Hacking Humanity

Title: Upgrade
Author: Blake Crouch
Genre: Near-future Sci-fi Action Thriller
Pages: 352
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 the review.

Blake Crouch (Dark Matter) is back with another sci-fi thriller that explores a complex scientific concept while having a protagonist run around and be violent in various action set pieces. In this instance, his plot revolves around an attempt to upgrade humanity through genetic manipulation.

How much you buy into the plot will depend on how readily you accept (at least for the sake of the story):

  • The conviction that humanity is almost inevitably headed for self-induced extinction very soon, mostly due to anthropogenic climate change that could be stopped with the right kind of behavior that most people are just too stupid/stubborn to do.
  • The assumption that virtually everything that makes us human, including emotions, ethics, and moral behavior, is the product of our genes as shaped by evolution (and can be changed by genetic manipulation).

Overall, it’s okay for an action-packed “enhanced human / ticking time bomb / special forces” sort of thriller, but the bombast contrasted oddly with the preachiness and scientific jargon that was driving the plot. It reminded me quite a bit of Michael Crichton’s blend of preachy “science” and action, but I generally found Crichton more enjoyable. Obviously, your mileage may vary depending on personal taste.

Two More for the Book Challenges

Life is still pretty chaotic at our house, but I’ve finished another book for each of the two reading challenges I’m doing this year. First, for the Back to the Classics 2022 Challenge I completed this book for the Classics Short Story Collection category:

Title: An Obsession with Death and Dying: Volume 1
Author: Cornell Woolrich (aka William Irish, George Hopley)
Genre: Classic Pulp Fiction
Pages: 335
Rating: 4 of 5

Cornell Woolrich falls into my second tier of Pulp crime/detective fiction authors. He’s no Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, but still worth reading if you enjoy the genre. Woolrich knows how to crank up and maintain suspense, even if his endings tend to be either painfully predictable or so out of left field that they barely make sense.

This collection in honor of his 50th “death-day” pulls together 10 of his stories that have the word death or die in the title. It’s a mixed bag, that gives a pretty good feel for what Woolrich is capable of. I’d definitely recommend it to fans of classic pulp detectives.

The second book I’m reviewing is from my list for The Official TBR Pile Challenge. This book has been hanging out on my TBR pile for a couple years since Amazon insistently recommended it because of my interest in weird/cosmic horror fiction:

Title: The Twenty Days of Turin
Author: Giorgio De Maria
Translator: Ramon Glazov
Genre: Weird Fiction / Satire
Pages: 224
Rating: 4 of 5

Since I’m not up on 1970’s Italian political history, I doubt that I caught all of the satirical nuances in this Italian novel that recounts a “mass psychosis” tragedy in Turin (as researched and retold by our intrepid narrator). That said, it still works as a creepy piece of weirdness with themes of voyeurism, paranoia, insomnia, uncaring powers, and more.

It became clear to me what was going on fairly early in the book (intentionally on the author’s part, I think). However, the characters’ unwillingness or inability to do anything about it or even acknowledge it is what provided a lot of the disturbing atmosphere. Also, I’m not quite sure what the author intended “the library” to represent in his original context, but it came across as a prescient warning against some of the darker aspects of social media. I’m really not sure what else I can describe without starting to give things away, but if you’re in the mood for something strange and paranoid check this out.

Ukraine

Title: The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine
Author: Serhii Plokhy
Genre: History
Pages: 536
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I highly recommend this book for anyone trying to understand the current situation in Ukraine. The author covers over 2,000 years of history, from the time of Herodotus (400’s BC) through sometime in mid-2020.

The understanding that I gained from this is that Ukraine’s existence as a completely independent or sovereign nation has been sporadic at best until 1991 (though not through lack of desire or trying). Throughout most of recorded history, ethnic Ukrainians have been under the rule of Vikings, Poland, Lithuania, Habsburgs / Austria-Hungary, the Russian Empire / USSR, and others in various combination at various times…it’s pretty complicated, but the whole “it’s always been part of Russia” or “they’ve always been Russians” line is absurd.

While someone who supports Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would probably reject Plokhy’s interpretation of events out of hand, it seemed relatively evenhanded and well-argued to me. Unfortunately, I think that a total lack of individual citations (at least in the Kindle edition that I read) in favor of a massively detailed bibliography at the end was a poor choice with such a controversial topic. Lack of detailed citations aside, this is an excellent and enlightening overview of Ukrainian history.

On a personal note: postings here will continue to be sporadic as life continues to be crazy. My wife’s health is still very poor, and the doctors now suspect MS, so please keep us in your prayers.

Not a Tame Lion

This is actually a re-posting from about 4 years ago, but I just finished the entire Narnia series for the who-knows-how-manyth time and wanted to share it again because it is more true than ever:

Though the seven books of The Chronicles of Narnia are written as fairytales for children, they follows C. S. Lewis’s philosophy that, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest,” and “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” While I have not yet reached the “fifty and beyond” category, I enjoy these books a little more each time I read them (and I have read them every two or three years since I was in first grade).

The Chronicles of Narnia tell the tale of a magical world of talking animals in which British children have a variety of adventures (defeating a witch, winning the throne for the rightful king, rescuing a lost prince, etc.). Though children from our world are the main characters, the true hero of the series is Aslan, The Great Lion and Son of the Emperor-Over-the-Sea. Aslan is clearly a Christ character, intended by Lewis to be “a supposition” of what it would look like for the Son of God to appear in a different world. Lewis recognized 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.” Each book, besides being a fun fantasy story, explores a different aspect of Aslan’s character.

  • In The Lion the Witch an the Wardrobe he is the Redeemer
  • In Prince Caspian he is the One who sends help
  • In The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’ he is the Guide and Renewer.
  • In The Silver Chair he is the One who guides with his Words.
  • In The Horse and His Boy he is the One in sovereign control of events.
  • In The Magician’s Nephew he is the Creator.
  • In The Last Battle he is the One who ushers his children into paradise.

…and so much more. These books have grown with me through increased understanding in a way described by Aslan in Prince Caspian:

“Aslan,” said Lucy “you’re bigger.”
“That is because you are older, little one,” answered he.
“Not because you are?”
“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”

The only book in the series about which I have some reservations is The Last Battle. It contains breathtaking descriptions of paradise but also emphasizes some confused pluralistic ideas that depart from biblical orthodoxy. It is still worth reading, but those who take seriously Jesus’ claims to be the only way to heaven (e.g. John 3:16-18) should approached it with discernment.

The order in which I have listed the books above is C. S. Lewis’s original publication order, and I personally think they are far better when read in that sequence rather than the “chronological” order currently used by publishers. If nothing else, Lewis clearly intended The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to be the readers’ first impression of Aslan. And I will leave you with part of Aslan’s beautiful introduction from that book. Come meet Aslan:

“…Aslan is a lion–the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he–quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King I tell you.”
“I’m longing to see him,” said Peter, “even if I do feel frightened when it comes to the point.”

Two Strange Classics

I finished one more book in each of the two reading challenges that I’m doing this year. Both are classics and both left me with a bit of that “What did I just read?” feeling. From The Official TBR Pile Challenge I read this collection of classic short stories:

Title: The Overcoat and Other Stories
Author: Nikolai Gogol
Genre: Classic Russian Weirdness
Pages: 144
Rating: 2 of 5

I have read a couple other books by Gogol (Dead Souls and Taras Bulba) and enjoyed them well enough (if enjoy is the right word for appreciating the bleakness that is Russian literature)….this collection, not so much.

Gogol’s work is generally oddly satirical, and in these stories he cranked up the odd part to the max. A couple of them crossed the line into completely surreal nonsense territory which just isn’t my samovar of tea.

Add to this the fact that Gogol is a Russian-speaking (albeit Ukrainian-born) author who frequently pokes fun at Ukraine (which he mostly calls “Little Russia”) and it just wasn’t a good time to be reading this. I have friends in Ukraine who are now refugees and others who spent weeks hiding in their house for fear of being robbed and/or shot by the Russian occupiers, so a Russian-speaker poking fun at Ukrainian culture is the last thing that I wanted to read, even if he is doing it with some level of fondness.

The second book that I read was this modern classic for the Mystery/Detective/Crime Classic category at the Back to the Classics 2020 Challenge:

Title: Picnic at Hanging Rock
Author: Joan Lindsay
Genre: Classic Australian Weirdness
Pages: 225
Rating: 3.5 of 5

I hope that this author thanked her editor for convincing her to drop the final chapter and leave the mystery at the heart of the story open-ended. As it stands, this reads like a bleak Unsolved Mysteries true-crime docudrama.

Three teenage girls and a teacher disappear on a school picnic in the Australian brush, and we get front row seats to the effect it has on their posh boarding school and the surrounding community. Along the way we get a few weird clues about what happened to the missing people with mysterious asides from the author, but the story cuts off with a mass of loose ends. The fact that we don’t get a nice, neat wrap-up puts the focus on well-written characters in heartbreaking situations and makes it the haunting modern classic that it is.

An attached essay gives the gist of the original ending which has since been found. It seems like weirdness just for the sake of weirdness that sucks any reality out of the rest of the book. I would advise against reading it (or a summary of it). Just let the loose ends haunt you…

Two Medieval-ish Reads

Today I will be reviewing a couple books that I received from NetGalley. Both will be published on May 12, 2022. Thank you to the authors and publishers for the free eARC’s (or however you spell the plural of eARC). This in no way affects the content of the reviews.

Title: Equinox
Author: David Towsey
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Pages: 368
Rating: 4 of 5

I was first drawn to this book by its fantastic cover, which I’ve left larger than usual so that you can admire it. Choosing this book by its cover worked out just fine for me.

I love good worldbuilding, and this book has it! In this world each body is two distinct people, one during the day and one at night. Our protagonist(s) is (are?) Cristophor the methodical special investigator (witch-hunter) by night and his “day brother” Alexander the musician/libertine. It’s an interesting concept that the author fleshes out pretty well. As far as culture and religion, the world closely resembles an early 18th century Europe where malicious magic is most definitely real.

The plot revolves around Christophor’s investigation into dangerous witchcraft in a small border town where he is a stranger. The pacing is on the slow side for most of the book, which I don’t mind at all. However, the end felt extremely rushed and bombastic by comparison, leaving me a bit confused over the actual role and motivation of some of the characters. Notwithstanding pacing issues and a few loose ends, I enjoyed this (rather dark) fantasy and would highly recommend it to fans of the genre. I would love it if the author wrote more books set in this world!

Title: Howls from the Dark Ages: An Anthology of Medieval Horror
Editors: P L McMillan & Solomon Forse
Genre: Horror
Pages: 354
Rating: 2.5 of 5

This is another book that I was initially drawn to by its cover. I appreciate the blend of Medieval and Lovecraftian elements. However, in this case, choosing a book by its cover didn’t work out so well.

Any horror anthology is a mixed bag, and in this one the mixture just wasn’t to my taste. Quite a few of the stories featured gross body horror and/or blasphemy (of the “God is evil / indifferent / non-existent” variety), and I’m a fan of neither. That said, there are definitely some well-written stories here, and it was interesting to see how the various authors play with elements from the life and religious practices of the whole Medieval time period (the stories are not strictly confined to the early-Medieval “Dark Ages”).

Your enjoyment of the book will depend a lot on your taste in horror. I think that someone from a Roman Catholic background might have even more problems with the book than I did, and someone who likes “gross horror” would probably enjoy it a lot more.

Two for the Book Challenges

Over the last month I checked off a book from each of my two reading challenges. From the Back to the Classics 2022 Challenge I finished the “Classic in a Place You’d Like to Visit” category with…

Title: The Hobbit
Author: J. R. R. Tolkien
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 287 (10:25 audiobook length)
Rating: 5 of 5

I don’t know how many times I’ve read this book since first reading it in 2nd or 3rd grade, but I still enjoy it every time. As Tolkien’s friend, C. S. Lewis, said: “I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.”

It is written with a much younger audience in mind than The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion, but (to quote Lewis again), “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children isn’t a good children’s story in the slightest.” It is less grim than his other writings. The overall tone could even be described as charming with small dashes of silly, but Tolkien’s favorite theme of the courage and perseverance of “regular people” (with a few nudges from Providence) shaping the course of events is in full bloom.

This time through, I listened to the Audible audiobook version narrated by Andy Serkis. He did an excellent job with all the voices (not just Gollum) and narrated with enthusiasm and humor. It’s well worth a listen.

My read from The Official TBR Pile Challenge was something completely different, but still a 5-star book:

Title: Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism
Editors: Elijah Hixson & Peter J. Gurry
Genre: Biblical Studies
Pages: 352 (plus indices, etc.)
Rating: 5 of 5

New Testament textual criticism is the branch of biblical studies that seeks to ascertain the original wording of the NT writings, especially in places where there are differences between ancient manuscripts. Extreme skeptics like Bart Ehrman try to make it sound like the text is hopelessly corrupt, as if it had been passed along and muddled in the party game “telephone.” Such an analysis is needlessly pessimistic. However, in their zeal to disprove it, some Christian apologists grossly overstate, oversimplify, and/or misuse the text-critical evidence of the accurate preservation of New Testament Scripture.

The essays in this book offer a corrective to such mistaken arguments while demonstrating the high textual accuracy of the New Testament we possess and the place of textual criticism in ensuring this. This area of study has always interested me, and I thoroughly enjoyed these essays, learning about the topic in more detail than what could be covered in my introductory seminary classes.

While I highly recommend this book, it isn’t necessarily a good introductory book if you have no background in the topic. For that I would suggest The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration by Bruce Metzger & Bart Ehrman (from before Ehrman went off the hyper-skeptical deep end).

Also, on a personal note: postings here will continue to be sporadic as we are still dealing with major health problems triggered by my wife’s bout with covid.

Conference Book Haul!

My wife and I just got back from the Together for the Gospel conference, and in addition to hearing a lot of good speakers (John Piper, Shai Linne, Sinclair Ferguson, David Platt, etc.), we acquired a ton of good books…not quite literally, but I did just about injure myself trying to get the book suitcase into and out of the car (yes, we took an empty suitcase to bring back books).

I tried to take a picture of the conference bookstore, but with thousands of pastors, theology nerds, and related bibliophiles wandering around a conference center ballroom with about a dozen publisher tables, multiple kiosks, and scattered piles of heavily discounted books it was impossible. Plus there were palettes of 2-3 free books per attendee before each session.

Here are the ones that are immediately going onto my TBR (two are from a used bookstore we hit up after leaving the conference…shouldn’t be too hard to pick them out):

The TBR just keeps growing

…and here are the ones my wife is adding to her list and collection of teaching resources:

Plus plenty of other freebies, duplicates, church resources, and more:

No such thing as too many books!

Best conference ever!

The Serpent’s Doom

Mankind fulfilled the devil’s wish
As God the Son lay dead.
Yet hell’s hosts quaked; their doom was sealed.
Their “vict’ry” brought but dread.

It was God’s plan, this sacrifice,
Incarnate God had bled.
The wrath of God against our sins
Was borne by Christ instead.

But three short days death held the Son.
Then God’s plan moved ahead
As Jesus Christ stepped from the tomb
And crushed the serpent’s head.

(See Genesis 3:15, Acts 2:22-24, 1 Corinthians 15:20-26)

Conflict Within and Without

Title: The Martyr
Author: Liam O’Flaherty
Genre: Depressing Historical Fiction
Pages: 216
Rating: 3 of 5

This fictionalized account of the capture of a small town in Ireland requires a basic understanding of the Irish Civil War. The edition that I read included a basic overview in the introduction, but my knowledge of Irish history was sketchy enough that I had to supplement from Wikipedia.

This falls into the “War is stupid and depressing and twists people into something ugly” category of war fiction rather than the “honor, heroism, and glory!” variety. O’Flaherty examines the character, motivations, and ideologies of people on both sides of the brother-against-brother conflict. Characters range from a vengeful atheistic communist soldier of fortune to a pacifistic religious officer with a martyr complex (both on the same side) and every shade of zealotry, nationalism, and religiosity in between. There is as much conflict within most of the characters as there is between characters (pacifism vs. patriotism, vengeance vs. love, faith vs. fear, etc.)

After a lot of angry disillusioned “ugliness and heartbreak of civil war and macho soldiers” stuff, the story devolves into an increasingly outrageous faith vs. atheism confrontation which ends with neither side in a particularly flattering light. I appreciated the book for a look at a part of history I hadn’t read about before and for some astute observations about the darker side of human nature, but it certainly wasn’t an enjoyable read.