Two Weird Reads

Title: Area X – The Southern Reach Trilogy
(includes Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance)
Author: Jeff VanderMeer
Genre: Trippy Weirdness
Pages: 608
Rating: 4 of 5

There is a fine line between “fascinatingly weird” and “trippy to the point of being incomprehensible.” Jeff VanderMeer balances right on that line. His mind-bending blend of Lovecraftian elements, Area 51/Men-in-Black style conspiracy, and alien landscape exploration makes for a disorienting reading experience. This guy knows how to write weird fiction! If you need your stories wrapped up in a nice little bow, this is not for you, but I think that there are enough answers and hints for a satisfying reading experience that will keep you pondering long after you finish.

Title: Entropy in Bloom
Author: Jeremy Robert Johnson
Genre: Gross, Angry Weirdness
Pages: 280
Rating: 2 of 5

Amazon insistently recommended this book based on my reading of Lovecraftian cosmic horror…stupid Amazon! There were some memorable stories in here, but they relied mostly on gross and morally shocking elements for their punch, rather than anything particularly Lovecraftian. Mostly it felt like the author was morally outraged about something (President George W., reality TV, straight-edge macho culture, addiction, etc.) and decided to write a shocking story that pushed it to a weird and horrifying extreme, including plenty of profanity and sexuality. Overall, I can see how some people would really like this, but it was just too angry and gross (viscerally and morally) for me.

None Dare Call It Treason

Title: God Against the Revolution:
The Loyalist Clergy’s Case Against the American Revolution
Author: Gregg L. Frazer
Genre: History (plus Theology & Philosophy)
Pages: 280
Rating: 5 of 5

“Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.” – John Harrington

This book helped fill a gap in my understanding of US history. In school (kindergarten through master’s degree), I remember only one teacher who (rather tentatively) expressed any serious doubt over whether the American Revolution was morally justifiable. After all, if you’re a red-blooded American, you know that the patriots were absolutely justified in their rebellion against English tyranny. We won against all odds, so that must prove that God was on our side.

If such a facile argument doesn’t work for you, this book provides interesting historical (and theological/philosophical) information that should be integrated into your understanding of the American Revolution. Gregg Frazer dares to stir the waters by presenting the arguments and life circumstances of colonists who stayed loyal to their king.

Because most writings by such people were repressed and destroyed (so much for freedom of speech and of the press), he is limited in his sources to the writings of five or six loyalist clergymen. He presents their arguments largely without direct comment on whether or not he finds them convincing (though he is clearly sympathetic to some of them). The arguments are divided into categories: biblical, theoretical on the nature of government, legal, rational regarding the American situation, and rational based on colonial actions.

Personally, I was most interested in the biblical arguments since I views the principles and commands of Scripture as my basis for morality. As I suspected, most arguments revolved around Romans 13:1-7 & 1 Peter 2:13-17 which both command Christians to be law-abiding citizens/subjects who honor, obey, and pay taxes to the existing authorities (with the exception that laws commanding a Christian to directly disobey God must be disobeyed with a willingness to accept the consequences -e.g. Acts 5:29, Daniel 3:15-18). The point was well-argued, and I myself have preached/taught these passages in a similar way (to similar, though less violent, pushback from “patriotic Americans”)…there truly is nothing new under the sun!

Overall, this is a fascinating book. If you are at all interested in the American Revolution and/or the nature of a Christian’s responsibility toward human government, I challenge you to read it. Don’t settle for the “fan fiction” version of American history. You may or may not agree with the loyalist clergy view of “God against the revolution,” but for the sake of intellectual integrity, it is good to hear out both sides in a complex issue. And of course, examining the triumphs and failures (military, cultural, moral, etc.) of the past helps us make wiser decisions in the present.

Two Creepy Reads

The Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Title: The Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Author: Jack Finney
Genre: Classic Sci-Fi
Pages: 224 (6 hours, 39 minutes Audiobook as read by Kristoffer Tabori)
Rating: 4 of 5

The otherworldly “what is going on?!” suspense of this book hits the exact tone that I like when I read a creepy story. Sure, everyone knows the gist of the story by now, and the “science” is a bit hokey and dated, but it can still ratchet up the tension if you take it on its own terms.

That said, one aspect of the story grated a bit, even if it was a “product of its era.” The protagonist’s leering, condescending tone toward women got old really fast (and the bored, macho tone of the audiobook narrator really emphasized it). At one point his love interest kind of calls him on it, but her overall demeanor goes right along with it.

Overall, if you want a quick suspenseful read and are willing to overlook a bit of B-movie style hokeyness and product-of-its-era casual sexism, this is worth your time.

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus Audiobook By Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley cover art

Title: Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus
Author: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Genre: Classic Gothic
Pages: 222 (8 hours, 20 minutes Audiobook as read by Simon Vance)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

I know that this classic is widely lauded as a work of pioneering genius. I even understand why: we have the cool backstory of how the book came to be written, we have the hubris of Victor Frankenstein, we have the tragic “monster,” we have the question of who is to blame for the “monster’s” evil, and we have all kinds of other great themes and wonderfully gothic moral dilemmas. But for all that, I have a hard time appreciating this book. This is the third time I’ve read this, and it just annoys me every time no matter how much I want to like it.

Victor Frankenstein is such an absurdly overemotional, egotistical drama queen that he just makes me roll my eyes in disgust the whole time. He seems to spend most of his time swooning, languishing near death, and moping around because he’s just soooo overcome with emotion. He’s so self-absorbed that he can’t be bothered to tell anyone that there’s a powerful, murderous “creature” on the loose thanks to him…not even when it could potentially save people’s lives by doing so! Victor’s melodramatic twit act that morphs into vengeful monomania when there’s nothing left to lose is just too much gothic nonsense for me.

Betrayers’ Backstory

The Horus Heresy Volume One (The Horus Heresy Omnibuses Book 1) by [Dan Abnett, Graham McNeill, Ben Counter, James Swallow]

Title: The Horus Heresy, Volume 1
Authors: Dan Abnett, Graham McNeill, Ben Counter, & James Swallow
Genre: Grimdark Military Sci-Fi
Pages: 1433
Rating: 3.5

The first time I started reading the Horus Heresy series, I quickly gave up in annoyance. Having now read quite a few Warhammer 40,000 books and become acquainted with the lore and characters, I decided to give it another shot. This time I found it much more interesting, approaching it as a detailed history of how the WH40k universe came to be.

The five books in this omnibus (Horus Rising, False Gods, Galaxy in Flames, The Flight of the Eisenstein, and Fulgrim) tell a coherent story of pride, corruption and betrayal from multiple points of view. I am more convinced than ever that there are no “good guys” in this universe. There are just bad guys who maybe mean well (the xenophobic manifest-destiny-spouting loyalists bringing the “light” of atheism and iron-fisted rule to the galaxy) and worse guys (rebelling against the Emperor but for purely corrupt, increasingly vile reasons). If you don’t mind ultraviolent grimdark, it’s an interesting escapist read complete with huge action set pieces and rather ham-handed philosophizing on honor, religion, tyranny, etc.

As far as style goes, the storytelling is competent (though some authors overuse certain stock phrases or words) and the plotting of the series so far is well executed. Some key events are covered in multiple books from different points of view but never in a way that is needlessly repetitious. There is a decent balance between each book telling of a complete enough set of events that you don’t feel cheated of an ending and each book contributing to the overall story arc of the series.

Random aside: One fun thing to watch for as you read is that Graham McNeill seems to slip in little nods to other SF&F…in Fulgrim I spotted a subtle passing reference to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and in his Forges of Mars omnibus I noticed an homage to The Princess Bride and one or two other little things.

As I’ve said before with other Warhammer-related books, this isn’t great literature by any stretch of the imagination, but it is entertaining escapist sci-fi.

Danté by Dorothy

Title: The Divine Comedy, Part 1: Hell
Author: Danté Alighieri
Translator: Dorothy L. Sayers
(Yes, the same one who wrote the Lord Peter Wimsey series)
Genre: Classic Narrative Poetry
Pages: 352
Rating: 4 of 5

In her translation of the Divine Comedy, Dorothy L. Sayers manages to closely approximate the terza rima of the original (rhyme scheme ABA BCB CDC, DED, etc.). I love it when a translator takes this approach to narrative poetry. The original author chose a specific form (whether meter, rhyme, alliteration, or something else), and I want to experience as close as I can to that original artistry as I read the poem, even if it sometimes means a slightly less precise translation.

Danté’s journey through hell is much more than a morbid freak show of horrors, though that is all you might get out of it without some scholarly help. The poetry is accompanied by insightful notes explaining historical and mythological references, theological and philosophical concepts, and the allegorical/symbolic meaning behind the story. As with any literary analysis, some of the interpretation of symbolism is highly conjectural and probably says more about the commentator than it does about authorial intent. However, the overall understanding of “this is sin stripped of its glamor” and “this is the soul progressing toward repentance” do seem to fit very well.

I have read the entire Divine Comedy before, but this translations and accompanying notes have made it a completely different, more understandable experience. I come from a different theological viewpoint than either the author (Medieval Roman Catholic) or translator (Anglican), but appreciated some of the spiritual insights of the poem and commentary. I am curious if this will continue to be the case as I continue into the other two volumes where our theology diverges even farther (e.g. the existence of purgatory, the role of Mary, etc.).

Overall, if you are interested in The Divine Comedy, can’t read it in the original language, and don’t need word-for-word precision, I highly recommend trying this translation.

Slasher Obsession

My Heart Is a Chainsaw by [Stephen Graham Jones]

Title: My Heart Is a Chainsaw
Author: Stephen Graham Jones
Genre: Mystery/Slasher Horror
Pages: 416
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: August 31, 2021 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way impacts the content of my review)

If you love slasher movies, you have to read this book. If (like me) you think most slasher horror is pretty stupid and can’t be bothered to watch it unless there’s a really clever twist, you might still want to read it. If you absolutely hate slasher stuff, give it a pass.

This book has a distinctly self-aware tone. Our slasher-obsessed protagonist/narrator, Jade, knows everything there is to know about the genre. Each chapter ends with a rather facetious extra credit paper written by her in which she explores the origins, structure, tropes, worldview, etc. of classic slasher movies. For me, these were possibly the most interesting part of the book and almost (but not quite) made me want to check out some of the gory classic franchises that I never bothered to watch.

Jade the “horror chick” is not the most likeable of narrators as she is sullen, antisocial, knee-jerk rebellious, and seems incapable of thinking/talking about anything other than slashers. That said, she is a pitiable character shaped by her rotten life circumstances (trigger warnings for just about anything nasty that can happen to a teenage girl), and the slasher obsession even makes sense by the end.

Most of the story involves Jade thinking that she sees signs/tropes/circumstances that indicate a real-life “slasher cycle” is about to play out right in her backwoods Idaho town (which makes her disturbingly gleeful). It’s a slow burn as you wonder how much of this buildup is real and how much is a figment of her obsession-warped psyche.

Somewhere between the 60% and 70% mark things finally explode into a frenzy of action as we find out what has been going on…kind of. It’s so chaotic and explanations of a few of the more “red herring” aspects are so lightly passed over and dismissed that some things remain pretty up in the air (perhaps intentionally as if teasing a sequel?). Personally, I thought that the slow buildup was much more interesting than the huge over-the-top action set piece, which is probably why I’m not a huge fan of the genre. I did not enjoy this as much as the author’s The Only Good Indians (which is itself pretty much slasher horror of an oddly literary bent), but it’s definitely worth a read.

Top 10 Christian Book Recommendations

After an exhausting week of Vacation Bible School, I don’t feel inspired to write any fresh reviews. However, it’s been too long since I posted anything here, so I’m going to do something a little bit different today. I have compiled a list of the 10 Christian books that I most frequently recommend to friends. Some are an introduction to (or exposition of) what Christians believe, and some are more on the order of “how should we then live?”. I hope you find something useful here (presented in alphabetical order with title linked to a full review if I wrote one):

Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible by [Mark Ward]

Title: Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible
Author: Mark Ward
Pages: 144

This is probably the most niche book on the list, addressing a concern that only crops up in certain conservative churches. However, if you grew up in “King James Only/Superiority” circles, you should read this balanced defense of modern English Bible translations.

Can We Trust the Gospels? by [Peter J. Williams]

Title: Can We Trust the Gospels
Author: Peter J. Williams
Pages: 162

This author demonstrates why it is reasonable to believe that the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are accurate accounts of the life of Jesus. This is one of the more scholarly books on the list, but the author does not assume prior knowledge or use unexplained academic jargon.

Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World's Largest Religion by [Rebecca McLaughlin]

Title: Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion
Author: Rebecca McLaughlin
Pages: 242

Topics addressed in this insightful book include religious violence, homophobia (she herself has been same sex attracted throughout her life), misogyny, slavery, theodicy (existence of evil/suffering), and much more.

Title: Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ
Authors: Andrew David Naselli & Claton Butcher
Pages: 160

Way too many conflicts that occur between Christians are over issues that the Bible has left up to our individual consciences. This book helps Christians think through Christian love that does not cause unnecessary offense or try to bind others to our own merely cultural preferences.

Title: Gentle & Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers
Author: Dane C. Ortlund
Pages: 224

Sometimes we need to be reminded “Yes, Jesus loves me.” 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.” This thoughtful book brings out what the Scriptures say about Jesus’ love and compassion.

Title: God, Greed, and the (Prosperity) Gospel: How Truth Overwhelms a Life Built on Lies
Author: Costi W. Hinn
Pages: 224

The “Prosperity Gospel” of guaranteed health and wealth that is peddled by smarmy televangelists makes me sick. Costi Hinn (nephew of televangelist Benny Hinn) demonstrates how destructive and unbiblical this corrupt teaching is. (for the short version, check out Shai Linne’s hip-hop masterpiece Fal$e Teacher$).

Title: Heaven: A Comprehensive Guide to Everything the Bible Says about Our Eternal Home
Author: Randy Alcorn
Pages: 560

This is by far the longest book on the list, but it is well worth your time to read it. It sweeps away misconceptions of heaven as a stuffy, boring place and digs into what the Bible actually says about the afterlife.

Title: How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil
Author: D. A. Carson
Pages: 240

One of the biggest difficulties for Christianity is “the problem of evil.” If God is perfectly good and all-powerful why is there evil in the world? D. A. Carson provides an excellent biblical framework for understanding this issue. (For a much more difficult in depth treatment check out The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problem of Evil by John S. Feinberg)

How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age by [Jonathan Leeman]

Title: How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age
Author: Jonathan Leeman
Pages: 252

This is a book that every American Evangelical Christian needs to read! It gives biblical guidance on how and why followers of Jesus should participate in the political process rather than being a poorly disguised partisan guide about who and what to vote for. (See also Before You Vote: Seven Questions Every Christian Should Ask by David Platt).

Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics) by [C. S. Lewis, Kathleen Norris]

Title: Mere Christianity
Author: C. S. Lewis
Pages: 227

I had to put at least one book on here from my all time favorite author. I don’t 100% agree with everything Lewis says (e.g. sacraments as a means of applying grace, or the possibility of thwarting God’s will for your life), but this is an excellent introduction to the general beliefs of historical Christianity. Even if you’ve been a devoted Christian your whole life, Lewis comes at things from a different angle that will help you see your faith with fresh eyes.

All the Herods (& Some Nonsense About Jesus)

Title: The Herods:
Murder, Politics, and the Art of Succession
Author: Bruce Chilton
Genre: History
Pages: 346 (plus bibliology & indices)
Rating: 3.5 of 5
(Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through Edelweiss+. This in no way affects the content of my review)

If you are acquainted with the Gospels & Acts, you probably remember multiple members of the Herod dynasty putting in less than flattering appearances (starting with Herod the Great’s attempt to murder the infant Jesus in Matthew 2). In this book, Bruce Chilton tells the full story of the Herodian dynasty’s rule over Israel. It is a convoluted tale of political & religious maneuvering, egomania, paranoia, sexcapades, and violence.

Chilton portrayal of the Herods seems fairly balanced. He frequently gives them credit for savvy political moves but does not downplay the cruelty, hubris, and mania that characterized this ruling family. I appreciated getting the full picture of who these people were and how they (and Israel) fit into the broader history of the Roman Empire. If that is what you are interested in, I would definitely recommend this book (especially if you don’t want to wade through Josephus’s Antiquities and Jewish War on your own).

However, I would not recommend coming to this book to learn about the Herods’ interaction with John the Baptist, Jesus, and the early church leaders. The author’s views in this regard are steeped in higher criticism, the “historical Jesus” movement, and all the related academic jargon. He treats the Bible (especially the Gospels and Acts) as distorted legends and propaganda to be sifted through for tiny grains of truth. Jesus is recast to suit a purely naturalistic/sociological/political understanding of religion devoid of true divine revelation. Call me unenlightened, but the “historical Jesus” is a pathetic, unconvincing substitute for the Son of God.

As a follower of Jesus who takes the Gospels as divinely-inspired Scripture, I am probably not the intended audience for this book. Nevertheless, it did increase my overall understanding of these people and their time period, and I am glad that I read it (even if the “historical Jesus” parts made me cringe).

The OG

The Phantom of the Opera Audiobook By Gastón Leroux cover art

Title: The Phantom of the Opera
Author: Gaston LeRoux
Translator: Alexander Teixeira de Mattos
Genre: Classic Gothic
Pages: 260
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Early on in my first ever dating relationship I read this book aloud to my girlfriend. Last week we listened to it together as an audiobook as we drove up north to celebrate our 19-year wedding anniversary. Given that history, I’m a bit biased in favor of this book and have probably rated it a bit higher than I otherwise would have.

That said, The Phantom of the Opera deserves its iconic status. Leroux created a monstrous antagonist who is nonetheless truly pitiable. The Opera Ghost is a master manipulator with a sadistic streak, a pathetic backstory, and physical deformity far beyond something that could be hidden under the wimpy half-mask that makes its way into every portrayal since Andrew Lloyd Webber.

The plot and narration are almost laughably melodramatic at times, but if you roll with it and embrace the Gothic-ness, it’s a lot of fun (and even moving). Leroux throws in very occasional dry humorous comments that show he isn’t taking this completely seriously himself, while at the same time presenting it as a personally researched true story.

Translation-wise, I have only read the very Victorian, public domain version. I suspect (corroborated by a little online research) that this is probably the least accurate version, so one of these days I will have to try a different translation. Speaking of which, I will be using this for my Classic in Translation category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

If you enjoy Gothic fiction, this is a must-read. If you like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, you should give this original source material a shot as well. You get more complexity of plot and depth of characters with all the melodrama. And if you’re looking for something to do with your SO, reading this aloud worked out pretty well for us…

Vacation Finds (and Frank the Bear)

I’m finally on vacation! The phone is set to “do not disturb” for everyone but immediate family, my friend Rabbi Glenn is filling the pulpit for me this Sunday (he’s promised to “introduce subtle heresies” to give me a challenge when I get back), and my wife and I just got back from a trip “up North” to celebrate our anniversary. My brain is in low power mode, so I’m not going to write a review right now. However, to keep this blog at least slightly active, here are my book finds from our anniversary trip…a blend of classics, pulp SF&F, a history book, etc. found at several different antique/junk/book shops:

And, as a bonus, here’s a picture of Frank the bear who accompanies us on our trips up North: