Slowly Unfolding Sci-Fi

Title: Skyward Inn
Author: Aliya Whiteley
Genre: Sci-Fi
Pages: 336
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Publication Date: 3/16/21 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of my review)

This book grew on me. Our protagonists (Jem and her son, Fosse) both come across as continually sullen and petty, a pet peeve of mine. I give the son a pass because he appears to have some sort of autism spectrum issues, but Jem is just annoyingly sulky, whiney, and contrarian for most of the book. This character type annoys me so much that I almost quit about a quarter of the way through, but I’m glad that I didn’t.

The worldbuilding and slowly dawning realization of what is really going on make this a fascinating book. I can’t say too much without ruining the joy of discovery, but here’s the very basic setting: Some sort of interstellar gate has allowed humans to travel to another resource-rich planet, Qita, which they quickly gain control of due to the passivity of its monocultural inhabitants. Most of our story is set in a part of earth that has chosen to largely withdraw from modern society (very little technology, no space travel, etc.). There, Jem and her Qitan partner run the Skyward Inn, serving a Qitan brew that allows people to experience and share intense memories. The slowly unfolding story explores themes of identity, relationship, memory, and more.

The narration takes some getting used to as it jumps between first, second, and third person. Normally, I’d find this obnoxiously pretentious, but it makes sense in the overall framework of the book. Overall, if you don’t mind thoughtful, low-action sci-fi, this is definitely worth your time.

Mythology by Fry

Mythos

Title: Mythos
Author: Stephen Fry
Genre: Greek Mythology
Pages: 352 (audiobook 15h 26m)
Rating: 4 of 5

I enjoy Mythology, but I’ve always preferred Norse to Greek. For me, Ragnarok, heroic but slightly doofy Thor, scheming Loki, and the Volsung Saga are more entertaining than the antics of the rapey, skeezy Greek pantheon (not that the Aesir are paragons of virtue). This book didn’t change my preference, but it was a lot of fun!

Stephen Fry weaves the Greek myths into a coherent storyline and recounts them with enough wit and variety that they don’t feel overly repetitive. Listening to the author read his own work adds to the experience as you get both the clever turn of phrase and the humorous inflection.

While Fry makes occasional brief comments on alternate versions, parallels in other cultures, and underlying philosophy/symbolism, he maintains the focus on enjoying these stories as stories. I heartily approve of this approach as that is how I approach mythology (and allows the book to be enjoyed by those whose worldview differs significantly from the Ancient Greeks’ or Stephen Fry’s).

This book covers primarily the early eras of the Greek kosmos, so you won’t find more than a fleeting mention of heroes like Perseus, Jason, Heracles, Achilles, etc. Thankfully, he has written a second book (Heroes: The Greek Myths Reimagined) that covers at least some of those stories. I will definitely be purchasing it with one of my upcoming Audible credits. This is the most I have ever enjoyed Greek mythology, and it’s a must-read/listen for any fan of mythology!

And one thing unrelated to books: I apologize if your email got spammed with a post about Webull. I was playing around with their referral system and did not mean to post it in that format. That said <Spam Alert!>…if you are interested in trying out the free stock trading platform (with a little tax return or stimulus money), I would deeply appreciate it if you used this link and funded the account with at least $100 so we would both get a couple free shares of random stocks. <Spam Ends>

Classic Weirdness & Satire

The Back to the Classics Challenge is a fun incentive/excuse to mix some classics into your reading for the year (and there’s a chance to win $30 in books, so win-win!). It’s not too late to sign up if your interested…just click the graphic to the left. Anyway, I’ve finished two more books for the challenge, so time for a pair of reviews!

Through the Looking-Glass (AmazonClassics Edition) by [Lewis Carroll]

Title: Through the Looking Glass
Author: Lewis Carroll
Genre: Children’s Classic
Pages: 151
Rating: 4 of 5

A few years ago I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and was unimpressed. I found it obnoxious and shrill as the whole thing consists of Alice being rushed about and berated for being confused by the nonsensical world of Wonderland. The random nonsense level in Through the Looking Glass was about the same, but I enjoyed it a lot more. Alice’s imagining to herself was charming, the wordplay was a lot of fun, and who doesn’t love the poem Jaberwocky (to say nothing of the classic illustrations)? This classic weirdness is well worth reading.

The Way We Live Now by [Anthony Trollope]

Title: The Way We Live Now
Author: Anthony Trollope
Genre: Classic Satire
Pages: 800
Rating: 3.5 of 5

In this satirical novel, Trollope skewers late 19th century British high society. The sprawling story was originally published as a serial, and I think that Trollope couldn’t quite decide (or changed his mind partway through) about which character or plot thread was primary.

No matter which character of plot thread you follow, the overarching concern seems to be the manipulation of other people…usually for money, matrimony, or both. Trollope casts a cynical eye on mercenary marriages, feckless young men, and financial scandals.

None of the characters are pure as the driven snow (except for a couple of the young women who act like complete ninnies for most of the book). Few of the characters are sympathetic, but some of them are interesting. One character particularly caught my attention due to some similarities to a certain orange individual who shall remain nameless: a businessman much fawned upon because of his reputed wealth (despite rumors of past failed businesses and shady dealings) who enters politics as a conservative though having few real personal convictions.

Like a lot of satirical novels, the overall effect of the story arouses disgust more than amusement. Trollope doesn’t often demonstrate the witty turn of phrase that some satirists use to at least elicit a snort of derisive laughter. This makes parts of the book a bit of a slog, but overall it’s readable and insightful as long as you don’t mind a cast almost entirely void of sympathetic characters.

KKK Horror

Ring Shout by [P. Djèlí Clark]

Title: Ring Shout
Author: P. Djèlí Clark
Genre: Alternate/Secret History Horror
Pages: 172
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I went into this expecting an escapist monster-slaying romp with some sort of Klansmen-as-monsters twist. There was a gratifying amount of Klansman-monster slaying, but there is also some real depth to the book.

The author mixes together real life horrifying ideology and events (e.g. Klan “night rides,” The Birth of a Nation, the Tulsa Massacre, etc.) with the supernatural to capture the experience of living as a black person in early 20th century America. It reminded me a lot of Lovecraft Country but, unlike that book, this one succeeds in both evoking the right racist-horror atmosphere and telling a good cosmic horror story (while also celebrating aspects of African and African American culture, religion, and folklore).

It’s difficult to say much more about the plot without spoilers. Suffice it to say, this is not simply a tale of revenge or violent wish fulfillment. Ultimately, it explores what hatred does to people (the hater and the hated). This was headed to a 3.5 star rating for me, but the finale bumped it up a whole star and put P. Djèlí Clark on my “I have to read something else by him!” list.

Catch Up with Mini-Reviews

My reading is starting to seriously outpace my reviewing, so it’s time for some mini-reviews (presented in order read):

Mistress of the Art of Death (A Mistress of the Art of Death Novel Book 1) by [Ariana Franklin]

Title: Mistress of the Art of Death
Author: Ariana Franklin
Genre: Historical Fiction / Serial Killer Mystery
Pages: 420
Rating: 2.5

This tale of a female medieval forensic pathologist provided interesting/disturbing details of King Henry II’s England (particularly in regard to anti-Semitism). The serial killer mystery element was horrifying and well enough constructed to keep my reading. However the constant center-staging of the hatefulness and/or foolishness of Christians, piggish misogyny of men, and superiority of our “free thinker” heroine became grating and preachy by the end (to say nothing of a fairly awkward romance).

Title: On the Road
Author: Jack Kerouac
Genre: Pretentious Modern Classic
Pages: 307
Rating: 1.5 of 5

I guess I can see why this would be considered a classic: it’s a window into the mind of “the beat generation,” and some of the stream of consciousness prose approaches the lyrical (or the pretentious, depending on your inclination). That said, I would have been perfectly okay with never having looked through that window into a world of drunken, drug-fueled feckless wandering interspersed with petty theft, promiscuous sex, adultery, bigamy and pedophilic lusting. (I am using this for my 20th Century Classic over at the Back to the Classics Challenge).

Title: Voodoo Histories:
The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History
Author: David Aaronovitch
Genre: History of Paranoia
Pages: 372 (plus indices etc.)
Rating: 4 of 5

Occam’s Razor states that, “entities should not be multiplied without necessity” (i.e. the simplest explanation should usually be preferred). David Aaronovitch applies this principle as he examines a number of popular conspiracy theories (The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Kennedy assassinations, the Priory of Sion, 9/11 Truthers, etc.). Along the way he explores the real-world impact of these theories and what leads people to believe in conspiracies. Some of his argumentation was a bit weak/incomplete due to the overview nature of the book, but overall it is a worthwhile read. The book was published in 2010, and I would love to see a sequel or updated edition to cover the lunacy of the last 10 years.

Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife by [Ariel Sabar]

Title: Veritas:
A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife
Author: Ariel Sabar
Genre: Investigative Journalism
Pages: 393 (plus indices etc.)
Rating: 4 of 4

In 2012 a Harvard professor caused a stir by unveiling a tiny, purportedly ancient papyrus fragment that contained the phrase  “Jesus said to them, ‘my wife…’.” In this book, journalist Ariel Sabar recounts his involvement in tracing the actual origin of the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. In the end, it is a tale of a scholar who valued ideological “truth” over objective historical truth. In my opinion, the author spent way too much time expounding the theory that Gnosticism vied with orthodox Christianity from the beginning, but overall this was a fascinating read.

Yes, Jesus Loves Me

Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by [Dane C. Ortlund]

Title: Gentle and Lowly:
The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers
Author: Dane C. Ortlund
Genre: Beautiful Theology
Pages: 190 (plus indices, etc.)
Rating: 4.5 of 5

People who grew up in a certain kind of church soaked in the message of “Try harder to do better because God might have deigned to save you, but he doesn’t really like you that much.” They live under constant pressure to earn God’s love and approval with a constant sinking feeling of failing to do so (even while professing a belief in his mercy and grace). This book destroys such a disapproving, aloof image of our Heavenly Father and his Son Jesus Christ.

Jesus described himself as “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29), and in 23 short chapters Ortlund (with the help of various Puritan theologians) explores many facets of his compassionate character. We are reminded what it means when we say that Jesus “loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). These pages offer a beautiful, soul-refreshing description of the believer’s loving relationship with the One who “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3). This is not lightweight downplaying of God’s other attributes so we can focus on his love drivel, but biblically grounded praise of the One who is perfectly just and righteous and whose heart is characterized by mercy, grace, and compassion.

My only quibble with the book is that (like a lot of things that come out of The Gospel Coalition) it is a bit hero-worshippy toward the Puritan theologians. However, the quotes by these men that pervade the book demonstrate why this admiration is not wholly misplaced.

Overall, I highly recommend this book. I wouldn’t recommend blasting straight through it as moving too quickly may make some of it sound repetitive. Rather, savor a chapter or two at a time to appreciate all the different strands he is pulling together. There might not be anything particularly new here, but it eloquently remind us that “Yes, Jesus loves me; the Bible tells me so.”

Warhammer Sampler

Title: The Hammer and the Eagle:
Icons of Warhammer
Author: Dan Abnett, Graham McNeill, Guy Haley, etc.
Genre: Grimdark Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Pages: 800
Rating: 3.5 of 5
(Thank you to the publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

This anthology serves as a perfect introduction to the most popular characters in the Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer: Age of Sigmar universes. By page count, the split is approximately 70% WH40k sci-fi and 30% Sigmar fantasy.

Some familiarity with the Warhammer history and universes is helpful but not necessary for enjoying the grimdark escapist vignettes of violence (you can always check a wiki if you’re completely lost). Characters run the gamut through space marines, commissars, inquisitors, witch hunters, stormcast eternals, and a massively overpowered dwarf.

Before this, I had not read any books in the Age of Sigmar universe. However, I had read a few of the older Warhammer fantasy books (mostly Gotrek & Felix) and found the characters seriously overpowered…and the new Sigmar version seems to amp that up even more. I doubt I’ll be picking up any books from that side of things, but I did appreciate the chance to sample the universe.

On the 40,000 side, I recognized a handful of the stories from other anthologies, and several of them are a bit unsatisfactory as stand-alones since they were originally written to bridge a gap between two novels. Other than that, they were decent military sci-fi. I still prefer just about any character to the flat, overpowered loyalist space marines, but it’s all good/grim escapist fun with a nice variety of characters (and some variety in storytelling, though there’s only so much you can do in a universe where “there is only war”).

Overall, a decent collection: story-wise I’d give it 3 stars (my usual rating for most things Warhammer) and tack on an extra half star for the broad sampling of characters.

Cynicism & Greed

Title: Père Goriot
Author: Honoré de Balzac
Translator: Burton Raffel
Genre: Classic
Pages: 384 (actual novel only 217)
Rating: 2.5 of 5

My first reading of a Balzac classic left me with mixed feelings about whether I ever again want to read anything from his large body of work. The writing is witty (but melodramatic), the characters are interesting (but detestable), and the overall plot rings true to life (but the seedier, morally repellent side of life).

The novel explores how love, both familial and romantic, can be exploited for personal advancement. It reminds me of C. S. Lewis’s essay on The Inner Ring (see also The Room Where It Happens from Hamilton). However, where Lewis warns against the compromises and moral corruption that come with obsessively trying to be part of the inner ring, Balzac’s characters simply take a c’est la vie attitude toward it. Balzac invites us along on the young Rastignac’s journey toward embracing this cynical approach to life. I’m half tempted to pick up another book or two from Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine to see what happens to some of these characters, but I have a hard time reading literature where such absolute moral bankruptcy is treated as par for the course.

The edition that I read contained about 150 pages of essays and analysis. Personally, I found most of them to be pretentious rather than helpful: the kind of essays where the author wants to talk about a pet theme, theory, or philosophy and finds a way to impose it on Balzac or his writing (eisegesis rather than exegesis as we would have said in biblical hermeneutics 101). If literary analysis is your thing, you may get more out of them than I did.

Overall, I’m glad I tried a new author but I don’t think he’s my cup of tea.

Also, I’m using this for my Classic by a New-to-You Author category over at the Back to the Classics challenge.

Abandoned Plans

Nuking the Moon: And Other Intelligence Schemes and Military Plots Left on the Drawing Board by [Vince Houghton]

Title: Nuking the Moon:
And Other Intelligence Schemes and Military Plots Left on the Drawing Board
Author: Vince Houghton
Genre: Laughable & Disturbing History
Pages: 305 (plus bibliography etc.)
Rating: 4.5 of 5

As the subtitle indicates, this is a compendium of intelligence and military plans that were never put fully into action, though many of them did make it off the drawing board. Most of them combine elements of hilariously stupid and horrifyingly “why would you think that was a good idea (ethically or practically)?!” I mean: exploding bats, glowing foxes, nuking hurricanes, flying ICBM’s around on hovercraft…your tax dollars at work! Much of it was a reminder of just how MAD the Cold War was.

The author, who is a curator of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., appears knowledgeable and offers numerous links to his (sometimes heavily redacted) primary source material. There were times when I felt like he was trying a little too hard to be funny, but I think his snarky delivery works for the most part. Overall, the book is an amusing yet terrifying reminder that desperate people can try some incredibly stupid things [snarky comment about recent events in DC redacted], and it’s well worth reading.

Best & Worst of 2020

This year I read 116 books with a total page count of 44,163 (~381 pages/book). I now present you with my fifth annual best and worst reads of the year lists (titles linked to my full review if I wrote one; excludes re-reads; presented in groups of five unranked with an additional honorable/dishonorable mention; & starting with the “worst of” list so we can end on a positive note…no purchase necessary; void where prohibited):

Worst of the Year

  • The Comedians by Graham Greene – Our selfish creep of a narrator pursues his sordid little affair amidst the horror of Papa Doc’s Haiti. The secondary characters and setting were interesting, but being in that jerk’s head the whole time was depressing and gross.
  • The Beetle by Richard Marsh – An ambiguously-gendered were-beetle isn’t a strong enough antagonist to make this book worth the boring Victorian nonsense in the middle and abrupt deus ex machina ending.
  • The Necromancers by Robert Hugh Benson – The author seems more interested in warning you against spiritualism than in actually writing a scary story.
  • The Last Ritual by S. A. Sidor – I set the bar for tabletop-game-inspired books pretty low, but this one still failed to clear it with watered-down Lovecraft in a flimsy 1920’s setting.
  • The Scapegoat by Daphne DuMaurier – With this wholly unbelievable tale, DuMaurier becomes the second author ever to appear on both the “best” and “worst” lists in the same year (John LeCarré achieved the same feat last year).
  • Dishonorable Mention: Gwendy’s Magic Feather by Richard Chizmar – The author tried to do way too much in this disappointing sequel to the excellent Gwendy’s Button Box.

Best Non-Fiction

  • Before You Vote by David Platt – This is the rarest of finds: a Christian book about participating in elections that truly places godly principles above partisan agenda!
  • The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark – The author makes a valiant (largely successful?) attempt at describing the complex events and motivations that led to World War 1.
  • Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre – Ben Macintyre makes the list three years running with another excellent true espionage tale: how a corpse sowed disinformation in the Nazi war machine.
  • The Trolley Problem by Thomas Cathcart – This book cleverly stretches out the classic ethical dilemma of “the trolley problem” to provide a whirlwind introduction to various ethical theories and theorists
  • Can We Trust the Gospels by Peter J. Williams – The author ably argues from a variety of external sources and internal characteristics that it is reasonable to trust the veracity of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).
  • Honorable Mention: Linguistics and New Testament Greek edited by David Alan Black & Benjamin Merkle – This was like a step back into seminary with my favorite professor (who passed away before this book was written, but is mentioned in it several times)

Best Fiction

  • Reimagining Lovecraft by Victor LaValle, Kij Johnson, Cassandra Khaw, Kaitlin R. Kiernan – An excellent collection of four novellas that self-consciously riff on Lovecraft while subverting his bigotry. (I would also highly recommend Cassandra Khaw’s followup novella A Song for Quiet)
  • Reggiecide by Chris Dolley – The Reeves & Worcester series is a hilarious pitch-perfect steampunk sendup of P. G. Wodehouse (& golden age detective stories), and this novella is my favorite of the lot.
  • Scythe by Neal Shusterman – I liked each book in this trilogy less than the one before it, but I’m a sucker for good worldbuilding and this first book in the series has it in spades.
  • The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton – This seeming “murder at the manor house” kind of mystery evolves into some sort of sinister Groundhog Day.
  • My Cousin Rachel by Daphne DuMaurier – Is she a murderer and manipulator or a misunderstood and maligned widow? DuMaurier shows her genius for creating tension and ambiguity.
  • Honorable Mention: A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe – Any other year this horrific but (extremely) dry fictionalized account of the 1665 Black Plague pandemic in London would have seemed boring, but it was fascinating to see the parallels in human thought and behavior to our current situation.

And that does it for reading in 2020. My reading goal for 2021 is my old standby of 100 books with an average of at least 300 pages/book. It’s a goal that I usually pass without a lot of effort, but I see no reason to pressure myself and turn enjoyable reading into a high-pressure duty. My Goodreads TBR currently has 100 books on it (at around 38,000 total pages) and I’d like to do most of my reading from there (or at least from books that I already own). Given my usual reading habits, I have my doubts whether that will actually happen. Anyway, it’s way past my bed time so, Happy New Year!