Catch-up Mini Reviews

It’s been a little bit longer than usual between posts as I’ve been furiously reading to rack up entries in the local library’s summer reading prize drawing (can’t let my kiddos show me up!). Here are five of the most recent (out of 22 over the last 2 months):

Monster Hunter International (Monster Hunters International Book 1) by [Correia, Larry]Title: Monster Hunter International
Author: Larry Correia
Genre: Gun Nut Enthusiast Wish Fulfillment
Pages: 715
Rating: 2.5 of 5

I enjoy Dracula and Cthulhu mythos stories, so I figured why not try out this pulp action-spinoff of the Lovecraftian and Gothic tales. While some of the monster lore and overall plot was fun, I give it a “meh” overall.

I think that the intended audience is the we-distrust-the-government-and-LOVE-guns crowd, and while that describes some of my friends, it’s not me. For me, the frequent doting  listing of gun models and specs and the breathless descriptions of firing said guns were absurdly over the top. And these guys would rather just blast away at the monsters with silver bullets (no matter how ineffectual it repeatedly proves to be) than actually try to come up with anything clever. Add to this some ham-handed foreshadowing, sprinkle in some poor word usage and factual errors (e.g. compulsive instead of convulsive, Peloponnesian War instead of Trojan War), and I probably won’t be continuing this series…I’ll stick with Warhammer 40K for my absurdly violent pulp needs.

Title: The Annotated Hunting of the Snark
Author: Lewis Carroll (annotations by Martin Gardner)
Genre: Nonsense Narrative Poem + Pretentious Commentary
Pages: 196
Rating: 4 of 5

I love the nonsense poem Jaberwocky, so I’m not sure how I didn’t know about Carroll’s full-length narrative poem that is very much in the same vein. The poem itself is a lot of fun (if a bit grim) and worthy of a 5 out of 5 rating. However, for the most part the annotations/commentary add very little enjoyment unless you are utterly obsessed with the poem. The one lengthy section of commentary that I really enjoyed was an extended satirical “analysis” of the poem that is clearly making fun of  people who (like our main annotator) pompously try to impose deep, complex meaning on the nonsense.

The Warden - Chronicles of Barsetshire, Book 1 audiobook cover artTitle: The Warden
(Chronicles of Barsetshire – Book 1)
Author: Anthony Trollope
Genre: Classic Fiction
Pages: 240
Rating: 3.5 of 5

I am using this book for my 19th Century Classic category over at the Back to the Classics challenge. My brother-in-law, who is also a pastor, recommended the Barchester series as a humorous take on church politics (with a warning that this first book wasn’t quite as good as the others).

Trollope perfectly captures the earnestness, good intentions, greed, pettiness, and arrogance that swirl together to generate church politics. His characters, squabbling over how a charitable institution should be run, are quirky but believable, and he gets in some good jabs at the press and national politics along the way.

I take issue with the pervading theme that time-honored abuses of the system for personal gain should be allowed to continue so long as they are not really hurting anyone. After all, attempts to reform will only make things worse for everyone…just look at that troublemaker Charles Dickens! That said, there was enough cleverness in here that I’ll probably give the next Barchester book a shot at some point.

Title: The Swordbearer
Author: Glen Cook
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Pages: 256
Rating: 3 of 5

I read this more out of curiosity than because I expected a good book. It’s one of Glen Cook’s first fantasy books (maybe the first?), and we all know how rough an author’s early works can be. This stand-alone novel feels like three parts Elric of Melniboné, one part Lord of the Rings, and one part semi-original stuff that would later be cannibalized and reused in the much better Black Company stories.

The characters are so flat and numerous as to be difficult to keep track of, and there is frequent info-dumping, but I’ve read much worse first attempts. If you’ve ever read and enjoyed the Elric books, this is worth a read… if the whole book being an “I feel like a pawn of this evil soul-devouring sword” mope-fest grates on your nerves you might want to give it a miss.

The Fall of Arthur by [Tolkien, J.R.R.]Title: The Fall of Arthur
Author: J. R. R. Tolkien (Christopher Tolkien, Editor)
Genre: Epic Poem Fragment + Page-count Padding Commentary
Pages: 233
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This is just another Christopher Tolkien publication of a fragment from his father’s work padded out to book length with commentary. As always, the narrative poem fragment is well-written and interesting (as long as you have some interest in Arthuriana), but it is even shorter than usual (cutting off well before the actual battle in which Mordred dies and Arthur maybe-dies). Christopher’s notes are much better organized than usual, but still overlong. The tracing of various versions of the fall of Arthur through medieval literature is probably the most interesting part of his contribution. Unless you are the kind of fan who has to have every published fragment by J. R. R. Tolkien, this isn’t worth buying…just borrow it from the library, read the poem fragment, and skim the notes to see if any of the sections sound interesting to you.

Speak of the devil…

The Devil Aspect: A Novel by [Russell, Craig]Title: The Devil Aspect
Author: Craig Russell
Genre: Psychological Horror
Pages: 414
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Psychiatrist Viktor Kosárek believes that horrific criminal behavior is caused by the “devil aspect,” a dark facet of human nature present in everyone to some degree. His new appointment to the Hrad Orlu Asylum allows him to study Europe’s most infamous violent criminals: the “The Devil’s Six.”

The story drips with atmosphere. The asylum is a sinister castle (an Elizabeth Bathory-like nobleman figures in its past) in 1930’s Czechoslovakia (Nazis casting covetous eyes on the Sudetenland) with a serial killer known as Leather Apron on the loose in Prague. The plot splits its focus between the hunt for Leather Apron and Viktor’s sessions with each of the Devil’s Six as he attempts to isolate the “devil aspect.” Add a sprinkling of Slavic mythology, and chilling, gory details abound.

As much as I appreciated the atmosphere, this was only a 3.5 for me. Some of the Devil’s Six material (chilling as it was) felt like it contributed little to the plot. The pacing was slow until the end which was rushed and unsurprising (the foreshadowing of Leather Apron’s identity was fairly obvious much too early in the book). I was also very annoyed by the final coda as it eliminated a certain intriguing ambiguity. Overall, this is worth reading if you are a fan of psychological horror, but I feel like it could have been a lot better in terms of plot & pacing.

Indian Evil

Song of Kali by [Simmons, Dan]Title: Song of Kali
Author: Dan Simmons
Genre: Cosmic Horror?
Pages: 320
Rating: 3 of 5

I’m not quite sure what to make of this disturbing tale. In it, an American  travels to Calcutta with his wife (who is Indian) and infant daughter in search of a lost book of poems by an author long thought dead. The plot takes forever to get off the ground, but once it does every parent’s worst nightmare ensues.

The author expertly evokes an atmosphere of human misery, darkness, corruption, and horror (some of it too explicit for my taste) that appears to be driven by a great cosmic evil. There’s just enough wiggle room for possible lying, hallucinations, nightmares, etc. that you can’t be 100% sure how much of what is going on is truly supernatural.

If that was all there was to it I’d probably give it an “amazingly atmospheric but a little too disturbing for me” rating. However, the author also seems to be indicting Indian culture in general as almost completely calloused, corrupt, disgusting, and evil. Putting the fullest expression of that accusation in the mouth of an Indian character doesn’t make it any less insulting.

Overall, the book was horrifying and convoluted enough that I kept reading just to see where it was all going. However, once I was done I felt like I had read the ranting of an ethnocentric tourist who visited India, didn’t deal well with culture shock, and decided to turn his negative experience into a horror story. (Also, this is my fourth book read for the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge).

Explicit & Overwritten

Title: 12 Tales Lie: 1 Tells True
Author: Maria Alexander
Genre: Horror / Supernatural
Pages: 226
Rating: 2 of 5
Release Date: 3/5/2019 according to NetGalley, but it appears to be already available on Amazon (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way influences the content of this review.)

The intriguing title of this collection is what caught my attention, but I don’t think it delivered. I took it to mean “13 relatively believable creepy tales of which one is actually true…” Most of them did start out with a depressingly believable character, bitter and scarred by past trauma and/or abuse. However, rather than sticking with psychological horror, eerie supernatural phenomena, or something else vaguely believable most of them quickly veered into such an over-the top (and/or fairytale inspired) supernatural direction that it was fairly obvious which one was intended as the “true” tale. Maybe I misunderstood the title?

For me, the writing style was overwrought; not exactly gushing “purple prose,” but way too many adjectives. It was as if every noun had to have at least one adjective attached to it. Add to this some pretty explicit language (including a graphically described rape and a BDSM obsession), and this really did not work for me. Your mileage may vary, but I was disappointed (and a bit disgusted).

Multiple Unreliable Narrators

Title: Someone Like Me
Author: M. R. Carey
Genre: Psychological Horror?
Pages: 512
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 11/6/18 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of my review)

This book is messed up…and I mean that in the best possible way! I love unreliable narrators (especially of the quite-possibly-bonkers variety), and this book is full of them. Our two main characters have suffered physical and emotional trauma (trigger warning for spousal domestic abuse & peril to children), and they both know that it has left them with psychological issues.

Liz has discovered a dark, violent side that first surfaced when she had to defend herself against her murderous ex-husband, and Fran, a teenager, has had hallucinations and other mental aberrations since surviving an abduction as a child. As their lives intertwine (Liz’s son becomes Fran’s friend), their interactions and perspectives on each other give us some hints of what is really going on while things spin increasingly out of control…and I can’t go into any more detail than that without spoilers.

There were a few points in the book where I felt that the teenage characters’ catty bickering and sneaking around to keep parents/adults in the dark took this into clichéd YA territory, but overall I enjoyed it. I would highly recommend it if you enjoy the kind of book where you get popped right into the action and have to figure out what is going on (and even what genre you are reading).

Ghosts or Madness?

Title: The Turn of the Screw
Author: Henry James
Genre: Classic/Horror/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.

The big question is: are there really ghosts or is the governess mad (or a 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. 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 people I know who are narcissistic pathological liars whose children have suffered as a result. Maybe my interaction with some of the worst of human nature is just making me read between the lines a bit too much. 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.)

Screwtape’s Nastier Cousin

Title: Mister B. Gone
Author: Clive Barker
Genre: Horror?
Pages: 250
Rating: 3.5 of 5

The first words you encounter in these pages are the command to “BURN THIS BOOK.” You quickly discover that you are being spoken to by a demon trapped in the book. Over the next 250 pages or so he threatens, insults, cajoles, bribes, begs and otherwise tries to convince you to do what he wants. And, of course, along the way you find out the story of his life.

His tone reminds me of a combination of other literary demons and devils. He is tragic, self-pitying, and self-deluded like Milton’s Satan, wantonly cruel and petty like C. S. Lewis’s “bent Oyarsa” in Perelandra, and utterly despises humanity like Screwtape (also by Lewis). Along the way he describes horrifying things that he has done, sometimes in disgusting detail and usually with disturbing casualness.

There’s not a whole lot more I can say about the plot without spoilers, but I will say that one of the big end reveals (that seems to be the main point of the book) could definitely be considered blasphemous…but the source is a demon who is admittedly a liar, so take it how you want. Overall, this is a disturbing, well-executed, fourth-wall-breaking book.

Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!

Title: The Book of Cthulhu
Editor: Ross E. Lockhart
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Pages: 544
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This Lovecraftian anthology is fairly middle of the pack. It didn’t have any of the stupid last sentence is an incredibly obvious twist ending in italics stories, but neither did many of them have that sense of creeping dread that really makes a good cosmic horror tale. Most of the stories seemed to be along the lines of trying really hard to come up with a clever, modern take on the “gods” and other beings of the Lovecraft mythos (Shogoths and Innsmouth seemed to be the two most popular targets). This made for interesting stories but not necessarily atmospheric stories. A few evoked the proper tone (the offerings by Laird Barron and Brian Mcaughton were probably the best), and most are well-written enough that the collection is worth your time if you’re a fan of cosmic horror.

In conclusion: here’s a picture that I took from my front yard back in April. (“The Thing cannot be described – there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order. A mountain walked or stumbled.”)

Image may contain: sky and outdoor

Non-Sparkly Bloodsuckers

Image result for salem's lot book coverTitle: Salem’s Lot
Author: Stephen King
Genre: Horror
Pages: 458
Rating: 3 of 5

This is a good, solid vampire story with no sparkly, angsty heartthrobs in sight, just menacing, bloodthirsty fiends. I’m not a huge fan of Stephen King as he uses more profanity and semi-explicit descriptions of abuse and all around morally scuzzy behavior than I usually like in my reading, but the man can definitely tell a story. There’s nothing terribly original here, but King makes good use of all the tropes as he imagines what it would be like if a Dracula-like vampire came to a small American town (in Maine, of course) in the 1970’s. If you’re a fan of King (or classic vampires) it’s definitely worth a read.

The copy that I borrowed from the library came with this added “bonus”:

Salem's Lot.jpg

Yep, there appears to be a little blood spattered across some of the pages. Ew…I can do without that kind of “special effects!”

More Mini-Reviews

I’m still on vacation with the brain only half-engaged, so here are a few more mini-reviews. Most of these are books that I read earlier this year and didn’t have the leisure or inclination to review at the time.

Title: The Inimitable Jeeves
Author: P. G. Wodehouse
Genre: Classic Humor
Pages: 240
Rating: 5 of 5

I love the Jeeves and Wooster books, and this one is no exception. The adventures of good-hearted-but-a-bit-dim Bertie Wooster who navigates the “trials” of post WWI English high society with the help of Jeeves, his genius valet, always provide a chuckle. This book (the second in the series) collects a number of loosely connected short stories which mostly feature Bertie trying to help the frequently-love-smitten “Bingo” Little (and then having to be extricated from difficulty by Jeeves).

Image result for Dracula book coverTitle: Dracula
Author: Bram Stoker
Genre: Classic Gothic/Horror
Pages: 416
Rating: 4 of 5

This book that originally popularized the “sexy vampire”  doesn’t have as much to offer thematically as the equally classic Frankenstein, but I found it creepier and a lot more fun to read. Stoker was definitely sexist (and shows flashes of other common prejudices of his day), and there’s the usual Gothic ramblings and melodrama, but if you can just roll your eyes at the worst of it, it’s well worth a read.

Title: The Thin Man
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Hardboiled Detective
Pages: 201
Rating: 4.5 of 5

If Oscar Wilde had written  hardboiled/noir fiction this is how it would have turned out. The interplay between perpetually-tipsy ex-detective Nick Charles and his young wife, Norah is reminiscent of Wilde’s characters who say “wicked” things just to get a rise out of people…all this while solving the usual Hammett-style case. I didn’t care for this the first time I read it because I didn’t catch Nick’s slightly tongue-in-cheek tone, but after seeing William Powell’s portrayal of Nick Charles in the 1934 Thin Man movie, it made more sense and I really enjoyed it.

Title: Poems of Heaven & Hell from Ancient Mesopotamia
Translator: N. K. Sandars
Genre: Ancient Religious/Narrative Poetry
Pages: 192
Rating: 4 of 5

A large part of the page count for this book is commentary by the translator, much of which is helpful even if it does necessarily include a bit of speculation. For me, the poetry itself (the longest one is the Enuma Elish / Babylonian creation account) provides interesting background for what various people in the Old Testament would have believed (e.g. Abraham and his family when they lived in “Ur of the Chaldees”).

Black Wings Has My AngelTitle: Black Wings Has My Angel
Author: Eliot Chaze
Genre: Crime Noir
Pages: 154
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This is a fairly typical crime-spiral-of-self-destruction novel on the same order as The Postman Always Rings Twice or Thieves Like Us (or the real life Bonnie and Clyde). There’s not a lot to say about it other than it’s a competently executed example of the genre.

Ten Days in a Mad-House by [Bly, Nellie]Title: Ten Days in a Madhouse
Author: Nellie Bly
Genre: Exposé
Pages: 110
Rating: 4 of 5

In the late 19th century, journalist Nellie Bly deliberately got herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island. Her report of the callous treatment of the women there (many of whom she believed to be perfectly sane) is deeply disturbing. Apparently the publication of her observations resulted in NYC earmarking an additional $1 million for helping these women, but I don’t know if there were any lasting reforms.

Title: The Great God Pan
Author: Arthur Machen
Genre: Horror/Weird
Pages: 84
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This story deeply influenced other horror writers, especially in the field of cosmic horror (that “something incomprehensible/evil/wholly other is ‘out there'” themed sub-genre). As with some genre-defining stories I didn’t find it as enjoyable as the works of authors who refined the formula (e.g. H. P. Lovecraft), but it was still interesting, if rather predictable and verbose.

Title: Othello
Author: William Shakespeare
Genre: Play
Pages: 180 (about half was commentary)
Rating: 4 of 5

I wasn’t going to review this because I kind of did so when I reviewed New Boy, but for the sake of being able to say I reviewed everything I read this year I’ll include it. A lot of people see this as being primarily about race since Othello is a Moor, but it is much more about jealousy and ambition (fueled only partly by racism). The despicable, manipulative Iago just might be one of the nastiest villains in Shakespeare. A great tragedy (though I prefer Hamlet and “The Scottish Play”).

And with that I’ve reviewed all the books I have read so far this year (63 of them)!