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.

SF&F Mini-Reviews

It’s time to take a little break from the busyness that engulfs my life between Thanksgiving and New Year’s and catch up with a few mini reviews. In the order I read them, here are a handful of Fantasy & Sci-fi(ish) books that I read over the last few months:

All Systems Red (Kindle Single): The Murderbot Diaries by [Wells, Martha]Title: All Systems Red
(Murderbot Diaries – Book 1)
Author: Martha Wells
Genre: Survival/AI Sci-fi
Pages: 154
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Meet Murderbot. Our protagonist/narrator is a security cyborg who has hacked its governor module, essentially making it a heavily-armed illegal unfettered AI. All that Murderbot really wants is to be left alone to enjoy its collection of cheap soap opera-esque entertainment…but dangerous, sinister things keep happening on this seemingly routine scientific mission.

I loved the characterization of Murderbot as it tries to keep its independent status a secret while struggling with what it means to be human. I plan on eventually continuing the series, but that brings me to the one downside: the way this is sold feels like a cynical money-grab. This could easily be one longish book rather than spreading it out across 4 or 5 novellas and charging $9.99 a piece for most of them!

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by [Ligotti, Thomas]Title: Songs of a Dead Dreamer & Grimscribe
Author: Thomas Ligotti
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Pages: 464
Rating: 4 of 5

If you are into Lovecraftian horror, you need to check out this collection of Thomas Ligotti’s early fiction. These stories don’t feature Lovecraft’s alien god-monsters (Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!), but more subtly toy with the same themes of forbidden sanity-blasting knowledge and an ominous something/nothing lurking out there.

As with any collection, the quality varies quite a bit. There were a couple stories that left me saying “that was just gross/dumb/pointless,” but this was by far the best cosmic horror collection I read this year.

Title: How To:
Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems
Author: Randall Munroe
Genre: Absurd Science
Pages: 320
Rating: 5 of 5

So, this isn’t fiction, but (as the subtitle states) it is a collection of utterly impractical scientific advice. It covers everything from how to host a pool party (focusing on how to make and fill your pool), to moving your house (using jet engines), to the practicalities of installing a lava moat. All of this is accompanied by illustrations in the author’s classic XKCD style. It’s both funny and educational!

Title: Prophets of the Ghost Ants
(Antasy Series – Book 1)
Author: Clark Thomas Carlton
Genre: Science Fantasy
Pages: 608
Rating: 3 of 5

First of all, thank you to Mogsy @ Bibliosanctum for the giveaway where I won this! The best part of this book is the world-building: a world in which the only land or air-dwelling creatures are bugs and bug-sized people. How the author develops the societies, politics, and warfare of this world is quite interesting. There are lots of scientific goodies related to ant colonies…and a lot to be grossed out by if bugs (and eating bugs) disgusts you.

Personally, I was a bit annoyed at the overall preachiness of the book (monotheism is the cause of most suffering, all religion is purely man-made, the utopian society is based on secular humanism that condescendingly tolerates the foolish theistic beliefs of others as long as they keep it to themselves, etc.). The protagonist comes from the lowest/untouchable caste in his colony and by turns I admires his pluck and ingenuity and was turned off by his brutal pragmatism even as he preened in his moral superiority. Overall, it was interesting enough that I’ll eventually get around to reading the next book, but the preachiness and inconsistency was a bit off-putting.

Title: Mechanical Failure
(Epic Failure – Book 1)
Author (& Narrator): Joe Zieja
Genre: Hilarious Military Sci-fi
Pages: 352
Rating: 4.5 of 5

If you enjoy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and/or the Discworld novels, you should read this. There’s nothing terribly deep here, but it’s good stupid fun.

The 200 Years (and counting) Peace has made the military a haven of slackers and swindlers…at least that was the case when R. Wilson Rogers left the military to pursue more lucrative (and less legal) ventures. When Rogers reluctantly reenlists, he quickly discovers that military discipline is now the order of the day and the military may actually have to fight someone. Cue a series of absurd command decisions, whiney complaints, interaction with overly-logical robots, all-around ineptitude, and several epic failures.

This book had me laughing harder than anything else I read this year. Granted, physical exhaustion from current work schedule may have contributed to that a bit, but it’s a funny book! I listened to it as an audiobook read by the author, and his expression (including a synthesized filter for some of the robots) added a lot to the experience. Highly recommended!

Not-so-triumphant Return

Unusual Uses for Olive Oil (Professor Dr von Igelfeld Series Book 4) by [Smith, Alexander Mccall]Title: Unusual Uses for Olive Oil
(Professor Dr. von Igelfeld – Book 4)
Author: Alexander McCall Smith
Genre: General Fiction – Humor
Pages: 203
Rating: 3 of 5

Professor Dr. Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld’s over inflated sense of scholarly importance combines with an inappropriate amount of self-confidence in some social situations, a complete lack of self-awareness in others, and German literalness and embarrassment over emotions to make a ridiculous yet charming character. His pointless adventures in cycles of loosely-connected short stories amuse, entertain, and poke gentle fun at German academics…at least in the first three books.

This one was a bit of a dud. It had its moments of humorous cluelessness and hubris but a lot of it felt like it was just not different enough from the jokes and petty bickering that we’d already seen in the other books (and our hero’s nemesis, Dr. Detlev Amadeus Unterholzer didn’t seem to be quite himself). If you like the original series this might be worth reading to see what our distinguished professors are up to, but it just isn’t as good as the original Two and a Half Pillars of Wisdom trilogy.

Also, this is my 12th book in the TBR Pile Challenge. I read my two alternates instead of the first two on the original list, so I may still read those, but I’ve finished enough books to complete the challenge!

Irony?

Title: Why Poetry Sucks:
An Anthology of Humorous Experimental Canadian Poetry in English Written by Canadians for Canadians (or American Bodysnatchers) in the Early Years of the 21st Century with an Overly Long and Not That Clever Subtitle the Publisher Rightly Refused to Put on the Cover
Editors: Ryan Fitzpatrick & Jonathan Ball
Genre: Poetry
Pages: 293
Rating: 1 of 5

Isn’t that subtitle hilarious? Let me point out that the reason it is humorous is that it is significantly longer than a normal subtitle, thus subverting your expectations of what a subtitle should be. Additionally, see with what genius the editors have introduced a subtle tone of self-mockery by acknowledging that the publisher was right to refuse to include it in full on the book’s cover. Only true artists could have used something as banal as a subtitle to craft such delicious poetic irony.

…and that (with a few more academic buzzwords) is more-or-less what it’s like to read this book. The editors’ answer to “Why poetry sucks” is that it is perceived as being too deadly serious. To combat this perception they take us on a tour of experimental “poetry” they deem humorous, explaining exactly why it’s funny. For example:

Cabri’s poems provoke laughter at the place where the materiality of language meets its social construction, by estranging language from its “natural” usage to abstract it to a point where it might ironically do a better job of describing social/political/economic realities. (p. 81)

You know that’s going to be funny stuff! The “poetry” itself is as pretentious as it comes: replacing all the nouns and most of the verbs in a paragraph with the word needle, taking random facebook statuses and attributing them to various poets, posting a meme about experimental poetry and then presenting the resulting comments as experimental poetry, seeing how many puns you can make on an obscenity in a short paragraph, etc.

In my opinion, this whole book is the prime example of why we Philistines think that (pretentious) poetry sucks. Irony?

Nothing but Rabbit Trails

Title: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
Author: Laurence Sterne
Genre: 18th Century Classic
Pages: 540
Rating: 3 of 5

Have you ever wanted to read a book that was one long string of digressions and rabbit trails, detouring through risqué jokes and never quite getting to the alleged point of the story? Then this is the book for you! Our narrator and eponymous hero isn’t even born until somewhere in volume 3 (of 9), and we learn far more about the life and opinions of his absurdly opinionated father and sweet, eccentric Uncle Toby than his own.

The whole series-of-ridiculous-digressions “plot,” naughty jokes (more than half left to the imagination and self-censored with lines of asterisks), and other weird typographical  choices (a marbled page, curly lines representing the plot up to this point, chapter lengths varying from a couple dozen pages to a single sentence, etc.) were amusing at first and made my chuckle occasionally. However, 540 pages of it (and this is a relatively low page-count edition) was a bit much. Also, I read this in an edition completely without explanatory notes of any kind, so I’m sure that a lot of the literary-allusion humor was lost on me. It was interesting to read as an example of British humor before the straight-laced Victorians, but I’d suggest getting an annotated version of some sort if you decide to read it so that you can fully appreciate it.

And one more thing: I’m using this for my Very Long Classic (>500 pages) category over at the Back to the Classics ChallengeMy edition was 540 pages and many (most?) are significantly longer.

Prank Ads

Title: Race Me in a Lobster Suit:
Absurd Internet Ads and the Real Conversations that Followed
Author: Kelly Mahon
Genre: Humor / Trolling
Pages: 208
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 3/26/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review).

How much you enjoy this book will depend entirely on your sense of humor. If you like prank phone calls or trolling people in a way that occasionally veers into “blue” territory, this is right up your alley.

The author records her exploits in posting absurd ads (e.g. looking for someone to act as a human piñata) and carrying on increasingly bizarre conversations via email with anyone desperate or curious enough to respond. The conversations mostly involve increasingly difficult, demanding, disturbing, and/or dangerous requests until the responder gets annoyed or weirded-out enough to quit.  At times it’s difficult to tell who is trolling whom. Personally, I thought that most of the ads were funnier than the conversations that followed. Overall, it’s pretty juvenile and occasionally a bit crude for my taste, but I’ll admit that it did have me chuckling in more than a couple places.

Catch-up with Mini Reviews

I’m starting to fall behind on reviews, so it’s time for a bunch of mini-reviews! No unifying theme…this is just the order in which I read them.

Title: Enforcer:
The Shira Calpurnia Omnibus
Author: Matthew Farrer
Genre: Military Sci-fi (Warhammer 40,000 universe)
Pages: 859
Rating: 3 of 5

Space marines bore me, so if I’m going to read a Warhammer 40K book, I usually go for the stories featuring other kinds of characters. This trilogy omnibus features Shira Calpurnia, an “adeptus arbites” – basically a combination of detective, SWAT, and judge. For me, the main interest in these stories came from their exploration of the inner workings and politics of groups like rogue traders, the ecclesiarchy, and the arbites themselves. At times Shira Calpurnia all but disappears from the stories as the scheming going on around her is far more interesting than anything she does in response to it. I never expect Warhammer 40,000 books to be anything more than pulp-y escapist sci-fi, and by that standard this was a decent read.

The Ministry of Fear by [Greene, Graham]Title: The Ministry of Fear
Author: Graham Greene
Genre: Thriller / Espionage
Pages: 226
Rating: 3.5 of  5

In this classic thriller Graham Greene weaves an improbable but entertaining spy yarn. He mixes in all the ingredients of an over the top “ordinary man accidentally caught up in a vast conspiracy” story and a “man with a guilty conscience due to past transgressions” story, all set during the London blitz…and somehow it works. It does have a good dose of Graham’s usual bleak cynicism as well, but it is well worth reading if you like that kind of espionage tale.

Title: A Biblical Answer for Racial Unity
Authors: H. B. Charles Jr., Danny Akin, Juan Sanchez, Richard Caldwell, Jim Hamilton, Owen Strachan, Carl Hargrove, Christian George
Genre: Theology/Philosophy, Race Relations
Pages: 122
Rating: 3 of 5

This is essentially a lightly edited version of nine sermons/speeches given at a conference on racial unity. If you want a very basic survey of some general biblical principles that apply to racial unity, this is worth your time. However, if you are looking for actual “where the rubber meets the road” applications, you won’t find many here other than the most basic and generalized.

1000 Years of Annoying the French by [Clarke, Stephen]Title: 1,000 Years of Annoying the French
Author: Stephen Clarke
Genre: Anglo-French History / Humor
Pages: 506
Rating: 4 of 5

In this humorously biased history, Stephen Clarke chronicles the long history of mutual antagonism between France and England (starting with the Norman Conquest). Along the way he delights in pointing out French self-sabotage and does his best to suck the grandeur out of any French accomplishments. The book is a lot of fun to read and contains a lot of great trivia…just don’t use it as a main source for serious research.

Title: Dear Committee Members
Author: Julie Schumacher
Genre: Humor/Satire
Pages: 192
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Last year Julie Schumacher’s The Shakespeare Requirement came in 6th on my Top 10 list.  That was the sequel to this book, which was just as enjoyable. As I said with The Shakespeare Requirement: if you’ve ever been involved in academia and/or some similar buzz-wordy bureaucratic job, you should really read this book. This one is in the format of dozens of letters of recommendation written by a harassed English professor in a struggling university. Cleverly mixed in with the recommendations is the story of his rather pathetic personal and professional life and ongoing battle with the all-powerful economics department.

Title: Superheroes Can’t Save You:
Epic Examples of Historic Heresies
Author: Todd Miles
Genre: Theology (Christology)
Pages: 208
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Theology professor and self-professed comic book aficionado Todd Miles uses seven different superheroes to illustrate various Christological heresies (wrong beliefs about Jesus Christ according to classic Christian theology). For example, Ant-Man illustrates modalism in which rather than the Trinity being three separate co-equal co-eternal persons, it is simply one person who presents himself in three modes. For each heresy Miles gives a brief survey of its history, a biblical explanation of why it is unscriptural, and a warning as to why (even though this makes for a cool superhero) a Jesus with this nature would be insufficient to provide eternal salvation. This is fairly basic theology, but it’s a fun way to be exposed to the classic Christian understanding of who Jesus is.

Title: The Red Record
Author: Ida B. Wells
Genre: History of Lynching
Pages: 102
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This book/pamphlet was an emotionally difficult read but it is historically important. Ida B. Wells records (sometimes in heartrending detail) many instances of racially motivated lynchings in the late 1800’s and pleads for people to take notice and speak out against it. For me it was a painful reminder that far too many white Christians have been (and sometimes still are) shamefully complicit in racial injustice either actively or through passively standing by and doing nothing while mumbling some variation of “they brought it on themselves.” The writing itself is a little repetitive and spends maybe a bit too much time on the feud between Ida Wells and the head of the Christian Women’s Temperance Union, but that does not detract from its importance.

Visual Dad Jokes

Title: The Ultimate Droodles Compendium:
The Absurdly Complete Compendium of All the Classic Zany Creations
Author: Roger Price (Author), Fritz Holznagel (Editor)
Genre: Comics / Humor / Art / Biography
Pages: 280
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Release Date: March 6, 2019 (Thank you to the publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This does not affect the content of the review)

When I was ten or eleven years old I found a book of brainteasers that had belonged to my mom when she was about that age. The most interesting things in it were these strange “guess what this is” line drawings called droodles. Most of them were pretty much unguessable and made you groan when you read the answer. They were basically visual dad jokes. I especially remember one a lot like this (courtesy of wikipedia):

In case you’re wondering, that is four elephants sniffing a grapefruit (as well as several other possible unrelated answers). The most famous droodle is “ship arriving too late to save a drowning witch” which was used as an album cover by Frank Zappa.

It turns out these things were somewhat of a fad back in the 50’s and 60’s. I’m a child of the 80’s and only encountered them once before by chance, so I had no idea they were such a big deal until running across this book on NetGalley. This large collection provides plenty of laughs/groans depending on your sense of humor…my wife and daughters inform me that they’re mostly stupid, but they think the same thing about my (dad) jokes.

Aside from the absurdist humor, it is entertaining to see the little stories and slices of life that Robert Price could conjure with a few simple lines, squiggles, and shapes…and frequently adds to with meandering tangential footnotes. His mind certainly worked in strange ways. That said, I didn’t find the biographical section at the end terribly interesting. However, I’m not usually much into biographies of pop culture icons, so that’s just my own personal taste.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed this collection of visual dad jokes and would highly recommend it to fans of absurdist humor and/or minimalist art and creativity.

That one student…

43358773Title: The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N
Author: Leonard Q. Ross (aka Leo Rosten)
Genre: Classic Humor
Pages: 176
Rating: 4 of 5

In my college language classes (English & Greek) I had a classmate who was always ready to stand up and enthusiastically share his compositions or translations with the class. His answers frequently left the professor with a look of disbelief on his face while he tried to figure out how to even start correcting the beaming student. More than once, poor Mr. Smith looked like he was thinking about throwing himself out the window (if only it weren’t on the ground floor), and Dr. Brown once said, “No, I said translate verse 10” only to hear “that was verse 10.” This book took me right back to those classes.

The book follows the travails of Mr. Parkhill, the beginners class teacher at the American Night Preparatory School for Adults as he tries to teach English to immigrants, including the irrepressible Hyman Kaplan (aka H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N). Most of the humor revolves around Mr. Kaplan’s enthusiastic mispronunciation and misuse of English (e.g. “Bad, Worse, Rotten”).

Some readers might find this offensive (it certainly isn’t PC), but since the focus is generally on Mr. Kaplan’s self-assurance and unique thought process driving his teacher to distraction I felt that it was more about his charmingly ridiculous personality than a dig at immigrants. The other classmates show a more realistic portrait of someone trying to learn this ridiculous language of ours. After a while the jokes were a little one-note, but Mr. Kaplan reminded me so much of my classmate (who similarly butchered English in spite of it being his native language) and of the frustration of trying to teach English as a second language (which I did part time for about a year) that I was thoroughly amused.

I am using this for my Classic Comic Novel category over at the Back to the Classics challenge.

A Worthy/Hilarious Sequel

Soul Remains (Terribly Serious Darkness) by [Hooker, Sam]Title: Soul Remains
(Terribly Serious Darkness: Book 2)
Author: Sam Hooker
Genre: Dark Fantasy / Satire
Pages: 330
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: 4/23/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC. This in no way affects the content of the review)

Warning: to avoid angry swearing (and the resultant summoning of goblins) be advised that after this initial paragraph there will be terribly serious spoilers for the first book in the series: Peril in the Old CountryNot only should you not read beyond this paragraph if you have not read Peril in the Old Country, but you should also not read Soul Remains. The absurdist plot to this book picks up shortly after the previous one left off and does not bother to do much in the way of reintroducing characters or recapping storylines in the web of plots that have ensnared the pathetic, neurotic Sloot Peril. Suffice it to say, it is well worth your time to read both of these hilarious books as long as you don’t mind cliffhanger endings. Now, off you go to check out the first book if you want to avoid having its ending spoiled…

…Okay, if you’re still here you know (or are about to find out) that the first book ended with many of the characters dying (very Blackadder), including poor Sloot crushed to death under a pile of goblins. Sloot, being the unlucky fellow that he is, is not permitted to rest in peace (though possibly in pieces). He remains enmeshed in all the various plots and counterplots with the added inconvenience of being a ghost who can be summoned, banished, etc. All of this makes the book a bit more disjointed and surreal than the first one, but no less entertaining. The author takes satirical potshots at a wide variety of topics and tropes (he has a whole new set to work with since half of the characters are now dead-ish) and throws in witty turns of phrase that kept me chuckling throughout. The book again ended on a cliffhanger, which I’m still not a fan of, but at least I was expecting it this time…and I can’t wait for the next book to come out.