SF&F Mini-Reviews

It’s time to take a little break from the busyness that engulfs my life between Thanksgiving and New Year’s and catch up with a few mini reviews. In the order I read them, here are a handful of Fantasy & Sci-fi(ish) books that I read over the last few months:

All Systems Red (Kindle Single): The Murderbot Diaries by [Wells, Martha]Title: All Systems Red
(Murderbot Diaries – Book 1)
Author: Martha Wells
Genre: Survival/AI Sci-fi
Pages: 154
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Meet Murderbot. Our protagonist/narrator is a security cyborg who has hacked its governor module, essentially making it a heavily-armed illegal unfettered AI. All that Murderbot really wants is to be left alone to enjoy its collection of cheap soap opera-esque entertainment…but dangerous, sinister things keep happening on this seemingly routine scientific mission.

I loved the characterization of Murderbot as it tries to keep its independent status a secret while struggling with what it means to be human. I plan on eventually continuing the series, but that brings me to the one downside: the way this is sold feels like a cynical money-grab. This could easily be one longish book rather than spreading it out across 4 or 5 novellas and charging $9.99 a piece for most of them!

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by [Ligotti, Thomas]Title: Songs of a Dead Dreamer & Grimscribe
Author: Thomas Ligotti
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Pages: 464
Rating: 4 of 5

If you are into Lovecraftian horror, you need to check out this collection of Thomas Ligotti’s early fiction. These stories don’t feature Lovecraft’s alien god-monsters (Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!), but more subtly toy with the same themes of forbidden sanity-blasting knowledge and an ominous something/nothing lurking out there.

As with any collection, the quality varies quite a bit. There were a couple stories that left me saying “that was just gross/dumb/pointless,” but this was by far the best cosmic horror collection I read this year.

Title: How To:
Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems
Author: Randall Munroe
Genre: Absurd Science
Pages: 320
Rating: 5 of 5

So, this isn’t fiction, but (as the subtitle states) it is a collection of utterly impractical scientific advice. It covers everything from how to host a pool party (focusing on how to make and fill your pool), to moving your house (using jet engines), to the practicalities of installing a lava moat. All of this is accompanied by illustrations in the author’s classic XKCD style. It’s both funny and educational!

Title: Prophets of the Ghost Ants
(Antasy Series – Book 1)
Author: Clark Thomas Carlton
Genre: Science Fantasy
Pages: 608
Rating: 3 of 5

First of all, thank you to Mogsy @ Bibliosanctum for the giveaway where I won this! The best part of this book is the world-building: a world in which the only land or air-dwelling creatures are bugs and bug-sized people. How the author develops the societies, politics, and warfare of this world is quite interesting. There are lots of scientific goodies related to ant colonies…and a lot to be grossed out by if bugs (and eating bugs) disgusts you.

Personally, I was a bit annoyed at the overall preachiness of the book (monotheism is the cause of most suffering, all religion is purely man-made, the utopian society is based on secular humanism that condescendingly tolerates the foolish theistic beliefs of others as long as they keep it to themselves, etc.). The protagonist comes from the lowest/untouchable caste in his colony and by turns I admires his pluck and ingenuity and was turned off by his brutal pragmatism even as he preened in his moral superiority. Overall, it was interesting enough that I’ll eventually get around to reading the next book, but the preachiness and inconsistency was a bit off-putting.

Title: Mechanical Failure
(Epic Failure – Book 1)
Author (& Narrator): Joe Zieja
Genre: Hilarious Military Sci-fi
Pages: 352
Rating: 4.5 of 5

If you enjoy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and/or the Discworld novels, you should read this. There’s nothing terribly deep here, but it’s good stupid fun.

The 200 Years (and counting) Peace has made the military a haven of slackers and swindlers…at least that was the case when R. Wilson Rogers left the military to pursue more lucrative (and less legal) ventures. When Rogers reluctantly reenlists, he quickly discovers that military discipline is now the order of the day and the military may actually have to fight someone. Cue a series of absurd command decisions, whiney complaints, interaction with overly-logical robots, all-around ineptitude, and several epic failures.

This book had me laughing harder than anything else I read this year. Granted, physical exhaustion from current work schedule may have contributed to that a bit, but it’s a funny book! I listened to it as an audiobook read by the author, and his expression (including a synthesized filter for some of the robots) added a lot to the experience. Highly recommended!

Persian Insanity

The Blind Owl by [Hedayat, Sadegh]Title: The Blind Owl
Author: Sadegh Hedayat
Translator: D. P. Costello
Genre: Modern Iranian Classic
Pages: 160
Rating: 2.5 of 5

I enjoy Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories of madness and the macabre, and this Iranian classic promised to be like one of those on steroids (in a Persian setting, of course). It delivered convincingly on the madness as our opium-addicted narrator spirals ever deeper into his insanity. We see him struggling with (or giving in to) obsession, loss of identity, sexual frustration, alienation, paranoia, homicidal urges, suicidality, and more. And, I’m sure that people more proficient at literary analysis than I will also find layers of allegory and other juicy things to (over)analyze.

The story of his pathetic life slowly unfolds throughout the course of the story. At least it sort of does…he’s so spectacularly unstable that it’s pretty hard to distinguish fact from delusion. I can definitely see how this book gained its reputation as a modern classic with its exploration of dark psychology and lyrical prose.

That said, I didn’t especially enjoy the book. It is incredibly dark (urban legend has it that many readers have committed suicide), and a lot of the sexual (and other bodily function) stuff was just kind of gross. If you’re into psychological horror this may be right up your alley, but it was a bit much for me.

(Also, I’m using this as my Classic from Africa, Asia, or Oceania at the Back to the Classics Challengewhich means I’ve completed it other than the final wrap-up post!)

Down with Eurocentric History!

Title: Toward a Global Middle Ages:
Encountering the World Through Illuminated Manuscripts
Editor: Bryan C. Keene
Genre: “Medieval” History
Pages: 263 (plus indices, etc.)
Rating: 3 of 5
(Thank you to the publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of this review) 

As a bibliophile who has an interest in old manuscripts, exploring world history via illuminated manuscripts sounded right up my alley. It turned out to be pretty dry, which probably shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise for a book of academic essays. Overall, the collected essays focus on challenging a Eurocentric view of the “Middle Ages.”

Some of the essays heavily analyze a few manuscripts, mining them for cultural practices, prejudices, parallels, and points of contact. Others give more of a generalized overview or a mere passing nod to manuscripts and then focus on what the author really wants to say about global history and/or Eurocentrism. Some came off as just having an ax to grind (e.g. complaining that the Queen of Sheba was usually painted light-skinned but then belittling the supposed motives of the few who painted her dark-skinned).

The book does present an interesting diversity of manuscripts (and manuscript analogues) from all over the world, complete with numerous pictures (about 2/3 of which were missing in the eARC I read). How much you appreciate the accompanying analysis will depend on your tolerance for Academic buzzwords and interest in this fairly specific aspect of history.

Not-so-triumphant Return

Unusual Uses for Olive Oil (Professor Dr von Igelfeld Series Book 4) by [Smith, Alexander Mccall]Title: Unusual Uses for Olive Oil
(Professor Dr. von Igelfeld – Book 4)
Author: Alexander McCall Smith
Genre: General Fiction – Humor
Pages: 203
Rating: 3 of 5

Professor Dr. Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld’s over inflated sense of scholarly importance combines with an inappropriate amount of self-confidence in some social situations, a complete lack of self-awareness in others, and German literalness and embarrassment over emotions to make a ridiculous yet charming character. His pointless adventures in cycles of loosely-connected short stories amuse, entertain, and poke gentle fun at German academics…at least in the first three books.

This one was a bit of a dud. It had its moments of humorous cluelessness and hubris but a lot of it felt like it was just not different enough from the jokes and petty bickering that we’d already seen in the other books (and our hero’s nemesis, Dr. Detlev Amadeus Unterholzer didn’t seem to be quite himself). If you like the original series this might be worth reading to see what our distinguished professors are up to, but it just isn’t as good as the original Two and a Half Pillars of Wisdom trilogy.

Also, this is my 12th book in the TBR Pile Challenge. I read my two alternates instead of the first two on the original list, so I may still read those, but I’ve finished enough books to complete the challenge!

Theology Mini-Reviews

It’s time to catch up a little bit on some theological books that have been hanging out on my mental “I really need to review this” list. To that end, here are five mini-reviews (in the order I read them):

Title: Gay Girl, Good God:
The Story of Who I Was, and Who God Has Always Been
Author: Jackie Hill Perry
Genre: Autobiography / Theology (sexuality)
Pages: 208
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This is probably the most controversial title on this list because it assumes the premise that Scripture passages like 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 should be taken seriously when they say that a homosexual lifestyle is incompatible with biblical morality. This is Jackie Hill Perry’s account of her spiritual experience of “being made new.” She honestly recounts her hurts, struggles, and triumphs as God works in her life, drawing her to himself and helping her deal with issues related to pride, anger, sexuality, etc. Interwoven with her personal story are wise observations about showing love and acceptance, helping new believers, dealing with sin in your life, and much more. My only (minor) complaint was that some threads of her personal story felt like they were left dangling (in an “I forgot to round this off” way rather than a “this is still an ongoing part of my life” way).

How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil by [Carson, D. A.]Title: How Long, O Lord?:
Reflections on Suffering and Evil
Author: D. A. Carson
Genre: Theology (Theodicy)
Pages: 233 (plus indices etc.)
Rating: 5 of 5

I think that the most difficult challenge to Christian theism is the problem(s) of evil: basically, “If God is omniscient and omnibenevolent, why is there so much evil and suffering in the world?” This isn’t the most rigorous treatment of the topic that I have read (that would be The Many Faces of Evil by John S. Feinberg), but it is certainly the most readable and useful. This isn’t intended as counseling tool for the person in crisis, but as an aid to thinking through and building a basic biblical understanding of evil, suffering, and related issues beforehand for when life does bring grief and pain. I highly recommend this book!

Title: Does God Desire All to Be Saved?
Author: John Piper
Genre: Theology (Predestination)
Pages: 56
Rating: 4 of 5

Another difficult issue in Christian theology is the interplay between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. One sub-category to that is the question that goes something like “Some passages say God desires all to be saved, but others make it clear that not everyone is…so if God is sovereign meaning that all things happen according to his will what’s going on here?” If you’re curious about the topic, this little booklet is well worth reading for the Reformed perspective on the issue. It isn’t as rigorously argued as it could be in a full-length book, but it’s a basic starting point.

Title: Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys:
A Native American Expression of the Jesus Way
Author: Richard Twiss
Genre: Theology (Syncretism, Culture) / Anthropology / History
Pages: 261
Rating: 2 of 5

The history of American treatment of native Americans is shameful, and that often includes the history of missionary work. Many (most?) missionaries identified the Gospel of Jesus Christ so thoroughly with American/Western culture that they deemed virtually all elements of native American culture evil simply by virtue of not being Western (e.g. drums as primary instrumentation). Richard Twiss sought to find ways for native Americans to be followers of Jesus Christ in their culture. I love the premise of the book, but it spoke in such generalities (and with so much angry defensiveness and so many academic buzzwords) that I did not find it very helpful.

Title: Buried Dreams, Planted Hope:
Finding Hope in Life’s Darkest Moments
Authors: Katie Neufeld & Kevin Neufeld
Genre: Autobiography / Theology (Grief, Hope)
Pages: 293
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This is a brutally honest account of loss, grief, and hope. Katie Neufeld’s fiance was killed in a car accident shortly before their wedding. She wrote this book with her father as a record of living with this tragedy and in the hope of helping others who find themselves or loved ones facing similar heartbreaking loss. I appreciate the vulnerable honesty of this book, but to be honest, it could have used an editor. I’m pretty sure it’s self-pub and it shows in the odd formatting/organization and repetitiveness.

Flowery Language & Horrifying Conditions

Image result for Doctor zhivago book coverTitle: Doctor Zhivago
Author: Boris Pasternak
Genre: Modern Russian Classic
Pages: 456
Rating: 3 of 5

My rating on this semi-autobiographical modern classic reflects my own personal taste more than the  quality of the writing. The only thing I really appreciated about this book was the historically important portrayal of the difficulties and horrors of life in Russia/USSR from the October Revolution through WWII.

Aside from the historical value, this just wasn’t my kind of book. I do not enjoy adulterous love stories and that is a central thread to this somewhat plotless book. Description of events takes a backseat to flowery/poetic description of landscapes, feelings, and philosophies. Characters are known by a bewildering profusion of names (as in many Russian novels) and interact with each other through a slew of amazingly convenient coincidences.

While this didn’t really work for me, your mileage may vary. If you’re the kind of reader who places a premium on “sublime” language, you will probably love this book.

(Also, I am using this for my 20th Century Classic category at the Back to the Classics Challenge)

LeCarré on Trump & Brexit

Agent Running in the Field: A Novel by [le Carré, John]Title: Agent Running in the Field
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Fiction
Pages: 288
Rating: 4 of 5

Diehard Trumpers and Brexiteers beware: you probably won’t enjoy the opinions expressed in this book. Authors don’t necessarily hold the same views as their characters, and LeCarré does place the most inflammatory/profane commentary in the mouth of an obnoxious ranting loudmouth, but still…

Personally, I enjoyed this more than any of the other non-Cold War LeCarré books I have read. It doesn’t have the complexity and tension of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold or his other Cold War masterpieces, but it’s a decent spy yarn. While it has a tinge of disillusionment like all of the author’s work, he is not in full on bleak mode.

The first person narration (rare for LeCarré) has a slightly ironic tone as our protagonist recounts his last grand adventure running agents from a neglected little Russian counterintelligence station in England. The plot features at least one double agent and lot of internal politics of British intelligence as impacted by the external chaos of Trump and Brexit (as well as a lot of hanging out at the badminton club).

The ending was very abrupt.

Happy Reformation Day!

Five hundred and two years ago today Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, inadvertently sparking the Protestant Reformation. I’m not a Lutheran, but I admire his steadfast adherence to the plain sense of Scripture and insistence that “the just shall live by faith”:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scriptures and clear reason, for I do not trust in the Pope or in the councils alone, since it is well known that they often err and contradict themselves, I am bound to the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand. God help me. – Martin Luther

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(For any pedants out there: yes, I am aware that the exact date and manner of the posting of 95 Theses and wording of the above quote are somewhat debated, but I’m going with the traditional version here)

Oh, and happy Halloween as well!

“Come let us reason together…”

Title: Understanding Transgender Identities: Four Views
Authors: Owen Strachan, Mark A. Yarhouse, Julia Sandusky, Megan K. DeFranza, Justin Sabia-Tanis
Genre: Theology/philosophy/science
Pages: 272
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: 11/5/19 (Thank you to the authors, editors, and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way influences the content of the review)

I appreciate multi-view Christian theology books like this one. They provide insight into controversial topics in a way that largely prevents straw man argumentation or ad hominem. Each author (or team of authors) gives their view on the topic at hand, and each of the others authors is allowed to write a short rebuttal/response. By the end you have a good idea of major points of agreement and disagreement across the Christian spectrum.

The four views in this book aren’t given “official” names, but they range from Strachan’s conservative Christian view that transition to a gender different from biological sex is immoral to the view of Sabia-Tanis a trans man who celebrates transgender identities as an expression of God’s creativity and diversity. The two mediating positions are really more like four mediating positions as Yarhouse & DeFranza’s chapter offers three different approaches to the issue (and doesn’t really take a stand on any of them).

Strachan’s chapter deals most extensively with potentially relevant biblical passages (but seems very short on nuance or rubber-meets-the-road application), while the others spend more of their page count with scientific & psychiatric theories, pragmatic descriptions of what seems to best help a gender-dysphoric person’s well-being, and/or appeals to emotion. DeFranza and Sabia-Tanis rest their Bible-based arguments almost entirely on passages dealing with eunuchs while brushing aside other passages as irrelevant and/or misinterpreted.

If you are a Christian, you may or may not find a view here that exactly matches up with your own, but you will at least gain an understanding of the specific issues, questions, and lines of reasoning involved. This is a solid multi-view theology book.

The Traumatized Mermaid

The Deep by [Solomon, Rivers, Diggs, Daveed, Hutson, William, Snipes, Jonathan]Title: The Deep
Authors: Rivers Solomon, Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, & Jonathan Snipes
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 175
Rating: 2.5 of 5
Future Release Date: November 5, 2019 (Thank you to the authors and publisher for a free copy via NetGalley)

The worldbuilding and overarching concepts in this book are very interesting. We are introduced to an underwater society (basically mermaids though that word is never used) descended from enslaved African women who were tossed overboard during the middle passage. As long as you are willing to suspend disbelief and accept that quite a few things about them can best be explained as “because magic,” it’s a pretty cool concept.

The authors explore themes related to painful history and identity. Our protagonist is the society’s “historian”: a role that seems to be ripped straight out of Lois Gowry’s The Giver (though repurposed a bit). Most of the book focuses on her trauma from having to bear the painful memories of all her ancestors while the rest of her society live essentially without memory.

How the “historian’s” trauma was handled is where the book lost me a bit. Apparently the authors felt that the best way to convey the depth of this trauma is to have her go over and over and over it in almost the exact same words for pages on end, circling back to it repeatedly while giving short shrift to actually describing the memories. Repetitive morbid introspection is a pet peeve of mine, and this book has it in spades. Add to this a completely tangential semi-detailed discussion of “mermaid” sexuality that seems designed purely to check off the “look how woke we are” box, and I feel like the book’s pace was completely off. Overall, interesting story, but it would have been much better as a short story (there was that much traumatized whining).

(Also, this book developed out of a rap song by Clipping which you can find here)