Slasher Obsession

My Heart Is a Chainsaw by [Stephen Graham Jones]

Title: My Heart Is a Chainsaw
Author: Stephen Graham Jones
Genre: Mystery/Slasher Horror
Pages: 416
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: August 31, 2021 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way impacts the content of my review)

If you love slasher movies, you have to read this book. If (like me) you think most slasher horror is pretty stupid and can’t be bothered to watch it unless there’s a really clever twist, you might still want to read it. If you absolutely hate slasher stuff, give it a pass.

This book has a distinctly self-aware tone. Our slasher-obsessed protagonist/narrator, Jade, knows everything there is to know about the genre. Each chapter ends with a rather facetious extra credit paper written by her in which she explores the origins, structure, tropes, worldview, etc. of classic slasher movies. For me, these were possibly the most interesting part of the book and almost (but not quite) made me want to check out some of the gory classic franchises that I never bothered to watch.

Jade the “horror chick” is not the most likeable of narrators as she is sullen, antisocial, knee-jerk rebellious, and seems incapable of thinking/talking about anything other than slashers. That said, she is a pitiable character shaped by her rotten life circumstances (trigger warnings for just about anything nasty that can happen to a teenage girl), and the slasher obsession even makes sense by the end.

Most of the story involves Jade thinking that she sees signs/tropes/circumstances that indicate a real-life “slasher cycle” is about to play out right in her backwoods Idaho town (which makes her disturbingly gleeful). It’s a slow burn as you wonder how much of this buildup is real and how much is a figment of her obsession-warped psyche.

Somewhere between the 60% and 70% mark things finally explode into a frenzy of action as we find out what has been going on…kind of. It’s so chaotic and explanations of a few of the more “red herring” aspects are so lightly passed over and dismissed that some things remain pretty up in the air (perhaps intentionally as if teasing a sequel?). Personally, I thought that the slow buildup was much more interesting than the huge over-the-top action set piece, which is probably why I’m not a huge fan of the genre. I did not enjoy this as much as the author’s The Only Good Indians (which is itself pretty much slasher horror of an oddly literary bent), but it’s definitely worth a read.

Top 10 Christian Book Recommendations

After an exhausting week of Vacation Bible School, I don’t feel inspired to write any fresh reviews. However, it’s been too long since I posted anything here, so I’m going to do something a little bit different today. I have compiled a list of the 10 Christian books that I most frequently recommend to friends. Some are an introduction to (or exposition of) what Christians believe, and some are more on the order of “how should we then live?”. I hope you find something useful here (presented in alphabetical order with title linked to a full review if I wrote one):

Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible by [Mark Ward]

Title: Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible
Author: Mark Ward
Pages: 144

This is probably the most niche book on the list, addressing a concern that only crops up in certain conservative churches. However, if you grew up in “King James Only/Superiority” circles, you should read this balanced defense of modern English Bible translations.

Can We Trust the Gospels? by [Peter J. Williams]

Title: Can We Trust the Gospels
Author: Peter J. Williams
Pages: 162

This author demonstrates why it is reasonable to believe that the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are accurate accounts of the life of Jesus. This is one of the more scholarly books on the list, but the author does not assume prior knowledge or use unexplained academic jargon.

Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World's Largest Religion by [Rebecca McLaughlin]

Title: Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion
Author: Rebecca McLaughlin
Pages: 242

Topics addressed in this insightful book include religious violence, homophobia (she herself has been same sex attracted throughout her life), misogyny, slavery, theodicy (existence of evil/suffering), and much more.

Title: Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ
Authors: Andrew David Naselli & Claton Butcher
Pages: 160

Way too many conflicts that occur between Christians are over issues that the Bible has left up to our individual consciences. This book helps Christians think through Christian love that does not cause unnecessary offense or try to bind others to our own merely cultural preferences.

Title: Gentle & Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers
Author: Dane C. Ortlund
Pages: 224

Sometimes we need to be reminded “Yes, Jesus loves me.” People who grew up in a certain kind of church soaked in the message of “Try harder to do better because God might have deigned to save you, but he doesn’t really like you that much.” This thoughtful book brings out what the Scriptures say about Jesus’ love and compassion.

Title: God, Greed, and the (Prosperity) Gospel: How Truth Overwhelms a Life Built on Lies
Author: Costi W. Hinn
Pages: 224

The “Prosperity Gospel” of guaranteed health and wealth that is peddled by smarmy televangelists makes me sick. Costi Hinn (nephew of televangelist Benny Hinn) demonstrates how destructive and unbiblical this corrupt teaching is. (for the short version, check out Shai Linne’s hip-hop masterpiece Fal$e Teacher$).

Title: Heaven: A Comprehensive Guide to Everything the Bible Says about Our Eternal Home
Author: Randy Alcorn
Pages: 560

This is by far the longest book on the list, but it is well worth your time to read it. It sweeps away misconceptions of heaven as a stuffy, boring place and digs into what the Bible actually says about the afterlife.

Title: How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil
Author: D. A. Carson
Pages: 240

One of the biggest difficulties for Christianity is “the problem of evil.” If God is perfectly good and all-powerful why is there evil in the world? D. A. Carson provides an excellent biblical framework for understanding this issue. (For a much more difficult in depth treatment check out The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problem of Evil by John S. Feinberg)

How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age by [Jonathan Leeman]

Title: How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age
Author: Jonathan Leeman
Pages: 252

This is a book that every American Evangelical Christian needs to read! It gives biblical guidance on how and why followers of Jesus should participate in the political process rather than being a poorly disguised partisan guide about who and what to vote for. (See also Before You Vote: Seven Questions Every Christian Should Ask by David Platt).

Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics) by [C. S. Lewis, Kathleen Norris]

Title: Mere Christianity
Author: C. S. Lewis
Pages: 227

I had to put at least one book on here from my all time favorite author. I don’t 100% agree with everything Lewis says (e.g. sacraments as a means of applying grace, or the possibility of thwarting God’s will for your life), but this is an excellent introduction to the general beliefs of historical Christianity. Even if you’ve been a devoted Christian your whole life, Lewis comes at things from a different angle that will help you see your faith with fresh eyes.

All the Herods (& Some Nonsense About Jesus)

Title: The Herods:
Murder, Politics, and the Art of Succession
Author: Bruce Chilton
Genre: History
Pages: 346 (plus bibliology & indices)
Rating: 3.5 of 5
(Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through Edelweiss+. This in no way affects the content of my review)

If you are acquainted with the Gospels & Acts, you probably remember multiple members of the Herod dynasty putting in less than flattering appearances (starting with Herod the Great’s attempt to murder the infant Jesus in Matthew 2). In this book, Bruce Chilton tells the full story of the Herodian dynasty’s rule over Israel. It is a convoluted tale of political & religious maneuvering, egomania, paranoia, sexcapades, and violence.

Chilton portrayal of the Herods seems fairly balanced. He frequently gives them credit for savvy political moves but does not downplay the cruelty, hubris, and mania that characterized this ruling family. I appreciated getting the full picture of who these people were and how they (and Israel) fit into the broader history of the Roman Empire. If that is what you are interested in, I would definitely recommend this book (especially if you don’t want to wade through Josephus’s Antiquities and Jewish War on your own).

However, I would not recommend coming to this book to learn about the Herods’ interaction with John the Baptist, Jesus, and the early church leaders. The author’s views in this regard are steeped in higher criticism, the “historical Jesus” movement, and all the related academic jargon. He treats the Bible (especially the Gospels and Acts) as distorted legends and propaganda to be sifted through for tiny grains of truth. Jesus is recast to suit a purely naturalistic/sociological/political understanding of religion devoid of true divine revelation. Call me unenlightened, but the “historical Jesus” is a pathetic, unconvincing substitute for the Son of God.

As a follower of Jesus who takes the Gospels as divinely-inspired Scripture, I am probably not the intended audience for this book. Nevertheless, it did increase my overall understanding of these people and their time period, and I am glad that I read it (even if the “historical Jesus” parts made me cringe).

The OG

The Phantom of the Opera Audiobook By Gastón Leroux cover art

Title: The Phantom of the Opera
Author: Gaston LeRoux
Translator: Alexander Teixeira de Mattos
Genre: Classic Gothic
Pages: 260
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Early on in my first ever dating relationship I read this book aloud to my girlfriend. Last week we listened to it together as an audiobook as we drove up north to celebrate our 19-year wedding anniversary. Given that history, I’m a bit biased in favor of this book and have probably rated it a bit higher than I otherwise would have.

That said, The Phantom of the Opera deserves its iconic status. Leroux created a monstrous antagonist who is nonetheless truly pitiable. The Opera Ghost is a master manipulator with a sadistic streak, a pathetic backstory, and physical deformity far beyond something that could be hidden under the wimpy half-mask that makes its way into every portrayal since Andrew Lloyd Webber.

The plot and narration are almost laughably melodramatic at times, but if you roll with it and embrace the Gothic-ness, it’s a lot of fun (and even moving). Leroux throws in very occasional dry humorous comments that show he isn’t taking this completely seriously himself, while at the same time presenting it as a personally researched true story.

Translation-wise, I have only read the very Victorian, public domain version. I suspect (corroborated by a little online research) that this is probably the least accurate version, so one of these days I will have to try a different translation. Speaking of which, I will be using this for my Classic in Translation category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

If you enjoy Gothic fiction, this is a must-read. If you like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, you should give this original source material a shot as well. You get more complexity of plot and depth of characters with all the melodrama. And if you’re looking for something to do with your SO, reading this aloud worked out pretty well for us…

Vacation Finds (and Frank the Bear)

I’m finally on vacation! The phone is set to “do not disturb” for everyone but immediate family, my friend Rabbi Glenn is filling the pulpit for me this Sunday (he’s promised to “introduce subtle heresies” to give me a challenge when I get back), and my wife and I just got back from a trip “up North” to celebrate our anniversary. My brain is in low power mode, so I’m not going to write a review right now. However, to keep this blog at least slightly active, here are my book finds from our anniversary trip…a blend of classics, pulp SF&F, a history book, etc. found at several different antique/junk/book shops:

And, as a bonus, here’s a picture of Frank the bear who accompanies us on our trips up North:

Several Series Continued

Today I have for you some short-ish reviews of the most recent book I’ve read in several different series:

Title: Heroes (Fry’s Greek Myths series – Book 2 of 3)
Author: Stephen Fry
Genre: Mythology Retelling
Pages: 352
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This was every bit as good as the first book in the series! This time he focuses more on the human heroes like Heracles, Theseus, and Jason (though the capricious meddlesome gods are still very much in evidence, of course). I would again recommend the audiobook as you get not only Fry’s witty phrasing, but his humorous intonation. As with the first book, Fry keeps the personal interpretation and commentary to a minimum (though I would say Prometheus is his favorite character with repeated emphasis on humans “outgrowing” or superseding the gods). The story stops short of the Trojan War, and I am looking forward to listening to the third (and final?) book in the series that covers those events.

The Talented Mr. Ripley by [Patricia Highsmith]

Titles: The Talented Mr. Ripley and Ripley Under Ground (Ripley series – Books 1 & 2 of 5)
Author: Patricia Highsmith
Genre: Crime Novels
Pages: 288 each
Rating: 3.5 of 5 & 2 of 5

I’m not sure quite what to make of these books. They follow the escapades of our sociopathic protagonist as he pursues the good life through fraud, manipulation, and occasionally murder (but only if it’s absolutely necessary). Pursues might actually be a bit strong of a word because he kind of drifts along taking advantage of opportunities as they happen. The first book was interesting as a character study of a horrible person, but the second one felt like a tired attempt to cash in on past success and had a completely implausible non-ending that seemed like the setup for a sequel. I’ll probably try at least one more book in the series out of morbid curiosity, but I don’t have high expectations.

Artificial Condition: The Murderbot Diaries by [Martha Wells]

Title: Artificial Condition (Murderbot Diaries book 2 of 6?)
Author: Martha Wells
Genre: Sci-Fi
Pages: 160
Rating: 5 of 5

This series continues to impress and entertain. This novella picks up almost immediately after the first one. Murderbot (a more-or-less-illegally unfettered AI security cyborg) takes its first independent contract while trying to understand its past, pass for an augmented human, navigate awkward interactions with actual humans, and watch some of its vast store of downloaded entertainment programs. A shipbound AI (ART) provides a lot of help (and entertainment value) throughout the book, and hopefully will put in encore appearances later in the series. I’m definitely looking forward to continuing this series.

Micro Reviews

Recently, by the time I get done preparing my weekly sermons, Bible studies, counseling, fire-dousing, etc. my writing and creative ability is sapped for the day. I am definitely in need of the vacation that I have coming up in a few weeks. That said, I don’t want to completely neglect this blog or leave too many books unreviewed, so here are a handful of one to three sentence reviews (none of the usual formatting…I’m weary):

The First World War by John Keegan – I don’t find WW1 especially interesting, but wanted to get a good overview of it. This book provided just that: a solid surface-level overview in a rather dry, businesslike style. (Rating: 4.5 of 5)

The Secular Creed by Rebecca McLaughlin – In this short book, McLaughlin interacts with many of the slogans found on the kind of yard signs that begin “In this house we believe…”. Using a blend of social science data and Scripture she shows if (and how) each one fits into a biblical worldview. After reading this and Confronting Christianity, McLaughlin is one of my new favorite authors. (Rating: 5 out of 5)

Tinfoil Dossier Series (Agents of Dreamland, Black Helicopters, & The Tindalos Asset) by Caitlin R. Kiernan – Blending modern paranoid conspiracy theory thinking with Lovecraftian elements is a pretty cool idea for a series of novellas. Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy the execution at all as it was trippy to the point of being nearly incomprehensible and laced with massive amounts of profanity and perversion (e.g. incest). (Rating: 2 out of 5)

Jack Aubrey & Stephen Maturin Series (Master & Commander, etc.) by Patrick O’Brian – Historical fiction isn’t usually my thing, but these books are a lot of fun so far. Three books in, I’m definitely enjoying the Napoleonic Wars era exploits of the the blustering Captain Jack Aubrey & his friend the somewhat eccentric Dr. Stephen Maturin (both at sea and on shore in polite society). (Rating: 4 out of 5)

Single & Single by John LeCarré – This story dives into the world of high-level money laundering and all its attendant corruption. As usual with LeCarré, the book was interesting without really providing any likeable characters. Also, somewhere after his George Smiley books LeCarré seems to have lost the ability/will to write a dénouement, as the last three books I have read by him have ended abruptly with a ton of loose ends. (Rating 3 out of 5)

Zzzzzz…

Title: Sleeper Agent:
The Atomic Spy In America Who Got Away
Author: Ann Hagedorn
Genre: True Spy Story
Pages: 272
Rating: 3 of 5
Future Release Date: July 20, 2021 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of my review.)

This book promised to be “perfect for Ben Macintyre fans.” I loved Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends and The Spy and the Traitor, so I had high expectations. They were not met.

This isn’t a terrible book, and if I hadn’t ever read a Ben Macintyre true spy story I may have given this a higher rating. However, this is definitely second-tier compared to him. The presentation is dry, the reconstruction of many events is not very tight/detailed, and the Amazon blurb gives away practically all the important information. I feel like the author just didn’t have enough available information about this spy to write a compelling book. On a positive note, it does provide interesting glimpses into the Manhattan project and the Red Scare.

I don’t usually mind a dry history book, but Macintyre has spoiled me when it comes to spy stories, and so this one just didn’t cut it for me.

Rabbit Rabbit

Rabbits: A Novel by [Terry Miles]

Title: Rabbits
Author: Terry Miles
Genre: Ready Player One wannabe Sci-Fi
Pages: 423
Rating: 2.5 of 5
Future Release Date: June 8, 2021
(Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of my review)

This book is a pretty close approximation to what you would get if Franz Kafka took a break from writing The Trial and tried to rip off Ready Player One (with way fewer 80’s pop culture references) but then got bored and abruptly ended it.

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

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

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

Mini-Review Time!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every Little Crook and Nanny by Evan Hunter

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

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