Endless Flooded Halls

Title: Piranesi
Author: Susanna Clarke
Genre: Fantasy?
Pages: 272
Rating: 4 of 5

The author of the character-driven alternate-Regency-era fantasy tome Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has finally written another novel! In style and subject matter it differs significantly from her previous work, but it does not disappoint. Clarke continues her mastery of fantastical worldbuilding that leaves you with a sense of wonder and light narration that sparkles with humor.

The setting is an airy, seemingly endless house, swept by tides and filled with statuary but largely devoid of people. As with Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, the dreamlike setting is one of the book’s main attractions.

The narration takes the form of journal entries that have a slightly stilted or childish feel to them. At first I worried that the author had completely lost her touch, but the farther you go into the book the more it makes sense. And that’s all that I’m going to say about the plot, because this is the kind of book where the slowly dawning understanding of “what’s going on” (both in terms of figuring it out yourself and then watching the characters figure it out) is the plot. Like her previous book, I think that the strange, low-action, meandering story is going to make this very much a “love it or hate it” read for most people.

Overall, I found it to be enjoyable and thoughtful. The author explores the nature of reality, identity, and more. There are even a few fun “Easter eggs” scattered around, including references to Narnia and Doctor Who.

My one criticism is that there were a couple times where the book skated pretty close to my pet peeve of characters acting a little too stupid/clueless/random to be believable just to keep the plot going. However, within the story it made enough sense that I felt like I could overlook it, and I ended up loving the book. Hopefully we don’t have to wait another 15+ years for another book from this talented author!

Music from Narnia

I haven’t finished any books worth reviewing in the last week, so I decided to do something a little different and review a (book-related) music album. Like my other favorite group, The Gray Havens, this artist is heavily influenced by my favorite author, C. S. Lewis.

Into the Lantern Waste

Title: Into the Lantern Waste
Artist: Sarah Sparks
Genre: Folk
Length: 36 minutes (10 songs)
Rating: 5 of 5

The Chronicles of Narnia is one of my favorite series of all time, second only to Lord of the Rings (see my full review of Narnia here). It works as both a set of charming fantasy stories and a theologically rich exploration of the person and work of Jesus Christ. C. S. Lewis viewed these books as a “supposition” of what it would look like for Jesus to appear in another world.

This album picks up on many of the theological themes that Lewis wove into his stories. Songs center around major characters and events from Narnia as well as parallel thoughts from Lewis’s other writings (e.g. Mere Christianity) and the Bible. I was pleased to notice that the song order matches the books’ original publication order rather than the chronological order that prevails in newer editions…it’s a small, nitpicky thing, but it made me happy.

The folksy/ballad style and jazzy vocals lend the perfect contemplative air to the album. The haunting Blood for Blood about the redemption of Edmund is especially effective. Occasionally, the vocals may be a bit too soft compared to the music, but overall I highly recommend this to any fans of Narnia and Lewis!

Mixed Mini-Reviews

My reading is starting to seriously outpace my reviewing this year, so to catch up a little here is a handful of mini-reviews (each from a different genre).

Title: Answering Jihad:
A Better Way Forward
Author: Nabeel Qureshi
Genre: Theology/Comparative Religion
Pages: 168
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Nabeel Qureshi (a former Muslim) seeks to give an honest assessment of the historical importance and practice of Jihad in Islam. While his assessment is not “politically correct” in relation to the Western narrative of Islam as the religion of peace, Qureshi has done careful, honest research into Islamic history, the Quran, and the Hadith, as well as drawing on his own experience as a Muslim.

He poses the idea of many Muslims coming to a crossroads where they are faced with the violent past of Islam and must decide how to proceed (Endorse jihad/”become radicalized”? Reject some foundational truths of Islam in favor of some new version? Abandon Islam?). His “better way forward” involves interacting with Muslims with love and compassion rather than fear and suspicion. The final section of the book offers the non-violence and self-sacrificing love of biblical Christianity as an attractive alternative to embracing jihad.

Title: The Landmark Arrian:
The Campaigns of Alexander
Author: Arrian
Translator: Pamela Mensch
Genre: Ancient History
Pages: 485 (plus 75 pages of indices, etc.)
Rating: 4 of 5

love the Landmark editions of ancient histories. Prior to this one I had read Landmark’s Herodotus and Thucydidesand this one continues to impress. Arrian’s history of Alexander the Great’s campaigns is a bit hero-worshippy, but gives a good basic overview from someone who had access to primary sources no longer completely available to us. The frequent maps keep this from being an incomprehensible catalogue of place names, and extensive commentary explains cultural issues and alerts to important alternate versions of events found in other sources.

System Failure (Epic Failure Trilogy Book 3) by [Zieja, Joe]Title: Communication Failure and System Failure
(Epic Failure Trilogy: Books 2 & 3)
Author: Joe Zieja
Genre: Science Fiction (Humor/Satire)
Pages: 336 & 432
Ratings: 4 & 3.5 of 5

The first book in this trilogy, Communication Failure, was my favorite fiction last year. The second and third books still had plenty of laugh-out-loud funny moments, but book 2 had a little bit of “middle book syndrome,” and I really didn’t care for the way the trilogy wrapped up. I suppose the ending made sense and was humorous in a Monty Python kind of way, but it was surprisingly downbeat and left a lot of loose ends.

Title: Orconomics
(The Dark Profit Saga: Book 1)
Author: J. Zachary Pike
Genre: Satirical Fantasy
Pages: 360
Rating: 4 of 5

The tone of this felt like a slightly less zany Discworld. It’s your typical “unexpected Chosen One and his band of rejects goes on big fantasy quest” fantasy/RPG sendup set in a world where dungeon crawling has become a big commercial enterprise. The story manages to deal with serious issues like racism, market manipulation, economic exploitation, and more without being overly preachy. Some of the pacing was a bit slow, but overall it was enjoyable, and I plan to read the next book, Son of a Liche, sometime this year.

Tales of the Al-Azif: A Cthulhu Mythos Anthology by [Phipps, C. T., Davenport, Matthew, West, David J., Hambling, David, Wilson, David Niall]Title: Tales of the Al-Azif:
A Cthulhu Mythos Anthology
Authors: C. T. Phipps, Matthew Davenport, David J. West, David Hambling, David Niall Wilson
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Pages: 264
Rating: 2 of 5

I read a lot of Lovecraftian cosmic horror anthologies, and I don’t expect them to be literary masterpieces. The Cthulhu mythos was born in the pulps and remains escapist pulp fiction for the most part. That said, this was one of the least enjoyable collections I have encountered.

The stories were not really to my taste. Most rely far more on insect-inspired horror than the nihilistic dread usual to cosmic horror, and most were of the “monster hunter” variety favored by Robert E. Howard or Clark Ashton Smith rather than the original creeping dread of H. P. Lovecraft.

If that were my only complaint with the book I probably would have given it 3.5 stars as “okay, but not to my personal taste when it comes to Lovecraftian horror.” However, the book (I read the Kindle edition) was riddled with typos. The number of omitted, duplicated, and misplaced words was absolutely ridiculous…completely amateur.

Gods & Thieves

The Gutter Prayer (The Black Iron Legacy Book 1) by [Hanrahan, Gareth]Title: The Gutter Prayer
Author: Gareth Hanrahan
Genre: Dark Fantasy (Steampunk-ish)
Pages: 544
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Gareth Hanrahan borrows characterization and tropes from across fantasy and horror sub-genres, and somehow combines them into a highly original dark fantasy setting. Worldbuilding was definitely the standout feature of this book. We get to explore the seedy underbelly of the steampunk-ish (trains, guns, alchemy, etc.) old city of Guerdon, inhabited by thieves, Lovecraftian ghouls, stone men (afflicted with a disease like leprosy that slowly turns them to stone), knife-wielding wax golems, and more.

Parts of this world are locked in a horrifyingly destructive “godswar” where deities and their possessed champion “saints” rage across the land, but the city of Guerdon has managed to remain neutral and relatively safe. Of course, things can’t stay that way for long or we wouldn’t have much of a story, so the story opens on a trio of thieves and a heist that goes horribly wrong and drags them into a maelstrom of political and supernatural machinations.

The writing, aside from the worldbuilding, was good, not great. It felt like it really could have used a bit more editing. There were way too many typos and misused homonyms for a final draft, some characters’ motivations/goals didn’t quite make sense or were ill-explained, and a couple sexcapades felt wedged in and cringey. (I’m also not a fan of the “f-bomb” being dropped every few pages, but that’s more about my preferences/standards than an editing issue.)

That said, I enjoyed the book overall. It was dark without wallowing in existential angst. Some plot points were resolved in a very deus ex machina fashion, which usually annoys me, but it worked within the author’s setting. It was a mostly enjoyable first read of the year, and I already have the next one ready to go on my Kindle.

Best & Worst of 2019

This year I set a new personal record for number of books and pages read (134 books, 42,308 pages), and the last book I finished was my 1,000th book since I started keeping track in 2008 (and I didn’t even plan it that way!). Without further ado, here are my best & worst lists for the year (excludes rereads). Let’s start with the worst of the year, so we can end on a positive note:

Worst of the Year (Fiction & Non-fiction)

  1. Why Poetry Sucks: [absurdly long subtitle that I’m not going to reproduce here] by Ryan Fitzpatrick & Jonathan Ball – While trying to show that poetry can be amusing, these authors simply demonstrate how much pretentious experimental poetry does indeed suck.
  2. Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeanette Ng – Why, oh why would you spin such an interesting premise around such a creepy/pervy plot point?!
  3. Grifter’s Game by Lawrence Block – I didn’t bother to review this, but it is essentially crime noir starring an exploitive misogynistic cad who “wins” in the end through mental and physical abuse of a female partner-turned-victim
  4. Preacher Sam by Cassondra Windwalker – This had everything that I dislike about “Christian fiction”: repetitive morbid introspection, shoehorned-in romance, shoddy plotting, etc.
  5. The Little Drummer Girl by John LeCarré – This anti-Israeli thriller earns LeCarré the “honor” of being the first author to appearing on both my best and worst lists in the same year.

Dishonorable Mention: Atonement by Ian McEwan – This is another one I didn’t review. I know it’s supposed to be some sort of literary masterpiece, but I thought it was just overwritten and self-indulgent.

Best Fiction

  1. Mechanical Failure by Joe Zieja – I feel a little silly selecting this ridiculous “military sci-fi” book for top honors, but I guess I really needed a good laugh this year.
  2. O Alienista (The Alienist) by Machado de Assis – My first time reading a Brazilian classic was a great success with this satire about psychiatry & science
  3. Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy – This is basically philosophy wrapped in story. It’s the kind of thing I usually hate in Christian fiction, but Tolstoy makes it work.
  4. Macbeth by Jo Nesbo – The Hogarth Shakespeare series continues to impress. Macbeth retold as a gritty, slightly over the top crime drama works quite well.
  5. Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield – This tale of the glory and horror of war provides a surprisingly humanising portrait of the 300 Spartans and their allies.

Honorable Mention: Agent Running in the Field by John LeCarré – This isn’t anywhere near the level of his Cold War novels, but it was a solid spy story.

Best Non-Fiction

  1. The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre – Macintyre makes the “best of” list two years running with another fascinating true spy story culminating in an edge-of-your-seat exfiltration attempt.
  2. How Long, O Lord: Reflections on Suffering and Evil by D. A. Carson – This provides a compassionate yet solid biblical framework for understanding suffering and evil.
  3. Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion by Rebecca McLaughlin – McLaughlin’s thoughtful answers demonstrate the continuing value and viability of Christianity
  4. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild – I finally knocked this off my TBR. Reading about such exploitation and suffering is difficult, but important. Those who forget history…
  5. The Proverbs of Middle Earth by David Rowe – This fed my Tolkien-geek soul…and it’s based entirely on the books, so that’s an added bonus!

Honorable Mention: Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible by Mark Ward – “King James Onlyism” is one of my pet peeves, and this book ably defends and promotes vernacular Bible translations without denigrating the venerable KJV.

Plans for Next Year

This year the two challenges I was in were fun, but I felt a little locked into reading certain books, so in 2020 I’m not planning on entering any challenges. I don’t think that I’ll read anywhere near as many books because quite a few of the titles on my TBR are in the 500-1000 page range. I’m going to set my goal at 78 books (2 books every 3 weeks) with an average page count around 400 pages/book.

Well, that’s it for this year. Happy New Year, everyone!

Questions & Proverbs

I planned for my next post to be my best/worst of the year wrap-up, but two of my most recent reads were so good that I want to post at least a short review for each of them:

Title: Confronting Christianity:
12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion
Author: Rebecca McLaughlin
Pages: 226 (plus indices etc.)
Genre: Theology
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I hadn’t heard of Rebecca McLaughlin before reading this (her first book), but I’ll definitely be snatching up anything she writes in the future! She addresses common questions/accusations leveled against Christianity (and sometimes organized religion in general) with an erudite blend of statistical data and theological explanations. Topics include diversity, religious violence, homophobia (she herself has been same sex attracted throughout her life), misogyny, slavery, theodicy (existence of evil/suffering), and much more.

Her tone and honesty are refreshing amidst the polarizing, demonizing rants that too often pass for apologetics. She does not shy away from admitting when/where Christians in general have failed to live up to their professed beliefs. Yet, her defense of the truth and value of Christian orthodoxy is firm without being condescending.

I highly recommend this book for non-Christians as a thoughtful counterpoint to “new atheists” (and other common objectors/objections), and to Christians as a help in better understanding your faith and humbly defending it without vitriol and straw-man arguments.

Title: The Proverbs of Middle Earth
Author: David Rowe
Genre: Literary Analysis (Worldbuilding)
Pages: 193 (plus indices etc.)
Rating: 4.5 of 5

David Rowe explores the cultures and people of Middle Earth through their wise sayings. If you aren’t a big Tolkien/LOTR geek, this book probably isn’t for you, but for those of us obsessed with Middle earth it’s fantastic!

Rowe picks out dozens of instances of proverbial wisdom woven into the speech of Tolkien’s characters and shows what they reveal about the speakers and their culture. As with any literary analysis there is some speculation involved. Occasionally it is debatable whether what he picks out are genuine proverbs or just high-sounding wise speech, and a few of this inferences may be a bit of a stretch. However, he makes many astute observations and points out a number of connections that enrich the story.

For me, the fact that you can analyze Tolkien’s world to this extent shows what an amazing “sub-creator” he was. Highly recommended for those who want a deeper understanding of Middle Earth.

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!

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)

Missionaries to the Fae

Under the Pendulum Sun by [Ng, Jeannette]Title: Under the Pendulum Sun
Author: Jeanette Ng
Genre: Pervy Gothic Fantasy / Alternate History
Pages: 416
Rating: 1.5 of 5

This book caught my attention when I was trying to find something similar to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. There are some definite similarities in that both feature an alternate 19th century where the fae (of the not-very-nice / not-very-sane sort) are very real. However, the tone and subject matter of the two books are very different.

This book has a strong Gothic Brontë vibe and focuses on religious themes: what would it look like to be a missionary to Faerie? Do the fae have souls? Do they have some connection to certain apocryphal stories? What about changelings? Why won’t Queen Mab let us into the interior of Faerie? Lengthy portions of the book consist of sitting about pondering and agonizing over these and similar issues. Don’t expect a lot of answers because Faerie is so trippy and illusory and the fae so inhuman that a lot is left up in the air (which I think works). On the other hand, the few big revelations that we do get are mostly telegraphed chapters in advanced with ham-handed foreshadowing.

If that’s all there were to this book, it would probably fall into my 3-4 star range for fascinating worldbuilding and interesting thought experiments (after all, I grew up in a missionary family so imagining missions work among the fae is right up my alley). My problem is with the other pervasive thread that runs through the whole book. It’s pretty obvious from early on, but if you don’t want it spoiled don’t read the last paragraph of this review, and we’ll just say there’s some pretty perverted/taboo stuff that drives the main plot. Nothing explicitly described, but ewww!

 

 

*SPOILERS* Pretty early on you pick up an incest-y vibe between the main brother and sister characters. This develops into a largely unapologetic, fully consummated romantic/sexual relationship by the end and is one of the driving plot elements in the book…not cool! *END SPOILERS*

Also, this is another book checked off the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge!

Jephthah & Inanna

Title: Ever
Author: Gail Carson Levine
Genre: Youth Fantasy/Mythology
Pages: 256
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Gail Carson Levine regularly passes the C. S. Lewis test of “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” Even as an adult, I find her stories like Ella Enchanted (the book, NOT the movie!) and A Tale of Two Castles  to be charming and entertaining with strong, resourceful heroines. Ever is a little more mature and little less whimsical in tone, but I still enjoyed it overall.

Levine leaves behind her usual fairytale subject matter in favor of more historical and mythological elements. The plot riffs on an interesting combination of the biblical story of Jephthah’s rash vow (Judges 11:29-40) and Sumerian/Akkadian culture and mythology (especially Inanna/Ishtar’s descent to the underworld). Our main first person POV characters are are the Jephthah’s-daughter-equivalent and a young god of the winds.

The plotting veers a little toward the “and then this happened, and then the next thing happened for inscrutable reasons, and then something else happened just because, and then the convenient deus ex machina happened…” manner of ancient mythology. People expecting Levine’s usual style may find it a little off-putting or flat, but I think that it works well with the subject matter and is fairly interesting even if it isn’t quite as charming as usual.

Also, this is another book checked off my 2019 TBR Challenge!