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…

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.

Rabbit Rabbit

Rabbits: A Novel by [Terry Miles]

Title: Rabbits
Author: Terry Miles
Genre: Ready Player One wannabe Sci-Fi
Pages: 423
Rating: 2.5 of 5
Future Release Date: June 8, 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 is a pretty close approximation to what you would get if Franz Kafka took a break from writing The Trial and tried to rip off Ready Player One (with way fewer 80’s pop culture references) but then got bored and abruptly ended it.

The plot centers around a nebulous “game” (informally known as rabbits) played in the real world. No one is supposed to talk about the game. No one is sure what the prize is, who runs it, or if they are actually even playing it. Oh, and just for good measure, people sometimes die or disappear while playing. Playing involves spotting seeming coincidences and subtle links that lead you to clues in a process which repeats until ????!

Our hero, a less than mentally and emotionally well-adjusted individual known simply as K, become involved in trying to fix the most recent iteration of the game, and it’s hard to say much more without spoilers. It’s all pretty trippy as ideas thrown around include the Mandela effect, the multiverse, quantum computing, obsession, conspiracy, mental and emotional trauma, and much more.

If the author had managed a halfway satisfactory ending I probably would have given the book 4 stars. I rather enjoyed the weirdness of it all (in spite of fairly flat unappealing characters and an F-bomb every couple pages), but the ending felt completely rushed. It explained very little and left myriad loose ends. It’s probably supposed to feel “mysterious” and “open ended,” but to me it just felt incomplete (and possibly a bit lazy on the author’s part). Obviously, your experience may vary, so don’t let me discourage you if this sounds like your sort of weirdness.

Mini-Review Time!

The number of read-but-unreviewed books is piling up, so it’s time for some more mini reviews. No unifying theme here; just several books that I read about a month and a half ago:

The Only Good Indians: A Novel by [Stephen Graham Jones]

Title: The Only Good Indians
Author: Stephen Graham Jones
Genre: Horror Trying to Be Literature
Pages: 336
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I like stories that plop you down in media res and slowly reveal what is going on. This is one of those stories, and it is masterfully executed. The plot (that reads like heavily interconnected novellas) follows four Blackfeet men as they are haunted by something that they did when they were younger…whether that’s literal or metaphorical haunting I leave you to find out. Along the way, the author also explores themes of tradition, culture, community, family, and the Native American experience in general.

Judging from reviews online, this books seems to be a bit love-it-or-hate-it. I think that for some readers it’s too literary and slow-burn to be good horror, and for others it was too tropey and requires too much suspension of disbelief to be good literature. Personally, I thought that it worked very well!

Her Royal Spyness (The Royal Spyness Series Book 1) by [Rhys Bowen]

Title: Her Royal Spyness
Author: Rhys Bowen
Genre: Witty Narration and Amusing Characters (in a Murder Mystery)
Pages: 324
Rating: 4 of 5

I needed something light and fluffy to counter the stress of trying to navigate a major covid outbreak in our community, and this was just the thing! The murder mystery was pretty secondary to character development and witty narration. Our intrepid (but awkward) heroine is a minor royal from a family with ancestral lands in Scotland (described in disparaging detail) and no money. In this introductory book to the series she narrates her escapades in pre-WW2 London, where she has tea with the queen (who wants her to keep an eye on someone), tries to get a job (a big no-no for a royal), spends time with assorted upper-class twits & rogues, and becomes embroiled in a murder investigation. I will definitely be continuing the series!

Every Little Crook and Nanny by Evan Hunter

Title: Every Little Crook and Nanny
Author: Evan Hunter
Genre: Comedic Mob Fiction
Pages: 229
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This tale of the kidnapping of a mobster’s son was not what I was expecting. It is told as a series of vignettes, each one focused on a different person connected to the story. Most of the characters demonstrate massive incompetence and/or eccentric behavior to the point of being caricatures. Each chapter begins with a black and white photo of the starring character, and at first I thought it was some sort of movie tie-in, but apparently these are just the author’s (or his publishers’) acquaintances who agreed to pose for him. There is a comedic movie loosely based on the book, but judging from a quick perusal on imdb, there have been major alterations to the plot. I didn’t find this laugh-out-loud funny, but I suppose it was mildly amusing.

Two More Classics

I’ve completed two more books for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021, and it’s time to review them!

Jamaica Inn by [Daphne du Maurier]

Title: Jamaica Inn
Author: Daphne du Maurier
Genre: Classic Potboiler
Pages: 352
Rating: 2 of 5

For me, Daphne du Maurier is very hit-or-miss. I greatly enjoyed the morally ambiguous psychological gothic-ness of Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel, but thought The Scapegoat was improbable to the point of eyerolling. Jamaica Inn was another miss for me. On the Gothic spectrum it is much closer to Ann Radcliffe than the Brontë Sisters.

The bones of the story aren’t terrible (orphaned young woman sent to live with her aunt and uncle [by marriage] discovers that Uncle Joss Merlyn and his Inn have a deservedly sinister reputation), but it was all so melodramatic. If there had been some sex scenes thrown into the instalove-with-a-rogue storyline I would have thought I was reading some hack Harlequin Romance, not a modern classic. Nevertheless, I will be using this for my Classic by a Woman Author category.

Chaka by Thomas Mofolo

Title: Chaka
Author: Thomas Mofolo
Translator: Daniel P. Kunene
Genre: Classic Historical Fiction
Pages: 192 (including translator’s introduction)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This ended up being a very different book than what I expected. I thought that it was going to be a hero-worshippy fanboy account of King Chaka/Shaka’s greatness and glory like you usually get in historical fiction centered around a military hero or empire builder.

While there is some admiration for Chaka’s fighting prowess and the power of the Zulu nation, the overall story arc is of boundless ambition leading to insatiable brutality and tragic downfall. By the end, Chaka comes out looking more like Josef Stalin (or any other sadistic, paranoid, egomaniacal autocrat) than anyone admirable.

The narration of this tragedy feels as if you are listening to a folksy master storyteller who throws in occasional asides, explanations, rabbit trails, and editorial comments. I don’t know much about the real Chaka, so I couldn’t say how much liberty the author has taken with the story. However, I suspect that it has only a nodding acquaintance with the truth. There are many mythical elements (the translator interprets them as personifications of character traits), and the level of bloodthirstiness and brutality seem highly exaggerated. Overall, this was not unlike an over-the-top Shakespearian tragedy in the form of a folktale rather than a play.

I will be using this for my Classic by a BIPOC Author category.

He’s back…

Title: A Master of Djinn
Author: P. Djèlí Clark
Genre: Alternate History Fantasy
Pages: 400
Rating: 3.5 of 5
(Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of my review.)

For me, good worldbuilding covers a multitude of sins, and this book has excellent worldbuilding. This first novel in P. Djèlí Clark’s djinn universe continues and expands on his fascinating alternate history from the first two novellas (A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015). While you could enjoy this book without reading the novellas, I would strongly suggest reading at least A Dead Djinn in Cairo which introduces most of the major characters, their world, and some important plot points.

This world was irrevocably changed in the mid-1800’s when a Soudanese mystic, Al Jahiz, bored a hole into the kaf, allowing djinn and assorted other supernatural entities to freely enter our world, bringing with them their magic and technology and transforming Egypt into one of the “Great Powers.” Now (in 1912) as Europe is teetering on the edge of conflict someone claiming to be Al Jahiz has reappeared sowing discord and mayhem. It’s once again up to Agent Fatma el-Shar’arawi (one of the few women working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities) to figure out what is going on and save the day.

Like all of P. Djèlí Clark’s work, the storytelling deals with moral/social issues (feminism, post-colonialism, LGBTQ+, etc.), in a pretty heavy-handed fashion. Depending on how much preachiness you are willing to put up with in your fiction, this may affect your enjoyment of the book to some degree.

I was a little disappointed in the mystery aspect of the plot as I thought that certain parts of it were painfully obvious and Fatma was much too slow to figure them out (given how brilliant she is supposed to be). That said, the overall plot was engrossing, entertaining, and revealed fascinating new details of this alternate world. I am looking forward to further installments in the series!

Witcher Series Review

Series: The Witcher
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Genre: Grimdark Fantasy
Number of Books: 8
Total Pages: 3,404
Rating: 3 of 5

If you enjoy grimdark fantasy and don’t mind moderate amounts of profanity, sex, and gore, this is probably right up your alley. Personally, I swung back and forth on how much I enjoyed it depending on the book and my mood (but enjoyed it enough to finish the series).

Our hero, Geralt the Witcher, makes his living by slaying monsters with his magically, genetically, pharmacologically enhanced fighting ability…kind of. He actually spends the bulk of his time bedding sorceresses, navigating political intrigues, and attempting to rescue/protect the Child of Destiny. I enjoyed his character’s sense of responsibility and overall decency in a dark world, but his need to sleep with every attractive woman he comes across (especially if she’s a sorceress) got really old (especially since he’s supposedly so in love with Yennefer).

The first two books (The Last Wish & Sword of Destiny) are short story collections that mostly involve monster-slaying and fairytale mashups, but also set up a few characters and situations for the main Witcher Saga. Once the Saga starts (in Blood of Elves), monster-slaying largely falls by the wayside and we are treated to a complex swirl of rebellions, invasions, pogroms, court intrigue, and any other nasty human behavior you can think of…most of it centered in some way around the remarkable young woman, Ciri, to whom Geralt (and various companions met along the way) are bound by destiny.

The plotting of the Saga is impressive, but the farther you go into it, the more depressing it gets. Even when a character survives a dangerous situation, Sapkowski often feels the need to jump ahead and describe the pointless/ignominious way in which they will die in the future. The Lady of the Lake ends the saga ambiguously enough that you can kind of decide for yourself how sweet or dark you want it to be. The final book (Season of Storms) is a prequel to the Saga that goes back to being more monster-slayer oriented, but it should not be read first since the ending would make little sense without having read the other books.

As far as narration, large parts of the story are told in flashback with a wide variety of framing stories. One chapter will be [Character X] catching [Character Y] up on what has happened since they last met, and the next chapter will be a storyteller recounting events surrounding Geralt as legends from the misty past or a historian researching “what really happened” with Geralt and company several centuries ago. It’s odd and a bit disorienting, but I think it works to give the sense of these being legendary events of which there might not be a “definitive version.” Bolstering this impression, there are frequent references and parallels to fairytales, Arthurian legends, Shakespearian plays, etc.

I listened to the audible versions read by Peter Kenny, and he did an excellent job providing character voices and accents. To me, the audiobook format made it a little more difficult to keep track of the many, many characters involved in the various intrigues, but it was worth it.

Overall, I don’t know if I would ever read or listen to these again, but that probably has more to do with my personal taste than any deficiency in the author’s writing style. I think that the Black Company novels are about as grimdark as I can comfortably go in the fantasy world.

Rock Hard Sci-fi

Title: Project Hail Mary
Author: Andy Weir
Genre: Hard Sci-Fi
Pages: 496
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Release Date: May 4, 2021
(Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of my review)

Andy Weir is back with more of the hard sci-fi magic science that made The Martian such a success! Our hero (a scientist of some sort) wakes up in some sort of spacecraft to discover that he is the sole survivor of some sort of desperate mission to save earth from some sort of extinction-level peril. Unfortunately, he has amnesia.

The story alternates back and forth between his gradually returning memories and his work toward understanding what is going on and trying to save the world. It is difficult to say much more than that without robbing the reader of the joy (and/or heartbreak?) of discovery as events unfold.

As with Weir’s previous books, detailed descriptions of scientific analysis, problem-solving, and emergency-surviving take center stage (with frequent dollops of wry humor). He doesn’t necessarily tell you all the math involved, but if science bores you this is not the book for you. Of course, this is science fiction so there’s some pretty speculative stuff here too (more so than The Martian). Personally, I loved it!

I would say that this is Weir’s best book yet. The Martian is a close second (let’s not speak of Artemis), but the plot of this book allows for a lot more character development. Something or someone called Rocky is a big part of that, but no more spoilers. Both the more fully developed characters and higher stakes really had me hooked. I usually alternate between 3 or 4 books at a time, but I read this one straight through. I highly recommend this for fans of science, science fiction, and/or survival stories!

PS One other thing that added to my enjoyment of the book was that it had a lower profanity level than previous ones. I know that isn’t a big deal for most people, but I appreciated it (and it made sense in the context of the story).