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.

Ugly History

Title: The Sleepwalkers:
How Europe Went to War in 1914
Author: Christopher Clark
Genre: European History (WWI)
Pages: 587 (+160 pages of citations, indices, etc.)
Rating: 5 of 5

This is the ugly history of the politics, propaganda, and events that led up to World War I. Prior to reading this, my general impression of WWI (based on fuzzy memories of high school history & reinforced by the fourth season of Blackadder) was that it was a horrifically pointless war started on a pretext by arrogant greedy statesmen whose various alliances dragged all of Europe into a maelstrom of death…and it was somehow mostly Germany’s fault. Having read this amazingly well-researched book, I think the blame could be spread around a bit more liberally, but my general view remains pretty much the same.

Christopher Clark makes meticulous use of primary source material to weave together a coherent account of how the Great War came about. This is a daunting task given the complexity of the issue and massive amount of (often self-justifying) written sources. He does his best to describe for the Balkans (especially Serbia) and for each of the “great powers” what was going on domestically, militarily, colonially, and in their relationship with each other. This required a lot of jumping back and forth over the same material many times to try to cover the myriad of interactions. It could be confusing at times, but given the complexity of the matter, I was impressed overall with the author’s clarity.

The author also interacts with secondary sources, stating when he agrees or disagrees with common conjectures and analysis. He steers away from blaming things primarily on Germany, pointing out different (and constantly shifting) degrees and kinds of paranoia, imperialism, bellicosity, manipulation, etc. in all of the “great powers.” He also maintains that world war was not fatalistically inevitable, conjecturing about specific situations, decisions, policies, and procrastinations that could have completely changed the course of history had this or that person/committee acted differently in the moment. As the title of the book implies, the author sees the forces of Europe stumbling along with woefully incomplete understanding or analysis of the possible effects of their various power games.

Whether you agree with all of the author’s analysis or not, this is a must read if you are trying to understand the causes of WWI. If you’re not the kind of person who can sit down and read a long history book, then I suppose you can settle for Blackadder’s explanation of how the War began or if analogies are more your thing there’s the story of If WWI were a bar fight (though Serbia bumping into and accidentally spilling beer on Austria should probably be Serbia chucking beer in Austria’s general direction and then pretending it was an accident).

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!

Down with Eurocentric History!

Title: Toward a Global Middle Ages:
Encountering the World Through Illuminated Manuscripts
Editor: Bryan C. Keene
Genre: “Medieval” History
Pages: 263 (plus indices, etc.)
Rating: 3 of 5
(Thank you to the publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of this review) 

As a bibliophile who has an interest in old manuscripts, exploring world history via illuminated manuscripts sounded right up my alley. It turned out to be pretty dry, which probably shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise for a book of academic essays. Overall, the collected essays focus on challenging a Eurocentric view of the “Middle Ages.”

Some of the essays heavily analyze a few manuscripts, mining them for cultural practices, prejudices, parallels, and points of contact. Others give more of a generalized overview or a mere passing nod to manuscripts and then focus on what the author really wants to say about global history and/or Eurocentrism. Some came off as just having an ax to grind (e.g. complaining that the Queen of Sheba was usually painted light-skinned but then belittling the supposed motives of the few who painted her dark-skinned).

The book does present an interesting diversity of manuscripts (and manuscript analogues) from all over the world, complete with numerous pictures (about 2/3 of which were missing in the eARC I read). How much you appreciate the accompanying analysis will depend on your tolerance for Academic buzzwords and interest in this fairly specific aspect of history.

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)

The Horror! The Horror!

King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by [Hochschild, Adam]Title: King Leopold’s Ghost:
A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa
Author: Adam Hochschild
Genre: History
Pages: 306 (plus citations, etc.)
Rating: 4.5 of 5

In the mid-1800’s, Leopold II, King of the Belgians, claimed a massive chunk of central Africa. With the help of trading companies and their armed “sentries” he brutally exploited the people in it for his own personal enrichment while convincing the world that he was a great humanitarian. King Leopold’s Ghost examines the sordid history of the Belgian Congo, the land that inspired Joseph Conrad’s bleak Heart of Darkness.

Hochschild covers everything from the early exploration of central Africa to the results of the international protest movement spearheaded by journalists and Protestant missionaries and all the horror in between. Reading about exploitation, mutilation, and death on such a massive scale is not easy, but is crucial to understanding the history of European colonialism in Africa and its continuing impact.

The author definitely “has it out” for Leopold, but I’m not sure how you would be completely dispassionate about someone responsible for deaths on a scale similar to Hitler or Stalin. Africans are presented in a balanced manner, emphasizing their victimization without falling into the idealized “noble savage” mindset or ignoring the complicity of some in the slave trade. Europeans and Americans working against the cruelties of Leopold’s rule are portrayed sympathetically without glossing over their blind spots, weaknesses, and limited impact.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the history of Africa and/or European Colonialism. The overall style is a very readable “popular level” but features high quality primary-source research.

(Also, this is my sixth book read for the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge).

Historical Hamartiology

Against God and Nature: The Doctrine of Sin (Foundations of Evangelical Theology) by [McCall, Thomas H.]Title: Against God and Nature:
The Doctrine of Sin
Author: Thomas H. McCall
Genre: Theology (Hamartiology)
Pages: 448
Rating: 3 of 5
Future Release Date: 6/25/19 (Thank you to the author & publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This does not affect the content of the review)

Last year I reviewed another book from this Foundations of Evangelical Theology series: Light in a Dark Place: The Doctrine of Scripture. That book was by John S. Feinberg, the general editor of the series, and I found it helpful and academically rigorous. I was a bit less impressed with this offering by Thomas H. McCall.

McCall deals with the doctrine of sin; not a pleasant topic, but crucial to a proper understanding of the Christian faith. He approaches the topic with an Arminian point of view, which sets him apart from many of the other authors in the series as they tend to be more Reformed. Though I lean in a more Reformed direction myself, that wasn’t what irked me about this book (though he may have spent more of his page count than was strictly necessary on “Arminian vs. Reformed” related concerns).

The book covers pretty much all the facets of the doctrine that you would expect, but there was relatively little direct exegetical interaction with Scripture compared to other broadly Evangelical systematic theology books I have read. McCall spends much of his page count surveying what different councils and theologians have said about the topic down through history. While I appreciate the use of historical theology (something Evangelical theologians aren’t always very good at), I do not appreciate how it dominates the book. After the second chapter which surveys what the entire Bible says about sin, there is little directly digging into the grammar, examining possible cross-references, or other biblical theology concerns. Instead we get to hear what the Council of Carthage, Augustine, John of Damascus, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Karl Barth, etc. thought about the matter.

This focus on historical theology means that most of the time the book is dealing with Scripture at (at least) one remove, occasionally going into Scripturally iffy territory (e.g. some death existing before the fall). I did find some of the discussions profitable (e.g. the section on original sin helpfully explored many possible understandings of the difficult concept), but overall I was disappointed by the relative scarcity of detailed exegesis or direct appeal to Scripture.

Bio of a Megalomaniac

Title: The Great Successor:
The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un
Author: Anna Fifield
Genre: Biography
Pages: 336
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Publication Date: 6/11/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

Given the snarky subtitle of this book I wondered if it was going to be a bit on the satirical side. However, the author provides a serious, well-researched portrait of the eccentric North Korean dictator. She is able to offer some details of his early childhood, school years in Switzerland, rise to power, and political maneuvering at home and in the international community.

Rather than portraying Kim Jong Un as nothing more than a deranged lunatic, Fifield seeks to understand him. She strikes an excellent balance between recognizing him as a canny politician and as a brutal, entitled egomaniac who couldn’t care less about the suffering he inflicts on others to maintain absolute power, an obscenely luxurious lifestyle, and the “adoration” of his people.

Personally, I would have liked to learn a little more about what is faced by religious people (who must be in the extreme minority) in North Korea, but maybe there was no way for the author to obtain this information. Overall, I was very pleased with this book as it provided an informative overview of this horrible little man and his devastated country while seeming to maintain a bit more objectivity than is usual with this topic.

16th Century Conspiracy Theories

Title: The Afterlife of King James IV:
Otherworld Legends of the Scottish King
Author: Keith John Coleman
Genre: History
Pages: 280
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Publication Date: 4/26/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This does not influence the content of the review)

Any time a famous/infamous person dies there are those who cause a stir with “he’s still alive!” conspiracy theories. This is nothing new. King James IV of Scotland, brother-in-law of King Henry VIII, died at the battle of Flodden in 1513 and was eventually buried in England…probably.

This book collects and discusses a number of alternate stories that circulated after the battle and were exploited for political gain by various factions. The book’s subtitle gives the impression that these were mostly of an Arthurian “taken to faerie” variety, but that is not really the case. There were a couple “prophecy” stories and a one with a “once and future king” vibe, but most of the widespread stories discussed here were of a more mundane survival, exile, betrayal, and/or misidentified corpse variety. It felt a bit bait-and-switch, to be honest. Nevertheless, it was a relatively interesting look at the fog of war, human tendency to react with conspiracy stories in the face of unexpected tragedy, and political exploitation of misinformation.

The Anti-Philby

Title: The Spy and the Traitor:
The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War
Author: Ben Macintyre
Genre: Espionage History/Biography
Pages: 334 (plus citations & indices)
Rating: 5 of 5

Ben Macintyre spins another true tale of espionage and betrayal. In A Spy Among Friends (one of my favorite reads last year) he told the story of Kim Philby, the Soviet mole who wormed his way into the highest levels of MI-6. Now he focuses on “our” double agent: Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB officer who spied for MI-6 in the waning years of the Cold War.

Macintyre captures the paranoia and internal conflict of a double agent from Gordievsky’s first tentative effort at contacting Western intelligence to the final daring overland escape attempt from the heart of the USSR. Along the way he highlights Gordievsky’s contributions to preventing nuclear war and promoting more cordial relationships between East and West. While a primarily positive portrayal of the spy (especially as compared to Aldrich Ames whose story is interwoven with Gordievsky’s), the book does not completely gloss over mixed motives, the personal toll on family, and other nasty parts of a life wholly dedicated to deception. Overall, this is a fascinating spy story, right up there with anything written by LeCarré… but real!