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:

Several Series Continued

Today I have for you some short-ish reviews of the most recent book I’ve read in several different series:

Title: Heroes (Fry’s Greek Myths series – Book 2 of 3)
Author: Stephen Fry
Genre: Mythology Retelling
Pages: 352
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This was every bit as good as the first book in the series! This time he focuses more on the human heroes like Heracles, Theseus, and Jason (though the capricious meddlesome gods are still very much in evidence, of course). I would again recommend the audiobook as you get not only Fry’s witty phrasing, but his humorous intonation. As with the first book, Fry keeps the personal interpretation and commentary to a minimum (though I would say Prometheus is his favorite character with repeated emphasis on humans “outgrowing” or superseding the gods). The story stops short of the Trojan War, and I am looking forward to listening to the third (and final?) book in the series that covers those events.

The Talented Mr. Ripley by [Patricia Highsmith]

Titles: The Talented Mr. Ripley and Ripley Under Ground (Ripley series – Books 1 & 2 of 5)
Author: Patricia Highsmith
Genre: Crime Novels
Pages: 288 each
Rating: 3.5 of 5 & 2 of 5

I’m not sure quite what to make of these books. They follow the escapades of our sociopathic protagonist as he pursues the good life through fraud, manipulation, and occasionally murder (but only if it’s absolutely necessary). Pursues might actually be a bit strong of a word because he kind of drifts along taking advantage of opportunities as they happen. The first book was interesting as a character study of a horrible person, but the second one felt like a tired attempt to cash in on past success and had a completely implausible non-ending that seemed like the setup for a sequel. I’ll probably try at least one more book in the series out of morbid curiosity, but I don’t have high expectations.

Artificial Condition: The Murderbot Diaries by [Martha Wells]

Title: Artificial Condition (Murderbot Diaries book 2 of 6?)
Author: Martha Wells
Genre: Sci-Fi
Pages: 160
Rating: 5 of 5

This series continues to impress and entertain. This novella picks up almost immediately after the first one. Murderbot (a more-or-less-illegally unfettered AI security cyborg) takes its first independent contract while trying to understand its past, pass for an augmented human, navigate awkward interactions with actual humans, and watch some of its vast store of downloaded entertainment programs. A shipbound AI (ART) provides a lot of help (and entertainment value) throughout the book, and hopefully will put in encore appearances later in the series. I’m definitely looking forward to continuing this series.

Micro Reviews

Recently, by the time I get done preparing my weekly sermons, Bible studies, counseling, fire-dousing, etc. my writing and creative ability is sapped for the day. I am definitely in need of the vacation that I have coming up in a few weeks. That said, I don’t want to completely neglect this blog or leave too many books unreviewed, so here are a handful of one to three sentence reviews (none of the usual formatting…I’m weary):

The First World War by John Keegan – I don’t find WW1 especially interesting, but wanted to get a good overview of it. This book provided just that: a solid surface-level overview in a rather dry, businesslike style. (Rating: 4.5 of 5)

The Secular Creed by Rebecca McLaughlin – In this short book, McLaughlin interacts with many of the slogans found on the kind of yard signs that begin “In this house we believe…”. Using a blend of social science data and Scripture she shows if (and how) each one fits into a biblical worldview. After reading this and Confronting Christianity, McLaughlin is one of my new favorite authors. (Rating: 5 out of 5)

Tinfoil Dossier Series (Agents of Dreamland, Black Helicopters, & The Tindalos Asset) by Caitlin R. Kiernan – Blending modern paranoid conspiracy theory thinking with Lovecraftian elements is a pretty cool idea for a series of novellas. Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy the execution at all as it was trippy to the point of being nearly incomprehensible and laced with massive amounts of profanity and perversion (e.g. incest). (Rating: 2 out of 5)

Jack Aubrey & Stephen Maturin Series (Master & Commander, etc.) by Patrick O’Brian – Historical fiction isn’t usually my thing, but these books are a lot of fun so far. Three books in, I’m definitely enjoying the Napoleonic Wars era exploits of the the blustering Captain Jack Aubrey & his friend the somewhat eccentric Dr. Stephen Maturin (both at sea and on shore in polite society). (Rating: 4 out of 5)

Single & Single by John LeCarré – This story dives into the world of high-level money laundering and all its attendant corruption. As usual with LeCarré, the book was interesting without really providing any likeable characters. Also, somewhere after his George Smiley books LeCarré seems to have lost the ability/will to write a dénouement, as the last three books I have read by him have ended abruptly with a ton of loose ends. (Rating 3 out of 5)

Zzzzzz…

Title: Sleeper Agent:
The Atomic Spy In America Who Got Away
Author: Ann Hagedorn
Genre: True Spy Story
Pages: 272
Rating: 3 of 5
Future Release Date: July 20, 2021 (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 promised to be “perfect for Ben Macintyre fans.” I loved Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends and The Spy and the Traitor, so I had high expectations. They were not met.

This isn’t a terrible book, and if I hadn’t ever read a Ben Macintyre true spy story I may have given this a higher rating. However, this is definitely second-tier compared to him. The presentation is dry, the reconstruction of many events is not very tight/detailed, and the Amazon blurb gives away practically all the important information. I feel like the author just didn’t have enough available information about this spy to write a compelling book. On a positive note, it does provide interesting glimpses into the Manhattan project and the Red Scare.

I don’t usually mind a dry history book, but Macintyre has spoiled me when it comes to spy stories, and so this one just didn’t cut it for me.