A Worthy/Hilarious Sequel

Soul Remains (Terribly Serious Darkness) by [Hooker, Sam]Title: Soul Remains
(Terribly Serious Darkness: Book 2)
Author: Sam Hooker
Genre: Dark Fantasy / Satire
Pages: 330
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: 4/23/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC. This in no way affects the content of the review)

Warning: to avoid angry swearing (and the resultant summoning of goblins) be advised that after this initial paragraph there will be terribly serious spoilers for the first book in the series: Peril in the Old CountryNot only should you not read beyond this paragraph if you have not read Peril in the Old Country, but you should also not read Soul Remains. The absurdist plot to this book picks up shortly after the previous one left off and does not bother to do much in the way of reintroducing characters or recapping storylines in the web of plots that have ensnared the pathetic, neurotic Sloot Peril. Suffice it to say, it is well worth your time to read both of these hilarious books as long as you don’t mind cliffhanger endings. Now, off you go to check out the first book if you want to avoid having its ending spoiled…

…Okay, if you’re still here you know (or are about to find out) that the first book ended with many of the characters dying (very Blackadder), including poor Sloot crushed to death under a pile of goblins. Sloot, being the unlucky fellow that he is, is not permitted to rest in peace (though possibly in pieces). He remains enmeshed in all the various plots and counterplots with the added inconvenience of being a ghost who can be summoned, banished, etc. All of this makes the book a bit more disjointed and surreal than the first one, but no less entertaining. The author takes satirical potshots at a wide variety of topics and tropes (he has a whole new set to work with since half of the characters are now dead-ish) and throws in witty turns of phrase that kept me chuckling throughout. The book again ended on a cliffhanger, which I’m still not a fan of, but at least I was expecting it this time…and I can’t wait for the next book to come out.

2019 Back to the Classics Challenge

For the third year in a row I will be participating in the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen @ Books and Chocolate. The challenge is to read classic books (50+ years old) in the 12 selected categories.

Books don’t have to be chosen at the beginning of the year, but I like to start with a provisional list. I usually end up changing 3-4 of them by the end of the year, but here’s my starting list:

  • A 19th Century Classic: Lilith by George MacDonald
  • A 20th Century Classic: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
  • A Classic by a Female Author: Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor
  • A Classic in Translation: Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy
  • A Classic Comedy: The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N by Leonard Q. Ross
  • A Classic Tragedy: Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
  • A Very Long Classic: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne
  • A Classic Novella: The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
  • A Classic from the Americas: The Prince & the Pauper by Mark Twain
  • A Classic from Africa, Asia, or OceaniaCry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
  • A Classic from a Place You’ve Lived: O Alienista by Machado de Assis
  • A Classic Play: Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

2019 TBR Pile Challenge

One of my goals for this year is to read some of the books that have been hanging out on my shelves and/or TBR for a while. To make that goal a little more concrete, I’m signing up for the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge hosted by RoofBeamReader.com. The challenge is to post a list of 12 books that have been on your shelf and/or TBR for at least a year. Finish all 12 books by the end of the year (2 alternates allowed in case there are a couple you just can’t get through) and you are entered in a $50 Amazon gift card drawing.

To knock even more books off the TBR, I decided not to “double dip” with the books that I’ll be reading for the Back to the Classic Challenge, so none of the books on here are classics (other than some genre fiction old enough to be considered classic). Without further ado, here’s the list:

Main TBR

  1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  2. Atonement by Ian McEwan
  3. The Baby in the Icebox and Other Short Fiction by James M. Cain
  4. The Case of the Velvet Claws (Perry Mason: Book 1) by Erle Stanley Gardner
  5. Corum: The Coming of Chaos (Eternal Champion Sequence: Volume 7) by Michael Moorcock
  6. Ever by Gail Carson Levine
  7. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild
  8. The Little Drummer Girl by John LeCarré
  9. Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South by Christopher Dickey
  10. The Roads Between the Worlds (Eternal Champion Sequence: Volume 6) by Michael Moorcock
  11. Song of Kali by Dan Simmons
  12. The Tyranny of the Night (The Instrumentalities of the Night: Book 1) by Glen Cook

Alternates:

  1. Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeanette Ng
  2. Unusual Uses of Olive Oil by Alexander McCall Smith

Best & Worst of 2018

In 2018 I read 121  books (38,307 pages) and reviewed 101 of them. Here are my year-end best and worst lists (excluding re-reads / click book titles for full review where available):

Top 10

  1. How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith & Politics in a Divided Age by Jonathan Leeman – A much needed, truly non-partisan book about how American Christians should view and participate in the political process without losing their integrity
  2.  Darkness Over Germany by E. Amy Buller – A sobering look at the rise of Nazism, written during World War II (but with some worrisome parallels to current events)
  3. Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn – A whimsical dystopia about letters (in both senses of the word) & censorship
  4. Silas Marner by George Eliot – A classic story of providence & redemption that led Charles Dickens to write a well-deserved fan letter
  5. A Spy Among Friends by Ben MacIntyre – A true account of Ken Philby’s career as a Soviet mole in MI-6 (explains the cynicism of espionage authors like John LeCarré & Graham Greene)
  6. The Shakespeare Requirement by Julie Schumacher – A satirical tale of academia & bureaucracy that rings all too true
  7. A Middle Earth Traveler: Sketches from Bag End to Mordor by John Howe – A collection of John Howe’s gorgeous, detailed sketches of Middle Earth
  8. Someone Like Me by M. R. Carey – A creepy thriller with multiple unreliable narrators
  9. Christianity at the Crossroads (no review) by Michael J. Kruger – An examination of the church in the 2nd Century (very similar to Destroyer of the Gods (reviewed) by Larry Hurtado but with a broader focus and better organization)
  10. Peril in the Old Country and Soul Remains (no review yet) by Sam Hooker – The first two books of the hilarious dark fantasy series, Terribly Serious Darkness

Honorable Mention: Robots vs. Fairies Edited by Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe – An anthology of stories featuring our future overlords (robots, fairies, or both)

Bottom Ten

  1. Robot Depot by Russell F. Moran – A muddled near-future sci-fi thriller featuring Trumpian political views and pages of tangentially related roboethics infodumping
  2. Apocalypse 5 by Stacey Rourke – An incredibly derivative dystopian sci-fi story with Harlequin Romance-esque physical descriptions
  3. Our Kind of Traitor by John LeCarré – An espionage thriller with a ridiculously abrupt ending that leaves most plotlines unresolved
  4. The Magic of Recluce by L. E. Modesitt Jr. – A fantasy tale starring a sullen brat and oddly frequent use of onomatopoeia
  5. How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them by Jason Stanley – A political screed with solid potential marred by extreme partisanism
  6. Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs – A classic pulp adventure story complete with all the cheesiness and product-of-its-era racism you would expect
  7. Killing Floor by Lee Child – The first novel starring Jack Reacher in all his sociopathic vigilante glory
  8. Against Nature by Joris K. Huysmans – A tedious exploration of a hedonistic aesthete’s vain search for fulfillment
  9. Kill the Farm Boy by Kevin Hearne & Delilah S. Dawson – A satirical take on fantasy tropes that buries any cleverness under an avalanche of adolescent toilet humor
  10. Plantation Jesus: Race, Faith, & a New Way Forward by Skot Welch, Rick Wilson, & Andi Cumbo-Floyd – A book about a genuine problem that offers few practical solutions and shames those who ask the wrong questions

Dishonorable Mention: Nostromo by Joseph Conrad – An overlong, depressing classic on the consequences of greed and pride

And there you have it…I have one more NetGalley book to review (Soul Remains) and a couple sign-up posts for 2019 reading challenges to write, but this is probably the last post of 2018. Happy New Year!

Final Mini-Reviews

It’s time for one last round of mini-reviews: Two on Tolkien and two on grace.

Title: The Fall of Gondolin
Authors: J. R. R. Tolkien & Christopher Tolkien
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 303
Rating: 4 of 5

The tale of the destruction of the hidden elven kingdom of Gondolin was one of J. R. R. Tolkien’s earliest (and most oft-rewritten) creations. In this book, Christopher presents every available version of the story from his father’s papers. Almost everything here could be found in previously published  works, but it was nice to have all of Tolkien’s brilliant writing on this grand tragedy in one place. As usual, I found many of Christopher’s notes pedantic and redundant, but am thankful for his work in collecting and publishing his father’s work.

Title: A Middle-Earth Traveler:
Sketches from Bag End to Mordor
Author/Artist: John Howe
Genre: Fantasy/Art
Pages: 192
Rating: 4.5 of 5

My wife gave me this beautiful book for Christmas. It showcases John Howe’s gorgeous sketches, focusing primarily on the lands, peoples, and creatures of Middle Earth rather than main characters. A few colored pictures are mixed in with the sketches, but most are so dark that they lack the exquisite detail of the sketches. John Howe’s brief commentary throughout was okay, but I did catch at least one error (he mentions that Sauron was incorporeal and trapped in Barad-Dur which is not the case in the books). The fantastic artwork more than makes up for the so-so narration.

Title: The Grace and Truth Paradox
Author: Randy Alcorn
Genre: Applied Theology
Pages: 96
Rating: 4 of 5

Randy Alcorn reminds Christians that Jesus is described as “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), and that we are called to be like him. The strength of this book is in beautifully describing the depth of God’s grace (undeserved favor) toward us. It is a reminder of why the Gospel is the Good News. Unfortunately, the applications about what it looks like to reflect that same kind of love and grace to others without compromising on objective truth were almost too generic. It would have been nice to see a few “where the rubber meets the road” examples…which is what the next book provides.

Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ by [Naselli, Andrew David, Crowley, J. D.]Title: Conscience:
What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ
Authors: Andrew David Naselli & J. D. Crowley
Genre: Applied Theology
Pages: 160
Rating:  5 of 5

Andrew Naselli & J. D. Crowley give a detailed overview of what the New Testament has to say about the conscience: that inner sense of right and wrong. A large part of the book is taken up with what people in my circles like to call “issues of Christian liberty” (i.e. issues on which God has not given explicit moral guidance and over which committed Christians may differ). The authors offer wise, biblical advice on showing grace and love to those whose consciences differ from our own. I highly recommend this book to any Christian, especially if you grew up in the kind of rules-y (don’t drink, go to theatres, use playing cards, listen to rock music, etc.) environment that tends to go along with conservative theology.

Christmas Reflection

 

El-Gibbor: The Mighty God
Will rule the earth with an iron rod
The Son of Man, worthy of praise
Dominion receives from the Ancient of Days
The Word was God, Creator of all
The Word became flesh, helpless and small
Born in humility, swaddled in cloth
A newborn infant asleep in a trough
The gift so great no words can tell
God with us: Emmanuel

by Joel E. Mitchell
(References: Isaiah 9:6-7, Psalm 2:7-9, Daniel 7:13-14, John 1:1-3, John 1:14, Luke 2:4-12, 2 Corinthians 9:15, Matthew 1:22-23)

No, Bonhoeffer is on MY side!

Title: The Battle for Bonhoeffer:
Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump
Author: Stephen R. Haynes
Genre: History / Theology / Politics
Pages: 190 (plus bibliography & index)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

The tone of this book differed from what I was expecting, but I still appreciated it. Stephen Haynes critiques how various groups have invoked, used, and abused the name and writings of anti-Nazi pastor/theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I was hoping for a full-orbed (if brief) analysis of Bonhoeffer and his theology, but the author mostly pointed out where he believed others were wrong without ever giving a complete summary of his own understanding of the man and his work (though frequently mentioning “complexity” and the “give and take” of scholarly opinion).

Though Haynes covers a wide variety of those who have sought to co-opt Bonhoeffer’s legacy, his primary animus is directed against Eric Metaxas. In fact, the subtitle to the book could have been “Why Eric Metaxas’ book is oversimplified, erroneous tripe and his political advocacy disgusts me.” Haynes spends much of his page count criticizing Metaxas’ book, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy and excoriating his invocation of Bonhoeffer in support of Donald Trump. The book crescendos with this denunciation:

“You [Metaxas] were grossly irresponsible to use your role as an influential interpreter of Bonhoeffer to endorse someone whom Bonhoeffer would have found repulsive. You are entitled to your political opinions, of course. But you used credibility gained largely from your association with Bonhoeffer’s estimable humanity to imply that voting for Donald Trump was incumbent on American Christians. You thus gave them permission to ignore their spiritual intuition that the man was a repudiation of everything they held dear. In the process you did a disservice to Bonhoeffer, to Americans, and to the cause of Christ” – p. 131

This is shortly followed by a final chapter entitled Your Bonhoeffer Moment: An Open Letter to Christians Who Love Bonhoeffer but (Still) Support Donald Trump. As far as calm, thoughtful political rants (if that’s a thing) go, it was pretty good. Overall, I would have liked more detail on historical Bonhoeffer and some warning that this book was primarily about confronting Metaxas, but there was plenty of food for thought here.

Potpourri

I’m trying to review at least 100 books this year…9 to go. Toward that end, here is a random assortment of 5 mini-reviews.

Title: Our Kind of Traitor
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 320
Rating: 2.5 of 5

This tale of an average British couple whose lives become entwined with a Russian mobster/defector started out as one of LeCarré’s better post-Cold War novels (which, honestly, isn’t a very high bar). However, the ending was just stupid. It felt like LeCarré got bored and just quit writing. The final action of the book made sense, but it was absurdly abrupt and left almost all of the plot lines unresolved.

Title: Fearsome Journeys
Editor: Jonathan Strahan
Genre: Dark Fantasy Short Stories
Pages: 416
Rating: 3 of 5

I purchased this primarily because it has a Black Company story in it. That story was mediocre…as was the collection as a whole. I have no idea why this anthology is titled Fearsome Journeys as there are few stories that focus on journeying. The unifying theme actually seems to be people with morally ambiguous (at best) professions: mostly mercenaries, thieves, and assassins. It wasn’t bad, but a bit one-note.

Title: The Bear and the Nightingale
Author: Katherine Arden
Genre: Russian Fairy Tale Fantasy
Pages: 368
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This is ridiculously well-written for a first novel! The fairytale style and 13th century (I think) Russian setting were fascinating. What annoyed me was the “dour, manipulative, fear-mongering Christianity vs. harmonious paganism” narrative that was fairly central to the story. Depending on your particular worldview, your mileage may vary…stylistically it was a well-executed fairy tale (of the original variety, not the the cutesy Disneyfied kind).

Title: Judge Sewall’s Apology:
The Salem Witch Trials and the Forming of a Conscience
Author: Richard Francis
Genre: Colonial American History
Pages: 388
Rating: 4 of 5

Samuel Sewall was the only judge from the Salem witch trials to publicly apologize for his involvement. While that apology is the source of the book’s title, the book actually covers his entire life as recorded in his journals. The author presents Sewall as charming and ahead of his time in regard to slavery, the treatment of native Americans, etc. He sometimes lays it on a bit thick and seems to read too much between the lines, but overall this is an interesting, informative look at Puritan culture and religion.

Title: The Shakespeare Requirement
Author: Julie Schumacher
Genre: General Fiction / Satire?
Pages: 309
Rating: 4.5 of 5

If you’ve ever worked in academia and/or some similar buzz-wordy bureaucratic job, you should really read this book. I would say that it’s satire, but the woes of the new head of the English department trying to wrangle his colleagues into agreeing to a mission statement while fighting off the economics department (and convince the public that he is not anti-Shakespeare) ring all too true. Hilarious!

“…the difference between man and man”

Title: Figures of Speech:
Six Histories of Language & Identity in the Age of Revolutions
Author: Tim Cassedy
Genre: History/Linguistics
Pages: 296
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 1/3/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of this review)

In the 18th and 19th centuries, intellectuals commonly believed that language “made the difference between man and man.” That is, certain characteristics of a language (phonemes, orthography, vocabulary, etc.) shaped its speakers’ way of thinking and could allow others to draw valid generalizations about them. Tim Cassedy examines the lives of six individuals who tried to use language as a means of shaping identity (individual, national, or international). He seeks to show that the conclusions drawn from this line of thinking usually did little more than confirm existing biases.

The stories themselves will hold your attention if you have an interest in language, but there is some redundancy in their telling. For me, there was occasionally the feeling of “I think maybe he’s reading too much into this,” but that’s pretty much par for the course in academic books …and he’s the expert so maybe it’s just me. Overall, the book provided me with new historical information and kept my interest.

Unfortunately, the advanced reader copy that I was provided was very poorly formatted and included occasional “words” or “phrases” of gibberish that were clearly placeholders for something else in the finished version. This made parts of the book hard to review. I suspect that some of the charts, illustrations, typefaces, and comments that were nearly unreadable in the ARC will be helpful in the original and probably bump this up from a 3.5 to a 4 star read.

Back to the Classics Wrap-up

Since I just finished my final book for the Back to the Classics 2018 challenge, it’s time for the big wrap-up. A huge thank you to Karen @ Books and Chocolate for putting this together and hosting it. It provides great incentive to include at least a dozen classics in the year’s reading. I read a book for each of the twelve categories, so I get three entries in the final prize drawing. My books for each category were:

A 19th Century Classic: Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow by Jerome K. Jerome – This collection of humorous essays is a must-read for fans of wry humor (as long as you don’t mind wading through a lot of maudlin sentimentality that may or may not be intended humorously).

A 20th Century Classic: Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann – This modern retelling of the Faust legend explores the connection between genius and madness, but by the end I found it overblown and pretentious.

A Classic by a Woman Author: Silas Marner by George Eliot – I greatly enjoyed this “reclamation” story which is something along the lines of a non-supernatural version of Dickens’ Christmas Carol (Dickens loved it and wrote  her a “fan letter”).

A Classic in Translation: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas – I know I’m in the minority, but I didn’t care for this classic tale of revenge.

A Children’s Classic: The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame – I will be recommending this charming little book to my children.

A Classic Crime Story: The Grifters by Jim Thompson – Thompson provides the fairly standard downward-slide-into-tragedy that you expect from this kind of crime noir but with some creepy oedipal stuff in the mix. Well written, but a bit too sleazy for my taste.

A Classic Travel or Journey Narrative: The Canterbury Tales – In spite of the (to me) unfunny obsession with adultery & misogyny, Chaucer is witty and adept at painting memorable characters.

A Classic with a Single-word Title: Nostromo by Joseph Conrad – Conrad displays his trademark bleakness here. Personally, I think it packed more impact in the much shorter Heart of Darkness than in this 400+ page depressing book.

A Classic with a Color in the Title: Black No More by George S. Schuyler – This biting satire is by turns hilarious and grim as the author explores an alternate US in which a medical procedure can turn black people into white people.

A Classic by an Author That’s New to You: Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier – I wouldn’t necessarily say that I liked this book, but the atmosphere and characterization were superb.

A Classic That Scares You: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway – I hated Hemingway in high school, but decided to be brave and give him another shot. I didn’t hate it this time, but he’s still not my cup of tea.

Re-read a Favorite Classic: The Poetic Edda by Anonymous – Who wouldn’t want to read about cross-dressing Thor, Loki getting in an insult contest with the rest of the gods, and the final showdown at Ragnarok?

And there you have it! (If I happen to win the drawing you can contact me Here.)