Misc. Mini Reviews

It’s that time of year when blogging takes a back seat to holiday family fun and a busy church calendar, but today I have enough time for a few mini-reviews.

Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain by [A. Lee Martinez]

Title: Emperor Mollusk Versus the Sinister Brain
Author: A. Lee Martinez
Genre: Humorous Sci-fi
Pages: 320
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This reminds me of several comedic movies that feature a “genius supervillain” as the protagonist (Megamind, Despicable Me, Doctor Horrible’s Sing-along Blog). The main difference is that Emperor Mollusk is actually (almost) as smart and competent as he thinks he is (having once actually conquered the earth, though he is now semi-retired). The plot is a bit episodic and silly, but the oversize egos, snappy repartee, tongue-in-cheek sci-fi tropes, etc., make this a lot of fun if you like that sort of humor.

Silverview: A Novel by [John le Carré]

Title: Silverview
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage “Thriller”
Pages: 224
Rating: 3 of 5

John LeCarré’s final (posthumous) book doesn’t add much to his body of work. It features the usual brooding disillusionment of “was all this spy stuff worth it?” “do I really believe in anything” and his newer books’ recurring theme of “modern government ideology is incoherent.” Most of the story follows the point of view of a minor secondary player who is largely in the dark, providing some “what is going on here?” interest (but not much). If you’re really into LeCarré, give it a shot, but don’t expect much of anything new.

Title: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
Author: James Hogg
Genre: Classic Gothic Novel
Pages: 265
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Who knew that you could write a Gothic novel based on some sort of warped hyper-Calvinist theology? The author weaves a dark tale of the depths to which someone can sink if they misapply the doctrines of divine election and justification (“God has declared me eternally righteous, so everything I do must be his will…”). The story is told first as a third-person report of murderous events and then largely retold in the first person by the self-righteous cause of it all (urged on by a Mephistophelian “friend”). Read it an interesting exploration of religious mania or just a quirky Gothic novel. Either way, it’s worth a read.

A Ghost Story?

This is a lightly edited re-post of a review from four years ago. Last week, my oldest daughter and I listened to the Audible version of this on our way to “Halloweekends” at Cedar Point, and it was every bit as good on second reading/hearing. (Also, I’ll be using it for my 19th Century Classic category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.)

The Turn of the Screw

Title: The Turn of the Screw
Author: Henry James
Genre: Classic/Ghost Story?
Pages: 96
Rating: 5 of 5

I love an unreliable narrator, especially in a creepy story, and this classic novella hit the spot! The introduction (which seems like it is meant to be a framing story but the frame is never completed) is a bit long-winded but the first person account by a governess of her ghost-haunted employment is satisfyingly creepy. It’s a bit melodramatic, but that plays right into the ambiguity of the story.

The big question is: are the ghosts real or is the governess mad or is she a manipulative liar, or some combination of the above? I can’t decide whether the ghosts are meant to be real or not, but I’m pretty sure there’s something very wrong with the governess (who is the only person to ever acknowledge seeing the ghosts). Her paranoia, the way she jumps quickly to dramatic conclusions, the way she dotes on people she has just met and deliberately says things to get them “on her side,” and the way she is quick to cast the same people as villains if they cross her all remind me very much of a couple narcissistic pathological liars I have known. Whatever the case, if you like unreliable narrators in creepy stories (or just good creepy ghost stories for that matter) this is a must read!

If you’ve read this, what did you think? (My brother-in-law informs me that it’s just ghosts…but his only reasoning is that he doesn’t like stories where the ghosts aren’t real so he doesn’t want it to be anything else.)

As a bonus, here’s a picture of me, my oldest daughter, and our new photobombing friend at Cedar Point:

May be an image of one or more people, people standing, monument and outdoors

Two Creepy Reads

The Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Title: The Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Author: Jack Finney
Genre: Classic Sci-Fi
Pages: 224 (6 hours, 39 minutes Audiobook as read by Kristoffer Tabori)
Rating: 4 of 5

The otherworldly “what is going on?!” suspense of this book hits the exact tone that I like when I read a creepy story. Sure, everyone knows the gist of the story by now, and the “science” is a bit hokey and dated, but it can still ratchet up the tension if you take it on its own terms.

That said, one aspect of the story grated a bit, even if it was a “product of its era.” The protagonist’s leering, condescending tone toward women got old really fast (and the bored, macho tone of the audiobook narrator really emphasized it). At one point his love interest kind of calls him on it, but her overall demeanor goes right along with it.

Overall, if you want a quick suspenseful read and are willing to overlook a bit of B-movie style hokeyness and product-of-its-era casual sexism, this is worth your time.

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus Audiobook By Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley cover art

Title: Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus
Author: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Genre: Classic Gothic
Pages: 222 (8 hours, 20 minutes Audiobook as read by Simon Vance)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

I know that this classic is widely lauded as a work of pioneering genius. I even understand why: we have the cool backstory of how the book came to be written, we have the hubris of Victor Frankenstein, we have the tragic “monster,” we have the question of who is to blame for the “monster’s” evil, and we have all kinds of other great themes and wonderfully gothic moral dilemmas. But for all that, I have a hard time appreciating this book. This is the third time I’ve read this, and it just annoys me every time no matter how much I want to like it.

Victor Frankenstein is such an absurdly overemotional, egotistical drama queen that he just makes me roll my eyes in disgust the whole time. He seems to spend most of his time swooning, languishing near death, and moping around because he’s just soooo overcome with emotion. He’s so self-absorbed that he can’t be bothered to tell anyone that there’s a powerful, murderous “creature” on the loose thanks to him…not even when it could potentially save people’s lives by doing so! Victor’s melodramatic twit act that morphs into vengeful monomania when there’s nothing left to lose is just too much gothic nonsense for me.

The OG

The Phantom of the Opera Audiobook By Gastón Leroux cover art

Title: The Phantom of the Opera
Author: Gaston LeRoux
Translator: Alexander Teixeira de Mattos
Genre: Classic Gothic
Pages: 260
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Early on in my first ever dating relationship I read this book aloud to my girlfriend. Last week we listened to it together as an audiobook as we drove up north to celebrate our 19-year wedding anniversary. Given that history, I’m a bit biased in favor of this book and have probably rated it a bit higher than I otherwise would have.

That said, The Phantom of the Opera deserves its iconic status. Leroux created a monstrous antagonist who is nonetheless truly pitiable. The Opera Ghost is a master manipulator with a sadistic streak, a pathetic backstory, and physical deformity far beyond something that could be hidden under the wimpy half-mask that makes its way into every portrayal since Andrew Lloyd Webber.

The plot and narration are almost laughably melodramatic at times, but if you roll with it and embrace the Gothic-ness, it’s a lot of fun (and even moving). Leroux throws in very occasional dry humorous comments that show he isn’t taking this completely seriously himself, while at the same time presenting it as a personally researched true story.

Translation-wise, I have only read the very Victorian, public domain version. I suspect (corroborated by a little online research) that this is probably the least accurate version, so one of these days I will have to try a different translation. Speaking of which, I will be using this for my Classic in Translation category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

If you enjoy Gothic fiction, this is a must-read. If you like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, you should give this original source material a shot as well. You get more complexity of plot and depth of characters with all the melodrama. And if you’re looking for something to do with your SO, reading this aloud worked out pretty well for us…

Two More Classics

I’ve completed two more books for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021, and it’s time to review them!

Jamaica Inn by [Daphne du Maurier]

Title: Jamaica Inn
Author: Daphne du Maurier
Genre: Classic Potboiler
Pages: 352
Rating: 2 of 5

For me, Daphne du Maurier is very hit-or-miss. I greatly enjoyed the morally ambiguous psychological gothic-ness of Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel, but thought The Scapegoat was improbable to the point of eyerolling. Jamaica Inn was another miss for me. On the Gothic spectrum it is much closer to Ann Radcliffe than the Brontë Sisters.

The bones of the story aren’t terrible (orphaned young woman sent to live with her aunt and uncle [by marriage] discovers that Uncle Joss Merlyn and his Inn have a deservedly sinister reputation), but it was all so melodramatic. If there had been some sex scenes thrown into the instalove-with-a-rogue storyline I would have thought I was reading some hack Harlequin Romance, not a modern classic. Nevertheless, I will be using this for my Classic by a Woman Author category.

Chaka by Thomas Mofolo

Title: Chaka
Author: Thomas Mofolo
Translator: Daniel P. Kunene
Genre: Classic Historical Fiction
Pages: 192 (including translator’s introduction)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This ended up being a very different book than what I expected. I thought that it was going to be a hero-worshippy fanboy account of King Chaka/Shaka’s greatness and glory like you usually get in historical fiction centered around a military hero or empire builder.

While there is some admiration for Chaka’s fighting prowess and the power of the Zulu nation, the overall story arc is of boundless ambition leading to insatiable brutality and tragic downfall. By the end, Chaka comes out looking more like Josef Stalin (or any other sadistic, paranoid, egomaniacal autocrat) than anyone admirable.

The narration of this tragedy feels as if you are listening to a folksy master storyteller who throws in occasional asides, explanations, rabbit trails, and editorial comments. I don’t know much about the real Chaka, so I couldn’t say how much liberty the author has taken with the story. However, I suspect that it has only a nodding acquaintance with the truth. There are many mythical elements (the translator interprets them as personifications of character traits), and the level of bloodthirstiness and brutality seem highly exaggerated. Overall, this was not unlike an over-the-top Shakespearian tragedy in the form of a folktale rather than a play.

I will be using this for my Classic by a BIPOC Author category.

Creepy Mini-Reviews

My reading is starting to outpace my reviewing again, so it’s time for some mini reviews. In honor of October, I’ll focus on my recent horror/gothic/weird reads. Presented in order read:

Last Days by [Brian Evenson, Peter Straub]

Title: Last Days
Author: Brian Evenson
Genre: Cult-related Horror
Pages: 200
Rating: 3.5 of 5

There’s nothing supernatural in this crime novel, just the horror of human beings with wicked hearts and weird beliefs. In this case, the belief that voluntary amputations are pleasing to God (the more, the better!). The plot follows a former cop who suffered a traumatic injury and is now being forced to investigate a crime related to the internal workings of this amputation cult. This was a disturbing, disorienting read with moderate amounts of profanity and a lot of gore. Don’t read the intro as it contains spoilers (and is pretty pretentious besides).

The King in Yellow Rises [Annotated] [Illustrated] [Translated]: The Lost Book of Carcosa (Lovecraftian Librarium 3) by [Charles Baudelaire, Ambrose Bierce, Robert W. Chambers, Lord Dunsany, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edgar Allan Poe, Marcel Schwob, Kent David Kelly]

Title: The King in Yellow Rises
Authors: Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, Lord Dunsany, Robert W. Chambers, and Others
Translator (and Editor?): Kent David Kelley
Genre: Classic Weird Fiction
Pages: 246
Rating: 4 of 5

This volume collects Robert W. Chambers’ original King in Yellow stories as well as classic works that influenced or riffed on his ideas. There is no denying the quality of the stories contained here or their influence on later weird fiction and cosmic horror. The editor (I think it is the same person listed as the translator) is what cost this book a star. I appreciate him rounding up these stories and printing them all in one place, but his commentary is sporadic and uneven in style. He wraps up the book with a rambling section about these stories’ influenced on H. P. Lovecraft and then apologizes for not including any Lovecraft stories (yet) because he’s not sure if they’re in the public domain…but he promises to add these and others later if he is able. It all felt a bit unprofessional.

Title: The Invisible Man
Author: H. G. Wells
Genre: Classic Sci-Fi
Pages: 167 (usually quite a bit shorter, but this was an illustrated edition)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This isn’t really horror/weird, but the invisible man was one of those classic black and white movie monsters, so I’m including it here. This is a pretty slow book, taking way too long to get to the big reveal that this mysterious stranger is an invisible man (which seems especially pointless given its title). After we finally get that out of the way, things get a little more interesting as we see how being invisible might affect a person mentally and morally. Add in some solid cat and mouse stuff toward the end, and it’s an interesting enough read.

The Necromancers Kindle Edition

Title: The Necromancers
Author: Robert Hugh Benson
Genre: Moralising Gothic Fiction
Pages: 196
Rating: 2 of 5

This book amounts to little more than a warning against Victorian era spiritualism (as well as any other dabbling in communication with the dead). As a Christian I wouldn’t disagree with the overall point, but it’s a pretty dull read for the most part. After a lot of breathless hinting about the grave spiritual dangers and some minimally described seances, we finally get some real creepiness and ill-defined spiritual confrontation around the 85% mark. Meh.

The Abyssal Plain: The R'lyeh Cycle by [William Holloway, Brett J. Talley, Michelle Garza]

Title: The Abyssal Plain: The R’lyeh Cycle
Editors: William Holloway & Brett J. Talley
Genre: Splattery Cosmic Horror
Pages: 300
Rating: 2 of 5

The four loosely linked short stories in this volume describe a world in which “the stars are right” and the old ones have returned. Cthulhu’s spawn rampage across the drowned world as civilization falls apart and strange cults rise. As with any anthology, quality varies, but the first story was just too much for me. It was about life-destroying decisions and addictions with Lovecraftian elements as a mere backdrop/counterpoint. I guess it was clever in that it showed that realistic graphicly described human misery is more disturbing than splattery sci-fi, but the torrent of profanity, booze, drugs, vomit, adultery, abortion, theft, murder, and other human misery and self-destructive behavior was more than I wanted to read. The other three stories were fairly standard (if extra splattery) post-apocalyptic Cthulhu fare that could definitely hold their own within the genre.

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!

Grim Christmas

A Midnight Clear by [Hooker, Sam, Leyva, Alcy, Morrison, Laura, Windwalker, Cassondra, Storm, Dalena, Jane, Seven]Title: A Midnight Clear
Authors: Sam Hooker, Alcy Leyva, Laura Morrison, Cassondra Windwalker, Dalena Storm, & Seven Jane
Genre: Short Story Anthology (5 Fantasy & 1 Mystery)
Pages: 250
Rating: 3 of 5
Future Release Date: 11/5/19 (Thank you to the authors and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of my review.)

Black Spot Books tapped six of their authors to pull together this short story anthology under the overarching theme of “not-so-merry Yuletide whimsy.” The result is truly a mixed bag [insert lame Santa’s sack joke].

The Good: The opening story by Sam Hooker is far and away the best of the lot. Who knew you could combine a sugary cute version of the North pole (reminiscent of what it’s like in the movie Elf) with a visit to R’lyeh? Laura Morrison’s hellish (yet humorous) riff on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is imaginative and entertaining as well, and Dalena Storm’s dive into Slavic mythology wasn’t bad. I wouldn’t take my theology from any of these stories, but they were a lot of fun to read.

The “Meh”: The other three stories left me cold. In a couple, the Christmas element felt shoehorned in, and they all had the kind of pacing that I associate with lousy Christian fiction: the majority of the page count taken up with the protagonist moping, sulking, or mooning around followed by a burst of action at the very end that may or may not connect well with all the repetitive morbid introspection that came before it. Obviously, your mileage may vary.

Overall, the oft repeated descriptor for short story anthologies is “mixed bag,” and that holds very much true here. If nothing else, you need to read Sam Hooker’s cutesy elf/Cthulhu mythos mashup.

Quick Fire Fantasy Tag

This might be the first one of these I’ve done on this blog, but it gives me a chance to talk about some of my favorite books, so here we go!

The Rules

5-Star Book

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C. S. Lewis isn’t quite as well known as some of his other works, but it should be! This retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche illustrates Lewis’s assertion that “The value of myth is that it takes all the things you know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity.” As we read one woman’s diatribe against the gods, Lewis explores themes of beauty, jealousy, longing, and theodicy.

Always Going to Recommend

This is the book that got me into fantasy:

Image result for the lion the watch and the wardrobe book cover

I have reread The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, and all The Chronicles of Narnia, every couple years since first reading them at the age of 7 or 8. Every time I do, I get something new out of them. Read it as a charming story about children having adventures in a world of talking animals and mythological beings…and then read it for the “deep magic” where Lewis supposes “there was a world like Narnia and supposing, like ours, it needed redemption, let us imagine what sort of Incarnation and Passion and Resurrection Christ would have there.” This is the place to start when you read The Chronicles of Narnia (don’t go with the new chronological ordering).

Own It But Haven’t Read

So many books, so little time…

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake has been languishing on my shelf for a few years now. I have seen the gothic Gormenghast series described as a masterpiece on par with other seminal fantasy works, and I have seen it described as tediously over-descriptive and depressing. I don’t always mind lengthy low-action character-driven works (see final entry below), so one of these days I’m going to give this a shot!

Would Read It Again

More like “have read it again, multiple times” for most of the fantasy books I really enjoy…

J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion Wooden Book Cover Wall image 0

The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien doesn’t resonate with most people like The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, but after a couple attempts I now love it! Sure, the tone is more like reading ancient mythology than a novel, the plethora of similar sounding names can be confusing at first, and most of the storylines don’t have happy endings. Tolkien’s language-nerd side ran away with him a bit on this one, but this sweeping history covering thousands of years emphasizes that there is courage, nobility, and beauty even in the midst of (often self-wrought) tragedy…and it provides amazing backstory that enriches LOTR if you’re willing to make the connections.

In Another World

So, pretty much anything that isn’t urban fantasy or alternate history?

Image result for The Black Company Cover

The Black Company by Glen Cook kicks off the series that helped define the dark fantasy sub-genre. Rather than “rogues with a heart of gold,” the men of the Black Company are true mercenaries. They aren’t always completely heartless, but they are pretty amoral as their primary goals are to survive and to get paid (and sometimes that means making sure that their world survives the machinations of powerful magic-wielders). I don’t like to read this kind of fantasy all the time, but it’s an interesting change of pace and I intend to go back through the whole series at some point.

Back on Earth

Hardcover Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell Book

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrelby Susanna Clarke reads like a fantasy novel written by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens after they had read On Fairy Stories by J. R. R. Tolkien. It is set mostly in England during the era of the Napoleonic Wars and has elements of alternate history and old fairy tales (where the fairies are neither particularly nice, nor sane). The character-driven plot is slow and meandering with extensive footnotes that offer snippets of this England’s grand history of fairy magic. Some people find it tedious, but it’s one of my favorite books.

I Tag:

Back to the Classics Wrap-up

Since I just finished my final book for the Back to the Classics 2018 challenge, it’s time for the big wrap-up. A huge thank you to Karen @ Books and Chocolate for putting this together and hosting it. It provides great incentive to include at least a dozen classics in the year’s reading. I read a book for each of the twelve categories, so I get three entries in the final prize drawing. My books for each category were:

A 19th Century Classic: Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow by Jerome K. Jerome – This collection of humorous essays is a must-read for fans of wry humor (as long as you don’t mind wading through a lot of maudlin sentimentality that may or may not be intended humorously).

A 20th Century Classic: Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann – This modern retelling of the Faust legend explores the connection between genius and madness, but by the end I found it overblown and pretentious.

A Classic by a Woman Author: Silas Marner by George Eliot – I greatly enjoyed this “reclamation” story which is something along the lines of a non-supernatural version of Dickens’ Christmas Carol (Dickens loved it and wrote  her a “fan letter”).

A Classic in Translation: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas – I know I’m in the minority, but I didn’t care for this classic tale of revenge.

A Children’s Classic: The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame – I will be recommending this charming little book to my children.

A Classic Crime Story: The Grifters by Jim Thompson – Thompson provides the fairly standard downward-slide-into-tragedy that you expect from this kind of crime noir but with some creepy oedipal stuff in the mix. Well written, but a bit too sleazy for my taste.

A Classic Travel or Journey Narrative: The Canterbury Tales – In spite of the (to me) unfunny obsession with adultery & misogyny, Chaucer is witty and adept at painting memorable characters.

A Classic with a Single-word Title: Nostromo by Joseph Conrad – Conrad displays his trademark bleakness here. Personally, I think it packed more impact in the much shorter Heart of Darkness than in this 400+ page depressing book.

A Classic with a Color in the Title: Black No More by George S. Schuyler – This biting satire is by turns hilarious and grim as the author explores an alternate US in which a medical procedure can turn black people into white people.

A Classic by an Author That’s New to You: Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier – I wouldn’t necessarily say that I liked this book, but the atmosphere and characterization were superb.

A Classic That Scares You: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway – I hated Hemingway in high school, but decided to be brave and give him another shot. I didn’t hate it this time, but he’s still not my cup of tea.

Re-read a Favorite Classic: The Poetic Edda by Anonymous – Who wouldn’t want to read about cross-dressing Thor, Loki getting in an insult contest with the rest of the gods, and the final showdown at Ragnarok?

And there you have it! (If I happen to win the drawing you can contact me Here.)