Potpourri

It’s time for a handful of mini-reviews – all from different genres, none so spectacularly good or bad as to generate a full scale review, presented in order read:

The Lords of Silence (Warhammer 40,000) by [Chris Wraight]Title: Lords of Silence (Warhammer 40,000)
Author: Chris Wraight
Genre: Grimdark Military Sci-Fi
Pages: 400
Rating: 3 of 5

Pretty much anything Warhammer 40,000 falls into the grimdark category (I think the WH40k tagline is actually the origin of the word). Books, like this one, that star chaos space marines have an extra helping of grim and dark…and since these chaos space marines are dedicated to the plague god there’s also an extra helping of gross. This is worth reading if you’re interested in seeing the internal workings of plague marines and how they relate to the ongoing “Black crusade.” The overall plot was a bit meandering, but a solid entry for this escapist sci-fi-bordering-on-horror universe.

Things I Want to Punch in the Face by [Jennifer Worick]Title: Things I Want to Punch in the Face
Author: Jennifer Worick
Genre: Humorous Ranting
Pages: 136
Rating: 2 of 5

There are some funny turns of phrase in this series of rants, but if you read more than a couple end to end they just feel mean-spirited. These would probably be a lot funnier as occasional blog posts interspersed with other content than they were collected into a book. Also, she’d save a lot of time by just saying “I hate everything that hipsters and nerds like.”

The Night Manager: A Novel by [John le Carré]Title: The Night Manager
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 576
Rating: 2.5 of 5

This isn’t terrible (if you’re okay with LeCarré’s pervasive cynicism), but I feel like I’ve seen it all before and better in his other books: inter-departmental rivalry, possible leak/mole, seedy/promiscuous agents, questionable value of the intelligence game when compared to the human cost, etc. etc.. There just wasn’t much new here, and certainly not enough to justify the bloated page count.

The Alienist: A Novel (Dr. Lazlo Kreizler Book 1) by [Caleb Carr]Title: The Alienist
(Dr. Laszlo Kreizler: Book 1)
Author: Caleb Carr
Genre: Historical Fiction Mystery
Pages: 600
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This book’s late 19th century setting throws in some fun historical goodies (including Teddy Roosevelt as a prominent secondary character), but this is primarily a “criminal profiler” book. The focus throughout is on constructing a profile of a serial killer, with a lot of time and discussion given to the role of childhood in determining a person’s course through life (all very heavy on behaviorism). The nature of the serial killer (he preys primarily on male child prostitutes) makes for disturbing discussion and situations throughout, so this is not a book for the easily traumatized. There are moments of action, but the overall pace is plodding and methodical. Not my usual read, but I enjoyed it enough that the sequel is on my TBR.

Title: On Tyranny:
Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
Author: Timothy Snyder
Genre: History & Politics
Pages: 128
Rating: 4 of 5

Is this largely an attack on President Trump? Yes
Are parts of it a bit overblown? Also, yes
Are parts of it worryingly relevant parallels between the autocracy of German fascism, Soviet Marxism, and the current administration? Also, also yes!

Sold out Trumpers won’t like this, but it really is worth reading with your critical thinking cap on. And that’s all that I really want to say about this because I don’t do the whole “get in political debates with strangers on the internet” thing.

Back with Some Mini Reviews

I’m back! I think that this has been my longest stretch without a post since starting this blog. Pastoring during a pandemic with a major hotspot 45 minutes up the road is no joke, and I was starting to feel pretty burned out. Thankfully, I was able to take almost a week off, including a few days’ getaway with my wife for our 18th anniversary, and I’m feeling a little less stressed. No promises, but maybe I’ll return to my pre-COVID “approximately once per week” schedule. To that end, here are a handful of mini reviews (presented in order read):

Title: “He Descended to the Dead”
An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday
Author: Matthew Y. Emerson
Genre: Theology
Pages: 225 (plus indices etc.)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

The Apostles Creed contains a poorly understood line, variously translated, that says Jesus “descended to hell” or “descended to the dead.” The author takes this as his starting point to examine what the Bible (and Christian tradition as guided by Scripture) says about what happened between Jesus’ death and resurrection. I don’t agree with all of his lines of reasoning (or his condescending tone toward less “creedal” denominations), but overall his discussion was helpful and his conclusions seem biblical.

If you don’t want to wade through all 225 pages, here’s his concise explanation: “Christ, in remaining dead for three days, experienced death as all humans do: his body remained in the grave, and his soul remained in the place of the dead. He did not suffer there, but, remaining the incarnate Son, proclaimed victory procured by his penal substitutionary death to all those in the place of the dead – fallen angels, the unrighteous dead, and the OT saints. Christ’s descent [to the dead / hades] is thus primarily the beginning of his exaltation, not a continuation of his humiliation”

The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors by [Dan Jones]Title: The Wars of the Roses
The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors
Author: Dan Jones
Genre: Medieval British History
Pages: 416
Rating: 4 of 5

Dan Jones knows how to write an interesting history book! He writes on a more-or-less popular level, but not in a way that feels like he is sensationalizing events or dumbing things down. In this book, he engages with the complex series of conflicts commonly lumped together as “the Wars of the Roses.” I’m not sure how his interpretation of events stacks up against other histories since my only other reading on this time period is R. L. Stevenson’s heavily romanticized Robin-Hood-inspired The Black Arrow. Whatever the case, I’d highly recommend this for those interested in Medieval British history.

David Copperfield by [Charles Dickens]Title: David Copperfield
Author: Charles Dickens
Genre: Classic
Pages: 856
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This is one of my favorite Dickens books (second only to A Christmas Carol). It is home to the perfectly loving Mr. Peggotty, eccentric but good-hearted Aunt Betsey Trotwood, completely loathsome Uriah Heep, and so many other unforgettable characters. I must admit that the childish Dora really grated on my nerves this time through, but it’s still Dickens in top form.

Title: Operation Mincemeat
How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory
Genre: WWII Espionage History
Author: Ben Macintyre
Pages: 325
Rating: 4.5 of 5

The first “real spy book” that I remember reading is The Man Who Never Was by Ewen Montagu. It tells the story of a corpse given a fictitious identity and floated ashore to sow disinformation in the Nazi war machine. It is a triumphant self-congratulatory book, written by one of the men involved in the plot. It is a fascinating look at how “all war is deception” and how British intelligence was the master of deception. It is also a load of of half-truths and misinformation.

This is the de-propagandized version of that story. Ben Macintyre digs into recently declassified documents and pieces together what really happened, including the actual identify of the corpse and just how touch and go the operation was. This is another highly recommended true spy tale by one of my favorite authors of the last few years.

Title: The Things They Carried
Author: Tim O’Brien
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 273
Rating: 4 of 5

This fictional memoir of the Vietnam War reminded me of All Quiet on the Western Front. It is a series of loosely connected stories/vignettes  depicting the everyday horrors of war. Diehard “don’t ever criticize Vietnam vets or the Vietnam War” types will not like it at all.

The author blurs the line between fact and fiction by making himself one of the characters and dedicating the book to the men of the (fictional) Alpha Company. Overall, it is a brutal, difficult read but provides a balance to the macho “rah rah war is glorious and the US military can do no wrong” sort of war story.

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.