A Banned Book

When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment

Title: When Harry Became Sally:
Responding to the Transgender Moment
Author: Ryan T. Anderson
Genre: Psychology / Ethics
Pages: 272
Rating: 4 of 5

In February of this year, Amazon scrubbed all traces of this book from its platform without explanation (later citing its ban on hate speech). The author maintains that the accusation of “hate speech” is unwarranted and that this ban is an attempt to stifle legitimate debate over the treatment of gender dysphoria. I decided to read it and see for myself what was going on (#ReadBannedBooks and all that…I assume that applies to books banned by both “the left” and “the right”).

Essentially, the author argues that the current rush to transition those who express gender dysphoria (without seriously considering other alternatives) may not be the healthiest solution. He is especially concerned when it comes to the ethics and potentially irreversible impact of transitioning minors. The book explores potential incoherencies in trans ideology, philosophical and medical definitions of sex and gender, anecdotal stories of people who “de-transitioned,” and scientific/medical evidence that he claims is ignored or downplayed during the current “transgender moment.” Overall, I believe that many of his assertions and questions do raise valid concerns that should be taken into consideration, even if doing so is not the politically correct course of action.

Having read the book, I think that the author presents these concerns in a respectful and evidential enough manner that the proper response from those who disagree would be a written rebuttal rather than the banning of a dissenting voice. Shouting down or censoring an opponent does not prove that they are wrong.

Several Series Started

This year I have started reading/listening through a few different series and trilogies. I don’t plan on reviewing every book because that can get a bit repetitive and/or spoilery, so I’ll be doing a big overall review as I finish each series or trilogy. That said, here is my current impression of each one (picture is of the first book in each series):

A Dead Djinn in Cairo: A Tor.Com Original by [P. Djèlí Clark]

Series: Fatma el-Sha’arawi
Author: P. Djèlí Clark
Genre: Urban Fantasy / Alternate History / Detective
Read: 2 of 3 (first 2 are novellas)

This alternate history features a fascinating early 20th century Cairo transformed by constant contact with the world of the djinn. There are elements of magic, steampunk, and liberal politics. The author has a tendency to be a little bit preachy, but it doesn’t generally come at the expense of a good detective story. I am looking forward to reading the first full-length novel in the series.

All Systems Red (Kindle Single): The Murderbot Diaries by [Martha Wells]

Series: The Murderbot Diaries
Author: Martha Wells
Genre: Sci-fi
Read: 1 of 6 (mostly novella-length).

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 massive collection of cheap soap opera-esque entertainment. I’m only one book in so I’m not sure where the overall story-arc is going to go, but watching Murderbot navigating the world of humans and their schemes has proved entertaining so far.

The Big Sleep: A Novel (Philip Marlowe series Book 1) by [Raymond Chandler, Richard Amsel Movie Tie-In Cover]

Series: Philip Marlowe
Author: Raymond Chandler
Genre: Hardboiled Detective
Read: 2 of 7 (rereading)

Hardboiled detective fiction from the 1920’s-50’s is my go-to escapist genre, and Raymond Chandler is top tier (equaled only by Dashiell Hammett). His Philip Marlowe is smart (even making occasional literary allusions), tough, and snarky but actually a pretty nice guy. You do have to be able to cringe and then overlook some product-of-its-era prejudice/slurs to enjoy the genre.

Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel by [Joseph Fink, Jeffrey Cranor]

Series: Welcome to Night Vale
Authors: Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor
Genre: Lovecraftian Weird / Humor / Satire
Read: 2 of 3

I haven’t ever listened to the Welcome to Night Vale podcast (I don’t really do podcasts), so I don’t know how the books compare. These books give me weirdness overload. They have their funny moments but there is so much random strangeness (and occasional preachiness) that I’m having a hard time working up the motivation to read the final book.

The Last Wish: Introducing the Witcher (The Witcher Saga Book 1) by [Andrzej Sapkowski]

Series: The Witcher
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Genre: Grimdark-ish Fantasy
Read: 5 of 8

The first two books in the series are short story collections with a strong monster-hunter, fairytale-retelling vibe. Once the series actually kicks off, it has more of a Glen Cook Grimdark feel: heavy on the political machinations and reveling in moral ambiguity. There’s more profanity & explicit content than I really care for, but not enough to make me quit the series. I’m listening to these as audible audiobooks, and the narrator is excellent with voices and accents…but why oh why does he keep changing how he pronounces Dandelion’s name?!

Mixed Mini-Reviews

Time for some mini-reviews so that my reading doesn’t get too far ahead of my reviewing. No theme here other than that I read them all over the last couple weeks.

Title: The Infinite and the Divine (Warhammer 40,000)
Author: Robert Rath
Genre: Grimdark Sci-Fi
Pages: 368
Rating: 4 of 5

This book focuses on the rivalry between two immortal necrontyr (think soulless ancient Egyptian robots with absurdly advanced technology). The conflict between the scholar and the mystic plays out over millenia, making for a slower more thoughtful plot than usual in WH40k (though there are still plenty of action set pieces involving humans, eldar, orks, and more). Warhammer 40k will never be great literature, but this is better than most.

Title: Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth:
12 Questions Christians Should Ask About Social Justice
Author: Thaddeus J. Williams
Genre: Applied Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 250 (plus indices etc.)
Rating: 3.5

I think that the author did a much better job delivering on the “without compromising truth” part of the title than the “confronting injustice” part. The book was essentially a critique of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and related social justice ideas. The author raises valid concerns that Christians should consider before wholeheartedly adopting this way of thinking/acting (without denying the existence and seriousness of racism, sexism, etc.), but I didn’t feel like he offered a fleshed-out, rubber-meets-the-road Christian alternative.

Title: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England
Author: Ian Mortimer
Genre: History
Pages: 416
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This unusual history book focuses on day-to-day life in Elizabethan England rather than big historical events (though those are mentioned as background, of course). This is by turns fascinating and tedious, depending on what topic is being discussed (some of them go on way too long). The slightly tongue-in-cheek delivery as a guidebook provides added entertainment value. If you’re interested in British history, this is worth your time (though if you listen to the audible version you should bump it up to about 1.3X as the narrator is soooo slow).

Title: The Classic Slave Narratives
Authors: Olaudah Equiano, Mary Price, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs
Genre: Slavery Autobiographies
Pages: 536
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Anyone who is tempted to buy into the odious “slavery was a largely benevolent institution” lie (which, for some reason, I have heard floating around lately) needs to read firsthand accounts by enslaved people. This volume contains four of the classics. It is not easy to read about the brutal, hypocritical inhumanity of slave-owners (and their enablers in the North), but those who do not learn from history…

Slowly Unfolding Sci-Fi

Title: Skyward Inn
Author: Aliya Whiteley
Genre: Sci-Fi
Pages: 336
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Publication Date: 3/16/21 (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 grew on me. Our protagonists (Jem and her son, Fosse) both come across as continually sullen and petty, a pet peeve of mine. I give the son a pass because he appears to have some sort of autism spectrum issues, but Jem is just annoyingly sulky, whiney, and contrarian for most of the book. This character type annoys me so much that I almost quit about a quarter of the way through, but I’m glad that I didn’t.

The worldbuilding and slowly dawning realization of what is really going on make this a fascinating book. I can’t say too much without ruining the joy of discovery, but here’s the very basic setting: Some sort of interstellar gate has allowed humans to travel to another resource-rich planet, Qita, which they quickly gain control of due to the passivity of its monocultural inhabitants. Most of our story is set in a part of earth that has chosen to largely withdraw from modern society (very little technology, no space travel, etc.). There, Jem and her Qitan partner run the Skyward Inn, serving a Qitan brew that allows people to experience and share intense memories. The slowly unfolding story explores themes of identity, relationship, memory, and more.

The narration takes some getting used to as it jumps between first, second, and third person. Normally, I’d find this obnoxiously pretentious, but it makes sense in the overall framework of the book. Overall, if you don’t mind thoughtful, low-action sci-fi, this is definitely worth your time.

Mythology by Fry

Mythos

Title: Mythos
Author: Stephen Fry
Genre: Greek Mythology
Pages: 352 (audiobook 15h 26m)
Rating: 4 of 5

I enjoy Mythology, but I’ve always preferred Norse to Greek. For me, Ragnarok, heroic but slightly doofy Thor, scheming Loki, and the Volsung Saga are more entertaining than the antics of the rapey, skeezy Greek pantheon (not that the Aesir are paragons of virtue). This book didn’t change my preference, but it was a lot of fun!

Stephen Fry weaves the Greek myths into a coherent storyline and recounts them with enough wit and variety that they don’t feel overly repetitive. Listening to the author read his own work adds to the experience as you get both the clever turn of phrase and the humorous inflection.

While Fry makes occasional brief comments on alternate versions, parallels in other cultures, and underlying philosophy/symbolism, he maintains the focus on enjoying these stories as stories. I heartily approve of this approach as that is how I approach mythology (and allows the book to be enjoyed by those whose worldview differs significantly from the Ancient Greeks’ or Stephen Fry’s).

This book covers primarily the early eras of the Greek kosmos, so you won’t find more than a fleeting mention of heroes like Perseus, Jason, Heracles, Achilles, etc. Thankfully, he has written a second book (Heroes: The Greek Myths Reimagined) that covers at least some of those stories. I will definitely be purchasing it with one of my upcoming Audible credits. This is the most I have ever enjoyed Greek mythology, and it’s a must-read/listen for any fan of mythology!

And one thing unrelated to books: I apologize if your email got spammed with a post about Webull. I was playing around with their referral system and did not mean to post it in that format. That said <Spam Alert!>…if you are interested in trying out the free stock trading platform (with a little tax return or stimulus money), I would deeply appreciate it if you used this link and funded the account with at least $100 so we would both get a couple free shares of random stocks. <Spam Ends>

Classic Weirdness & Satire

The Back to the Classics Challenge is a fun incentive/excuse to mix some classics into your reading for the year (and there’s a chance to win $30 in books, so win-win!). It’s not too late to sign up if you’re interested…just click the graphic to the left. Anyway, I’ve finished two more books for the challenge, so time for a pair of reviews!

Through the Looking-Glass (AmazonClassics Edition) by [Lewis Carroll]

Title: Through the Looking Glass
Author: Lewis Carroll
Genre: Children’s Classic
Pages: 151
Rating: 4 of 5

A few years ago I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and was unimpressed. I found it obnoxious and shrill as the whole thing consists of Alice being rushed about and berated for being confused by the nonsensical world of Wonderland. The random nonsense level in Through the Looking Glass was about the same, but I enjoyed it a lot more. Alice’s imagining to herself was charming, the wordplay was a lot of fun, and who doesn’t love the poem Jaberwocky (to say nothing of the classic illustrations)? This classic weirdness is well worth reading.

The Way We Live Now by [Anthony Trollope]

Title: The Way We Live Now
Author: Anthony Trollope
Genre: Classic Satire
Pages: 800
Rating: 3.5 of 5

In this satirical novel, Trollope skewers late 19th century British high society. The sprawling story was originally published as a serial, and I think that Trollope couldn’t quite decide (or changed his mind partway through) about which character or plot thread was primary.

No matter which character of plot thread you follow, the overarching concern seems to be the manipulation of other people…usually for money, matrimony, or both. Trollope casts a cynical eye on mercenary marriages, feckless young men, and financial scandals.

None of the characters are pure as the driven snow (except for a couple of the young women who act like complete ninnies for most of the book). Few of the characters are sympathetic, but some of them are interesting. One character particularly caught my attention due to some similarities to a certain orange individual who shall remain nameless: a businessman much fawned upon because of his reputed wealth (despite rumors of past failed businesses and shady dealings) who enters politics as a conservative though having few real personal convictions.

Like a lot of satirical novels, the overall effect of the story arouses disgust more than amusement. Trollope doesn’t often demonstrate the witty turn of phrase that some satirists use to at least elicit a snort of derisive laughter. This makes parts of the book a bit of a slog, but overall it’s readable and insightful as long as you don’t mind a cast almost entirely void of sympathetic characters.

KKK Horror

Ring Shout by [P. Djèlí Clark]

Title: Ring Shout
Author: P. Djèlí Clark
Genre: Alternate/Secret History Horror
Pages: 172
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I went into this expecting an escapist monster-slaying romp with some sort of Klansmen-as-monsters twist. There was a gratifying amount of Klansman-monster slaying, but there is also some real depth to the book.

The author mixes together real life horrifying ideology and events (e.g. Klan “night rides,” The Birth of a Nation, the Tulsa Massacre, etc.) with the supernatural to capture the experience of living as a black person in early 20th century America. It reminded me a lot of Lovecraft Country but, unlike that book, this one succeeds in both evoking the right racist-horror atmosphere and telling a good cosmic horror story (while also celebrating aspects of African and African American culture, religion, and folklore).

It’s difficult to say much more about the plot without spoilers. Suffice it to say, this is not simply a tale of revenge or violent wish fulfillment. Ultimately, it explores what hatred does to people (the hater and the hated). This was headed to a 3.5 star rating for me, but the finale bumped it up a whole star and put P. Djèlí Clark on my “I have to read something else by him!” list.

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.