Two More Classics

I’ve completed two more books for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021, and it’s time to review them!

Jamaica Inn by [Daphne du Maurier]

Title: Jamaica Inn
Author: Daphne du Maurier
Genre: Classic Potboiler
Pages: 352
Rating: 2 of 5

For me, Daphne du Maurier is very hit-or-miss. I greatly enjoyed the morally ambiguous psychological gothic-ness of Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel, but thought The Scapegoat was improbable to the point of eyerolling. Jamaica Inn was another miss for me. On the Gothic spectrum it is much closer to Ann Radcliffe than the Brontë Sisters.

The bones of the story aren’t terrible (orphaned young woman sent to live with her aunt and uncle [by marriage] discovers that Uncle Joss Merlyn and his Inn have a deservedly sinister reputation), but it was all so melodramatic. If there had been some sex scenes thrown into the instalove-with-a-rogue storyline I would have thought I was reading some hack Harlequin Romance, not a modern classic. Nevertheless, I will be using this for my Classic by a Woman Author category.

Chaka by Thomas Mofolo

Title: Chaka
Author: Thomas Mofolo
Translator: Daniel P. Kunene
Genre: Classic Historical Fiction
Pages: 192 (including translator’s introduction)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This ended up being a very different book than what I expected. I thought that it was going to be a hero-worshippy fanboy account of King Chaka/Shaka’s greatness and glory like you usually get in historical fiction centered around a military hero or empire builder.

While there is some admiration for Chaka’s fighting prowess and the power of the Zulu nation, the overall story arc is of boundless ambition leading to insatiable brutality and tragic downfall. By the end, Chaka comes out looking more like Josef Stalin (or any other sadistic, paranoid, egomaniacal autocrat) than anyone admirable.

The narration of this tragedy feels as if you are listening to a folksy master storyteller who throws in occasional asides, explanations, rabbit trails, and editorial comments. I don’t know much about the real Chaka, so I couldn’t say how much liberty the author has taken with the story. However, I suspect that it has only a nodding acquaintance with the truth. There are many mythical elements (the translator interprets them as personifications of character traits), and the level of bloodthirstiness and brutality seem highly exaggerated. Overall, this was not unlike an over-the-top Shakespearian tragedy in the form of a folktale rather than a play.

I will be using this for my Classic by a BIPOC Author category.

He’s back…

Title: A Master of Djinn
Author: P. Djèlí Clark
Genre: Alternate History Fantasy
Pages: 400
Rating: 3.5 of 5
(Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of my review.)

For me, good worldbuilding covers a multitude of sins, and this book has excellent worldbuilding. This first novel in P. Djèlí Clark’s djinn universe continues and expands on his fascinating alternate history from the first two novellas (A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015). While you could enjoy this book without reading the novellas, I would strongly suggest reading at least A Dead Djinn in Cairo which introduces most of the major characters, their world, and some important plot points.

This world was irrevocably changed in the mid-1800’s when a Soudanese mystic, Al Jahiz, bored a hole into the kaf, allowing djinn and assorted other supernatural entities to freely enter our world, bringing with them their magic and technology and transforming Egypt into one of the “Great Powers.” Now (in 1912) as Europe is teetering on the edge of conflict someone claiming to be Al Jahiz has reappeared sowing discord and mayhem. It’s once again up to Agent Fatma el-Shar’arawi (one of the few women working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities) to figure out what is going on and save the day.

Like all of P. Djèlí Clark’s work, the storytelling deals with moral/social issues (feminism, post-colonialism, LGBTQ+, etc.), in a pretty heavy-handed fashion. Depending on how much preachiness you are willing to put up with in your fiction, this may affect your enjoyment of the book to some degree.

I was a little disappointed in the mystery aspect of the plot as I thought that certain parts of it were painfully obvious and Fatma was much too slow to figure them out (given how brilliant she is supposed to be). That said, the overall plot was engrossing, entertaining, and revealed fascinating new details of this alternate world. I am looking forward to further installments in the series!

Witcher Series Review

Series: The Witcher
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Genre: Grimdark Fantasy
Number of Books: 8
Total Pages: 3,404
Rating: 3 of 5

If you enjoy grimdark fantasy and don’t mind moderate amounts of profanity, sex, and gore, this is probably right up your alley. Personally, I swung back and forth on how much I enjoyed it depending on the book and my mood (but enjoyed it enough to finish the series).

Our hero, Geralt the Witcher, makes his living by slaying monsters with his magically, genetically, pharmacologically enhanced fighting ability…kind of. He actually spends the bulk of his time bedding sorceresses, navigating political intrigues, and attempting to rescue/protect the Child of Destiny. I enjoyed his character’s sense of responsibility and overall decency in a dark world, but his need to sleep with every attractive woman he comes across (especially if she’s a sorceress) got really old (especially since he’s supposedly so in love with Yennefer).

The first two books (The Last Wish & Sword of Destiny) are short story collections that mostly involve monster-slaying and fairytale mashups, but also set up a few characters and situations for the main Witcher Saga. Once the Saga starts (in Blood of Elves), monster-slaying largely falls by the wayside and we are treated to a complex swirl of rebellions, invasions, pogroms, court intrigue, and any other nasty human behavior you can think of…most of it centered in some way around the remarkable young woman, Ciri, to whom Geralt (and various companions met along the way) are bound by destiny.

The plotting of the Saga is impressive, but the farther you go into it, the more depressing it gets. Even when a character survives a dangerous situation, Sapkowski often feels the need to jump ahead and describe the pointless/ignominious way in which they will die in the future. The Lady of the Lake ends the saga ambiguously enough that you can kind of decide for yourself how sweet or dark you want it to be. The final book (Season of Storms) is a prequel to the Saga that goes back to being more monster-slayer oriented, but it should not be read first since the ending would make little sense without having read the other books.

As far as narration, large parts of the story are told in flashback with a wide variety of framing stories. One chapter will be [Character X] catching [Character Y] up on what has happened since they last met, and the next chapter will be a storyteller recounting events surrounding Geralt as legends from the misty past or a historian researching “what really happened” with Geralt and company several centuries ago. It’s odd and a bit disorienting, but I think it works to give the sense of these being legendary events of which there might not be a “definitive version.” Bolstering this impression, there are frequent references and parallels to fairytales, Arthurian legends, Shakespearian plays, etc.

I listened to the audible versions read by Peter Kenny, and he did an excellent job providing character voices and accents. To me, the audiobook format made it a little more difficult to keep track of the many, many characters involved in the various intrigues, but it was worth it.

Overall, I don’t know if I would ever read or listen to these again, but that probably has more to do with my personal taste than any deficiency in the author’s writing style. I think that the Black Company novels are about as grimdark as I can comfortably go in the fantasy world.

Rock Hard Sci-fi

Title: Project Hail Mary
Author: Andy Weir
Genre: Hard Sci-Fi
Pages: 496
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Release Date: May 4, 2021
(Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of my review)

Andy Weir is back with more of the hard sci-fi magic science that made The Martian such a success! Our hero (a scientist of some sort) wakes up in some sort of spacecraft to discover that he is the sole survivor of some sort of desperate mission to save earth from some sort of extinction-level peril. Unfortunately, he has amnesia.

The story alternates back and forth between his gradually returning memories and his work toward understanding what is going on and trying to save the world. It is difficult to say much more than that without robbing the reader of the joy (and/or heartbreak?) of discovery as events unfold.

As with Weir’s previous books, detailed descriptions of scientific analysis, problem-solving, and emergency-surviving take center stage (with frequent dollops of wry humor). He doesn’t necessarily tell you all the math involved, but if science bores you this is not the book for you. Of course, this is science fiction so there’s some pretty speculative stuff here too (more so than The Martian). Personally, I loved it!

I would say that this is Weir’s best book yet. The Martian is a close second (let’s not speak of Artemis), but the plot of this book allows for a lot more character development. Something or someone called Rocky is a big part of that, but no more spoilers. Both the more fully developed characters and higher stakes really had me hooked. I usually alternate between 3 or 4 books at a time, but I read this one straight through. I highly recommend this for fans of science, science fiction, and/or survival stories!

PS One other thing that added to my enjoyment of the book was that it had a lower profanity level than previous ones. I know that isn’t a big deal for most people, but I appreciated it (and it made sense in the context of the story).

How Long, O Lord?

How long, O Lord, will covid continue to ravage and divide our world?
              Tens of thousands suffer and die.
              Each human contact must be weighed against unknown risks.
              Those who seek to help are branded fools, cowards, or conspirators.

How long, O Lord, will violence and injustice prevail on the earth?
              Each day brings news of further atrocities
              Justice measures with weighted scales.
              Deceit, slander, and malice fill our communications.

How long, O Lord, will your own people live with divided loyalty?
              We have subordinated the Golden Rule to the pursuit of “my rights.”
              The fruit of the Spirit withers as we embrace outrage and self-justification.
              We value the opinions of politicians and talk show hosts more highly than your revealed Word.

Arise, O Lord! Let your power and righteousness shine forth!
              Our Father, deliver us from distress.
              Holy Spirit, convict us of hypocrisy and empower us to live in love and holiness.
              Oh, Son, Our Redeemer and King, may you return quickly to make all things new.
              In you alone I hope and trust!

Epistolary Meandering

Title: The Expedition of Humphry Clinker
Author: Tobias Smollet
Genre: Classic Epistolary/Picaresque Novel
Pages: 392
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This reminded me of a slightly less silly The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. In both of them, the titular character is not the protagonist for the majority of the book (in this book, he isn’t even the narrator!), in both of them the plot is pretty minimal (though this book has a bit more), and in both of them the humor is a bit rude (Tristram Shandy more bawdy & Humphry Clinker more gross).

The plot (such as it is) follows the curmudgeonly (but good-hearted) Welshman, Matthew Bramble, and his household as they play the tourist from Bath up through parts of Scotland and home again. The story is told through letters from various members of the party, each with their own voice. Plot threads include acquiring a new servant (the eponymous Humphry Clinker), a secret romance, and a straight-laced old aunt’s desperate attempts to catch a man. The eccentric characters and ridiculous situations along the way are fairly entertaining, but there were places where it really dragged. I have the feeling that a more thorough understanding of the era and knowledge of the places they visit would make this an even more enjoyable book. Overall, not a bad read, but I can’t see ever bothering to read it again.

Also, I am using this for the Travel or Adventure Classic category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021.

Oh be careful little fingers what you type…

Title: Posting Peace
Why Social Media Divides Us and What We Can Do About It
Author: Douglas S. Bursch
Genre: Applied Theology / Social Science
Pages: 208
Rating: 3.5 of 5

I appreciate how social media (mostly Facebook) helps me stay in touch with friends and family. However, there are times when I am ready to call it quits and delete my fb account due to the seemingly constant torrent of anger, slander, fear-mongering, misinformation, and other filth. And it grieves me that many of my fellow Christians seem to be just as caught up in the war of words as anyone else. Rather than “keeping in step with the Spirit” by demonstrating godly character and motivations (love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – Galatians 5:22-23), far too many of us engage in the kind of speech that we are told has no place in our life (bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander, malice – Ephesians 4:31). This timely book addresses these concerns.

The first part of the book focuses on how online communication shapes our interaction with others, with heavy emphasis on the distance it puts between us and the tendency to tribalization. This is followed with advice on how to overcome pitfalls and use social media for good. Throughout the book, the author strongly emphasizes Christians’ responsibility to be peacemakers who make room for reconciliation (among people as well as between people and God).

While I strongly agree with most of the author’s main points, some of his presentation felt muddled and imprecise. Criticism of those who are divisive is followed by admonition to use social media to confront injustice. Triumphalist declarations of how we can use social media to transform society are followed by warning that the task is impossible and full peace comes only when Christ returns. Verses about the Gospel reconciling people to God are used to talk about the social justice kind of reconciliation. None of these are necessarily complete contradictions, but I don’t think that the author explained with enough nuance or provided enough concrete examples to avoid confusion. Instead, I think he relied on discussion questions and writing assignments at the end of each chapter to try to get readers to think it through for themselves. While that approach might be great in a classroom setting, I find it less useful in book form (and, unfortunately, I have been seeing it increasingly often in “applied theology” kind of books).

Overall, even though the book could have definitely used more concrete examples and clearly nuanced explanations, it is well worth reading for Christians who frequently engage with social media. Let’s post peace rather than engage in trolling!

The Hero of Our Souls

Who has not heard   of the Hero of our souls?
Our almighty Maker   a man became.
Gladly foregoing   the glory he had,
In love, as a lamb,   came the Lion of Judah

To jealous judges   was Jesus betrayed.
His followers fled then;   in fear they scattered.
Submitting to malice,   no mercy was shown him.
In courage he quaffed   the cup of all woe

Thorned crown, fell cross   the Christ endured.
Cruel spikes, spear thrust   spilled his guiltless blood.
Man’s vilest vicious act   victory ensured.
The tempter trembled;   the triumph was not his.

God’s Son was slain;   savagely tortured.
His broken body   buried and guarded.
This hellish horror   our hope secured.
From wrath we were rescued;   our ransom he paid.

On Sunday the Son rose,   the Savior victorious.
Soon death will die;   done is his reign.
Freely by faith   our fellowship mended:
The glory of God   in grace revealed.

A Banned Book

When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment

Title: When Harry Became Sally:
Responding to the Transgender Moment
Author: Ryan T. Anderson
Genre: Psychology / Ethics
Pages: 272
Rating: 4 of 5

In February of this year, Amazon scrubbed all traces of this book from its platform without explanation (later citing its ban on hate speech). The author maintains that the accusation of “hate speech” is unwarranted and that this ban is an attempt to stifle legitimate debate over the treatment of gender dysphoria. I decided to read it and see for myself what was going on (#ReadBannedBooks and all that…I assume that applies to books banned by both “the left” and “the right”).

Essentially, the author argues that the current rush to transition those who express gender dysphoria (without seriously considering other alternatives) may not be the healthiest solution. He is especially concerned when it comes to the ethics and potentially irreversible impact of transitioning minors. The book explores potential incoherencies in trans ideology, philosophical and medical definitions of sex and gender, anecdotal stories of people who “de-transitioned,” and scientific/medical evidence that he claims is ignored or downplayed during the current “transgender moment.” Overall, I believe that many of his assertions and questions do raise valid concerns that should be taken into consideration, even if doing so is not the politically correct course of action.

Having read the book, I think that the author presents these concerns in a respectful and evidential enough manner that the proper response from those who disagree would be a written rebuttal rather than the banning of a dissenting voice. Shouting down or censoring an opponent does not prove that they are wrong.

Several Series Started

This year I have started reading/listening through a few different series and trilogies. I don’t plan on reviewing every book because that can get a bit repetitive and/or spoilery, so I’ll be doing a big overall review as I finish each series or trilogy. That said, here is my current impression of each one (picture is of the first book in each series):

A Dead Djinn in Cairo: A Tor.Com Original by [P. Djèlí Clark]

Series: Fatma el-Sha’arawi
Author: P. Djèlí Clark
Genre: Urban Fantasy / Alternate History / Detective
Read: 2 of 3 (first 2 are novellas)

This alternate history features a fascinating early 20th century Cairo transformed by constant contact with the world of the djinn. There are elements of magic, steampunk, and liberal politics. The author has a tendency to be a little bit preachy, but it doesn’t generally come at the expense of a good detective story. I am looking forward to reading the first full-length novel in the series.

All Systems Red (Kindle Single): The Murderbot Diaries by [Martha Wells]

Series: The Murderbot Diaries
Author: Martha Wells
Genre: Sci-fi
Read: 1 of 6 (mostly novella-length).

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 massive collection of cheap soap opera-esque entertainment. I’m only one book in so I’m not sure where the overall story-arc is going to go, but watching Murderbot navigating the world of humans and their schemes has proved entertaining so far.

The Big Sleep: A Novel (Philip Marlowe series Book 1) by [Raymond Chandler, Richard Amsel Movie Tie-In Cover]

Series: Philip Marlowe
Author: Raymond Chandler
Genre: Hardboiled Detective
Read: 2 of 7 (rereading)

Hardboiled detective fiction from the 1920’s-50’s is my go-to escapist genre, and Raymond Chandler is top tier (equaled only by Dashiell Hammett). His Philip Marlowe is smart (even making occasional literary allusions), tough, and snarky but actually a pretty nice guy. You do have to be able to cringe and then overlook some product-of-its-era prejudice/slurs to enjoy the genre.

Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel by [Joseph Fink, Jeffrey Cranor]

Series: Welcome to Night Vale
Authors: Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor
Genre: Lovecraftian Weird / Humor / Satire
Read: 2 of 3

I haven’t ever listened to the Welcome to Night Vale podcast (I don’t really do podcasts), so I don’t know how the books compare. These books give me weirdness overload. They have their funny moments but there is so much random strangeness (and occasional preachiness) that I’m having a hard time working up the motivation to read the final book.

The Last Wish: Introducing the Witcher (The Witcher Saga Book 1) by [Andrzej Sapkowski]

Series: The Witcher
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Genre: Grimdark-ish Fantasy
Read: 5 of 8

The first two books in the series are short story collections with a strong monster-hunter, fairytale-retelling vibe. Once the series actually kicks off, it has more of a Glen Cook Grimdark feel: heavy on the political machinations and reveling in moral ambiguity. There’s more profanity & explicit content than I really care for, but not enough to make me quit the series. I’m listening to these as audible audiobooks, and the narrator is excellent with voices and accents…but why oh why does he keep changing how he pronounces Dandelion’s name?!