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.

Irony?

Title: Why Poetry Sucks:
An Anthology of Humorous Experimental Canadian Poetry in English Written by Canadians for Canadians (or American Bodysnatchers) in the Early Years of the 21st Century with an Overly Long and Not That Clever Subtitle the Publisher Rightly Refused to Put on the Cover
Editors: Ryan Fitzpatrick & Jonathan Ball
Genre: Poetry
Pages: 293
Rating: 1 of 5

Isn’t that subtitle hilarious? Let me point out that the reason it is humorous is that it is significantly longer than a normal subtitle, thus subverting your expectations of what a subtitle should be. Additionally, see with what genius the editors have introduced a subtle tone of self-mockery by acknowledging that the publisher was right to refuse to include it in full on the book’s cover. Only true artists could have used something as banal as a subtitle to craft such delicious poetic irony.

…and that (with a few more academic buzzwords) is more-or-less what it’s like to read this book. The editors’ answer to “Why poetry sucks” is that it is perceived as being too deadly serious. To combat this perception they take us on a tour of experimental “poetry” they deem humorous, explaining exactly why it’s funny. For example:

Cabri’s poems provoke laughter at the place where the materiality of language meets its social construction, by estranging language from its “natural” usage to abstract it to a point where it might ironically do a better job of describing social/political/economic realities. (p. 81)

You know that’s going to be funny stuff! The “poetry” itself is as pretentious as it comes: replacing all the nouns and most of the verbs in a paragraph with the word needle, taking random facebook statuses and attributing them to various poets, posting a meme about experimental poetry and then presenting the resulting comments as experimental poetry, seeing how many puns you can make on an obscenity in a short paragraph, etc.

In my opinion, this whole book is the prime example of why we Philistines think that (pretentious) poetry sucks. Irony?

Catch-up Mini Reviews

It’s been a little bit longer than usual between posts as I’ve been furiously reading to rack up entries in the local library’s summer reading prize drawing (can’t let my kiddos show me up!). Here are five of the most recent (out of 22 over the last 2 months):

Monster Hunter International (Monster Hunters International Book 1) by [Correia, Larry]Title: Monster Hunter International
Author: Larry Correia
Genre: Gun Nut Enthusiast Wish Fulfillment
Pages: 715
Rating: 2.5 of 5

I enjoy Dracula and Cthulhu mythos stories, so I figured why not try out this pulp action-spinoff of the Lovecraftian and Gothic tales. While some of the monster lore and overall plot was fun, I give it a “meh” overall.

I think that the intended audience is the we-distrust-the-government-and-LOVE-guns crowd, and while that describes some of my friends, it’s not me. For me, the frequent doting  listing of gun models and specs and the breathless descriptions of firing said guns were absurdly over the top. And these guys would rather just blast away at the monsters with silver bullets (no matter how ineffectual it repeatedly proves to be) than actually try to come up with anything clever. Add to this some ham-handed foreshadowing, sprinkle in some poor word usage and factual errors (e.g. compulsive instead of convulsive, Peloponnesian War instead of Trojan War), and I probably won’t be continuing this series…I’ll stick with Warhammer 40K for my absurdly violent pulp needs.

Title: The Annotated Hunting of the Snark
Author: Lewis Carroll (annotations by Martin Gardner)
Genre: Nonsense Narrative Poem + Pretentious Commentary
Pages: 196
Rating: 4 of 5

I love the nonsense poem Jaberwocky, so I’m not sure how I didn’t know about Carroll’s full-length narrative poem that is very much in the same vein. The poem itself is a lot of fun (if a bit grim) and worthy of a 5 out of 5 rating. However, for the most part the annotations/commentary add very little enjoyment unless you are utterly obsessed with the poem. The one lengthy section of commentary that I really enjoyed was an extended satirical “analysis” of the poem that is clearly making fun of  people who (like our main annotator) pompously try to impose deep, complex meaning on the nonsense.

The Warden - Chronicles of Barsetshire, Book 1 audiobook cover artTitle: The Warden
(Chronicles of Barsetshire – Book 1)
Author: Anthony Trollope
Genre: Classic Fiction
Pages: 240
Rating: 3.5 of 5

I am using this book for my 19th Century Classic category over at the Back to the Classics challenge. My brother-in-law, who is also a pastor, recommended the Barchester series as a humorous take on church politics (with a warning that this first book wasn’t quite as good as the others).

Trollope perfectly captures the earnestness, good intentions, greed, pettiness, and arrogance that swirl together to generate church politics. His characters, squabbling over how a charitable institution should be run, are quirky but believable, and he gets in some good jabs at the press and national politics along the way.

I take issue with the pervading theme that time-honored abuses of the system for personal gain should be allowed to continue so long as they are not really hurting anyone. After all, attempts to reform will only make things worse for everyone…just look at that troublemaker Charles Dickens! That said, there was enough cleverness in here that I’ll probably give the next Barchester book a shot at some point.

Title: The Swordbearer
Author: Glen Cook
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Pages: 256
Rating: 3 of 5

I read this more out of curiosity than because I expected a good book. It’s one of Glen Cook’s first fantasy books (maybe the first?), and we all know how rough an author’s early works can be. This stand-alone novel feels like three parts Elric of Melniboné, one part Lord of the Rings, and one part semi-original stuff that would later be cannibalized and reused in the much better Black Company stories.

The characters are so flat and numerous as to be difficult to keep track of, and there is frequent info-dumping, but I’ve read much worse first attempts. If you’ve ever read and enjoyed the Elric books, this is worth a read… if the whole book being an “I feel like a pawn of this evil soul-devouring sword” mope-fest grates on your nerves you might want to give it a miss.

The Fall of Arthur by [Tolkien, J.R.R.]Title: The Fall of Arthur
Author: J. R. R. Tolkien (Christopher Tolkien, Editor)
Genre: Epic Poem Fragment + Page-count Padding Commentary
Pages: 233
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This is just another Christopher Tolkien publication of a fragment from his father’s work padded out to book length with commentary. As always, the narrative poem fragment is well-written and interesting (as long as you have some interest in Arthuriana), but it is even shorter than usual (cutting off well before the actual battle in which Mordred dies and Arthur maybe-dies). Christopher’s notes are much better organized than usual, but still overlong. The tracing of various versions of the fall of Arthur through medieval literature is probably the most interesting part of his contribution. Unless you are the kind of fan who has to have every published fragment by J. R. R. Tolkien, this isn’t worth buying…just borrow it from the library, read the poem fragment, and skim the notes to see if any of the sections sound interesting to you.

The Zealot & The Sociopath

Title: Vicious
(Villains – Book 1)
Author: V. E. Schwab
Genre: Superhero/Supervillain Sci-Fi
Pages: 365
Rating: 4 of 5

If you enjoy antihero or supervillain-as-protagonist stories, this book is a must read! I won’t comment much on the plot because V. E. Schwab presents the story in a non-linear manner that slowly reveals what is going on, and that slow revelation is half the fun. Suffice it to say that this occurs in a world that contains people with X-Men-like powers (though not from mutation).

Both of our main characters are, as the title states, vicious in their own way. Neither is particularly sympathetic, but their ambition and rivalry make for a great story (and one of them has a little bit more of a “you should be cheering for this one” vibe).

Occasionally I wondered “why don’t they just use their power to [fill in the blank] and solve this problem right now?” but I think that’s a common plot difficulty with any story involving overpowered supers. If you can do the suspend-disbelief-and-ignore-a-few-plot-holes to enjoy a superhero movie, this is a lot of fun. The ending was satisfactory and tied up enough loose ends to be considered stand-alone while allowing for future stories in the same world with at least some of the same characters.

Vengeful (Villains Book 2) by [Schwab, V. E.]Title: Vengeful
(Villains – Book 2)
Author: V. E. Schwab
Genre: Superhero/Supervillain Sci-Fi
Pages: 478
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Speaking of which…this was an okay followup to Vicious. Throw a couple more nasty EO’s into the mix, make last time’s “you should be cheering for this one” sociopath even less sympathetic, give a lot more background on last time’s bad guy (worse guy?), end on an even bigger bang than last time, and you have this book.

The events of the story flows naturally out of what happened in the first book and add some interesting elements and characters. However, it is a bit harder to discern a central plot, and the wrap-up leaves quite a few loose ends. It is clearly intended as a setup for one or more sequels, and I personally find that annoying. I didn’t dislike the book as a whole, but the scattery plot, increasingly psychopathic characters, and partially unresolved ending meant it didn’t wow me like the first one.