Jephthah & Inanna

Title: Ever
Author: Gail Carson Levine
Genre: Youth Fantasy/Mythology
Pages: 256
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Gail Carson Levine regularly passes the C. S. Lewis test of “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” Even as an adult, I find her stories like Ella Enchanted (the book, NOT the movie!) and A Tale of Two Castles  to be charming and entertaining with strong, resourceful heroines. Ever is a little more mature and little less whimsical in tone, but I still enjoyed it overall.

Levine leaves behind her usual fairytale subject matter in favor of more historical and mythological elements. The plot riffs on an interesting combination of the biblical story of Jephthah’s rash vow (Judges 11:29-40) and Sumerian/Akkadian culture and mythology (especially Inanna/Ishtar’s descent to the underworld). Our main first person POV characters are are the Jephthah’s-daughter-equivalent and a young god of the winds.

The plotting veers a little toward the “and then this happened, and then the next thing happened for inscrutable reasons, and then something else happened just because, and then the convenient deus ex machina happened…” manner of ancient mythology. People expecting Levine’s usual style may find it a little off-putting or flat, but I think that it works well with the subject matter and is fairly interesting even if it isn’t quite as charming as usual.

Also, this is another book checked off my 2019 TBR Challenge!

Satire & Insanity

I recently finished two more books for the Back to the Classics Challenge. Because they’re both on the satirical side, I’ve decided to review both in the same post:

43358571Title: O Alienista (The Alienist)
Author: Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis
Genre: Brazilian Classic Satire
Pages: 81
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I grew up in Brazil, but until now I had never read a Brazilian classic (my education was mostly American, and I didn’t have access to a public library). The archaic, literary Portuguese challenged me a bit since even my everyday conversational Portuguese is starting to get a bit rusty after living here in the US  for the last 20 years. However, vocabulary struggles aside, I really enjoyed this book.

This satirical novella follows the life’s work of a pioneering alienist/psychiatrist in colonial Brazil. His belief that science can provide cut-and-dried universal definitions and solutions for identifying and treating mental illness leads to a variety of absurd conclusions and events. This being satire, the author dryly narrates most of these absurdities as if they are perfectly reasonable.

Even though this is 130+ years old, the author’s themes continue to be relevant. Many people still think that science can give them all the answers to the meaning of life the universe and everything, and some people in the mental health field are still much too quick to label any slight quirk, foible, or struggle as a mental disorder in need of treatment/drugs. Truly, “there is nothing new under the sun.”

I am using this book for my “Classic from a Place You’ve Lived” category.

Wise Blood: A Novel (FSG Classics) by [O'Connor, Flannery]Title: Wise Blood
Author: Flannery O’Connor
Genre: Modern Classic American Fiction
Pages: 256
Rating: 2.5 of 5

I must admit, I really didn’t get this book. I understand some of the religious themes and dark irony it is dealing with through characters like a charlatan preacher in it for the money, a young man of doubtful sanity who acts on mystical impulses (“wise blood”), and the main character who claims a sort of atheism (“The Church without Christ”) yet is more religiously dedicated than anyone. However, as a whole the book left me saying “what did I just read?”

The overall tone was a bit surreal (almost kafkaesque, but not quite that weird), and the plot felt like it was cobbled together from unconnected stories. A little investigation afterward turned up the fact that this is in fact multiple independent short stories smooshed into a single “novel.” Overall, some of the images and plot points were memorable, but it felt like a strange hodge-podge to me.

I am using this book for my “Classic by a Woman” category.

THIS IS SPARTAAAA!!!

Title: Gates of Fire:
Author: Steven Pressfield
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 442
Rating: 4 of 5

Historical fiction is not my go-to genre. Maybe it’s because I was scarred by Gilbert Morris and his ilk as a teen. Whatever the reason, most of the time I’d rather just read non-fiction to get my history fix. Nevertheless, this book came highly recommended so I decided to give it a shot…and I’m glad I did!

Steven Pressfield provides a far more complex and realistic portrayal of the Battle of Thermopylae than something like The 300 or a gun enthusiasts explaining ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ This isn’t just 442 pages of carnage (though there is plenty of carnage). The battle is placed in its historical context with far more of the book exploring Spartan society, politics, and warrior ethos rather than describing the battle itself.

Most of the narration comes from a gravely wounded Greek survivor, dug out of the piles of the dead after the battle and commanded by King Xerxes to give him a soldier’s-eye-view of the men who made this valiant/futile stand against him. The story jumps around erratically within the narrator’s timeline, focusing on events that reveal the character of individual Spartans and ending with a moving/horrifying description of the battle.

The author’s somehow creates sympathetic characters within the pervasive brutality and oppression of Spartan society. He allows us to overhear and contemplate these warriors’ thoughts on violence, valor, honor, etc. (with some of the characters perhaps failing to show the proper laconic demeanor of true Lacedaemonians). He explores both the glory and the horror of war through events that still echo through history almost 2,500 years later. If you aren’t fazed by occasional info-dumping, profanity-laced rants, or graphic violence this is well worth reading.

Grim Christmas

A Midnight Clear by [Hooker, Sam, Leyva, Alcy, Morrison, Laura, Windwalker, Cassondra, Storm, Dalena, Jane, Seven]Title: A Midnight Clear
Authors: Sam Hooker, Alcy Leyva, Laura Morrison, Cassondra Windwalker, Dalena Storm, & Seven Jane
Genre: Short Story Anthology (5 Fantasy & 1 Mystery)
Pages: 250
Rating: 3 of 5
Future Release Date: 11/5/19 (Thank you to the authors and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of my review.)

Black Spot Books tapped six of their authors to pull together this short story anthology under the overarching theme of “not-so-merry Yuletide whimsy.” The result is truly a mixed bag [insert lame Santa’s sack joke].

The Good: The opening story by Sam Hooker is far and away the best of the lot. Who knew you could combine a sugary cute version of the North pole (reminiscent of what it’s like in the movie Elf) with a visit to R’lyeh? Laura Morrison’s hellish (yet humorous) riff on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is imaginative and entertaining as well, and Dalena Storm’s dive into Slavic mythology wasn’t bad. I wouldn’t take my theology from any of these stories, but they were a lot of fun to read.

The “Meh”: The other three stories left me cold. In a couple, the Christmas element felt shoehorned in, and they all had the kind of pacing that I associate with lousy Christian fiction: the majority of the page count taken up with the protagonist moping, sulking, or mooning around followed by a burst of action at the very end that may or may not connect well with all the repetitive morbid introspection that came before it. Obviously, your mileage may vary.

Overall, the oft repeated descriptor for short story anthologies is “mixed bag,” and that holds very much true here. If nothing else, you need to read Sam Hooker’s cutesy elf/Cthulhu mythos mashup.

Quick Fire Fantasy Tag

This might be the first one of these I’ve done on this blog, but it gives me a chance to talk about some of my favorite books, so here we go!

The Rules

5-Star Book

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C. S. Lewis isn’t quite as well known as some of his other works, but it should be! This retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche illustrates Lewis’s assertion that “The value of myth is that it takes all the things you know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity.” As we read one woman’s diatribe against the gods, Lewis explores themes of beauty, jealousy, longing, and theodicy.

Always Going to Recommend

This is the book that got me into fantasy:

Image result for the lion the watch and the wardrobe book cover

I have reread The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, and all The Chronicles of Narnia, every couple years since first reading them at the age of 7 or 8. Every time I do, I get something new out of them. Read it as a charming story about children having adventures in a world of talking animals and mythological beings…and then read it for the “deep magic” where Lewis supposes “there was a world like Narnia and supposing, like ours, it needed redemption, let us imagine what sort of Incarnation and Passion and Resurrection Christ would have there.” This is the place to start when you read The Chronicles of Narnia (don’t go with the new chronological ordering).

Own It But Haven’t Read

So many books, so little time…

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake has been languishing on my shelf for a few years now. I have seen the gothic Gormenghast series described as a masterpiece on par with other seminal fantasy works, and I have seen it described as tediously over-descriptive and depressing. I don’t always mind lengthy low-action character-driven works (see final entry below), so one of these days I’m going to give this a shot!

Would Read It Again

More like “have read it again, multiple times” for most of the fantasy books I really enjoy…

J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion Wooden Book Cover Wall image 0

The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien doesn’t resonate with most people like The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, but after a couple attempts I now love it! Sure, the tone is more like reading ancient mythology than a novel, the plethora of similar sounding names can be confusing at first, and most of the storylines don’t have happy endings. Tolkien’s language-nerd side ran away with him a bit on this one, but this sweeping history covering thousands of years emphasizes that there is courage, nobility, and beauty even in the midst of (often self-wrought) tragedy…and it provides amazing backstory that enriches LOTR if you’re willing to make the connections.

In Another World

So, pretty much anything that isn’t urban fantasy or alternate history?

Image result for The Black Company Cover

The Black Company by Glen Cook kicks off the series that helped define the dark fantasy sub-genre. Rather than “rogues with a heart of gold,” the men of the Black Company are true mercenaries. They aren’t always completely heartless, but they are pretty amoral as their primary goals are to survive and to get paid (and sometimes that means making sure that their world survives the machinations of powerful magic-wielders). I don’t like to read this kind of fantasy all the time, but it’s an interesting change of pace and I intend to go back through the whole series at some point.

Back on Earth

Hardcover Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell Book

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrelby Susanna Clarke reads like a fantasy novel written by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens after they had read On Fairy Stories by J. R. R. Tolkien. It is set mostly in England during the era of the Napoleonic Wars and has elements of alternate history and old fairy tales (where the fairies are neither particularly nice, nor sane). The character-driven plot is slow and meandering with extensive footnotes that offer snippets of this England’s grand history of fairy magic. Some people find it tedious, but it’s one of my favorite books.

I Tag:

“Comico, Ergo Sum”

Title: Superhero Thought Experiments:
Comic Book Philosophy
Authors: Chris Gavaler & Nathaniel Goldberg
Genre: Philosophy
Pages: 202 (plus citations, etc.)
Rating: 4.5 of 5
(Thank you to the authors and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

It’s Superman vs. Batman: consequentialism vs. deontology! Within these pages you will find this and other astounding speculations as our intrepid authors perform feats of daring philosophy.

Okay, this isn’t actually a high-action book, but if you enjoy philosophy it’s a lot of fun. Gavaler and Goldberg treat superhero comic as thought experiments to explore the nature of doing good, existence, time, identity, communication, etc. (or morality, metaphysics, meaning, and medium if you prefer the alliteration of their section titles). Fodder for philosophizing includes Bizarro world, Dr. Doom’s time machine, Scarlet Witch’s imaginary twins, retcons & reboots, and much more. To me, the first three sections that focus on characters and stories were much more interesting than the last section that focused on comic books as a medium.

If you’re the kind of person who when confronted with someone asking “how do I know I’m really here?” gets annoyed by anything more theoretical than pinching/punching them and asking “did that hurt,” this isn’t the book for you. If you enjoy thought experiments and speculating on the nature of life, the universe, and everything give this a shot.

Corum Vs. Chaos

Title: Corum – The Coming of Chaos
(The Eternal Champion Sequence: Volume 7)
Author: Michael Moorcock
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Pages: 398
Rating: 4 of 5

Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion books can serve as decent escapist SF&F when they don’t get too bogged down in preachiness and/or moping. Don’t ever expect a cheery read since themes of genocide, lost love, and divine manipulation echo across the multiverse in practically every incarnation (aspect? version? whatever…) of the Champion. This was my favorite volume in the (loosely connected) series up to this point.

Corum may now be my favorite version of the Champion. He is (maybe) the last of his race, the Vadhagh (basically decadent elves), driven by the desire for vengeance against the man who destroyed his people but swept up into conflicts spanning multiple planes (alternate worlds? dimensions? whatever…). As with other incarnations, he is a reluctant pawn of the Cosmic Balance fighting for Law against Chaos with a chaos-tainted overpowered weapon. While he goes through the usual “fighting against being manipulated” angst, he isn’t as unremittingly whiney as some of the other versions (I’m looking at you, Elric!).

Apparently Moorcock drew his inspiration from Welsh folklore and history. How close the connection is I can’t say, because the Mabinogion is still languishing on my TBR list. What I can say is that the three short novels that make up this volume are solid swords & sorcery with some trippy interdimensional stuff thrown in as Corum faces off against three increasingly powerful chaos lords. There’s none of the usual preachiness about the joys of anarcho-syndicalism (or whatever form of government Moorcock is usually on about), but the end does devolve a bit into a slightly ranty version of John Lennon’s Imagine.

Overall: enjoyable escapist dark fantasy in which Moorcock keeps his obnoxious side under control for the most part. Also, this checks a ninth book off my entry in the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge!

Shakespearean Crime Fiction

Macbeth: William Shakespeare's Macbeth Retold: A Novel by [Nesbo, Jo]Title: Macbeth (Hogarth Shakespeare)
Author: Jo Nesbø
Genre: Literary Crime Fiction?
Pages: 446
Rating: 4 of 5

The Hogarth Shakespeare series asks popular novelists to retell Shakespeare’s works with their own twist (e.g. Othello as a schoolyard conflict, The Tempest in a prison, The Taming of the Shrew without the Stockholm syndrome). I have been impressed with (or at least entertained by) the ones I have read so far, including this one.

Jo Nesbo reimagines Macbeth as gritty crime fiction. The setting is an unnamed, vaguely located (Scotland? Norway?) coastal city with rather contrived geography and a major drug problem. The central conflict revolves around control of the city with most of the main characters appearing as members of the police force that is trying to shake off its corrupt past.

Nesbo plays up the “Hecate and Weird Sisters as manipulators” aspect/interpretation of the story and finds lots of clever ways to work in well-known lines and situations from the original. In fact, it might be good to read/reread the original before diving into this so that you can catch all the allusions, not just the big obvious plot points.

Obviously, you shouldn’t expect a happy story when you read any version of Macbeth. Nesbo ratchets up the darkness beyond the original level, and might occasionally be a little “over the top” in terms of action. I saw a review that compared this to a Quentin Tarantino movie, and while I might not go that far I can totally see it. Overall it was an interesting take on a classic tragedy that kept me turning the pages just to see where he was going with it.

Shepherds Who Feed Only Themselves

Title: God, Greed, and the (Prosperity) Gospel:
How Truth Overwhelms a Life Built on Lies
Author: Costi Hinn
Genre: Theology / Autobiography
Pages: 224
Rating: 5 of 5

Many of the world’s most popular Christian preachers proclaim a message of unending, guaranteed health, wealth, and prosperity for those who exercise the right kind of faith. Jesus must have misspoken when he told his followers they would experience mistreatment, conflict, troubles, and weakness/sickness, because these men and women can tell you how to have it all right now (in Jesus’ name, of course). You know it’s true because just look at how rich they are! If it doesn’t work for you, you obviously don’t have enough faith, and maybe throwing some money their way would be a demonstration of your faith that would really catch God’s attention.

In this book, Costi Hinn (nephew of faith healer Benny Hinn) confronts this twisted, self-serving teaching. For the first 60% of the book he recounts his own story of growing up in luxury (funded by the offerings of people desperate for healing or prosperity), slowly coming to the realization of the abusive, deceptive nature of this false gospel, and rejecting it. The remainder of the book examines the nature, history, and impact of the prosperity gospel. He emphasizes its distortion of Scripture and the true Gospel (e.g. Romans 5:8-10, Romans 3:23-25, Ephesians 2:4-10). Given his family ties, the teachings and actions he refers to most directly are Benny Hinn’s, but he touches on beliefs shared by Joel Osteen, Oral Roberts, Joyce Meyer, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (a church I was acquainted with where I grew up in Brazil), and many others.

Costi’s overall tone is as gracious as you can possibly be while warning that someone else’s belief system is dangerous and completely in the wrong. The abuse of Scripture and exploitation of people carried out by the prosperity gospel makes my blood boil, so I am impressed with his self-control and ability to “speak the truth in love.” The most scathing criticism in the book comes when he quotes from Scripture. These are the words of Jude, the half-brother of Jesus, writing about exploitive teachers:

These people are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea,foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever. – Jude 12-13 (NIV)

Please, don’t be led astray by these people or write off Jesus Christ because of wolves in sheep’s clothing who exploit his name for personal gain. I highly recommend this book as a very readable warning against a pervasive false teaching and a record of God’s grace to a young man who was caught up in it. (And if you want a shorter, blunter explanation of the problems with the prosperity gospel and examples of those who teach it check out Fal$e Teacher$ by hip-hop/rap artist Shai Linne).

Everybody was kung fu fighting…

A Hero Born: The Definitive Edition (Legends of the Condor Heroes Book 1) by [Yong, Jin]Title: A Hero Born
(Legends of the Condor Heroes – Book 1)
Author: Jin Yong
Translator: Anna Holmwood
Genre: Martial Arts Fiction
Pages: 416
Rating: 3 of 5
Future Release Date: 9/17/19 (Thank you to the translator & publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review) 

If you like martial arts movies, this is a must-read. However, if you leave that kind of movie saying things like, “cool stunts, but why were they fighting again…and why did that guy let himself die?” you might want to give this a miss.

I found the historical fiction aspects of this quite interesting. My knowledge of Chinese history is negligible, and this was kind of a fun way to get a feel for cultural and political issues in the early 1200’s (Temujin / Genghis Khan is a major secondary character).

The story’s highly episodic plot (this was originally a serial) is driven by a very Eastern code of honor combined with quick tempers and arrogance. It’s probably just my Western mindset, but to me a lot of the interpersonal behavior just seemed incredibly petty and/or driven by passing whims (with little purpose other than setting up a kung fu action set piece).

There is very little plot resolution at the end of the book. We now have most of the major characters in the same place (and they have all managed to kung fu fight amongst themselves in various combinations), but none of the major story arcs have been resolved.

The translation work as a whole seemed to flow fairly smoothly considering how much difference in writing style and sentence structure there must be between the two languages. One slightly odd feature of the translation was the inconsistent handling of names: some were translated with their English meaning and others merely transliterated with the meaning pointed out in an aside. 

Overall, I’m glad for the opportunity to experience a book from another culture that is so staggeringly popular (>300 million sold plus bootleg copies probably totalling over 1 billion according to one of the appendices), but apparently martial arts fiction just isn’t my cup of tea.