Thirdhand Lovecraft

Title: The Last Ritual
(An Arkham Horror Novel)
Author: S. A. Sidor
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Pages: 352
Rating: 2.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 11/3/20 – Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This does not affect the content of the review.

I have never played any of the H. P. Lovecraft-inspired Arkham Horror cooperative games, so I have no idea how well this novel ties into the characters and mechanics. However, I have read a lot of Lovecraftian fiction and 1920’s detective fiction and, to be perfectly honest, this comes across as a watered down version of both.

There are some decent moments of surrealistic horror and creeping dread, but outside of those moments the writing and plotting did not impress. The investigation is desultory, characters react to disturbing events with unbelievable sangfroid, and the only real indication that we’re in the 1920’s is the presence of prohibition and bootleggers. Even “witch-haunted Arkham” seems watered down, deriving its sinister reputation primarily from prohibition-related crime and corruption rather than the sorts of things that Lovecraft et al. wrote about.

The horror set pieces saved this from being a complete waste of time, but its thirdhand nature (novel based on a game based on a writer’s works) weakened it to the point where it nearly slid into Scooby-Doo territory at times. If you’re a fan of Arkham Horror games you might want to give this a try, but if you’re just looking for Lovecraftian cosmic horror you can do a lot better elsewhere.

Endless Flooded Halls

Title: Piranesi
Author: Susanna Clarke
Genre: Fantasy?
Pages: 272
Rating: 4 of 5

The author of the character-driven alternate-Regency-era fantasy tome Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has finally written another novel! In style and subject matter it differs significantly from her previous work, but it does not disappoint. Clarke continues her mastery of fantastical worldbuilding that leaves you with a sense of wonder and light narration that sparkles with humor.

The setting is an airy, seemingly endless house, swept by tides and filled with statuary but largely devoid of people. As with Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, the dreamlike setting is one of the book’s main attractions.

The narration takes the form of journal entries that have a slightly stilted or childish feel to them. At first I worried that the author had completely lost her touch, but the farther you go into the book the more it makes sense. And that’s all that I’m going to say about the plot, because this is the kind of book where the slowly dawning understanding of “what’s going on” (both in terms of figuring it out yourself and then watching the characters figure it out) is the plot. Like her previous book, I think that the strange, low-action, meandering story is going to make this very much a “love it or hate it” read for most people.

Overall, I found it to be enjoyable and thoughtful. The author explores the nature of reality, identity, and more. There are even a few fun “Easter eggs” scattered around, including references to Narnia and Doctor Who.

My one criticism is that there were a couple times where the book skated pretty close to my pet peeve of characters acting a little too stupid/clueless/random to be believable just to keep the plot going. However, within the story it made enough sense that I felt like I could overlook it, and I ended up loving the book. Hopefully we don’t have to wait another 15+ years for another book from this talented author!

A Rebuke of Blatant Hypocrisy

The Immoral Majority: Why Evangelicals Chose Political Power Over Christian Values by [Ben Howe]

Title: The Immoral Majority:
Why Evangelicals Chose Political Power Over Christian Values
Author: Ben Howe
Genre: Politics/Theology
Pages: 265 (plus indices, citations, etcs.)
Rating: 4 of 5

How could so many Evangelical Christians go from howls of “Character matters! He must resign!” during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal to declaring “we’re electing a president not a pastor” and “it’s just locker room talk” in defense of the flagrant immorality of Donald Trump? How can they not see this blatant testimony-destroying hypocrisy? How can we speak with any kind of moral authority when the majority of self-identified Evangelicals unreservedly applaud and defend the every action of a man who in his personal conduct is the antithesis of our Lord and Savior? If nothing else, this book has let me know that there are at least a few other conservative Christians out there who share these grave concerns.

Ben Howe, a self-identified Christian and political conservative, takes a hard look at the “Trump Evangelicals.” He traces the steps that led from “not my first choice, but…” to full-fledged defense, support, or even celebration, of behavior that should appall a follower of Jesus Christ. He tries to uncover and understand the underlying motives (concluding mostly self-interest & retribution after years of feeling like they were being unfairly mischaracterized), and shows how any “gains” made through policy are essentially “gaining the world but losing your soul.” He ends on a call to return to trusting God’s to accomplish his will as we consistently obey him rather than trying to help God out with an ends-justify-the-means plunge into hypocrisy.

As far as weak points: His definition of Evangelical was incredibly imprecise, some of his attribution of motives may have been overly cynical, and he seemed to go back and forth on whether it was a problem to support Trump at all or just a problem to support/defend his flagrantly immoral behavior. In spite of these imprecisions, I would still highly recommend this book as food for thought and a biblically solid rebuke of the ends-justify-the-means thinking that far too many Christians have adopted in the arena of politics.

I leave you with this quote: “Our job is to ensure our devotion to Christ’s teachings in the means. Our trust is to believe in God’s will as it relates to the ends.” (p. 229)

Music from Narnia

I haven’t finished any books worth reviewing in the last week, so I decided to do something a little different and review a (book-related) music album. Like my other favorite group, The Gray Havens, this artist is heavily influenced by my favorite author, C. S. Lewis.

Into the Lantern Waste

Title: Into the Lantern Waste
Artist: Sarah Sparks
Genre: Folk
Length: 36 minutes (10 songs)
Rating: 5 of 5

The Chronicles of Narnia is one of my favorite series of all time, second only to Lord of the Rings (see my full review of Narnia here). It works as both a set of charming fantasy stories and a theologically rich exploration of the person and work of Jesus Christ. C. S. Lewis viewed these books as a “supposition” of what it would look like for Jesus to appear in another world.

This album picks up on many of the theological themes that Lewis wove into his stories. Songs center around major characters and events from Narnia as well as parallel thoughts from Lewis’s other writings (e.g. Mere Christianity) and the Bible. I was pleased to notice that the song order matches the books’ original publication order rather than the chronological order that prevails in newer editions…it’s a small, nitpicky thing, but it made me happy.

The folksy/ballad style and jazzy vocals lend the perfect contemplative air to the album. The haunting Blood for Blood about the redemption of Edmund is especially effective. Occasionally, the vocals may be a bit too soft compared to the music, but overall I highly recommend this to any fans of Narnia and Lewis!

Carthago Delenda Est

Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization by [Richard Miles]Title: Carthage Must Be Destroyed
Author: Richard Miles
Genre:  Ancient History
Pages: 471 (plus indices, etc.a0
Rating: 4.5 of 5

If you want to know more about Carthage than “Aeneas abandons Dido…Hannibal crosses the Alps with elephants…Carthago delenda est,” this is a great place to start. The author manages to make it a fairly popular level overview without giving the feeling that he’s dumbing it down or skimping on research.

Compiling an accurate history of Carthage is no easy task since most of our extant primary sources were written by their enemies. Overall, the author does an admirable job of comparing and stitching together available sources while trying to sort out truth from slander. He probably swings too far in the other direction at times, giving Carthage the benefit of the doubt while emphasizing Roman hypocrisy and perfidy…but I think that most historians tilt things in favor of their chosen topic.

Throughout the book the author emphasizes the propagandizing of mythology/religion by both the Romans and the Carthaginians, with special attention on Heracles/Hercules. Whether or not this was always done as intentionally as the author seems to think, it provides an added dimension that makes the book all the more interesting.

Because the book covers hundreds of years, it provides only the briefest description of most battles in the Punic wars, spending no more than a few paragraphs on all but the most important of them. So, if you are looking primarily for a military history you may want to look elsewhere. However, if you want a solid overview of Carthaginian history, culture, and religion, give this a read.

Potpourri

It’s time for a handful of mini-reviews – all from different genres, none so spectacularly good or bad as to generate a full scale review, presented in order read:

The Lords of Silence (Warhammer 40,000) by [Chris Wraight]Title: Lords of Silence (Warhammer 40,000)
Author: Chris Wraight
Genre: Grimdark Military Sci-Fi
Pages: 400
Rating: 3 of 5

Pretty much anything Warhammer 40,000 falls into the grimdark category (I think the WH40k tagline is actually the origin of the word). Books, like this one, that star chaos space marines have an extra helping of grim and dark…and since these chaos space marines are dedicated to the plague god there’s also an extra helping of gross. This is worth reading if you’re interested in seeing the internal workings of plague marines and how they relate to the ongoing “Black crusade.” The overall plot was a bit meandering, but a solid entry for this escapist sci-fi-bordering-on-horror universe.

Things I Want to Punch in the Face by [Jennifer Worick]Title: Things I Want to Punch in the Face
Author: Jennifer Worick
Genre: Humorous Ranting
Pages: 136
Rating: 2 of 5

There are some funny turns of phrase in this series of rants, but if you read more than a couple end to end they just feel mean-spirited. These would probably be a lot funnier as occasional blog posts interspersed with other content than they were collected into a book. Also, she’d save a lot of time by just saying “I hate everything that hipsters and nerds like.”

The Night Manager: A Novel by [John le Carré]Title: The Night Manager
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 576
Rating: 2.5 of 5

This isn’t terrible (if you’re okay with LeCarré’s pervasive cynicism), but I feel like I’ve seen it all before and better in his other books: inter-departmental rivalry, possible leak/mole, seedy/promiscuous agents, questionable value of the intelligence game when compared to the human cost, etc. etc.. There just wasn’t much new here, and certainly not enough to justify the bloated page count.

The Alienist: A Novel (Dr. Lazlo Kreizler Book 1) by [Caleb Carr]Title: The Alienist
(Dr. Laszlo Kreizler: Book 1)
Author: Caleb Carr
Genre: Historical Fiction Mystery
Pages: 600
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This book’s late 19th century setting throws in some fun historical goodies (including Teddy Roosevelt as a prominent secondary character), but this is primarily a “criminal profiler” book. The focus throughout is on constructing a profile of a serial killer, with a lot of time and discussion given to the role of childhood in determining a person’s course through life (all very heavy on behaviorism). The nature of the serial killer (he preys primarily on male child prostitutes) makes for disturbing discussion and situations throughout, so this is not a book for the easily traumatized. There are moments of action, but the overall pace is plodding and methodical. Not my usual read, but I enjoyed it enough that the sequel is on my TBR.

Title: On Tyranny:
Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
Author: Timothy Snyder
Genre: History & Politics
Pages: 128
Rating: 4 of 5

Is this largely an attack on President Trump? Yes
Are parts of it a bit overblown? Also, yes
Are parts of it worryingly relevant parallels between the autocracy of German fascism, Soviet Marxism, and the current administration? Also, also yes!

Sold out Trumpers won’t like this, but it really is worth reading with your critical thinking cap on. And that’s all that I really want to say about this because I don’t do the whole “get in political debates with strangers on the internet” thing.

It’s a Wonderful Life: Multiverse Edition

Title: Dark Matter
Author: Blake Crouch
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 352
Rating: 3 of 5

This book explores the idea of the infinite multiverse where every decision made generates a new alternate universe. What would happen if you were able to travel to alternate universes where an alternate you made different major life choices? It’s sort of an It’s a Wonderful Life scenario, but with a magical sciencey box instead of Clarence the junior angel.

Okay, that’s a bit of an oversimplification, but I don’t want to give away any major spoilers. Suffice it to say that interaction with alternate universes, alternate selves, and alternate loved ones gets pretty convoluted. Some of the characterization is a bit flat and chichéd, and our main character makes some pretty dumb decisions for a world-class physicist, but if you’re really into the idea of an infinite multiverse (and aren’t put off by moderate amounts of profanity, drugs, semi-explicit sex, and gory violence), you’ll probably enjoy this book as fairly well-written, trippy sci-fi.

Personally, while I admired a lot of the plotting, this wasn’t my favorite. To me, the whole concept of every choice generating one or more alternate universes with alternate yous renders moot the very idea of a plot…why is the person who we are following any more the “real” person than one of the infinite alternates spawned by every choice made? To be fair, the book does acknowledge and incorporate this dilemma to a degree, but for me it kind of kills the joy of stories. Sure, the version I read ended this way, but it also ended in an infinite number of other ways none of which is more true than any other. Maybe I’m just overthinking it, but this kind of multiverse fiction just doesn’t work for me (I had similar issues with Michael Crichton’s Timeline).

Steampunk Wodehouse X2

Back in March this collection of mini-reviews included the first book in the Reeves & Worcestor Steampunk Mysteries series. I just finished the next two novella-length books and would highly recommend these hilarious sendups of Wodehouse’s Jeeves & Wooster series (in this universe, Reeves/Jeeves is a steam-powered automaton and Worcester/Wooster has delusions of being a consulting detective on the order of Sherlock Holmes).

Reggiecide (Reeves & Worcester Steampunk Mysteries Book 2) by [Chris Dolley]Title: Reggiecide (Book 2)
Author: Chris Dolley
Genre: Humorous Steampunk Mystery
Pages: 81 (audiobook 2 hours 7 minutes)
Rating: 5 of 5 (audiobook narration 1 of 5)

So far, this is my favorite book in the series in terms of story. It could be read stand-alone, but does reference plot points from the first book: most notably, the existence of Prometheans (reanimated corpses). You can guess the identity of the most recently raised promethean from the cover. Hilarity ensues as Worcester tries to find out where Guy has run off to, what he might be planning, and just what is so menacing about Roger Mortimer with a poker…

I do not recommend listening to the Audible version of this narrated by Kieran Phoenix Chantrey. It is one of the worst audiobooks I have encountered. He gives the suave Reeves an uneducated cockney accent so that rather than sounding like the smartest, poshest person in the room he sounds like a London cabby. The narrator mispronounces words such as: apse (to the detriment of a funny joke), draught, misshapen, and Nebuchadnezzar (absolutely butchered it several different ways…clearly he’s never been to Sunday school). His female voice (for Worcester’s girlfriend: a suffragette who likes chaining herself to things) sounds exactly like Hugh Laurie doing an intentionally bad girl voice in Blackadder. Worst of all, he will start a phrase, realize that the voice or intonation isn’t quite right and repeat the whole thing…without it being edited out of the recording (once starting over multiple times in the course of a single sentence).

Overall, I would highly recommend this book. The author continues his pitch-perfect imitation of P. G. Wodehouse’s style while crafting his own zany steampunk story. Just avoid the audiobook…

The Aunt Paradox (Reeves & Worcester Steampunk Mysteries Book 3) by [Chris Dolley]Title: The Aunt Paradox (Book 3)
Author: Chris Dolley
Genre: Humorous Steampunk Mystery
Pages: 135 (audiobook 2 hours 35 minutes)
Rating: 4.5 of 5

In this installment, things go all wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey when H. G. Wells’s (call him Bertie) aunt steals his time machine. The story pulls in classic time travel tropes from Back to the Future, Doctor Who, and more. The plot is well-written as far as “messing up and then trying to fix the timeline” stories go. I might have to read or listen to it again to see how well it all hangs together, but it was as lighthearted and enjoyable as the first two books in the series.

The narration of the audiobook was much better than in Reggiecide. Paul J. Rose does an excellent job, reminding me of my favorite narrator for the Jeeves & Wooster books (Jonathan Cecil). I highly recommend these books for lighthearted fun; especially if you are a fan of P. G. Wodehouse.

Weirdness Overload

Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel by [Joseph Fink, Jeffrey Cranor]Title: Welcome to Night Vale
Authors: Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor
Genre: Humorous Dystopian Weird Fiction + Urban Fantasy
Pages: 407
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This book reads like the unholy spawn of Douglas Adams and H. P. Lovecraft that was left on its own to watch untold hours of The Twilight Zone. Its quirky turn of phrase, foreboding Southwestern US setting, and mysterious dark forces (eldritch, dystopian, and librarian) come together in one of the strangest things I have read outside of a Franz Kafka novel.

In one of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books, a paragraph ends with the completely irrelevant observation: “A magician wandered along the beach, but no one needed him.” Welcome to Night Vale is loaded with this sort of weird little digression. Some of them may be references to characters and events from the Welcome to Night Vale podcast (which I have never listened to), but mostly they form a tapestry of weirdness against which the bizarre, bordering-on-farcical action occurs.

Characters include angels who are all named Erika [though no one is allowed to believe in angels so forget I said that], a teenage shapeshifter and his mother, and an eternally 19-year-old pawn shop clerk. I don’t know how to describe the plot without spoilers other than to say that it involves trying to figure out what is going on with a strange man who triggers a strange occurrence (though how anything can be considered strange in Night Vale is beyond me). Amid all the weirdness and witty phrases, it explores serious themes of growing up, family relationships, etc.

Overall, it was an entertaining read with its share of wit and wisdom, but it took me longer than usual to get through because I could only take it in small doses. There is so much random weirdness purely for the sake of being random and weird that I needed frequent breaks from the silliness of it all. I’ll probably pick up the next book in the series and/or check out the podcast at some point, but right now I’m all weirded out.

Back with Some Mini Reviews

I’m back! I think that this has been my longest stretch without a post since starting this blog. Pastoring during a pandemic with a major hotspot 45 minutes up the road is no joke, and I was starting to feel pretty burned out. Thankfully, I was able to take almost a week off, including a few days’ getaway with my wife for our 18th anniversary, and I’m feeling a little less stressed. No promises, but maybe I’ll return to my pre-COVID “approximately once per week” schedule. To that end, here are a handful of mini reviews (presented in order read):

Title: “He Descended to the Dead”
An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday
Author: Matthew Y. Emerson
Genre: Theology
Pages: 225 (plus indices etc.)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

The Apostles Creed contains a poorly understood line, variously translated, that says Jesus “descended to hell” or “descended to the dead.” The author takes this as his starting point to examine what the Bible (and Christian tradition as guided by Scripture) says about what happened between Jesus’ death and resurrection. I don’t agree with all of his lines of reasoning (or his condescending tone toward less “creedal” denominations), but overall his discussion was helpful and his conclusions seem biblical.

If you don’t want to wade through all 225 pages, here’s his concise explanation: “Christ, in remaining dead for three days, experienced death as all humans do: his body remained in the grave, and his soul remained in the place of the dead. He did not suffer there, but, remaining the incarnate Son, proclaimed victory procured by his penal substitutionary death to all those in the place of the dead – fallen angels, the unrighteous dead, and the OT saints. Christ’s descent [to the dead / hades] is thus primarily the beginning of his exaltation, not a continuation of his humiliation”

The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors by [Dan Jones]Title: The Wars of the Roses
The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors
Author: Dan Jones
Genre: Medieval British History
Pages: 416
Rating: 4 of 5

Dan Jones knows how to write an interesting history book! He writes on a more-or-less popular level, but not in a way that feels like he is sensationalizing events or dumbing things down. In this book, he engages with the complex series of conflicts commonly lumped together as “the Wars of the Roses.” I’m not sure how his interpretation of events stacks up against other histories since my only other reading on this time period is R. L. Stevenson’s heavily romanticized Robin-Hood-inspired The Black Arrow. Whatever the case, I’d highly recommend this for those interested in Medieval British history.

David Copperfield by [Charles Dickens]Title: David Copperfield
Author: Charles Dickens
Genre: Classic
Pages: 856
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This is one of my favorite Dickens books (second only to A Christmas Carol). It is home to the perfectly loving Mr. Peggotty, eccentric but good-hearted Aunt Betsey Trotwood, completely loathsome Uriah Heep, and so many other unforgettable characters. I must admit that the childish Dora really grated on my nerves this time through, but it’s still Dickens in top form.

Title: Operation Mincemeat
How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory
Genre: WWII Espionage History
Author: Ben Macintyre
Pages: 325
Rating: 4.5 of 5

The first “real spy book” that I remember reading is The Man Who Never Was by Ewen Montagu. It tells the story of a corpse given a fictitious identity and floated ashore to sow disinformation in the Nazi war machine. It is a triumphant self-congratulatory book, written by one of the men involved in the plot. It is a fascinating look at how “all war is deception” and how British intelligence was the master of deception. It is also a load of of half-truths and misinformation.

This is the de-propagandized version of that story. Ben Macintyre digs into recently declassified documents and pieces together what really happened, including the actual identify of the corpse and just how touch and go the operation was. This is another highly recommended true spy tale by one of my favorite authors of the last few years.

Title: The Things They Carried
Author: Tim O’Brien
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 273
Rating: 4 of 5

This fictional memoir of the Vietnam War reminded me of All Quiet on the Western Front. It is a series of loosely connected stories/vignettes  depicting the everyday horrors of war. Diehard “don’t ever criticize Vietnam vets or the Vietnam War” types will not like it at all.

The author blurs the line between fact and fiction by making himself one of the characters and dedicating the book to the men of the (fictional) Alpha Company. Overall, it is a brutal, difficult read but provides a balance to the macho “rah rah war is glorious and the US military can do no wrong” sort of war story.