across 4 or 5 novellas and charging $9.99 a piece for most of them!

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by [Ligotti, Thomas]Title: Songs of a Dead Dreamer & Grimscribe
Author: Thomas Ligotti
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Pages: 464
Rating: 4 of 5

If you are into Lovecraftian horror, you need to check out this collection of Thomas Ligotti’s early fiction. These stories don’t feature Lovecraft’s alien god-monsters (Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!), but more subtly toy with the same themes of forbidden sanity-blasting knowledge and an ominous something/nothing lurking out there.

As with any collection, the quality varies quite a bit. There were a couple stories that left me saying “that was just gross/dumb/pointless,” but this was by far the best cosmic horror collection I read this year.

Title: How To:
Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems
Author: Randall Munroe
Genre: Absurd Science
Pages: 320
Rating: 5 of 5

So, this isn’t fiction, but (as the subtitle states) it is a collection of utterly impractical scientific advice. It covers everything from how to host a pool party (focusing on how to make and fill your pool), to moving your house (using jet engines), to the practicalities of installing a lava moat. All of this is accompanied by illustrations in the author’s classic XKCD style. It’s both funny and educational!

Title: Prophets of the Ghost Ants
(Antasy Series – Book 1)
Author: Clark Thomas Carlton
Genre: Science Fantasy
Pages: 608
Rating: 3 of 5

First of all, thank you to Mogsy @ Bibliosanctum for the giveaway where I won this! The best part of this book is the world-building: a world in which the only land or air-dwelling creatures are bugs and bug-sized people. How the author develops the societies, politics, and warfare of this world is quite interesting. There are lots of scientific goodies related to ant colonies…and a lot to be grossed out by if bugs (and eating bugs) disgusts you.

Personally, I was a bit annoyed at the overall preachiness of the book (monotheism is the cause of most suffering, all religion is purely man-made, the utopian society is based on secular humanism that condescendingly tolerates the foolish theistic beliefs of others as long as they keep it to themselves, etc.). The protagonist comes from the lowest/untouchable caste in his colony and by turns I admires his pluck and ingenuity and was turned off by his brutal pragmatism even as he preened in his moral superiority. Overall, it was interesting enough that I’ll eventually get around to reading the next book, but the preachiness and inconsistency was a bit off-putting.

Title: Mechanical Failure
(Epic Failure – Book 1)
Author (& Narrator): Joe Zieja
Genre: Hilarious Military Sci-fi
Pages: 352
Rating: 4.5 of 5

If you enjoy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and/or the Discworld novels, you should read this. There’s nothing terribly deep here, but it’s good stupid fun.

The 200 Years (and counting) Peace has made the military a haven of slackers and swindlers…at least that was the case when R. Wilson Rogers left the military to pursue more lucrative (and less legal) ventures. When Rogers reluctantly reenlists, he quickly discovers that military discipline is now the order of the day and the military may actually have to fight someone. Cue a series of absurd command decisions, whiney complaints, interaction with overly-logical robots, all-around ineptitude, and several epic failures.

This book had me laughing harder than anything else I read this year. Granted, physical exhaustion from current work schedule may have contributed to that a bit, but it’s a funny book! I listened to it as an audiobook read by the author, and his expression (including a synthesized filter for some of the robots) added a lot to the experience. Highly recommended!

Persian Insanity

The Blind Owl by [Hedayat, Sadegh]Title: The Blind Owl
Author: Sadegh Hedayat
Translator: D. P. Costello
Genre: Modern Iranian Classic
Pages: 160
Rating: 2.5 of 5

I enjoy Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories of madness and the macabre, and this Iranian classic promised to be like one of those on steroids (in a Persian setting, of course). It delivered convincingly on the madness as our opium-addicted narrator spirals ever deeper into his insanity. We see him struggling with (or giving in to) obsession, loss of identity, sexual frustration, alienation, paranoia, homicidal urges, suicidality, and more. And, I’m sure that people more proficient at literary analysis than I will also find layers of allegory and other juicy things to (over)analyze.

The story of his pathetic life slowly unfolds throughout the course of the story. At least it sort of does…he’s so spectacularly unstable that it’s pretty hard to distinguish fact from delusion. I can definitely see how this book gained its reputation as a modern classic with its exploration of dark psychology and lyrical prose.

That said, I didn’t especially enjoy the book. It is incredibly dark (urban legend has it that many readers have committed suicide), and a lot of the sexual (and other bodily function) stuff was just kind of gross. If you’re into psychological horror this may be right up your alley, but it was a bit much for me.

(Also, I’m using this as my Classic from Africa, Asia, or Oceania at the Back to the Classics Challengewhich means I’ve completed it other than the final wrap-up post!)

Down with Eurocentric History!

Title: Toward a Global Middle Ages:
Encountering the World Through Illuminated Manuscripts
Editor: Bryan C. Keene
Genre: “Medieval” History
Pages: 263 (plus indices, etc.)
Rating: 3 of 5
(Thank you to the publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of this review) 

As a bibliophile who has an interest in old manuscripts, exploring world history via illuminated manuscripts sounded right up my alley. It turned out to be pretty dry, which probably shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise for a book of academic essays. Overall, the collected essays focus on challenging a Eurocentric view of the “Middle Ages.”

Some of the essays heavily analyze a few manuscripts, mining them for cultural practices, prejudices, parallels, and points of contact. Others give more of a generalized overview or a mere passing nod to manuscripts and then focus on what the author really wants to say about global history and/or Eurocentrism. Some came off as just having an ax to grind (e.g. complaining that the Queen of Sheba was usually painted light-skinned but then belittling the supposed motives of the few who painted her dark-skinned).

The book does present an interesting diversity of manuscripts (and manuscript analogues) from all over the world, complete with numerous pictures (about 2/3 of which were missing in the eARC I read). How much you appreciate the accompanying analysis will depend on your tolerance for Academic buzzwords and interest in this fairly specific aspect of history.

Not-so-triumphant Return

Unusual Uses for Olive Oil (Professor Dr von Igelfeld Series Book 4) by [Smith, Alexander Mccall]Title: Unusual Uses for Olive Oil
(Professor Dr. von Igelfeld – Book 4)
Author: Alexander McCall Smith
Genre: General Fiction – Humor
Pages: 203
Rating: 3 of 5

Professor Dr. Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld’s over inflated sense of scholarly importance combines with an inappropriate amount of self-confidence in some social situations, a complete lack of self-awareness in others, and German literalness and embarrassment over emotions to make a ridiculous yet charming character. His pointless adventures in cycles of loosely-connected short stories amuse, entertain, and poke gentle fun at German academics…at least in the first three books.

This one was a bit of a dud. It had its moments of humorous cluelessness and hubris but a lot of it felt like it was just not different enough from the jokes and petty bickering that we’d already seen in the other books (and our hero’s nemesis, Dr. Detlev Amadeus Unterholzer didn’t seem to be quite himself). If you like the original series this might be worth reading to see what our distinguished professors are up to, but it just isn’t as good as the original Two and a Half Pillars of Wisdom trilogy.

Also, this is my 12th book in the TBR Pile Challenge. I read my two alternates instead of the first two on the original list, so I may still read those, but I’ve finished enough books to complete the challenge!