Benevolent Big Brother

Title: Thunderhead
(Arc of a Scythe: Book 2)
Author: Neal Shusterman
Genre: Sci-Fi Dystopia with a hint of YA
Pages: 512
Rating: 4 of 5

*WARNING: There may be mild spoilers for the first book*

This series continues to impress, for the most part. In this installment we get to find out a lot more about the Thunderhead, the benevolent, “nearly all-powerful” AI that watches over humanity (except for anything to do with the Scythedom). Our two protagonists continue in their arcs: Citra now a full-fledged junior scythe and champion of the “old guard” and Rowan a vigilante hunting down scythes who he deems unworthy. We also get a new protagonist who is a protege of the Thunderhead and whose storyline dips into several subcultures mentioned in the first book.

There was a hint of “middle book syndrome” here, but nothing too bad. A few parts seemed to drag slightly since the overall novelty of the world is worn off a little, and the frenetic burst of action at the end didn’t resolve as fully as the first book did.Overall, it was still an excellent book with plenty of intrigue and interesting speculation.

On a personal theological/philosophical note, I am annoyed by the (not uncommon) sci-fi trope that scientific progress completely eliminates the need for religion/Christianity, and whatever faiths are left are full of hateful luddites and nut-jobs (at best). Only in one brief paragraph does anyone seriously wonder what comes after (permanent) death. I find it hard to believe that the whole world has simply decided that immortal souls don’t exist or if they do that it’s not worth thinking about.

Death in a Time of Immortality

Title: Scythe
(Arc of a Scythe – Book 1)
Author: Neal Shusterman
Genre: Sci-fi Dystopia with a hint of YA
Pages: 464
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I saw several rave reviews for this book and somewhat reluctantly decided to give it a shot. The dystopian elements appealed to me, but I am not a fan of YA fiction. While there are a few YA vibes (teenage protagonists, teenage anger/petulance, star-crossed romantic tension) it wasn’t overdone, believably fit the situation, and avoided what I consider to be the two worst YA tropes: all adults are idiots & love triangles.

In the future death has been eliminated, and a benevolent AI (the Cloud having gained sentience) oversees society in a way that ensures peace and prosperity for all. The population is kept under control by the order of Scythes who are completely above the law (“separation of Scythe and state”) and “glean” (kill) a certain number of people per year. The story follows two high-schoolers chosen as Scythe apprentices.

As you would expect, this book delves into some pretty disturbing subject matter. Each scythe has their own approach to gleaning, and the story deals with a deep ideological divide within the “scythedom.” As I’ve said before in books that feature excellent world-building: I don’t want to say much more since learning more and more about the world as the plot unfolds (and in the journal entries that begin most chapters) is half the fun. I highly recommend this book as a thought-provoking, grim utopia/dystopia.

On a personal philosophical/theological note, I find it interesting that many people (not just authors) seem incapable of imagining immortality and universal peace without assuming stagnation, boredom, and/or something sinister behind the scenes. Books like this seem to have an underlying assumption that it is impossible to be truly happy/fulfilled without the presence of death and/or suffering. On the one hand, I agree that living in a world riven by death and suffering is an essential part of making us who we are meant to be…on the other hand, I believe that there is coming a time when death and suffering are gone forever and that will not be a time of stagnation but of joy and creativity able to find their fullest expression without hindrance (cf. Romans 8:18-28).

The Confederacy & Nazi Germany

Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil by [Neiman, Susan]Title: Learning from the Germans:
Race and the Memory of Evil
Author: Susan Neiman
Genre: History/Philosophy
Pages: 386 (plus citations, indices, etc.)
Rating: 3 of 5

I reject the romanticized “Lost Cause” interpretation of the American Civil War. A perusal of the Declaration of Causes of Seceding States, the “Cornerstone” Speech, and similar primary source documents makes it very clear that for the decision-makers in leadership the war was fought to preserve slavery (whether that is what individual soldiers felt they were fighting for or not). This book is driven by this understanding of the Civil War and the Confederacy coupled with a recognition of the shameful evil of slavery in America and its racist legacy (“Jim Crow,” etc.).

The author, a Jewish American philosopher who currently lives in Germany, explores the difference between how Germany and the US have dealt with government propagated racism in their past history. No direct “more/less evil” or “more/fewer victims” comparison is made between Nazism and slavery. The comparison is in how these events are memorialized, acknowledged, defended, excused, atoned for, and/or (her favorite phrase) “worked off.” Personally, I have pondered this idea before and was interested to see a scholarly book on the topic. It ended up being a very different book than what I was hoping for.

The book meanders through history, the author’s personal experiences (mostly living in Berlin & visiting racially charged locations and racial reconciliation groups in Mississippi), and her own philosophical/political thoughts. Much of it felt scattery and as if she were trying to talk through her ideas on paper and come to conclusions as she was writing. As she does this, she comes from a philosophical/political perspective somewhere to the left of Bernie Sanders, and tends to attribute the worst possible (usually racist) motives to those of other political persuasions.

Overall, I did find much to appreciate and ponder in this book even though there are areas where I would strongly disagree with the author. I would love to see this same topic taken on by someone whose forte was history rather than philosophy.

Audiobook Mini-Reviews

The last week and a half has been a bit rough here with myself and all three of the kids sick (my amazing wife activated Mommy-immunity and stayed mostly healthy). So, while lying miserably in bed or on the couch I made it through four audiobooks that I’ll be review now. I had a fever, headache, etc. through most of the time I was listening to these so take everything I say with a grain of salt. I don’t really have any comment on the narrators other than nobody stood out as either terrible or phenomenal.

What Ho, Automaton! (Reeves & Worcester Steampunk Mysteries Book 1) by [Dolley, Chris]Title: What Ho, Automaton!
(Reeves & Worcester Steampunk Mysteries – Book 1)
Author: Chris Dolley
Genre: Steampunk Mystery Parody
Pages: 292
Rating: 4 of 5

This is clearly intended as a parody of P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves & Wooster stories, and I’d say the author nails it. He captures the tone perfectly while transforming Jeeves (Reeves) into a steam-powered automaton and giving Wooster (Worcester) delusions of being a consulting detective on the order of Sherlock Holmes. Like the Wodehouse original, it’s light, breezy fun.

The Scapegoat by [du Maurier, Daphne]Title: The Scapegoat
Author: Daphne du Maurier
Genre: Classic Crime?
Pages: 348
Rating: 2.5 of 5

In this unlikely tale, a boring British professor of French history (John) meets his aristocratic French double (Jean) who (more-or-less) forces him to switch places. It turns out his French doppelganger is a morally reprehensible person from a family with a myriad of unsavory secrets. The story slowly unfolds as over the next week John plays at being Jean, uncovering and tinkering with the workings of the corrupt de Gué family. There is some interest in the slowly unfolding story, but overall it is completely unbelievable and has a non-ending that leaves pretty much all the storylines up in the air (and I really didn’t appreciate the casual attitude toward a married man having a mistress…especial with her seemingly being one of the wisest/best people in the book).

The House Of Night And Chains (Warhammer Horror) by [Annandale, David]Title: House of Night and Chain
(Warhammer Horror)
Author: David Annandale
Genre: Sci-Fi Horror
Pages: 244
Rating: 2.5 of 5

This is a fairly standard haunted house story set in the Warhammer 40K universe. Early on, an awful lot of time is spent on details of political maneuvering that is completely overshadowed and made largely irrelevant by the avalanche of events and revelations later in the book. The Warhammer 40K setting doesn’t contribute much to the story other than making local government into planetary government, substituting a cleric of the Emperor for a priest of God, and similar cosmetic tweaks. If you’re into haunted house stories you might enjoy it…I found it pretty “meh.”

The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by [Turton, Stuart]Title: The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
Author: Stuart Turton
Genre: Trippy Mystery
Pages: 480
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This book starts like a classic “murder at the manor house” kind of story, but things quickly get all wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey. I don’t want to give away too much since figuring out what is going on is half the fun. The over-simplified version that’s not any more spoilery than the back cover of the book is: our narrator inhabits 8 different witnesses, reliving the same day 8 times trying to solve (or stop) a murder. Most of the people involved have a nasty secret or two, and the twists, turns, and surprises come thick and fast all the way up to the end. I think that in the end it all weaves together nicely and makes sense, but I’d have to read it again (when I’m not sick) to be sure. It’s well worth reading and will probably make my “top 5 fiction” list for the year.

Mixed Mini-Reviews

My reading is starting to seriously outpace my reviewing this year, so to catch up a little here is a handful of mini-reviews (each from a different genre).

Title: Answering Jihad:
A Better Way Forward
Author: Nabeel Qureshi
Genre: Theology/Comparative Religion
Pages: 168
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Nabeel Qureshi (a former Muslim) seeks to give an honest assessment of the historical importance and practice of Jihad in Islam. While his assessment is not “politically correct” in relation to the Western narrative of Islam as the religion of peace, Qureshi has done careful, honest research into Islamic history, the Quran, and the Hadith, as well as drawing on his own experience as a Muslim.

He poses the idea of many Muslims coming to a crossroads where they are faced with the violent past of Islam and must decide how to proceed (Endorse jihad/”become radicalized”? Reject some foundational truths of Islam in favor of some new version? Abandon Islam?). His “better way forward” involves interacting with Muslims with love and compassion rather than fear and suspicion. The final section of the book offers the non-violence and self-sacrificing love of biblical Christianity as an attractive alternative to embracing jihad.

Title: The Landmark Arrian:
The Campaigns of Alexander
Author: Arrian
Translator: Pamela Mensch
Genre: Ancient History
Pages: 485 (plus 75 pages of indices, etc.)
Rating: 4 of 5

love the Landmark editions of ancient histories. Prior to this one I had read Landmark’s Herodotus and Thucydidesand this one continues to impress. Arrian’s history of Alexander the Great’s campaigns is a bit hero-worshippy, but gives a good basic overview from someone who had access to primary sources no longer completely available to us. The frequent maps keep this from being an incomprehensible catalogue of place names, and extensive commentary explains cultural issues and alerts to important alternate versions of events found in other sources.

System Failure (Epic Failure Trilogy Book 3) by [Zieja, Joe]Title: Communication Failure and System Failure
(Epic Failure Trilogy: Books 2 & 3)
Author: Joe Zieja
Genre: Science Fiction (Humor/Satire)
Pages: 336 & 432
Ratings: 4 & 3.5 of 5

The first book in this trilogy, Communication Failure, was my favorite fiction last year. The second and third books still had plenty of laugh-out-loud funny moments, but book 2 had a little bit of “middle book syndrome,” and I really didn’t care for the way the trilogy wrapped up. I suppose the ending made sense and was humorous in a Monty Python kind of way, but it was surprisingly downbeat and left a lot of loose ends.

Title: Orconomics
(The Dark Profit Saga: Book 1)
Author: J. Zachary Pike
Genre: Satirical Fantasy
Pages: 360
Rating: 4 of 5

The tone of this felt like a slightly less zany Discworld. It’s your typical “unexpected Chosen One and his band of rejects goes on big fantasy quest” fantasy/RPG sendup set in a world where dungeon crawling has become a big commercial enterprise. The story manages to deal with serious issues like racism, market manipulation, economic exploitation, and more without being overly preachy. Some of the pacing was a bit slow, but overall it was enjoyable, and I plan to read the next book, Son of a Liche, sometime this year.

Tales of the Al-Azif: A Cthulhu Mythos Anthology by [Phipps, C. T., Davenport, Matthew, West, David J., Hambling, David, Wilson, David Niall]Title: Tales of the Al-Azif:
A Cthulhu Mythos Anthology
Authors: C. T. Phipps, Matthew Davenport, David J. West, David Hambling, David Niall Wilson
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Pages: 264
Rating: 2 of 5

I read a lot of Lovecraftian cosmic horror anthologies, and I don’t expect them to be literary masterpieces. The Cthulhu mythos was born in the pulps and remains escapist pulp fiction for the most part. That said, this was one of the least enjoyable collections I have encountered.

The stories were not really to my taste. Most rely far more on insect-inspired horror than the nihilistic dread usual to cosmic horror, and most were of the “monster hunter” variety favored by Robert E. Howard or Clark Ashton Smith rather than the original creeping dread of H. P. Lovecraft.

If that were my only complaint with the book I probably would have given it 3.5 stars as “okay, but not to my personal taste when it comes to Lovecraftian horror.” However, the book (I read the Kindle edition) was riddled with typos. The number of omitted, duplicated, and misplaced words was absolutely ridiculous…completely amateur.

Ugly History

Title: The Sleepwalkers:
How Europe Went to War in 1914
Author: Christopher Clark
Genre: European History (WWI)
Pages: 587 (+160 pages of citations, indices, etc.)
Rating: 5 of 5

This is the ugly history of the politics, propaganda, and events that led up to World War I. Prior to reading this, my general impression of WWI (based on fuzzy memories of high school history & reinforced by the fourth season of Blackadder) was that it was a horrifically pointless war started on a pretext by arrogant greedy statesmen whose various alliances dragged all of Europe into a maelstrom of death…and it was somehow mostly Germany’s fault. Having read this amazingly well-researched book, I think the blame could be spread around a bit more liberally, but my general view remains pretty much the same.

Christopher Clark makes meticulous use of primary source material to weave together a coherent account of how the Great War came about. This is a daunting task given the complexity of the issue and massive amount of (often self-justifying) written sources. He does his best to describe for the Balkans (especially Serbia) and for each of the “great powers” what was going on domestically, militarily, colonially, and in their relationship with each other. This required a lot of jumping back and forth over the same material many times to try to cover the myriad of interactions. It could be confusing at times, but given the complexity of the matter, I was impressed overall with the author’s clarity.

The author also interacts with secondary sources, stating when he agrees or disagrees with common conjectures and analysis. He steers away from blaming things primarily on Germany, pointing out different (and constantly shifting) degrees and kinds of paranoia, imperialism, bellicosity, manipulation, etc. in all of the “great powers.” He also maintains that world war was not fatalistically inevitable, conjecturing about specific situations, decisions, policies, and procrastinations that could have completely changed the course of history had this or that person/committee acted differently in the moment. As the title of the book implies, the author sees the forces of Europe stumbling along with woefully incomplete understanding or analysis of the possible effects of their various power games.

Whether you agree with all of the author’s analysis or not, this is a must read if you are trying to understand the causes of WWI. If you’re not the kind of person who can sit down and read a long history book, then I suppose you can settle for Blackadder’s explanation of how the War began or if analogies are more your thing there’s the story of If WWI were a bar fight (though Serbia bumping into and accidentally spilling beer on Austria should probably be Serbia chucking beer in Austria’s general direction and then pretending it was an accident).

Javert + Batman + Insanity

Konrad Curze: The Night Haunter (Primarchs Book 12) by [Haley, Guy]Title: Konrad Curze: The Night Haunter
(The Horus Heresy: Primarchs Book 12)
Author: Guy Haley
Genre: Military Sci-Fi (Warhammer 40k universe)
Pages: 208
Rating: 3.5 of 5

A couple years ago I reviewed the Night Lords Trilogy as decent dark, uber-violent, escapist sci-fi. This book provides a prequel of sorts and isn’t half bad for a shared-world-based-on-tabletop-gaming sort of book. In it, we get to know the primarch/gene-father of the VIII Legion both before and after his fall into the service of Chaos. He combines the implacable “justice” of Les Miserables’ Javert with the terror-inspiring vigilantism of Batman and a great big dose of prescience-induced insanity.

The story is fragmented into a kaleidoscope of flashbacks and angry rants against the Emperor of Mankind. Some of the transitions can be a bit confusing, but given Curze’s insanity, I think the overall effect works quite nicely.

The plot features the usual Warhammer amount of guts, gore, and grossness (and then some since our protagonist is one of the “bad guys”). I was really hoping for a good chunk of the story to be about the primarch’s early dark vigilante days on Nostromo, but the author was more interested in exploring his damaged psyche and events subsequent to the Horus Heresy.

This isn’t a good starting point if you’re new to the series as it assumes you have a basic working knowledge of the universe and some of its major events. However, if you’re into the Warhammer 40K books in general and chaos space marines in particular, this is worth reading.

Grownup Gwendy

Title: Gwendy’s Magic Feather
Author: Richard Chizmar
Pages: “330” (probably half that when use of white space is taken into account)
Genre: Horror/Weird/Mystery/Family Drama
Rating: 2.5 of 5

The first Gwendy book, a novella in which Chizmar collaborated with Stephen King, was one of my favorite reads of 2017. I originally said this about it:

This short book falls more into the “weird” category than actual horror. It could be seen as a sort of twist on the story of Pandora’s Box…only this box comes with sinister buttons (especially the big black one) and a couple nice levers. This isn’t high action and doesn’t provide nice neat answers at the end, but it’s an excellent example of “the weird.”

Chizmar’s solo effort at expanding the Gwendiverse was disappointing in comparison. The titular “magic feather” has very little part in the story. Instead, we’re treated to another round of Gwendy inexplicably receiving the magic button box and indecisively dithering about whether or not she should use it…but only after 1/4 of the book catches us up on what Gwendy has been doing with her life over the last couple decades.

We already have a pretty good idea of the general function of the button box, so that major fascinating element of the original story is missing. It’s replaced with a hodgepodge of storylines including Gwendy engaging in AIDS activism, being an anti-Trump (though he’s not called Trump and it’s the 90’s) congresswoman, trying to catch a possible serial killer, and dealing with her mother’s cancer. Toward the end the box does demonstrate one new power, but it just feels like an amazingly convenient way to wrap up one of the storylines.

Overall, it felt like this mocking description of Darth Vader from one of the Night at the Museum movies:

Stick with Dracula

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

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

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

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

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

Gods & Thieves

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

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

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

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

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