Catch Up with Mini-Reviews

My reading is starting to seriously outpace my reviewing, so it’s time for some mini-reviews (presented in order read):

Mistress of the Art of Death (A Mistress of the Art of Death Novel Book 1) by [Ariana Franklin]

Title: Mistress of the Art of Death
Author: Ariana Franklin
Genre: Historical Fiction / Serial Killer Mystery
Pages: 420
Rating: 2.5

This tale of a female medieval forensic pathologist provided interesting/disturbing details of King Henry II’s England (particularly in regard to anti-Semitism). The serial killer mystery element was horrifying and well enough constructed to keep my reading. However the constant center-staging of the hatefulness and/or foolishness of Christians, piggish misogyny of men, and superiority of our “free thinker” heroine became grating and preachy by the end (to say nothing of a fairly awkward romance).

Title: On the Road
Author: Jack Kerouac
Genre: Pretentious Modern Classic
Pages: 307
Rating: 1.5 of 5

I guess I can see why this would be considered a classic: it’s a window into the mind of “the beat generation,” and some of the stream of consciousness prose approaches the lyrical (or the pretentious, depending on your inclination). That said, I would have been perfectly okay with never having looked through that window into a world of drunken, drug-fueled feckless wandering interspersed with petty theft, promiscuous sex, adultery, bigamy and pedophilic lusting. (I am using this for my 20th Century Classic over at the Back to the Classics Challenge).

Title: Voodoo Histories:
The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History
Author: David Aaronovitch
Genre: History of Paranoia
Pages: 372 (plus indices etc.)
Rating: 4 of 5

Occam’s Razor states that, “entities should not be multiplied without necessity” (i.e. the simplest explanation should usually be preferred). David Aaronovitch applies this principle as he examines a number of popular conspiracy theories (The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Kennedy assassinations, the Priory of Sion, 9/11 Truthers, etc.). Along the way he explores the real-world impact of these theories and what leads people to believe in conspiracies. Some of his argumentation was a bit weak/incomplete due to the overview nature of the book, but overall it is a worthwhile read. The book was published in 2010, and I would love to see a sequel or updated edition to cover the lunacy of the last 10 years.

Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife by [Ariel Sabar]

Title: Veritas:
A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife
Author: Ariel Sabar
Genre: Investigative Journalism
Pages: 393 (plus indices etc.)
Rating: 4 of 4

In 2012 a Harvard professor caused a stir by unveiling a tiny, purportedly ancient papyrus fragment that contained the phrase  “Jesus said to them, ‘my wife…’.” In this book, journalist Ariel Sabar recounts his involvement in tracing the actual origin of the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. In the end, it is a tale of a scholar who valued ideological “truth” over objective historical truth. In my opinion, the author spent way too much time expounding the theory that Gnosticism vied with orthodox Christianity from the beginning, but overall this was a fascinating read.

Yes, Jesus Loves Me

Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by [Dane C. Ortlund]

Title: Gentle and Lowly:
The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers
Author: Dane C. Ortlund
Genre: Beautiful Theology
Pages: 190 (plus indices, etc.)
Rating: 4.5 of 5

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.” They live under constant pressure to earn God’s love and approval with a constant sinking feeling of failing to do so (even while professing a belief in his mercy and grace). This book destroys such a disapproving, aloof image of our Heavenly Father and his Son Jesus Christ.

Jesus described himself as “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29), and in 23 short chapters Ortlund (with the help of various Puritan theologians) explores many facets of his compassionate character. We are reminded what it means when we say that Jesus “loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). These pages offer a beautiful, soul-refreshing description of the believer’s loving relationship with the One who “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3). This is not lightweight downplaying of God’s other attributes so we can focus on his love drivel, but biblically grounded praise of the One who is perfectly just and righteous and whose heart is characterized by mercy, grace, and compassion.

My only quibble with the book is that (like a lot of things that come out of The Gospel Coalition) it is a bit hero-worshippy toward the Puritan theologians. However, the quotes by these men that pervade the book demonstrate why this admiration is not wholly misplaced.

Overall, I highly recommend this book. I wouldn’t recommend blasting straight through it as moving too quickly may make some of it sound repetitive. Rather, savor a chapter or two at a time to appreciate all the different strands he is pulling together. There might not be anything particularly new here, but it eloquently remind us that “Yes, Jesus loves me; the Bible tells me so.”

Warhammer Sampler

Title: The Hammer and the Eagle:
Icons of Warhammer
Author: Dan Abnett, Graham McNeill, Guy Haley, etc.
Genre: Grimdark Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Pages: 800
Rating: 3.5 of 5
(Thank you to the publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

This anthology serves as a perfect introduction to the most popular characters in the Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer: Age of Sigmar universes. By page count, the split is approximately 70% WH40k sci-fi and 30% Sigmar fantasy.

Some familiarity with the Warhammer history and universes is helpful but not necessary for enjoying the grimdark escapist vignettes of violence (you can always check a wiki if you’re completely lost). Characters run the gamut through space marines, commissars, inquisitors, witch hunters, stormcast eternals, and a massively overpowered dwarf.

Before this, I had not read any books in the Age of Sigmar universe. However, I had read a few of the older Warhammer fantasy books (mostly Gotrek & Felix) and found the characters seriously overpowered…and the new Sigmar version seems to amp that up even more. I doubt I’ll be picking up any books from that side of things, but I did appreciate the chance to sample the universe.

On the 40,000 side, I recognized a handful of the stories from other anthologies, and several of them are a bit unsatisfactory as stand-alones since they were originally written to bridge a gap between two novels. Other than that, they were decent military sci-fi. I still prefer just about any character to the flat, overpowered loyalist space marines, but it’s all good/grim escapist fun with a nice variety of characters (and some variety in storytelling, though there’s only so much you can do in a universe where “there is only war”).

Overall, a decent collection: story-wise I’d give it 3 stars (my usual rating for most things Warhammer) and tack on an extra half star for the broad sampling of characters.

Cynicism & Greed

Title: Père Goriot
Author: Honoré de Balzac
Translator: Burton Raffel
Genre: Classic
Pages: 384 (actual novel only 217)
Rating: 2.5 of 5

My first reading of a Balzac classic left me with mixed feelings about whether I ever again want to read anything from his large body of work. The writing is witty (but melodramatic), the characters are interesting (but detestable), and the overall plot rings true to life (but the seedier, morally repellent side of life).

The novel explores how love, both familial and romantic, can be exploited for personal advancement. It reminds me of C. S. Lewis’s essay on The Inner Ring (see also The Room Where It Happens from Hamilton). However, where Lewis warns against the compromises and moral corruption that come with obsessively trying to be part of the inner ring, Balzac’s characters simply take a c’est la vie attitude toward it. Balzac invites us along on the young Rastignac’s journey toward embracing this cynical approach to life. I’m half tempted to pick up another book or two from Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine to see what happens to some of these characters, but I have a hard time reading literature where such absolute moral bankruptcy is treated as par for the course.

The edition that I read contained about 150 pages of essays and analysis. Personally, I found most of them to be pretentious rather than helpful: the kind of essays where the author wants to talk about a pet theme, theory, or philosophy and finds a way to impose it on Balzac or his writing (eisegesis rather than exegesis as we would have said in biblical hermeneutics 101). If literary analysis is your thing, you may get more out of them than I did.

Overall, I’m glad I tried a new author but I don’t think he’s my cup of tea.

Also, I’m using this for my Classic by a New-to-You Author category over at the Back to the Classics challenge.

Abandoned Plans

Nuking the Moon: And Other Intelligence Schemes and Military Plots Left on the Drawing Board by [Vince Houghton]

Title: Nuking the Moon:
And Other Intelligence Schemes and Military Plots Left on the Drawing Board
Author: Vince Houghton
Genre: Laughable & Disturbing History
Pages: 305 (plus bibliography etc.)
Rating: 4.5 of 5

As the subtitle indicates, this is a compendium of intelligence and military plans that were never put fully into action, though many of them did make it off the drawing board. Most of them combine elements of hilariously stupid and horrifyingly “why would you think that was a good idea (ethically or practically)?!” I mean: exploding bats, glowing foxes, nuking hurricanes, flying ICBM’s around on hovercraft…your tax dollars at work! Much of it was a reminder of just how MAD the Cold War was.

The author, who is a curator of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., appears knowledgeable and offers numerous links to his (sometimes heavily redacted) primary source material. There were times when I felt like he was trying a little too hard to be funny, but I think his snarky delivery works for the most part. Overall, the book is an amusing yet terrifying reminder that desperate people can try some incredibly stupid things [snarky comment about recent events in DC redacted], and it’s well worth reading.

Best & Worst of 2020

This year I read 116 books with a total page count of 44,163 (~381 pages/book). I now present you with my fifth annual best and worst reads of the year lists (titles linked to my full review if I wrote one; excludes re-reads; presented in groups of five unranked with an additional honorable/dishonorable mention; & starting with the “worst of” list so we can end on a positive note…no purchase necessary; void where prohibited):

Worst of the Year

  • The Comedians by Graham Greene – Our selfish creep of a narrator pursues his sordid little affair amidst the horror of Papa Doc’s Haiti. The secondary characters and setting were interesting, but being in that jerk’s head the whole time was depressing and gross.
  • The Beetle by Richard Marsh – An ambiguously-gendered were-beetle isn’t a strong enough antagonist to make this book worth the boring Victorian nonsense in the middle and abrupt deus ex machina ending.
  • The Necromancers by Robert Hugh Benson – The author seems more interested in warning you against spiritualism than in actually writing a scary story.
  • The Last Ritual by S. A. Sidor – I set the bar for tabletop-game-inspired books pretty low, but this one still failed to clear it with watered-down Lovecraft in a flimsy 1920’s setting.
  • The Scapegoat by Daphne DuMaurier – With this wholly unbelievable tale, DuMaurier becomes the second author ever to appear on both the “best” and “worst” lists in the same year (John LeCarré achieved the same feat last year).
  • Dishonorable Mention: Gwendy’s Magic Feather by Richard Chizmar – The author tried to do way too much in this disappointing sequel to the excellent Gwendy’s Button Box.

Best Non-Fiction

  • Before You Vote by David Platt – This is the rarest of finds: a Christian book about participating in elections that truly places godly principles above partisan agenda!
  • The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark – The author makes a valiant (largely successful?) attempt at describing the complex events and motivations that led to World War 1.
  • Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre – Ben Macintyre makes the list three years running with another excellent true espionage tale: how a corpse sowed disinformation in the Nazi war machine.
  • The Trolley Problem by Thomas Cathcart – This book cleverly stretches out the classic ethical dilemma of “the trolley problem” to provide a whirlwind introduction to various ethical theories and theorists
  • Can We Trust the Gospels by Peter J. Williams – The author ably argues from a variety of external sources and internal characteristics that it is reasonable to trust the veracity of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).
  • Honorable Mention: Linguistics and New Testament Greek edited by David Alan Black & Benjamin Merkle – This was like a step back into seminary with my favorite professor (who passed away before this book was written, but is mentioned in it several times)

Best Fiction

  • Reimagining Lovecraft by Victor LaValle, Kij Johnson, Cassandra Khaw, Kaitlin R. Kiernan – An excellent collection of four novellas that self-consciously riff on Lovecraft while subverting his bigotry. (I would also highly recommend Cassandra Khaw’s followup novella A Song for Quiet)
  • Reggiecide by Chris Dolley – The Reeves & Worcester series is a hilarious pitch-perfect steampunk sendup of P. G. Wodehouse (& golden age detective stories), and this novella is my favorite of the lot.
  • Scythe by Neal Shusterman – I liked each book in this trilogy less than the one before it, but I’m a sucker for good worldbuilding and this first book in the series has it in spades.
  • The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton – This seeming “murder at the manor house” kind of mystery evolves into some sort of sinister Groundhog Day.
  • My Cousin Rachel by Daphne DuMaurier – Is she a murderer and manipulator or a misunderstood and maligned widow? DuMaurier shows her genius for creating tension and ambiguity.
  • Honorable Mention: A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe – Any other year this horrific but (extremely) dry fictionalized account of the 1665 Black Plague pandemic in London would have seemed boring, but it was fascinating to see the parallels in human thought and behavior to our current situation.

And that does it for reading in 2020. My reading goal for 2021 is my old standby of 100 books with an average of at least 300 pages/book. It’s a goal that I usually pass without a lot of effort, but I see no reason to pressure myself and turn enjoyable reading into a high-pressure duty. My Goodreads TBR currently has 100 books on it (at around 38,000 total pages) and I’d like to do most of my reading from there (or at least from books that I already own). Given my usual reading habits, I have my doubts whether that will actually happen. Anyway, it’s way past my bed time so, Happy New Year!

Flat Franchise Fiction

The last three free eARC books I received from NetGalley were franchise fiction, and I’ll be reviewing two of those today. No one expects great literary genius from shared-world, movie spinoff sci-fi, but I was hoping for a little better than what I got. Thank you to the authors and publishers for the free copy via NetGalley (this in no way affects the content of the reviews as we shall see).

Marvel's Black Panther: Sins of the King Episode 1 by [Ira Madison III, Mohale Mashigo, Geoffrey Thorne, Tananarive Due]

Title: Marvel’s Black Panther: Sins of the King
Authors: Ira Madison III, Steven Barnes, Tananarive Due, Mohale Mashigo, Geoffrey Thorne
Genre: Superhero
Pages: 183? (not quite sure…numbering in the eARC was squiffy)
Rating: 2.5 of 5

The episodic plot of this book would make a decent movie or TV series. There’s plenty of action, intrigue, brooding, magic-science… all the usual superhero stuff. I would pay to watch that movie.

However, what works in a movie, cartoon, or comic book does not necessarily work in a novel. Much of the writing was stilted and clunky (to say nothing of uneven since different “episodes” were written by different authors working singly or in pairs). To be charitable I’ll assume the problem lies in the genre rather than the authors’ writing talent…I have tried a couple other (DC) superhero novels in the past and found their writing similarly awkward. Perhaps superhero stories need to be told in a visual medium?

Title: From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back
Authors: Too many to list
Genre: Star Wars Fanfiction Short Stories
Pages: 576
Rating: 2.5 of 5

Any short story collection is a mixed bag, and the mixture in this collection tends toward the “meh.” You can only read so many stories about the evacuation of Echo Base, Vader force-choking an incompetent, or the chaos caused by Lando’s announcement that the Empire has taken over Cloud City before they all start blending together.

To me, the more memorable stories focused on what main characters were doing/thinking when off-camera. Perhaps some of the ones from the “everyman”/”everystormtrooper” point of view would have stood out if there hadn’t been so many of them (and let’s not forget the compulsive need to check the “woke” box by having all 3 or 4 instances of (non-explicit) sex/romance be LGBTQ). Overall, if you’re a big Star Wars fan, you’ll probably enjoy at least some of this collection, but (as with many thematic anthologies) you should only read a story or two at a time to keep the “didn’t I just read this?” feeling at bay.

Merry Christmas!

The “classic” Gospel passages for the Christmas story are Matthew 1 & Luke 1-2, but my favorite is John 1. It’s short on details, but John speaks poetically of its cosmic significance:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.

Merry Christmas!

She kills them one by one…

Title: The Bride Wore Black
Author: Cornell Woolrich
Genre: Pulp Mystery/Crime
Pages: 288
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future release date for this edition: 1/5/21 (Thank you to the publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

I like reading Cornell Woolrich (in small doses). His plots are improbable, some of his metaphors are absurd, and his writing just isn’t up to the level of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, but that man knew how to ratchet up the tension in his cheap noir potboilers.

The Bride Wore Black follows a fairly typical Woolrich plot of a group of seemingly unrelated people being killed off one by one while a police officer tries to discover and stop whatever is going on. The author’s usual steadily building suspense is definitely there, though not quite as much as in Rendezvous in Black or Night Has a Thousand Eyes. He varies how much he shows us of the planning and execution of each murder, which keeps things from becoming too repetitive (and he has a trick or two up his sleeve as well). The final explanation comes a bit out of left field (and if it weren’t for the book’s title it would be even more so), but it (mostly) makes sense and provides a satisfactory noir ending.

As far as this new edition from Otto Penzler, there’s not much to say. The only new material is a competent introduction by Eddie Muller who extolls Woolrich without getting too hero-worshippy and without major spoilers. It’s a nice uncluttered edition of a pulp classic.

Back to the Classics Signup

I’ve been having computer problems for the last week, so it’s been a little longer than usual between posts. I now have a fully functioning laptop again, so here we go. As I was going over my TBR list for next year, I realized that it has a lot of classics on it. So, I decided to see if Karen @ Books and Chocolate was running her excellent Back to the Classics challenge again this year, and she is!

The challenge involves completing classic books (50+ years old) in as many of the 12 sub-categories as possible for entries in a prize drawing (Click the picture I lifted from her page to go there, see full details, and sign up). For me, it’s mostly a fun incentive to include some “serious literature” in my reading and an opportunity to see what classics others have enjoyed.

You don’t have to choose which books you will be reading at the start of the year, but I like to start with a list of possibilities. This year I actually have two possibilities for each category… we’ll see how it goes. Without further ado, the list:

  1. A 19th century classic –
    The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville
    Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev (Tr. Rosemary Edmonds)
  2. A 20th century classic
    For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
    On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  3. A classic by a woman author –
    Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
    Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers
  4. A classic in translation –
    The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Tr. David McDuff)
    The Divine Comedy by Danté Alighieri (Tr. Dorothy L. Sayers)
  5. A classic by BIPOC author –
    Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley & Malcolm X
    Chaka by Thomas Mofolo (Tr. Daniel P. Kunene)
  6. A classic by a new-to-you author –
    Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac (Tr. Burton Raffel)
    Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm
  7. New-to-you classic by a favorite author –
    Bleak House by Charles Dickens
    The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis
  8. A classic about an animal or with an animal in the title –
    One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
    The Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl
  9. A children’s classic –
    The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
    Through the Looking Glass
    by Lewis Carroll
  10. A humorous or satirical classic –
    The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
    A Tale of a Tub & Other Works by Jonathan Swift
  11. A travel or adventure classic –
    The Travels by Marco Polo (Tr. Nigel Cliff)
    The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett
  12. A Classic Play –
    The Miser by Jean-Baptiste Molière (Tr. John Wood)
    The Pot of Gold by Plautus (Tr. E. F. Watling)