Miscellaneous Mini Reviews

Leading a church through the craziness that is 2020 (trying to keep people compassionate, encouraged, safe, & law-abiding) continues to be exhausting, but I have just enough brain power left right now to catch up with several mini reviews.

Title: Agent Zigzag:
A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal
Author: Ben Macintyre
Genre: Spy biography
Pages: 310
Rating: 4 of 5

I enjoy Ben Macintyre’s historical accounts of spies. His A Spy Among Friends and The Spy and the Traitor were two of my favorite non-fiction reads over the last couple years. This one was still interesting, but it lacked some of the “wow” factor of the other books.

The author never gave the impression that Eddie Chapman made quite as big of a contribution to history as the spies in the other two books. I was left with the impression that he was colorful (in a self-promoting, bigtime criminal, womanizing cad kind of way) and bold, but he was just one of many double agents working for British intelligence during WWII. It was still a well-written book, but the stakes didn’t seem as high, which slightly lowered my interest.

All Quiet on the Western FrontTitle: All Quiet on the Western Front
Author: Erich Maria Remarque
Genre: Modern Classic / Historical Fiction (barely)
Pages: 296
Rating: 4.5 of 5

What a horrifying book! The author barely fictionalizes his experiences in the German trenches during the Great War (WWI). This is a soldier’s-eye view of the dehumanizing horrors of war. I was especially struck by the question of “how can we possibly go back to living normal lives after experiencing this?” This is a difficult, disturbing read but an important sobering balance to the “war is glorious” way of thinking.

Title: The Moonstone
Author: Wilkie Collins
Genre: Classic Mystery
Pages: 418
Rating: 2.5 of 5

Reading Victorian era books with enjoyment often requires that you look past product-of-its-era casual sexism, racism, colonialism, etc. This is definitely one of those books with an extra helping of cringe. I think that at times Collins was intentionally satirizing the prejudices of his contemporaries, but other times not so much. I quite enjoyed Collins’  The Woman in White even with all its improbabilities and eye rolling moments, but this classic mystery didn’t work for me. I’m not sure if it was really any worse or if I just wasn’t in the mood to charitably overlook his nonsense.

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!

THIS IS SPARTAAAA!!!

Title: Gates of Fire:
Author: Steven Pressfield
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 442
Rating: 4 of 5

Historical fiction is not my go-to genre. Maybe it’s because I was scarred by Gilbert Morris and his ilk as a teen. Whatever the reason, most of the time I’d rather just read non-fiction to get my history fix. Nevertheless, this book came highly recommended so I decided to give it a shot…and I’m glad I did!

Steven Pressfield provides a far more complex and realistic portrayal of the Battle of Thermopylae than something like The 300 or a gun enthusiasts explaining ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ This isn’t just 442 pages of carnage (though there is plenty of carnage). The battle is placed in its historical context with far more of the book exploring Spartan society, politics, and warrior ethos rather than describing the battle itself.

Most of the narration comes from a gravely wounded Greek survivor, dug out of the piles of the dead after the battle and commanded by King Xerxes to give him a soldier’s-eye-view of the men who made this valiant/futile stand against him. The story jumps around erratically within the narrator’s timeline, focusing on events that reveal the character of individual Spartans and ending with a moving/horrifying description of the battle.

The author’s somehow creates sympathetic characters within the pervasive brutality and oppression of Spartan society. He allows us to overhear and contemplate these warriors’ thoughts on violence, valor, honor, etc. (with some of the characters perhaps failing to show the proper laconic demeanor of true Lacedaemonians). He explores both the glory and the horror of war through events that still echo through history almost 2,500 years later. If you aren’t fazed by occasional info-dumping, profanity-laced rants, or graphic violence this is well worth reading.

Everybody was kung fu fighting…

A Hero Born: The Definitive Edition (Legends of the Condor Heroes Book 1) by [Yong, Jin]Title: A Hero Born
(Legends of the Condor Heroes – Book 1)
Author: Jin Yong
Translator: Anna Holmwood
Genre: Martial Arts Fiction
Pages: 416
Rating: 3 of 5
Future Release Date: 9/17/19 (Thank you to the translator & publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review) 

If you like martial arts movies, this is a must-read. However, if you leave that kind of movie saying things like, “cool stunts, but why were they fighting again…and why did that guy let himself die?” you might want to give this a miss.

I found the historical fiction aspects of this quite interesting. My knowledge of Chinese history is negligible, and this was kind of a fun way to get a feel for cultural and political issues in the early 1200’s (Temujin / Genghis Khan is a major secondary character).

The story’s highly episodic plot (this was originally a serial) is driven by a very Eastern code of honor combined with quick tempers and arrogance. It’s probably just my Western mindset, but to me a lot of the interpersonal behavior just seemed incredibly petty and/or driven by passing whims (with little purpose other than setting up a kung fu action set piece).

There is very little plot resolution at the end of the book. We now have most of the major characters in the same place (and they have all managed to kung fu fight amongst themselves in various combinations), but none of the major story arcs have been resolved.

The translation work as a whole seemed to flow fairly smoothly considering how much difference in writing style and sentence structure there must be between the two languages. One slightly odd feature of the translation was the inconsistent handling of names: some were translated with their English meaning and others merely transliterated with the meaning pointed out in an aside. 

Overall, I’m glad for the opportunity to experience a book from another culture that is so staggeringly popular (>300 million sold plus bootleg copies probably totalling over 1 billion according to one of the appendices), but apparently martial arts fiction just isn’t my cup of tea.

Second Tier Twain

Title: The Prince and the Pauper
Author: Mark Twain
Genre: Classic Historical Fiction
Pages: 253
Rating: 3 of 5

In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court Mark Twain wrote scathing satire of medieval England. In this historical fiction (written earlier than Yankee) he pokes gentle fun at the pampered life of royals and points out the barbaric harshness of Tudor punishments, but his overall tone is much lighter…almost cutesy.

This kinder, gentler Twain felt a bit flat to me. A lot of the historical “color” consisted in paraphrasing or outright quoting chunks of historical documents that described the clothing and royal ceremonies of Tudor England. The well-known “identical strangers switch places” plot wasn’t especially believable, but it lets Twain look at different aspects of society through the eyes of outsiders and has some nice little dramatic tension at the end.

Sometimes I find Twain’s caustic wit in other books to be a bit much, but I prefer it to this book. Overall, I think I would have enjoyed The Prince and the Pauper a lot more when I was a child. As it is, I’m using this as my “Book from the Americas (author or topic)” category over at the Back to the Classics ChallengeSeven categories down; Five to go!

Loosely Linked Mini Reviews

Title: George MacDonald: An Anthology
Author: George MacDonald (duh)
Editor: C. S. Lewis
Genre: Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 152
Rating: 4 of 5

C. S. Lewis made no secret of the fact that he was heavily influenced by George MacDonald. In this slim volume he collected 365 excerpts from MacDonald’s writings. Most of these gems come from his (deservedly) lesser-known writings rather than his beautifully crafted fantasy novels which Lewis claims must be taken as a whole to be fully appreciated. The writings of Lewis (especially Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters) do indeed echoe many of these thoughts, though I would say that MacDonald has a more mystical bent and many of his ideas smack of perfectionism of a rather Methodist variety (a doctrine I find unsustainable both Scripturally and through observation of the real world). Overall, this is a great little book with many thought-provoking ideas. However, to see MacDonald at his best I’d recommend reading the two books of the Curdie series.

Title: Creed or Chaos
Author: Dorothy L. Sayers
Genre: Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 85
Rating: 5 of 5

This book also has a vague connection to C. S. Lewis as Dorothy Sayers is considered to be an associate of the “Inklings” literary circle. In this collection of essays she discusses the need of sound, objective doctrine over a more subjective “all you need is sincerity” approach to Christianity. I have previously admired Dorothy L. Sayers as a translator of The Divine Comedy and author of the Lord Peter Wimsey detective series, and I must say she is equally engaging as a theologian/philosopher.

Title: The Dante Chamber
Author: Matthew Pearl
Genre: Mystery/Historical Fiction
Pages: 357
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Speaking of The Divine Comedy, Matthew Pearl has returned to the world of his wildly popular The Dante Club with this sequel. Now people are turning up dead in London, gruesomely killed in ways reminiscent of The Purgatorio. Pearl’s main historical characters for this one are Christina Rossetti (and family), Robert Browning, and Alfred Lord Tennyson (with an encore appearance by Oliver Wendell Holmes). There’s lots of info-dumping of interesting historical tidbits about these people and fawning commentary over the greatness of Danté wrapped around a twisted mystery. It’s basically the exact same formula as the first one and as such felt a bit played out…for me it was only okay.

Title: The Magic of Recluce
(Saga of Recluce: Book 1)
Author: L. E. Modesitt Jr.
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 512
Rating: 2.5 of 5

“Only okay” brings us to our next book. I found The Magic of Recluce to be pretty disappointing and almost DNFed it a couple times. The main character is a sullen brat who constantly complains about being bored and whines that no one tells him the answers to his questions but zones out when given the opportunity to learn anything important. The plot is a wandering “find yourself” narrative where mister whiney-pants suddenly makes huge deductive leaps, vast progress in his skills, or sudden increases in maturity seemingly at random. At the end he’s a better person but it all felt pretty haphazard. The Order vs. Chaos dynamic of the author’s world is interesting enough that I’ll give the next book a shot, but it had better be a whole lot better than this one.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Hercule Poirot) Agatha Christie 0425200477 9780425200476 And when the second and final colume of Williams Collected Poems is published, it should become even more apparent that he is this centurys major American poet. --LTitle: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
(Hercule Poirot, Book 4)
Author: Agatha Christie
Genre: Mystery
Pages: 358
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This book is one reason I’m willing to give an author or character a second chance. I do not care for Hercule Poirot; I am annoyed by his smug manner and holding back information so he can make a big splash at the end. However, this book has one of the best twist endings ever in a “cozy” mystery, so it’s worth putting up with the smarmy little Belgian.

Brutality & Redemption

Title: A Tale of Two Cities
Author: Charles Dickens
Genre: Classic Historical Fiction
Pages: 466
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I enjoy Charles Dickens. I don’t (usually) mind his wordy style, ridiculous names, amazingly convenient coincidences, or overblown page counts because he creates such wonderful, memorable characters and situations. That said, it took me several tries over quite a few years before I managed to slog through the first chapter or two of this book. Once the book gets going, it becomes clear that its status as one of Dickens’ most celebrated novels is richly deserved.

To me, much of the book’s impact was in the setting and events more than in individual characters, as is more usual with Dickens. I’m not sure how the people of France view the French Revolution, but this book crystallizes the horrified British view of the bloody affair. Dickens vividly portrays both the cavalier abuse of the poor by the Ancien Regime and the almost bestial vengeance of the mob once the tables were turned.

As always, Dickens’ cast of characters contain a wonderful mixture of the pathetic, the loving/virtuous, the ridiculous, and the loathsome. The two most prominent women were the best of characters and the worst of characters (come on…you know I had to make at least one comment like that). Lucie Manette is virtuous, loving, and completely flat: very much the ideal Victorian “angel in the house”…blech. Madame DeFarge, on the other hand, is truly terrifying as she embodies the bloodthirsty implacability of the Revolution. She may have been the most interesting/memorable character in the book until she was beautifully upstaged at the end by true love and redemption (“It is a far, far better thing that I do…”).

Overall, Dickens’ lone foray into historical fiction deserves its reputation. As long as you don’t completely hate Dickens’ style, you should read it. Don’t let the first chapter or two stop you.

Diotima Takes the Lead

Title: Death on Delos
(Athenian Mysteries – Book 7)
Author: Gary Corby
Genre: Historical Fiction Mystery
Pages: 330
Rating: 4 of 5

Nicolaos (Socrates’ fictional older brother and slightly bumbling agent / investigator / fixer for Pericles) and his wife Diotima (historically, one of Socrates’ teachers) are back for another case. I love how the author always centers the action around a major historical event in Athenian history. This time it’s the seizure of the Delian League’s treasury by the Athenians…for safekeeping, of course!

The murder mystery is well-constructed as usual with plenty of red herrings and a convoluted but believable solution. This time Diotima, ten months pregnant by the Athenian calendar, gets to take the lead. This isn’t isn’t too different than usual as she’s generally the smarter of the two, but this time it’s official.

I don’t read much historical fiction or mysteries (other than vintage noir), but I love this series, and this book was no exception.

ERB Does Historical Fiction

Picture1Title: The Outlaw of Torn
Author: Edgar Rice Burroughs
Genre: Pulp Historical Fiction
Pages: 255
Rating: 3 of 5

Earlier this month I read Tarzan of the Apes and was thoroughly unimpressed. I decided to give Burroughs another shot in a genre that didn’t lend itself as easily to product-of-its-era casual racism. Judging from the awkwardly drawn musclebound caped rider on the cover I thought this was something in the swords & sorcery genre, but it turned out to be historical(ish) fiction set during the reign of England’s King Henry III.

The plot features a (completely fictional) prince kidnapped at a very young age and raised as an England-hating outlaw by a vengeance-seeking French swordmaster. As you would expect in adventure pulp, there’s very little actual history as the plot revolves around swashbuckling, chivalry, and romance. Basically it was the cheaper, pulpier version of escapist classics like Scott’s Ivanhoe or Stevenson’s The Black Arrow. Given its genre, it was okay…I probably would have really enjoyed it as a young teenager.

One thing that I found interesting/stupid is that Burroughs repeatedly denigrates the era’s obsession with noble birth, but also weaves in the “blood will tell” trope for our noble-born-but-raised-as-an-outlaw hero. I guess it doesn’t pay to think too hard when it comes to pulp…just sit back and enjoy the hokey action if you can.

Rise & Fall of a NYC Mafioso

Image result for I mobster gold medal bookTitle: I, Mobster:
The Confession of a Crime Czar
Author: Anonymous (Joseph Hilton Smyth)
Genre: Crime/Noir, Historical Fiction
Pages: 160
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Mafia tropes, historical references, and self-justification abound in this fictional memoir. It’s all pretty straightforward; no high action or dramatic plot twists, just a matter-of-fact description of the rise and fall of a New York City mafioso in the 1930’s-40’s. Our protagonist/narrator, Tony (what other name would you give a fictional Italian mobster?), interacts with real-life mobsters like Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Louis “Lepke” Buchalter during the events leading up to and following the formation of “The Commission” and Thomas E. Dewey’s time as prosecutor and DA of NYC.

Throughout the book we are treated to Tony’s view of the absolute corruption of “law and order,” justification for his own actions (and the existence of the mafia), pride in his cleverness and accomplishments, and feelings of being trapped and forced into this life. It reminded me a bit of a much less literary version of Robert Graves’ I Claudius and Claudius the God (just with the mob instead of the Roman Empire). It’s worth a read if you’re into crime/noir.