Back to the Classics (Kind of)

Title: Classic Monsters Unleashed
Authors: 30 of “the biggest names in the genre” (according to Amazon)
Editor: James Aquilone
Genre: Horror Story Anthology
Pages: 443
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Publication Date: July 12, 2022 (Thank you to the authors and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review.)

Your enjoyment of this collection will hinge quite a bit on how much you know and appreciate classic monster stories, especially as they have been portrayed on the big screen. With most of the entries you need at least a passing knowledge of the original (or classic screen-adapted) version for the “unleashed” story to really make sense.

There is good variety in the monsters/creatures featured across the collection. I think that Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and werewolves are the only ones to make multiple appearances with 2-3 apiece (pretty impressive in a collection of 29 stories).

That being said, most of the plots fell into just a handful of categories used in various combinations:

  1. Classic monster returns to cause more mayhem.
  2. Try to guess which monster this is about before the big reveal…
  3. Recast monster as misunderstood victim and/or hero as the villain.
  4. Gender swap characters.
  5. Engage in social commentary on gender or race.

I preferred the stories that built on the already-established characters rather than completely re-imagining them, but that’s just my personal taste.

Stylistically, this was a mixed bag. Some stories felt stilted, as if the author was just phoning it in and checking off the boxes needed to make a creature feature. Others demonstrated creativity and variety in language usage (including annoying but clever use of textspeak in Dacre Stoker’s offering). I would say that the well-written outnumber the “meh.”

Overall, this is worth a read if you are into classic monster horror. However, as with many bulky themed anthologies, you might want to take some time between stories so that they don’t start to sound repetitive.

PKD on Drugs

Title: A Scanner Darkly
Author: Philip K. Dick
Genre: Drugged-out Sci-Fi
Pages: 304
Rating: 2.5 of 5

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to live with a bunch of people who are slowly destroying themselves through drug use, this is the book for you. While it includes definite sci-fi elements (e.g. undercover narcs wear “scramble suits” that completely hide their identity when interacting with other law enforcement), it is primarily PKD’s semi-autobiographical portrayal of the 70’s drug scene.

We are presented with a constant stream of paranoia, delusion, mania, lust, deception, desperation, crime, and any other form of mental illness and misery you can think of. Law enforcement and rehab people serve as little more than sources of additional cruelty, misery, and corruption. I suppose that this has value in that it gives a gritty inside look into the world of addiction and mental illness, but it was just plain depressing and hopeless. This is my third PKD book, and I’m pretty much done with him…writing skill and cool concepts aren’t enough to keep my coming back to his bleakness and cynicism.

(Also, this is my second book completed for Roofbeam Reader’s TBR Pile Challenge)

Back with Two Classics

I’m back! My wife still has quite a ways to go in her recovery, but we’re out of the woods. So, for the first time in a few weeks, here are a couple short reviews. These are books that I read for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Moll Flanders ( illustrated ) by [Daniel Defoe]

Title: The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who Was Born in Newgate, and During a Life of Continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, Besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, Five Times a Wife (Whereof Once to her Own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at Last Grew Rich, Liv’d Honest, and Died a Penitent. Written from Her Own Memorandums.
(aka Moll Flanders)
Author: Daniel Defoe (Probably)
Genre: Classic Picaresque
Pages: 376
Rating: 3.5 of 5

The full title pretty much sums up the book (and should probably come with a *SPOILERS* tag). Like a lot of picaresque novels, mixed in with our hero’s roguish adventures is satirical commentary on the “polite society” that has led her to this lifestyle. The whole thing feels a bit tongue-in-cheek as Moll’s “penitent” confession of her wickedness frequently has an undertone of pride in her own cleverness. I’m really not quite sure what to make of the book, but I enjoyed it overall.

(I will be using this as my pre-1800 classic)

Title: Oil!
Author: Upton Sinclair
Genre: Socialist Propaganda
Pages: 541
Rating: 2.5 of 5

This starts out as a captivating (if saddening) tale of a young man torn between loyalty to his unscrupulous oil magnate father and his friends (and other workers) exploited by the oil industry. It shines a light on the abuses and corruption in the oil industry and provides a largely sympathetic look at the broad spectrum of union, socialist, and communist movements in the early 20th century. Unfortunately, after a certain point, heavy-handed socialist propaganda (with plenty of sneering at religion and even an encouraging nod toward Soviet Bolshevism) pretty much drowns out any actual compelling story.

(I will be using this as my 20th century classic)

Stand By

It’s going on two weeks since I posted anything, so this is just a quick check-in to let you know that the blog isn’t dead. Corona finally found our house; the one family member who has preexisting breathing issues is the lucky one to catch a breakthrough case. No hospitalization yet but things are a bit touch-and-go so please keep us in your prayers and I’ll be back to book-blogging at some point.

Soviet Spies in the Seventies

Title: The Falcon and the Snowman:
A True Story of Friendship and Espionage
Author: Robert Lindsey
Genre: True Crime (Espionage)
Pages: 359
Rating: 4 out of 5

I enjoy well-written true espionage tales. To me, a good true espionage author sifts through a lot of sketchy half-true information and offers a credible explanation of what motivated the people involved, how they executed their plans and/or were captured, and what impact they may have had on world events. Robert Lindsey does all of this admirably in this Edgar Award-winning book about two California boys from prosperous families who sold top secret spy satellite info to the USSR in the 1970’s.

The Falcon and the Snowman is not a high-action book. In fact, the actual espionage activity seems depressingly easy for the most part. The author focuses more on the spies’ relationships and psychology. He portrays one as a career criminal drug dealer who is only in it for the money and the other as a disillusioned ideologue lashing out at American duplicity and corruption.

As far as writing style, some of the author’s jumping around in the timeline felt unnecessarily confusing and repetitive (especially in the first half), but not to the point of ruining the book. He comes across relatively neutral in his presentation of events but clearly feels some sympathy for (though not necessarily agreement with) the more ideology-driven spy. Overall, I would recommend this to any fan of true espionage, but if you are new to the genre you would be better off starting with something by Ben MacIntyre who is the absolute master of the true spy tale.

(Also, this is my first read finished for the TBR Pile Challenge hosted by Roof Beam Reader)

Back to the Classics Signup 2022

It’s another challenge signup post! Thank you to Karen K over at Books and Chocolate for once again hosting the Back to the Classics Challenge.

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’m starting with two possibilities for each category… we’ll see how it goes. Without further ado, the list:

  1. A 19th century classic:
    The Black Robe by Wilkie Collins
    The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville
  2. A 20th century classic:
    The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald
    Oil! by Upton Sinclair
  3. A classic by a woman author
    The Sundial by Shirley Jackson
    Julius by Daphne DuMaurier
  4. A classic in translation
    Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
    Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
  5. A classic by BIPOC author
    Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cuba by Machado de Assis
    The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley
  6. Mystery/detective/crime classic
    Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
    Nightfall by David Goodis
  7. A classic short story collection
    The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne DuMaurier
    An Obsession with Death and Dying by Cornell Woolrich
  8. Pre 1800’s classic
    Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
    Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
  9. A nonfiction classic
    Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
    The Travels by Marco Polo
  10. Classic that’s been on your TBR list the longest (Pretty close between these two)
    For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
    The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis
  11. Classic set in a place you’d like to visit
    The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien (Middle Earth)
    Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm (Oxford)
  12. Wild card classic
    Ashenden: Or the British Agent by W. Somerset Maugham
    Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

TBR Challenge Signup

My TBR enters the year 103 books long (not counting all the half-remembered mental “I should read that!” thoughts). Some of those books have been on there for over a year, so this challenge seems like good motivation to knock a few of those off the list. Thanks to Roof Beam Reader for hosting, and if you are interested in participating click this picture that I lifted from the challenge signup post.

My challenge list of twelve books (plus two alternates) that have been on my TBR for over a year:

  1. Black Wings of Cthulhu 3 by S. T. Joshi (Ed.)
  2. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown
  3. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
  4. The Falcon and the Snowman: A True Story of Friendship and Espionage by Robert Lindsey
  5. Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard
  6. The Martyr by Liam O’Flaherty
  7. The Miser and Other Plays by Jean-Baptiste Molière
  8. Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism by Elijah Hixson & Peter J. Gurry (Eds.)
  9. The Overcoat and Other Stories by Nikolai Gogol
  10. A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick
  11. The Twenty Days of Turin by Giorgio de Maria
  12. William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner by William Hague

Alternates:

  1. The 1980 Annual World’s Best SF by Donald A. Wollheim (Ed.)
  2. Then They Came for Me: Martin Niemöller, the Pastor Who Defied the Nazis by Matthew D. Hockenos

Best & Worst of 2021

This year I read 139 books with a total page count of 47,713 (~343 pages/book). I now present you with my sixth 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; & 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 Divine Comedy: Paradise by Danté (Translated by Dorothy L. Sayers): Between the constant reference to contemporary Italian politics and what I consider to be idolatrous reliance on Mary and the Saints, I found this hard to get through.
  • Jamaica Inn by Daphne DuMaurier: If you like melodramatic Harlequin-esque “historical romance,” this is for you…but that’s not my genre at all.
  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac: drugs, sex, jazz, blah blah blah…aren’t I deep!
  • Ripley Underground by Patricia Highsmith: a disappointing sequel to the interesting Talented Mr. Ripley. The complete non-ending was the worst.
  • The Tinfoil Dossier Trilogy by Caitlin R. Kiernan: A mashup of Cthulhu and black helicopter style conspiracies is a cool idea, but the execution was trippy to the point of incomprehensible and just plain gross (in both the splattery and moral senses).

Best Fiction

  • Bleak House by Charles Dickens: If you like Dickens, be sure to read this one. However, this isn’t a good place to start if you’ve never read him before.
  • Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain by A. Lee Martinez: This is pretty silly and episodic. Not great literature, but a lot of fun as the author plays with classic supervillain tropes.
  • The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells: This series (5 novellas and a novel so far) is top-tier sci-fi with an AI protagonist/narrator that any introvert can appreciate.
  • The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones: I don’t usually enjoy revenge slasher horror, but this “literary horror” worked surprisingly well.
  • Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir: Another masterpiece from Andy Weir for those who like a lot of science in their science fiction.

Best Non-fiction

  • Gentle & Lowly by Dane Ortlund: A thoughtful reminder that “Yes, Jesus loves me,” and biblical Christianity is not based on “Try harder to be better.”
  • God Against the Revolution by Gregg L. Frazer: In a departure from the “fan fiction” version of American history, Frazer examines the anti-revolution arguments of loyalist clergymen in colonial America.
  • Nuking the Moon by Vince Houghton: This examination of various eventually-abandoned-due-to-stupidity military and espionage plans is equal parts funny and frightening.
  • The Secular Creed by Rebecca McLaughlin: One of my new favorite authors interacts biblically with the kinds of statements that appear on yard signs beginning with “In this house we believe…”
  • Stephen Fry’s Greek Myths Trilogy (Mythos, Heroes, Troy) by Stephen Fry: I’m not sure if this exploration and retelling of the Greek myths counts as fantasy or non-fiction, but either way it’s a lot of fun.

That’s it for 2021. My reading goal for 2022 is my usual standby of “at least 100 books with an average page count of 300+.” Postings to this blog will probably continue to be sporadic unless work become unexpectedly less hectic, but we’ll see what happens. Happy New Year!

Back to the Classics Wrap Up

It’s been nearly a month since my last post here, but I’m still alive…just very busy and a bit burned out (holidays plus three funerals plus trying to find people to serve on church boards…). I’m not sure if postings will get any more frequent in the new year, but I want to at least post my final wrap up for the Back to the Classics Challenge. I managed to finish books in all 12 categories this year. My reads for this challenge were (titles linked to full review):

19th Century Classic: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James – an excellent ghost story…or do we just have an unreliable narrator?

20th Century Classic: On the Road by Jack Kerouac – completely hated this drug and sex fueled ramble to nowhere.

Classic by a Woman: Jamaica Inn by Daphne DuMaurier – I loved her Rebecca, liked My Cousin Rachel, but this just felt like a melodramatic Harlequin romance without the sex.

Classic in Translation: The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux – This was melodramatic too but in a much more enjoyable way.

A Classic by BIPOC Author: Chaka by Thomas Mofolo – I expected this to be hero-worshippy, but it ended up feeling like a Shakespearian tragedy on the order of Titus Andronicus.

Classic by a New-to-you Author: Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac – The cynicism and greed of this book was just depressing.

New Classic by a Favorite Author: Bleak House by Charles Dickens – Charles Dickens rips on lawyers…excellent as always, but probably better for people who are already Dickens fans.

Classic about an Animal: Moby Dick – An excellent novella on revenge and obsession bloated into an unwieldy novel by the author’s need to infodump every “fact” he knows about whales and whaling.

Children’s Classic: Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll – delightful punny nonsense. I much preferred it to Alice in Wonderland.

Classic Humor or Satire: The Way We Live Now – a look at high society manipulation for money, matrimony, or both…the kind of satire that is caustic rather than humorous.

A Travel or Adventure Classic: The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett – a quirky epistolary novel with minimal plot and rude humor.

A Classic Play: Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose – the strengths and weaknesses of trial by jury on display

And that’s it! Thanks to Karen at Books and Chocolate for hosting this again!

The Play’s the Thing…

Title: Twelve Angry Men
Author: Reginald Rose
Genre: Play
Pages: 96
Rating: 5 of 5

This play demonstrates the positives and negatives of trial by jury as twelve jurymen determine the fate of a young man accuses of first-degree murder. Eleven men enter the room ready to send him to the chair, with only a single juror wanting to discuss the matter enough to establish or dispel reasonable doubt. Tension rises and tempers flare in the ensuing debate as the life of the accused hangs in the balance. Along the way we see apathy, prejudice, malice, reason, and compassion on display. This thoughtful play is well worth reading or, better yet, watching (the 1957 movie version is fantastic). I’ll be using this for the Classic Play category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

THE POT OF GOLD AND OTHER PLAYS : THE PRISONERS; THE BROTHERS MENAECHMUS;  THE SWAGGERING SOLDIER; PSEUDOLUS Translated by E. F. Watling by Plautus -  Paperback - 1965 - from Dromanabooks (SKU: 33720)

Title: The Pot of Gold and Other Plays
Author: Plautus
Translator: E. F. Watling
Genre: Plays (obviously)
Pages: 268
Rating: 3.5 of 5

The last time I tried reading ancient comedic plays I found it boring and annoying overall. Humor does not usually translate well from one language and culture to another, but these plays be Plautus gave me the occasional smile and chuckle (some of the “fourth wall breaks” were quite funny). I am not sure how much of that was the original author’s wit and how much was the translator’s rather free rendering. The translation is prose (the original is poetry), and some of the clever turns of phrase seem anachronistic or otherwise unlikely to be original.

The plots occasionally bordered on the nonsensical, but overall were reminiscent of plot devices (re)used in Shakespeare’s comedies. The treatment of women and slaves as well as some other cultural aspects made me cringe, but also provided a window into what it was like to live in the ancient world. Overall, it was a good reading experience.