Glorified Fan Fiction

Firefly - Big Damn Hero by [Lovegrove, James, Holder, Nancy]Title: Firefly: Big Damn Hero
Author: James Lovegrove & Nancy Holder
Genre: Glorified Fanfiction
Pages: 336
Rating: 2.5 of 5

What geek wouldn’t jump at the chance for another dip into Joss Whedon’s Firefly universe? This book gives you that opportunity… kind of.

The plot takes place sometime during the original series, so all the main characters are alive. I was going to say “alive and well,” but they all seem to be in especially foul moods and even more prone to violence than usual. Sometimes they act and sound like themselves, but the authors seem incapable of sustaining the right tone (or any kind of consistent tone), jumping from overly-folksy to properly snarky to very vanilla in both dialogue and narration.

Add to this an overlong plot that takes forever to get off the ground as the authors work in references to half the episodes in the original show, and the whole thing feels like glorified fanfiction. Halfway decent fanfiction that offers some interesting backstory and avoids pervy wish-fulfillment, but fanfiction nonetheless.

Nothing but Rabbit Trails

Title: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
Author: Laurence Sterne
Genre: 18th Century Classic
Pages: 540
Rating: 3 of 5

Have you ever wanted to read a book that was one long string of digressions and rabbit trails, detouring through risqué jokes and never quite getting to the alleged point of the story? Then this is the book for you! Our narrator and eponymous hero isn’t even born until somewhere in volume 3 (of 9), and we learn far more about the life and opinions of his absurdly opinionated father and sweet, eccentric Uncle Toby than his own.

The whole series-of-ridiculous-digressions “plot,” naughty jokes (more than half left to the imagination and self-censored with lines of asterisks), and other weird typographical  choices (a marbled page, curly lines representing the plot up to this point, chapter lengths varying from a couple dozen pages to a single sentence, etc.) were amusing at first and made my chuckle occasionally. However, 540 pages of it (and this is a relatively low page-count edition) was a bit much. Also, I read this in an edition completely without explanatory notes of any kind, so I’m sure that a lot of the literary-allusion humor was lost on me. It was interesting to read as an example of British humor before the straight-laced Victorians, but I’d suggest getting an annotated version of some sort if you decide to read it so that you can fully appreciate it.

And one more thing: I’m using this for my Very Long Classic (>500 pages) category over at the Back to the Classics ChallengeMy edition was 540 pages and many (most?) are significantly longer.

Neo-Orthodoxy

Title: The Essential Karl Barth:
A Reader and Commentary
Author: Karl Barth & Keith L. Johnson
Genre: Neo-Orthodox Theology
Pages: 384
Rating: 4 of 5 (with serious reservations)
Future Release Date: 4/2/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

I’m not quite sure how to rate this book. As a detailed introduction to Karl Barth’s theology, it is superb. However, I find parts of Karl Barth’s theology itself problematic (e.g. the Bible becomes a means of God personally revealing himself to us but is not itself revelation, the vague answers on the origin/nature of evil and possibility of universalism, taking as a starting point God as “wholly other” who cannot be known through any “creaturely” means, etc.). I have neither the desire nor skill to engage in a detailed critique of Barth’s theology, but suffice it to say that an overall positive rating on this book is by no means an endorsement of his theology.

That said, I think that you can learn more about someone’s views on life, the universe, and everything by reading their writings rather than by reading someone else’s criticism of their writings. The format of this book allows you to dip into significant excerpts from Barth’s massive body of writings and see how his theology grew and changed over time (as well as how it led him to interact with German politics up to and during World War II). Copious endnotes provide a running commentary on the text. I would strongly recommend the electronic version of this over the print version as it is much more convenient for toggling back and forth between text and explanatory notes.

In summary: if you are interested in Karl Barth and his “Neo-Orthodox” theology this works beautifully as an introduction. I would also recommend reading critical responses to his theology, but start with the man himself if you want to know what he actually believed and taught.

Prank Ads

Title: Race Me in a Lobster Suit:
Absurd Internet Ads and the Real Conversations that Followed
Author: Kelly Mahon
Genre: Humor / Trolling
Pages: 208
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 3/26/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review).

How much you enjoy this book will depend entirely on your sense of humor. If you like prank phone calls or trolling people in a way that occasionally veers into “blue” territory, this is right up your alley.

The author records her exploits in posting absurd ads (e.g. looking for someone to act as a human piñata) and carrying on increasingly bizarre conversations via email with anyone desperate or curious enough to respond. The conversations mostly involve increasingly difficult, demanding, disturbing, and/or dangerous requests until the responder gets annoyed or weirded-out enough to quit.  At times it’s difficult to tell who is trolling whom. Personally, I thought that most of the ads were funnier than the conversations that followed. Overall, it’s pretty juvenile and occasionally a bit crude for my taste, but I’ll admit that it did have me chuckling in more than a couple places.

Noir, Old and New

The Baby in the Icebox: And Other Short Fiction by [Cain, James M.]Title: The Baby in the Icebox:
And Other Short Fiction
Author: James M. Cain
Genre: Classic Crime Noir (and other random short stories)
Pages: 312
Rating: 3.5 of 5

James M. Cain is best known for gritty crime tales like The Postman Always Rings Twice. If watching guilt-ridden criminals spiral downward into self-destruction is your thing, Cain is your man…though not so much in the first part of this book. This volume collects short stories from various points in Cain’s career, so the first half features vaguely humorous social commentary and back-hills rubes rather than the crime noir you might expect from the title and the ominous fedora-clad silhouette on the cover. Overall, it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing to have some lighter fare at the start because a full 300+ pages of Cain’s typical seedy protagonists and trainwreck lives may have been a bit much. As it was, it was entertaining enough for 3.5 stars, and I can check this off my list for the TBR Pile Challenge.

Title: My Sister the Serial Killer
Author: Oyinkan Braithwaite
Genre: Modern Crime Noir
Pages: “240”
Rating: 3.5

The title gives you the main plot point: our protagonist’s much doted upon younger sister would appear to be a serial killer, and the book follows her life and thoughts as she decides how to handle it. The plot jumps right in with her cleaning up after the her sister’s latest killing. From there it is by turns tense, humorous, and disturbing.

Both the “bond of sisterhood” theme and the Nigerian setting gives a slightly different feel from similar crime noir books, which I appreciated. As far as cultural and language differences go, a few small words such as exclamations, kinds of food, and articles of clothing go untranslated but enough can be gathered from context that they add “color” instead of being annoying.

This is really more of a novella than a full length novel. The page count says 240, but the tiny chapters that cover 1-3 pages with widely spaced lines and manage to spill a few lines onto the next page seem designed to seriously pad the page-count. As a noir story, it is competently executed and worth a read if you don’t mind moral ambiguity, a little grim humor, and loose ends.

The Anti-Philby

Title: The Spy and the Traitor:
The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War
Author: Ben Macintyre
Genre: Espionage History/Biography
Pages: 334 (plus citations & indices)
Rating: 5 of 5

Ben Macintyre spins another true tale of espionage and betrayal. In A Spy Among Friends (one of my favorite reads last year) he told the story of Kim Philby, the Soviet mole who wormed his way into the highest levels of MI-6. Now he focuses on “our” double agent: Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB officer who spied for MI-6 in the waning years of the Cold War.

Macintyre captures the paranoia and internal conflict of a double agent from Gordievsky’s first tentative effort at contacting Western intelligence to the final daring overland escape attempt from the heart of the USSR. Along the way he highlights Gordievsky’s contributions to preventing nuclear war and promoting more cordial relationships between East and West. While a primarily positive portrayal of the spy (especially as compared to Aldrich Ames whose story is interwoven with Gordievsky’s), the book does not completely gloss over mixed motives, the personal toll on family, and other nasty parts of a life wholly dedicated to deception. Overall, this is a fascinating spy story, right up there with anything written by LeCarré… but real!

Explicit & Overwritten

Title: 12 Tales Lie: 1 Tells True
Author: Maria Alexander
Genre: Horror / Supernatural
Pages: 226
Rating: 2 of 5
Release Date: 3/5/2019 according to NetGalley, but it appears to be already available on Amazon (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way influences the content of this review.)

The intriguing title of this collection is what caught my attention, but I don’t think it delivered. I took it to mean “13 relatively believable creepy tales of which one is actually true…” Most of them did start out with a depressingly believable character, bitter and scarred by past trauma and/or abuse. However, rather than sticking with psychological horror, eerie supernatural phenomena, or something else vaguely believable most of them quickly veered into such an over-the top (and/or fairytale inspired) supernatural direction that it was fairly obvious which one was intended as the “true” tale. Maybe I misunderstood the title?

For me, the writing style was overwrought; not exactly gushing “purple prose,” but way too many adjectives. It was as if every noun had to have at least one adjective attached to it. Add to this some pretty explicit language (including a graphically described rape and a BDSM obsession), and this really did not work for me. Your mileage may vary, but I was disappointed (and a bit disgusted).

The Babylon Bee’s Best

Title: How to Be a Perfect Christian:
Your Comprehensive Guide to Flawless Spiritual Living
Author: The Babylon Bee (Adam Ford & Kyle Mann)
Genre: Christian Satire
Pages: 208
Rating: 5 of 5
(Thank you to the authors and publisher for a free review copy. This in no way affects the content of my review)

Make way for some of the best religious satire since the prophet Elijah advised the prophets of Baal that they needed to yell louder because their god might be asleep or in the loo (1 Kings 18:27). The Babylon Bee is a hilarious satire site on the order of The Onion but with an Evangelical Christian slant.

This, The Bee’s first book, absolutely skewers legalistic, self-centered, preference-driven, argumentative, politics-obsessed Christianity. Who needs all that grace and fruit of the Spirit stuff when a little virtue signalling and putting others in their place will have everyone around you noticing how super spiritual you are?

Like any well-written satire, How to Be a Perfect Christian nicely blends funny, sad, and convicting. Depending on your taste, it might feel like it goes on a little too long or occasionally strays into “too mean” territory. However, I appreciate how it managed to hit on most of the common pitfalls to which Evangelical Christians are prone and cleverly wrapped up with a heartwarming summary of the grace and love that is at the heart of a true relationship with God. I highly recommend this book and expect it to make my top 10 list at the end of the year.

Catch-up with Mini Reviews

I’m starting to fall behind on reviews, so it’s time for a bunch of mini-reviews! No unifying theme…this is just the order in which I read them.

Title: Enforcer:
The Shira Calpurnia Omnibus
Author: Matthew Farrer
Genre: Military Sci-fi (Warhammer 40,000 universe)
Pages: 859
Rating: 3 of 5

Space marines bore me, so if I’m going to read a Warhammer 40K book, I usually go for the stories featuring other kinds of characters. This trilogy omnibus features Shira Calpurnia, an “adeptus arbites” – basically a combination of detective, SWAT, and judge. For me, the main interest in these stories came from their exploration of the inner workings and politics of groups like rogue traders, the ecclesiarchy, and the arbites themselves. At times Shira Calpurnia all but disappears from the stories as the scheming going on around her is far more interesting than anything she does in response to it. I never expect Warhammer 40,000 books to be anything more than pulp-y escapist sci-fi, and by that standard this was a decent read.

The Ministry of Fear by [Greene, Graham]Title: The Ministry of Fear
Author: Graham Greene
Genre: Thriller / Espionage
Pages: 226
Rating: 3.5 of  5

In this classic thriller Graham Greene weaves an improbable but entertaining spy yarn. He mixes in all the ingredients of an over the top “ordinary man accidentally caught up in a vast conspiracy” story and a “man with a guilty conscience due to past transgressions” story, all set during the London blitz…and somehow it works. It does have a good dose of Graham’s usual bleak cynicism as well, but it is well worth reading if you like that kind of espionage tale.

Title: A Biblical Answer for Racial Unity
Authors: H. B. Charles Jr., Danny Akin, Juan Sanchez, Richard Caldwell, Jim Hamilton, Owen Strachan, Carl Hargrove, Christian George
Genre: Theology/Philosophy, Race Relations
Pages: 122
Rating: 3 of 5

This is essentially a lightly edited version of nine sermons/speeches given at a conference on racial unity. If you want a very basic survey of some general biblical principles that apply to racial unity, this is worth your time. However, if you are looking for actual “where the rubber meets the road” applications, you won’t find many here other than the most basic and generalized.

1000 Years of Annoying the French by [Clarke, Stephen]Title: 1,000 Years of Annoying the French
Author: Stephen Clarke
Genre: Anglo-French History / Humor
Pages: 506
Rating: 4 of 5

In this humorously biased history, Stephen Clarke chronicles the long history of mutual antagonism between France and England (starting with the Norman Conquest). Along the way he delights in pointing out French self-sabotage and does his best to suck the grandeur out of any French accomplishments. The book is a lot of fun to read and contains a lot of great trivia…just don’t use it as a main source for serious research.

Title: Dear Committee Members
Author: Julie Schumacher
Genre: Humor/Satire
Pages: 192
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Last year Julie Schumacher’s The Shakespeare Requirement came in 6th on my Top 10 list.  That was the sequel to this book, which was just as enjoyable. As I said with The Shakespeare Requirement: if you’ve ever been involved in academia and/or some similar buzz-wordy bureaucratic job, you should really read this book. This one is in the format of dozens of letters of recommendation written by a harassed English professor in a struggling university. Cleverly mixed in with the recommendations is the story of his rather pathetic personal and professional life and ongoing battle with the all-powerful economics department.

Title: Superheroes Can’t Save You:
Epic Examples of Historic Heresies
Author: Todd Miles
Genre: Theology (Christology)
Pages: 208
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Theology professor and self-professed comic book aficionado Todd Miles uses seven different superheroes to illustrate various Christological heresies (wrong beliefs about Jesus Christ according to classic Christian theology). For example, Ant-Man illustrates modalism in which rather than the Trinity being three separate co-equal co-eternal persons, it is simply one person who presents himself in three modes. For each heresy Miles gives a brief survey of its history, a biblical explanation of why it is unscriptural, and a warning as to why (even though this makes for a cool superhero) a Jesus with this nature would be insufficient to provide eternal salvation. This is fairly basic theology, but it’s a fun way to be exposed to the classic Christian understanding of who Jesus is.

Title: The Red Record
Author: Ida B. Wells
Genre: History of Lynching
Pages: 102
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This book/pamphlet was an emotionally difficult read but it is historically important. Ida B. Wells records (sometimes in heartrending detail) many instances of racially motivated lynchings in the late 1800’s and pleads for people to take notice and speak out against it. For me it was a painful reminder that far too many white Christians have been (and sometimes still are) shamefully complicit in racial injustice either actively or through passively standing by and doing nothing while mumbling some variation of “they brought it on themselves.” The writing itself is a little repetitive and spends maybe a bit too much time on the feud between Ida Wells and the head of the Christian Women’s Temperance Union, but that does not detract from its importance.

A Cheap Dupin Knockoff

The Old Man in the Corner: The Teahouse Detective: Volume 1 (Pushkin Vertigo) by [Orczy]Title: The Old Man in the Corner:
The Teahouse Detective, Volume 1
Author: Baroness Orczy
Genre: Armchair Detective Mystery
Pages: 224
Rating: 2.5 of 5
(Thank you to the publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This does not affect the contents of this review in any way)

In 1887 Arthur Conan Doyle  stole  borrowed Edgar Allan Poe’s eccentric detective C. Auguste Dupin, and transformed him into the wildly popular Sherlock Holmes. While Holmes is arguably more entertaining than Dupin, the host of imitations created by other authors trying to cash in on the “genius detective” craze were seldom more than pale imitations. Such is Baroness Orczy’s unnamed Old Man in the Corner.

This collection of short stories features conversations between a young reporter and an “odd scarecrow” of a man who sits in the corner of a teahouse tying complex knots in a piece of string while quietly (but arrogantly) expounding to her the answers to unsolved crimes. His deductions are based almost exclusively on attending inquests and reading the stories as they appear in the newspaper. The old man has no desire to bring the criminals to justice and offers no concrete evidence that could do so. He is content with working out to his satisfaction (and his listener’s amazement) what must have happened.

For me, everything about the book was very bland. The characterization was shallow, relying on the same few stock descriptions (“scarecrow” “sarcastic” “tying and untying complex knots”). The subject matter of the stories was the usual assortment of blackmail, gambling debts, unhappy marriages, inheritance disputes, etc, with nothing terribly unexpected, exotic, or spine-tingling, and the solutions to the mysteries became tediously similar after the first two or three. The eARC Pushkin Vertigo edition that I read provided nothing in the way of background, commentary, or any other added interest.

Overall, if you’re really into classic armchair detectives, you will probably enjoy this, but if you’re just dipping into the “genius detective” genre go with Holmes or Dupin.