Back to the Classics Wrap-up

Since I just finished my final book for the Back to the Classics 2018 challenge, it’s time for the big wrap-up. A huge thank you to Karen @ Books and Chocolate for putting this together and hosting it. It provides great incentive to include at least a dozen classics in the year’s reading. I read a book for each of the twelve categories, so I get three entries in the final prize drawing. My books for each category were:

A 19th Century Classic: Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow by Jerome K. Jerome – This collection of humorous essays is a must-read for fans of wry humor (as long as you don’t mind wading through a lot of maudlin sentimentality that may or may not be intended humorously).

A 20th Century Classic: Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann – This modern retelling of the Faust legend explores the connection between genius and madness, but by the end I found it overblown and pretentious.

A Classic by a Woman Author: Silas Marner by George Eliot – I greatly enjoyed this “reclamation” story which is something along the lines of a non-supernatural version of Dickens’ Christmas Carol (Dickens loved it and wrote  her a “fan letter”).

A Classic in Translation: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas – I know I’m in the minority, but I didn’t care for this classic tale of revenge.

A Children’s Classic: The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame – I will be recommending this charming little book to my children.

A Classic Crime Story: The Grifters by Jim Thompson – Thompson provides the fairly standard downward-slide-into-tragedy that you expect from this kind of crime noir but with some creepy oedipal stuff in the mix. Well written, but a bit too sleazy for my taste.

A Classic Travel or Journey Narrative: The Canterbury Tales – In spite of the (to me) unfunny obsession with adultery & misogyny, Chaucer is witty and adept at painting memorable characters.

A Classic with a Single-word Title: Nostromo by Joseph Conrad – Conrad displays his trademark bleakness here. Personally, I think it packed more impact in the much shorter Heart of Darkness than in this 400+ page depressing book.

A Classic with a Color in the Title: Black No More by George S. Schuyler – This biting satire is by turns hilarious and grim as the author explores an alternate US in which a medical procedure can turn black people into white people.

A Classic by an Author That’s New to You: Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier – I wouldn’t necessarily say that I liked this book, but the atmosphere and characterization were superb.

A Classic That Scares You: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway – I hated Hemingway in high school, but decided to be brave and give him another shot. I didn’t hate it this time, but he’s still not my cup of tea.

Re-read a Favorite Classic: The Poetic Edda by Anonymous – Who wouldn’t want to read about cross-dressing Thor, Loki getting in an insult contest with the rest of the gods, and the final showdown at Ragnarok?

And there you have it! (If I happen to win the drawing you can contact me Here.)

Relatable Awkwardness

Title: Super Chill:
A Year of Living Anxiously
Author/Artist: Adam Ellis
Genre: Comic Strips
Pages: 120
Rating: 4.5 of 5
(Thank you to the artist and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of this review)

If you’re anxious and socially awkward, this book is for you (it might also be for you if you just like laughing at anxious, socially awkward people, but that’s not very nice). With this collection of autobiographical comics, Adam Ellis invites us into his struggles, neuroses, and obsessions. I’m an extremely introverted person whose job requires a lot of social interaction, and I found a lot of these both relatable and hilarious. A few of them seem to be just weird for the sake of being weird, but as a fan of Gary Larson those work for me too. Overall, I highly recommend this for a good laugh (and the reassurance that you’re not the only anxious person out there).

Trivia (and Poop)

Title: True or Poo?:
The Definitive Guide to Filthy Animal Facts and Falsehoods
Authors: Nick Caruso & Dani Rabaiotti
Genre: Science (Zoology/Scatology)
Pages: 160
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 10/23/18 (Thank you to the authors and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of this review)

The subtitle says it all: look no further for an entertaining collection of gross animal trivia. Apparently this is number two in the authors’ juvenile yet educational zoology series that began with Does It Fart?.

This collection is a little less one note than the first one, in that it gives a statement about an animal and asks whether it is “true or poo.” The facts are loosely grouped into topics like mating/parenting, eating, and (of course) pooping. While a few “true or poo” questions are about common animal myths (e.g. camels store water in their humps), most are just a way to introduce an odd fact about an animal and then launch into a short description of some of its interesting characteristics. I learned some things, even in the sections that started with a common animal myth that everyone over the age of 6 knows to be false.

The explanations are light and humorous with occasional innuendoes that might not be appropriate for a younger audience (but might just go over their heads) and plenty of gross facts sure to delight people like my 9-year-old son (I’m honestly not sure what age group this is aimed at). Fun little cartoony illustrations are scattered throughout the book as an added bonus.

For me, the preoccupation with poo (while not surprising given the title) wore thin after a while. However I did have a lot of fun reading this and definitely recommend it as a fun read and a source of great trivia to astound and disgust your friends and family.

Hilarious Cynicism

Title: Emotions Explained with Buff Dudes
Author/Artist: Andrew Tsyaston
Genre: Comic Strips
Pages: 112
Rating: 5 of 5
(Thank you to the artist and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

I’ve occasionally chuckled and bothered my wife with a “come look at this!” when comics from Owlturd floated past on social media… but apparently I’m too lazy to actively go out looking for them, so having 100+ pages of them gathered in one place was awesome! As the title/cover suggests, this collection mostly features personifications of emotions, life, personality types, etc.

The humor is fairly cynical/pessimistic which appeals to me, even though it probably shouldn’t (as a pastor I may have seen human nature at its worst a little too often). I think that I laughed the hardest at the Type A / Type B personality comparisons as they were pretty spot on for my wife and me. I’ll leave you to guess which of us is which.

Overall, this was the funniest thing that I have read in a long time. If your sense of humor tends toward the cynical, you must read it!

Peril in the North Country

Title: The Winter Riddle
Author: Sam Hooker
Genre: Humorous Fantasy
Pages: 338
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: 11/1/18 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review.)

I discovered Sam Hooker’s writing a few months ago with his Black Spot Press debut: Peril in the Old Country (review here). I enjoyed that book so much that I jumped at the chance to read this one.

Stir together a mirthfully unhinged monarch who is best friends with Loki, her sister who is the Winter Witch, Santa Claus (seen wielding a war hammer on the cover…so you can expect someone a little different from the “right jolly old elf”), battle-loving Vikings, and various other mythical/magical beings and you just know this is going to be good! Our protagonist is the Winter Witch who just wants to be left in peace to do witchy things – but what fun would that be for our story? When she helps Loki play a prank on himself, things quickly spiral out of control…and that’s about all I can say without spoilers. Along the way there are plenty of laugh out loud moments and some genuine character growth that didn’t feel preachy or moralizing.

Apparently this is a reworked version of the author’s previously self-published first novel, and I think it shows a little bit. The pacing and plotting weren’t as even and tight as in Peril in the Old Country, but it was still a rolicking good tale.  And this one didn’t end on a major cliffhanger, which is a big plus for me! Pacing issues aside, this is definitely worth reading if you enjoy humorous fantasy, and I am looking forward to whatever Sam Hooker writes next.

Innuendos & Poop Jokes

Title: Kill the Farm Boy
Authors: Kevin Hearne & Delilah S. Dawson
Genre: Fantasy Satire
Pages: 384
Rating: 2 of 5
Future Release Date: 7/17/18 (Thank you to the authors and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of this review)

This book promised to be a hilarious romp through every imaginable fantasy trope. If your sense of humor is that of the average young teenage boy, it might deliver on that promise. There were some laugh out loud moments, but the truly clever bits were buried under a flood of adolescent humor. The book is essential one big compilation of gross-out jokes and innuendos (e.g. the elven kingdom of Morningwood provides the authors a seemingly endless source of raunchy puns).

I can’t say much about the plot without spoilers, but I will say that they did indeed cleverly tweak most of the classic tropes. What they did with the “chosen one” trope was particularly entertaining. For me, the constant stream of poo & sex jokes got old very quickly and overshadowed the cleverness. For humorous/satirical fantasy I’d recommend sticking with Discworld or maybe Peril in the Old Country (another eARC I reviewed here).

Miscellaneous Mini Reviews

It’s time to get caught up with some mini reviews:

Camber of Culdi (The Legends of Camber of Culdi Book 1) by [Kurtz, Katherine]Title: Camber of Culdi
(Volume 1 of The Legend of Camber of Culdi)
Author: Katherine Kurtz
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Pages: 277
Rating: 3.5 of 5

If you’re into court intrigue featuring a race (the Deryni) with telepathic, telekinetic, teleportation, teletcetera powers, this may be the book for you. In this alternate Medieval Gwynedd, the new Deryni monarch is an oppressive tyrant to his human subjects. The wise Deryni lord, Camber MacRorie, must step up and counteract this unjust ruler. Cue pages and pages of plotting and counter-plotting and trying to prod a reluctant conspirator into assuming his birthright. It was well-written and had a certain building tension, but the “chivying someone into ‘doing the right thing'” trope is one of my least favorites so my personal reading experience suffered a bit. Also, I’m pretty sure this is a prequel trilogy to a long-established series in which Camber is a legendary character of the distant past, so I think I would have enjoyed it more had I read the original books first. (kind of like how The Magicians Nephew is actually not the best place to start The Chronicles of Narnia…read them in order of writing! And I won’t go any further with that thought lest I get up on my soapbox)

Title: Killer in the Rain
Author: Raymond Chandler
Genre:  Noir/Hardboiled Detective Short Stories
Pages: 394
Rating: 4 of 5

When Raymond Chandler wrote his Philip Marlowe novels, he “cannibalized” a number of his short stories for characters and plots. This collection assembles eight of those short stories. None star Philip Marlowe, but you can see the protagonists becoming increasingly like him. Some of the plots are almost identical to the novels that came out of them, and some differ fairly significantly.  This is worth reading if you’re a Chandler fan, but I’d strongly recommend reading the novels first so that you can appreciate the superior works without spoilers.

Title: The Code of the Woosters
Author: P. G. Wodehouse
Genre: Classic Humor
Pages: 272
Rating: 4 of 5

If you’ve read one Jeeves & Wooster book you’ve read them all. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as they’re all good for a laugh. However, don’t read them too close together or they all sort of run together and you can’t remember what to say about them other than that they are enjoyable, which is pretty much what happened with this one…Bertie was good-hearted but inept, Jeeves saved the day with the magic word Eulalie, and it was enjoyable.

Title: Now That’s a Good Question:
How to Lead Quality Bible Discussion
Author: Terry Powell
Genre: Teaching Theory
Pages: 96
Rating: 4

This book has excellent suggestions for how to generate useful, thought-provoking discussion questions for small groups (or any other ministry that allows for interactive teaching). It also has some decent guidelines for putting together a Bible study if you are a beginner. To me, the few “teamwork” exercises scattered throughout the book felt like the kind of stupid “rah-rah let’s all pretend that this is beneficial but it’s really just obnoxiously cheery and insulting to our intelligence” exercises that I had to suffer through at various job orientations (though maybe I’m just emotionally scarred by past experience).

The biggest weakness of the book was in its formatting. Some pages looked like the content was just barfed onto it in a jumble of font sizes and styles, bullet points, block quotes, infoboxes, and awkward stock photos. I think it’s supposed to look light and playful, but it comes across amateurish. I mean, what is this?!

Tacky Formatting
Where do I look first?!

Overall, despite the tacky formatting, I highly recommend this book for new teachers in church ministries.

Some Mini Reviews

It’s time to get caught up on the books that I’ve read that didn’t warrant a full scale review (which doesn’t necessarily mean that I didn’t enjoy them):

Title: Saga of the Jomsvikings
Translator: Lee Hollander
Genre: Norse Saga
Pages: 116
Rating: 3 of 5

I enjoy Norse mythology (especially in poetic form) but find the more historical prose sagas a bit “meh.” There is certainly historical, cultural, and poetic interest in this tale of a brotherhood of warriors and their participation in a major battle with Earl Hakon, but the Old Norse style is a bit dry.

Image result for the informer liam o'flahertyTitle: The Informer
Author: Liam O’Flaherty
Genre: Irish Crime/Noir
Pages: 189
Rating: 4 of 5

This felt a lot like Crime & Punishment…if it were set in Ireland during “the troubles” and the protagonist was a brutish moron instead of a sensitive, philosophical type. We get to watch the mental torment of an oaf who betrays his friend as the vengeance-seeking revolutionary party plays a game of cat and mouse with him. The plot crawls through the seedy underbelly of Dublin and was surprisingly deeper/better than I expected.

Image result for Night Squad GoodisTitle: Night Squad
Author: David Goodis
Genre: Crime/Noir
Pages: 200
Rating: 4 of 5

This is a good, solid noir tale, featuring an ex-cop, who unlike his “chump” father (an honest cop  killed in the line of duty), looks out for his own interests even if it means a bit of corruption. He eventually finds himself working for the local mobster and reinstated as a cop on the infamous Night Squad. This isn’t necessarily Goodis’ best work (Dark Passage is much better), but it’s well worth a read if you’re a fan of noir.

Image result for Right ho Jeeves book coverTitles: Right Ho, Jeeves / Thank You, Jeeves
Author: P. G. Wodehouse
Genre: Classic Humor
Pages: 256 / 282
Ratings: 4.5 & 5 of 5

I love the Jeeves and Wooster books, and these are two of the best. Unlike the previous books in the series, these are each one continuous (though episodic) story rather than a collection of loosely related short stories. As usual, good-hearted but dim Bertie Wooster tries to help his friends and relations, gets himself in trouble (which usually means engaged to someone he doesn’t want to marry) and has to be rescued by his genius valet (which frequently seems to involve temporarily throwing Bertie under the bus, but it’s all good in the end).

Title: The Adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser
(omnibus containing Swords & Deviltry, Swords Against Death, & Swords in the Mist)
Author: Fritz Leiber
Genre: Swords & Sorcery
Pages: 520
Rating: 3 of 5

There’s really not a whole lot to say about this one. It’s fairly standard antihero swords and sorcery featuring a northern barbarian (basically a less broody, less rapey Conan) and a thief/swordsman who dabbles in magic (though we seldom see him use any). It’s entertaining enough but nothing special.

Title: Immeasurable:
Reflections on the Soul of Ministry in the Age of Church, Inc.
Author: Skye Jethani
Genre: Practical Theology
Pages: 210
Rating: 4 of 5

This insightful little book offers bite-size reflections on what it looks like to biblically lead, serve in, and be the church in a day when many churches and Christians are all about counting attendance, perpetuating programs, offering the “full service church” experience, and honoring celebrity pastors. While I disagree with some of his views on preaching (e.g. that it should inspire rather than teach), it offers some thought-provoking insights that would be helpful for both pastors and church members.

Wry Humor & Maudlin Sentimentality

Idle thoughtsTitle: Idle Thoughts of and Idle Fellow
Author: Jerome K. Jerome
Genre: Classic Humor
Pages: 210
Rating: 4 of 5

This collection of humorous essays by the author Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) is entertaining right from the get-go as he dedicates the book to his pipe. As he covers topics like clothing, food and drink, babies, pets, and (of course) idleness, he occasionally flirts with trying to sound cynical and “wicked” like Oscar Wilde but mostly he swings back and forth between wry humor and Victorian maudlin sentimentality and ends up sounding like a real-life Bertie Wooster. As with Three Men in a Boat, it’s hard to tell whether the sentimental bits are intended seriously or sarcastically… perhaps a bit of both.

While not quite as funny as Three Men in a Boat, it is well worth reading for fans of wry humor. I had the added joy of reading it in the old copy pictured here that I got from my wife’s Grandfather. I’m not sure how old it is, but the gift inscription in it is from Christmas 1896.

Also, I’m using this for my 19th Century Classic category at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

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)!