Please Help If You Can

I’ve never done this before on this site, but a close family friend is in desperate need of help. He has been dealing with cardiac and GI issue for the last year, including three major life-saving surgeries and at least four other hospitalizations. During that time, he has been largely unable to work…a couple times he was cleared to work, secured a job, and ended up right back in the hospital within weeks.

His recovery is not going well, as he is still frail, needs a cane to get around (and he is only 40ish years old), and seems to spend more time in the hospital than out. my family and I are trying to raise funds via GoFundMe for his ongoing medical bills and other monthly bills so that he at least doesn’t have that pressure nagging at him along with everything else.

Thank you for any help you can provide via this link!

Here is a picture of Dan from a couple years ago when we had a family outing to see the latest Star Wars movie:

Slightly Pretentious Cosmic Horror

Title: Black Wings of Cthulhu 3
Editor: S. T. Joshi
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Pages: 400
Rating: 3 of 5

Despite having Cthulhu in the title, the Black Wings short story collections feature fewer appearances of Lovecraft’s alien-god-monsters than most cosmic horror collections. They aren’t absent by any means, but S. T. Joshi tends to avoid stories that he considers to be mere Lovecraftian pastiches. Instead, he collects stories that deal with cosmic horror themes (e.g. the utter insignificance of humanity in the face of a vast uncaring cosmos) that may or may not feature Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, Azathoth, and company and may or may not be set in Innsmouth, Arkham, Miskatonic University, etc.. That said, there is enough Lovecraftian name dropping that a person not acquainted with the mythos will probably miss the full impact of some of the stories (some of it gets pretty meta).

One of the things that I like about cosmic horror is that (unlike a lot of horror) it doesn’t usually rely on graphic gore or sex for its thrills and chills. Unfortunately, that doesn’t hold true for all of the stories in this collection, so that was a bit of a disappointment. Overall, this was a pretty typical S. T. Joshi-edited collection. Personally, I think that he is a bit of a snob who takes Lovecraft waaaay too seriously, but he does know how to pick well-written stories.

(Also, this is another book off my list for The Official TBR Pile Challenge.)

Two More Classics

Finished two more books for the Back to the Classics 2022 Challenge!

Title: The Travels
Authors: Marco Polo & Rustichello da Pisa
Genre: Classic Travelogue
Pages: 480
Rating: 2.5 of 5

I read this for the Nonfiction Classic category, but there were enough obvious fabrications and scholarly footnotes noting embellishments and errors that its “nonfiction” status is borderline. However, that’s pretty par for the course for ancient and medieval history books (looking at you, Herodotus!), so I think it counts.

I have read a few other ancient and medieval histories (Thucydides, Arian, various sagas, etc.) and found them mostly informative and enjoyable. Marco Polo, not so much. The seemingly endless catalogue of the climate, religion, political allegiance, natural resources, and market goods of each region through which he travels becomes tedious very quickly.

There are some descriptions of interesting (though not always especially believable) political maneuvering, cultural practices, legends, and cityscapes. You get some sense of what life was like in and around Kublai Khan’s empire but filtered through Marco’s (and Rustichello’s) sycophancy, self-aggrandizement, and ethnocentrism.

I can see why people of his era who were unlikely to ever travel into “mysterious and exotic” Asia would be fascinated by this eyewitness testimony, but it falls kind of flat today unless you’re a historian trying to pick it apart for historical goodies.

Title: Ivanhoe
Author: Sir Walter Scott
Genre: Classic Historical Fiction
Pages: 528
Rating: 3.5 of 5

For the 19th century classic category, I reread Ivanhoe. This is a melodramatic, over-romanticized “Knights in shining armor and outlaws in Sherwood Forest” piece of escapist fluff…and it’s pretty fun if you want a mindless classic read. The author does deal with a serious theme of the evils and foolishness of antisemitism (somewhat muddied by his own portrayal of an important Jewish characters using all the prevailing negative stereotypes), but mostly the book is an excuse to string together all the “age of chivalry” and Robin Hood tropes that you can imagine. If you are willing to roll your eyes and go with the flow, it’s worth a read (though I prefer R. L. Stevenson’s The Black Arrow).

A Breath of Fresh Air

Title: The Goblin Emperor
Author: Katherine Addison
Genre: Court Intrigue Fantasy (possibly YA)
Pages: 449
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This book pleasantly surprised me. The original cover and publicity blurb made me think it was some sort of cutesy YA fantasy clone, but a fellow book blogger’s rave review convinced me to give it a shot. There were a few of the usual YA tropes (teenage outsider whose parents are dead and who doesn’t want the role that has been thrust upon him), but it never descended into the obnoxious whining pity party and simplistic plotting/characterization that I think of as characteristically YA.

Maia, the unloved youngest half-goblin son of the elf emperor has been raised in obscurity far from court, but he is suddenly thrust onto the throne when the emperor and all of his other heirs die in a catastrophic accident. The rest of the book follows the challenges of growing into this role while navigating (potentially deadly) court intrigue.

In my experience, fantasy books that center on political maneuvering tend to be either cynical grimdark dystopias or trashy romance novels disguised as fantasy. This was neither as Maia brings kindness, warmth, and wisdom to the table. There’s plenty of awkwardness, self-doubt, and grief along the way, but this is the story of a refreshingly good-hearted young man.

If you are looking for high action, you’ll want to go elsewhere. If you need a break from angsty anti-hero fantasy this book is a breath of fresh air.

Back to the Classics (Kind of)

Title: Classic Monsters Unleashed
Authors: 30 of “the biggest names in the genre” (according to Amazon)
Editor: James Aquilone
Genre: Horror Story Anthology
Pages: 443
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Publication Date: July 12, 2022 (Thank you to the authors and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review.)

Your enjoyment of this collection will hinge quite a bit on how much you know and appreciate classic monster stories, especially as they have been portrayed on the big screen. With most of the entries you need at least a passing knowledge of the original (or classic screen-adapted) version for the “unleashed” story to really make sense.

There is good variety in the monsters/creatures featured across the collection. I think that Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and werewolves are the only ones to make multiple appearances with 2-3 apiece (pretty impressive in a collection of 29 stories).

That being said, most of the plots fell into just a handful of categories used in various combinations:

  1. Classic monster returns to cause more mayhem.
  2. Try to guess which monster this is about before the big reveal…
  3. Recast monster as misunderstood victim and/or hero as the villain.
  4. Gender swap characters.
  5. Engage in social commentary on gender or race.

I preferred the stories that built on the already-established characters rather than completely re-imagining them, but that’s just my personal taste.

Stylistically, this was a mixed bag. Some stories felt stilted, as if the author was just phoning it in and checking off the boxes needed to make a creature feature. Others demonstrated creativity and variety in language usage (including annoying but clever use of textspeak in Dacre Stoker’s offering). I would say that the well-written outnumber the “meh.”

Overall, this is worth a read if you are into classic monster horror. However, as with many bulky themed anthologies, you might want to take some time between stories so that they don’t start to sound repetitive.

PKD on Drugs

Title: A Scanner Darkly
Author: Philip K. Dick
Genre: Drugged-out Sci-Fi
Pages: 304
Rating: 2.5 of 5

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to live with a bunch of people who are slowly destroying themselves through drug use, this is the book for you. While it includes definite sci-fi elements (e.g. undercover narcs wear “scramble suits” that completely hide their identity when interacting with other law enforcement), it is primarily PKD’s semi-autobiographical portrayal of the 70’s drug scene.

We are presented with a constant stream of paranoia, delusion, mania, lust, deception, desperation, crime, and any other form of mental illness and misery you can think of. Law enforcement and rehab people serve as little more than sources of additional cruelty, misery, and corruption. I suppose that this has value in that it gives a gritty inside look into the world of addiction and mental illness, but it was just plain depressing and hopeless. This is my third PKD book, and I’m pretty much done with him…writing skill and cool concepts aren’t enough to keep my coming back to his bleakness and cynicism.

(Also, this is my second book completed for Roofbeam Reader’s TBR Pile Challenge)

Back with Two Classics

I’m back! My wife still has quite a ways to go in her recovery, but we’re out of the woods. So, for the first time in a few weeks, here are a couple short reviews. These are books that I read for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Moll Flanders ( illustrated ) by [Daniel Defoe]

Title: The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who Was Born in Newgate, and During a Life of Continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, Besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, Five Times a Wife (Whereof Once to her Own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at Last Grew Rich, Liv’d Honest, and Died a Penitent. Written from Her Own Memorandums.
(aka Moll Flanders)
Author: Daniel Defoe (Probably)
Genre: Classic Picaresque
Pages: 376
Rating: 3.5 of 5

The full title pretty much sums up the book (and should probably come with a *SPOILERS* tag). Like a lot of picaresque novels, mixed in with our hero’s roguish adventures is satirical commentary on the “polite society” that has led her to this lifestyle. The whole thing feels a bit tongue-in-cheek as Moll’s “penitent” confession of her wickedness frequently has an undertone of pride in her own cleverness. I’m really not quite sure what to make of the book, but I enjoyed it overall.

(I will be using this as my pre-1800 classic)

Title: Oil!
Author: Upton Sinclair
Genre: Socialist Propaganda
Pages: 541
Rating: 2.5 of 5

This starts out as a captivating (if saddening) tale of a young man torn between loyalty to his unscrupulous oil magnate father and his friends (and other workers) exploited by the oil industry. It shines a light on the abuses and corruption in the oil industry and provides a largely sympathetic look at the broad spectrum of union, socialist, and communist movements in the early 20th century. Unfortunately, after a certain point, heavy-handed socialist propaganda (with plenty of sneering at religion and even an encouraging nod toward Soviet Bolshevism) pretty much drowns out any actual compelling story.

(I will be using this as my 20th century classic)

Stand By

It’s going on two weeks since I posted anything, so this is just a quick check-in to let you know that the blog isn’t dead. Corona finally found our house; the one family member who has preexisting breathing issues is the lucky one to catch a breakthrough case. No hospitalization yet but things are a bit touch-and-go so please keep us in your prayers and I’ll be back to book-blogging at some point.

Soviet Spies in the Seventies

Title: The Falcon and the Snowman:
A True Story of Friendship and Espionage
Author: Robert Lindsey
Genre: True Crime (Espionage)
Pages: 359
Rating: 4 out of 5

I enjoy well-written true espionage tales. To me, a good true espionage author sifts through a lot of sketchy half-true information and offers a credible explanation of what motivated the people involved, how they executed their plans and/or were captured, and what impact they may have had on world events. Robert Lindsey does all of this admirably in this Edgar Award-winning book about two California boys from prosperous families who sold top secret spy satellite info to the USSR in the 1970’s.

The Falcon and the Snowman is not a high-action book. In fact, the actual espionage activity seems depressingly easy for the most part. The author focuses more on the spies’ relationships and psychology. He portrays one as a career criminal drug dealer who is only in it for the money and the other as a disillusioned ideologue lashing out at American duplicity and corruption.

As far as writing style, some of the author’s jumping around in the timeline felt unnecessarily confusing and repetitive (especially in the first half), but not to the point of ruining the book. He comes across relatively neutral in his presentation of events but clearly feels some sympathy for (though not necessarily agreement with) the more ideology-driven spy. Overall, I would recommend this to any fan of true espionage, but if you are new to the genre you would be better off starting with something by Ben MacIntyre who is the absolute master of the true spy tale.

(Also, this is my first read finished for the TBR Pile Challenge hosted by Roof Beam Reader)

Back to the Classics Signup 2022

It’s another challenge signup post! Thank you to Karen K over at Books and Chocolate for once again hosting the Back to the Classics Challenge.

The challenge involves completing classic books (50+ years old) in as many of the 12 sub-categories as possible for entries in a prize drawing (Click the picture I lifted from her page to go there, see full details, and sign up). For me, it’s mostly a fun incentive to include some “serious literature” in my reading and an opportunity to see what classics others have enjoyed.

You don’t have to choose which books you will be reading at the start of the year, but I like to start with a list of possibilities. This year I’m starting with two possibilities for each category… we’ll see how it goes. Without further ado, the list:

  1. A 19th century classic:
    The Black Robe by Wilkie Collins
    The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville
  2. A 20th century classic:
    The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald
    Oil! by Upton Sinclair
  3. A classic by a woman author
    The Sundial by Shirley Jackson
    Julius by Daphne DuMaurier
  4. A classic in translation
    Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
    Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
  5. A classic by BIPOC author
    Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cuba by Machado de Assis
    The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley
  6. Mystery/detective/crime classic
    Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
    Nightfall by David Goodis
  7. A classic short story collection
    The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne DuMaurier
    An Obsession with Death and Dying by Cornell Woolrich
  8. Pre 1800’s classic
    Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
    Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
  9. A nonfiction classic
    Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
    The Travels by Marco Polo
  10. Classic that’s been on your TBR list the longest (Pretty close between these two)
    For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
    The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis
  11. Classic set in a place you’d like to visit
    The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien (Middle Earth)
    Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm (Oxford)
  12. Wild card classic
    Ashenden: Or the British Agent by W. Somerset Maugham
    Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy