Best & Worst of 2021

This year I read 139 books with a total page count of 47,713 (~343 pages/book). I now present you with my sixth annual best and worst reads of the year lists (titles linked to my full review if I wrote one; excludes re-reads; presented in groups of five unranked; & starting with the “worst of” list so we can end on a positive note…no purchase necessary; void where prohibited):

Worst of the Year:

  • The Divine Comedy: Paradise by Danté (Translated by Dorothy L. Sayers): Between the constant reference to contemporary Italian politics and what I consider to be idolatrous reliance on Mary and the Saints, I found this hard to get through.
  • Jamaica Inn by Daphne DuMaurier: If you like melodramatic Harlequin-esque “historical romance,” this is for you…but that’s not my genre at all.
  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac: drugs, sex, jazz, blah blah blah…aren’t I deep!
  • Ripley Underground by Patricia Highsmith: a disappointing sequel to the interesting Talented Mr. Ripley. The complete non-ending was the worst.
  • The Tinfoil Dossier Trilogy by Caitlin R. Kiernan: A mashup of Cthulhu and black helicopter style conspiracies is a cool idea, but the execution was trippy to the point of incomprehensible and just plain gross (in both the splattery and moral senses).

Best Fiction

  • Bleak House by Charles Dickens: If you like Dickens, be sure to read this one. However, this isn’t a good place to start if you’ve never read him before.
  • Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain by A. Lee Martinez: This is pretty silly and episodic. Not great literature, but a lot of fun as the author plays with classic supervillain tropes.
  • The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells: This series (5 novellas and a novel so far) is top-tier sci-fi with an AI protagonist/narrator that any introvert can appreciate.
  • The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones: I don’t usually enjoy revenge slasher horror, but this “literary horror” worked surprisingly well.
  • Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir: Another masterpiece from Andy Weir for those who like a lot of science in their science fiction.

Best Non-fiction

  • Gentle & Lowly by Dane Ortlund: A thoughtful reminder that “Yes, Jesus loves me,” and biblical Christianity is not based on “Try harder to be better.”
  • God Against the Revolution by Gregg L. Frazer: In a departure from the “fan fiction” version of American history, Frazer examines the anti-revolution arguments of loyalist clergymen in colonial America.
  • Nuking the Moon by Vince Houghton: This examination of various eventually-abandoned-due-to-stupidity military and espionage plans is equal parts funny and frightening.
  • The Secular Creed by Rebecca McLaughlin: One of my new favorite authors interacts biblically with the kinds of statements that appear on yard signs beginning with “In this house we believe…”
  • Stephen Fry’s Greek Myths Trilogy (Mythos, Heroes, Troy) by Stephen Fry: I’m not sure if this exploration and retelling of the Greek myths counts as fantasy or non-fiction, but either way it’s a lot of fun.

That’s it for 2021. My reading goal for 2022 is my usual standby of “at least 100 books with an average page count of 300+.” Postings to this blog will probably continue to be sporadic unless work become unexpectedly less hectic, but we’ll see what happens. Happy New Year!

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 Weird Reads

Title: Area X – The Southern Reach Trilogy
(includes Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance)
Author: Jeff VanderMeer
Genre: Trippy Weirdness
Pages: 608
Rating: 4 of 5

There is a fine line between “fascinatingly weird” and “trippy to the point of being incomprehensible.” Jeff VanderMeer balances right on that line. His mind-bending blend of Lovecraftian elements, Area 51/Men-in-Black style conspiracy, and alien landscape exploration makes for a disorienting reading experience. This guy knows how to write weird fiction! If you need your stories wrapped up in a nice little bow, this is not for you, but I think that there are enough answers and hints for a satisfying reading experience that will keep you pondering long after you finish.

Title: Entropy in Bloom
Author: Jeremy Robert Johnson
Genre: Gross, Angry Weirdness
Pages: 280
Rating: 2 of 5

Amazon insistently recommended this book based on my reading of Lovecraftian cosmic horror…stupid Amazon! There were some memorable stories in here, but they relied mostly on gross and morally shocking elements for their punch, rather than anything particularly Lovecraftian. Mostly it felt like the author was morally outraged about something (President George W., reality TV, straight-edge macho culture, addiction, etc.) and decided to write a shocking story that pushed it to a weird and horrifying extreme, including plenty of profanity and sexuality. Overall, I can see how some people would really like this, but it was just too angry and gross (viscerally and morally) for me.

Slasher Obsession

My Heart Is a Chainsaw by [Stephen Graham Jones]

Title: My Heart Is a Chainsaw
Author: Stephen Graham Jones
Genre: Mystery/Slasher Horror
Pages: 416
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: August 31, 2021 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way impacts the content of my review)

If you love slasher movies, you have to read this book. If (like me) you think most slasher horror is pretty stupid and can’t be bothered to watch it unless there’s a really clever twist, you might still want to read it. If you absolutely hate slasher stuff, give it a pass.

This book has a distinctly self-aware tone. Our slasher-obsessed protagonist/narrator, Jade, knows everything there is to know about the genre. Each chapter ends with a rather facetious extra credit paper written by her in which she explores the origins, structure, tropes, worldview, etc. of classic slasher movies. For me, these were possibly the most interesting part of the book and almost (but not quite) made me want to check out some of the gory classic franchises that I never bothered to watch.

Jade the “horror chick” is not the most likeable of narrators as she is sullen, antisocial, knee-jerk rebellious, and seems incapable of thinking/talking about anything other than slashers. That said, she is a pitiable character shaped by her rotten life circumstances (trigger warnings for just about anything nasty that can happen to a teenage girl), and the slasher obsession even makes sense by the end.

Most of the story involves Jade thinking that she sees signs/tropes/circumstances that indicate a real-life “slasher cycle” is about to play out right in her backwoods Idaho town (which makes her disturbingly gleeful). It’s a slow burn as you wonder how much of this buildup is real and how much is a figment of her obsession-warped psyche.

Somewhere between the 60% and 70% mark things finally explode into a frenzy of action as we find out what has been going on…kind of. It’s so chaotic and explanations of a few of the more “red herring” aspects are so lightly passed over and dismissed that some things remain pretty up in the air (perhaps intentionally as if teasing a sequel?). Personally, I thought that the slow buildup was much more interesting than the huge over-the-top action set piece, which is probably why I’m not a huge fan of the genre. I did not enjoy this as much as the author’s The Only Good Indians (which is itself pretty much slasher horror of an oddly literary bent), but it’s definitely worth a read.

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…

Mini-Review Time!

The number of read-but-unreviewed books is piling up, so it’s time for some more mini reviews. No unifying theme here; just several books that I read about a month and a half ago:

The Only Good Indians: A Novel by [Stephen Graham Jones]

Title: The Only Good Indians
Author: Stephen Graham Jones
Genre: Horror Trying to Be Literature
Pages: 336
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I like stories that plop you down in media res and slowly reveal what is going on. This is one of those stories, and it is masterfully executed. The plot (that reads like heavily interconnected novellas) follows four Blackfeet men as they are haunted by something that they did when they were younger…whether that’s literal or metaphorical haunting I leave you to find out. Along the way, the author also explores themes of tradition, culture, community, family, and the Native American experience in general.

Judging from reviews online, this books seems to be a bit love-it-or-hate-it. I think that for some readers it’s too literary and slow-burn to be good horror, and for others it was too tropey and requires too much suspension of disbelief to be good literature. Personally, I thought that it worked very well!

Her Royal Spyness (The Royal Spyness Series Book 1) by [Rhys Bowen]

Title: Her Royal Spyness
Author: Rhys Bowen
Genre: Witty Narration and Amusing Characters (in a Murder Mystery)
Pages: 324
Rating: 4 of 5

I needed something light and fluffy to counter the stress of trying to navigate a major covid outbreak in our community, and this was just the thing! The murder mystery was pretty secondary to character development and witty narration. Our intrepid (but awkward) heroine is a minor royal from a family with ancestral lands in Scotland (described in disparaging detail) and no money. In this introductory book to the series she narrates her escapades in pre-WW2 London, where she has tea with the queen (who wants her to keep an eye on someone), tries to get a job (a big no-no for a royal), spends time with assorted upper-class twits & rogues, and becomes embroiled in a murder investigation. I will definitely be continuing the series!

Every Little Crook and Nanny by Evan Hunter

Title: Every Little Crook and Nanny
Author: Evan Hunter
Genre: Comedic Mob Fiction
Pages: 229
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This tale of the kidnapping of a mobster’s son was not what I was expecting. It is told as a series of vignettes, each one focused on a different person connected to the story. Most of the characters demonstrate massive incompetence and/or eccentric behavior to the point of being caricatures. Each chapter begins with a black and white photo of the starring character, and at first I thought it was some sort of movie tie-in, but apparently these are just the author’s (or his publishers’) acquaintances who agreed to pose for him. There is a comedic movie loosely based on the book, but judging from a quick perusal on imdb, there have been major alterations to the plot. I didn’t find this laugh-out-loud funny, but I suppose it was mildly amusing.

KKK Horror

Ring Shout by [P. Djèlí Clark]

Title: Ring Shout
Author: P. Djèlí Clark
Genre: Alternate/Secret History Horror
Pages: 172
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I went into this expecting an escapist monster-slaying romp with some sort of Klansmen-as-monsters twist. There was a gratifying amount of Klansman-monster slaying, but there is also some real depth to the book.

The author mixes together real life horrifying ideology and events (e.g. Klan “night rides,” The Birth of a Nation, the Tulsa Massacre, etc.) with the supernatural to capture the experience of living as a black person in early 20th century America. It reminded me a lot of Lovecraft Country but, unlike that book, this one succeeds in both evoking the right racist-horror atmosphere and telling a good cosmic horror story (while also celebrating aspects of African and African American culture, religion, and folklore).

It’s difficult to say much more about the plot without spoilers. Suffice it to say, this is not simply a tale of revenge or violent wish fulfillment. Ultimately, it explores what hatred does to people (the hater and the hated). This was headed to a 3.5 star rating for me, but the finale bumped it up a whole star and put P. Djèlí Clark on my “I have to read something else by him!” list.

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.

Audiobook Mini-Reviews

The last week and a half has been a bit rough here with myself and all three of the kids sick (my amazing wife activated Mommy-immunity and stayed mostly healthy). So, while lying miserably in bed or on the couch I made it through four audiobooks that I’ll be review now. I had a fever, headache, etc. through most of the time I was listening to these so take everything I say with a grain of salt. I don’t really have any comment on the narrators other than nobody stood out as either terrible or phenomenal.

What Ho, Automaton! (Reeves & Worcester Steampunk Mysteries Book 1) by [Dolley, Chris]Title: What Ho, Automaton!
(Reeves & Worcester Steampunk Mysteries – Book 1)
Author: Chris Dolley
Genre: Steampunk Mystery Parody
Pages: 292
Rating: 4 of 5

This is clearly intended as a parody of P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves & Wooster stories, and I’d say the author nails it. He captures the tone perfectly while transforming Jeeves (Reeves) into a steam-powered automaton and giving Wooster (Worcester) delusions of being a consulting detective on the order of Sherlock Holmes. Like the Wodehouse original, it’s light, breezy fun.

The Scapegoat by [du Maurier, Daphne]Title: The Scapegoat
Author: Daphne du Maurier
Genre: Classic Crime?
Pages: 348
Rating: 2.5 of 5

In this unlikely tale, a boring British professor of French history (John) meets his aristocratic French double (Jean) who (more-or-less) forces him to switch places. It turns out his French doppelganger is a morally reprehensible person from a family with a myriad of unsavory secrets. The story slowly unfolds as over the next week John plays at being Jean, uncovering and tinkering with the workings of the corrupt de Gué family. There is some interest in the slowly unfolding story, but overall it is completely unbelievable and has a non-ending that leaves pretty much all the storylines up in the air (and I really didn’t appreciate the casual attitude toward a married man having a mistress…especial with her seemingly being one of the wisest/best people in the book).

The House Of Night And Chains (Warhammer Horror) by [Annandale, David]Title: House of Night and Chain
(Warhammer Horror)
Author: David Annandale
Genre: Sci-Fi Horror
Pages: 244
Rating: 2.5 of 5

This is a fairly standard haunted house story set in the Warhammer 40K universe. Early on, an awful lot of time is spent on details of political maneuvering that is completely overshadowed and made largely irrelevant by the avalanche of events and revelations later in the book. The Warhammer 40K setting doesn’t contribute much to the story other than making local government into planetary government, substituting a cleric of the Emperor for a priest of God, and similar cosmetic tweaks. If you’re into haunted house stories you might enjoy it…I found it pretty “meh.”

The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by [Turton, Stuart]Title: The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
Author: Stuart Turton
Genre: Trippy Mystery
Pages: 480
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This book starts like a classic “murder at the manor house” kind of story, but things quickly get all wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey. I don’t want to give away too much since figuring out what is going on is half the fun. The over-simplified version that’s not any more spoilery than the back cover of the book is: our narrator inhabits 8 different witnesses, reliving the same day 8 times trying to solve (or stop) a murder. Most of the people involved have a nasty secret or two, and the twists, turns, and surprises come thick and fast all the way up to the end. I think that in the end it all weaves together nicely and makes sense, but I’d have to read it again (when I’m not sick) to be sure. It’s well worth reading and will probably make my “top 5 fiction” list for the year.

Grownup Gwendy

Title: Gwendy’s Magic Feather
Author: Richard Chizmar
Pages: “330” (probably half that when use of white space is taken into account)
Genre: Horror/Weird/Mystery/Family Drama
Rating: 2.5 of 5

The first Gwendy book, a novella in which Chizmar collaborated with Stephen King, was one of my favorite reads of 2017. I originally said this about it:

This short book falls more into the “weird” category than actual horror. It could be seen as a sort of twist on the story of Pandora’s Box…only this box comes with sinister buttons (especially the big black one) and a couple nice levers. This isn’t high action and doesn’t provide nice neat answers at the end, but it’s an excellent example of “the weird.”

Chizmar’s solo effort at expanding the Gwendiverse was disappointing in comparison. The titular “magic feather” has very little part in the story. Instead, we’re treated to another round of Gwendy inexplicably receiving the magic button box and indecisively dithering about whether or not she should use it…but only after 1/4 of the book catches us up on what Gwendy has been doing with her life over the last couple decades.

We already have a pretty good idea of the general function of the button box, so that major fascinating element of the original story is missing. It’s replaced with a hodgepodge of storylines including Gwendy engaging in AIDS activism, being an anti-Trump (though he’s not called Trump and it’s the 90’s) congresswoman, trying to catch a possible serial killer, and dealing with her mother’s cancer. Toward the end the box does demonstrate one new power, but it just feels like an amazingly convenient way to wrap up one of the storylines.

Overall, it felt like this mocking description of Darth Vader from one of the Night at the Museum movies: