Micro Reviews

Recently, by the time I get done preparing my weekly sermons, Bible studies, counseling, fire-dousing, etc. my writing and creative ability is sapped for the day. I am definitely in need of the vacation that I have coming up in a few weeks. That said, I don’t want to completely neglect this blog or leave too many books unreviewed, so here are a handful of one to three sentence reviews (none of the usual formatting…I’m weary):

The First World War by John Keegan – I don’t find WW1 especially interesting, but wanted to get a good overview of it. This book provided just that: a solid surface-level overview in a rather dry, businesslike style. (Rating: 4.5 of 5)

The Secular Creed by Rebecca McLaughlin – In this short book, McLaughlin interacts with many of the slogans found on the kind of yard signs that begin “In this house we believe…”. Using a blend of social science data and Scripture she shows if (and how) each one fits into a biblical worldview. After reading this and Confronting Christianity, McLaughlin is one of my new favorite authors. (Rating: 5 out of 5)

Tinfoil Dossier Series (Agents of Dreamland, Black Helicopters, & The Tindalos Asset) by Caitlin R. Kiernan – Blending modern paranoid conspiracy theory thinking with Lovecraftian elements is a pretty cool idea for a series of novellas. Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy the execution at all as it was trippy to the point of being nearly incomprehensible and laced with massive amounts of profanity and perversion (e.g. incest). (Rating: 2 out of 5)

Jack Aubrey & Stephen Maturin Series (Master & Commander, etc.) by Patrick O’Brian – Historical fiction isn’t usually my thing, but these books are a lot of fun so far. Three books in, I’m definitely enjoying the Napoleonic Wars era exploits of the the blustering Captain Jack Aubrey & his friend the somewhat eccentric Dr. Stephen Maturin (both at sea and on shore in polite society). (Rating: 4 out of 5)

Single & Single by John LeCarré – This story dives into the world of high-level money laundering and all its attendant corruption. As usual with LeCarré, the book was interesting without really providing any likeable characters. Also, somewhere after his George Smiley books LeCarré seems to have lost the ability/will to write a dénouement, as the last three books I have read by him have ended abruptly with a ton of loose ends. (Rating 3 out of 5)

Several Series Started

This year I have started reading/listening through a few different series and trilogies. I don’t plan on reviewing every book because that can get a bit repetitive and/or spoilery, so I’ll be doing a big overall review as I finish each series or trilogy. That said, here is my current impression of each one (picture is of the first book in each series):

A Dead Djinn in Cairo: A Tor.Com Original by [P. Djèlí Clark]

Series: Fatma el-Sha’arawi
Author: P. Djèlí Clark
Genre: Urban Fantasy / Alternate History / Detective
Read: 2 of 3 (first 2 are novellas)

This alternate history features a fascinating early 20th century Cairo transformed by constant contact with the world of the djinn. There are elements of magic, steampunk, and liberal politics. The author has a tendency to be a little bit preachy, but it doesn’t generally come at the expense of a good detective story. I am looking forward to reading the first full-length novel in the series.

All Systems Red (Kindle Single): The Murderbot Diaries by [Martha Wells]

Series: The Murderbot Diaries
Author: Martha Wells
Genre: Sci-fi
Read: 1 of 6 (mostly novella-length).

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 massive collection of cheap soap opera-esque entertainment. I’m only one book in so I’m not sure where the overall story-arc is going to go, but watching Murderbot navigating the world of humans and their schemes has proved entertaining so far.

The Big Sleep: A Novel (Philip Marlowe series Book 1) by [Raymond Chandler, Richard Amsel Movie Tie-In Cover]

Series: Philip Marlowe
Author: Raymond Chandler
Genre: Hardboiled Detective
Read: 2 of 7 (rereading)

Hardboiled detective fiction from the 1920’s-50’s is my go-to escapist genre, and Raymond Chandler is top tier (equaled only by Dashiell Hammett). His Philip Marlowe is smart (even making occasional literary allusions), tough, and snarky but actually a pretty nice guy. You do have to be able to cringe and then overlook some product-of-its-era prejudice/slurs to enjoy the genre.

Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel by [Joseph Fink, Jeffrey Cranor]

Series: Welcome to Night Vale
Authors: Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor
Genre: Lovecraftian Weird / Humor / Satire
Read: 2 of 3

I haven’t ever listened to the Welcome to Night Vale podcast (I don’t really do podcasts), so I don’t know how the books compare. These books give me weirdness overload. They have their funny moments but there is so much random strangeness (and occasional preachiness) that I’m having a hard time working up the motivation to read the final book.

The Last Wish: Introducing the Witcher (The Witcher Saga Book 1) by [Andrzej Sapkowski]

Series: The Witcher
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Genre: Grimdark-ish Fantasy
Read: 5 of 8

The first two books in the series are short story collections with a strong monster-hunter, fairytale-retelling vibe. Once the series actually kicks off, it has more of a Glen Cook Grimdark feel: heavy on the political machinations and reveling in moral ambiguity. There’s more profanity & explicit content than I really care for, but not enough to make me quit the series. I’m listening to these as audible audiobooks, and the narrator is excellent with voices and accents…but why oh why does he keep changing how he pronounces Dandelion’s name?!

De-bigoting Lovecraft

Reimagining Lovecraft: Four Tor.com Novellas: (The Ballad of Black Tom, The Dream-Quest of Vellit Boe, Hammers on Bone, Agents of Dreamland) by [Victor LaValle, Kij Johnson, Cassandra Khaw, Caitlin R. Kiernan]

Title: Reimagining Lovecraft
Four Tor.com Novellas
Authors: Victor LaValle, Kij Johnson, Cassandra Khaw, Caitlin R. Kiernan
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Pages: 342
Rating: 4 of 5

I enjoy stories that incorporate H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, but some of Lovecraft’s stories can be cringe-inducing for the wrong reasons. The man was virulently xenophobic, racist, etc. (I would say well beyond the “product of his era” racism/sexism that you would expect in many older authors), and his prejudices made their way into much of what he wrote.

The Four novels in this collection skillfully riff on Lovecraft’s mythos while avoiding (or even subverting) his bigotry. A general knowledge of the Cthulhu mythos will make these more interesting, but isn’t strictly necessary. Here is a quick mini-review for each one:

The Ballad of Black Tom: (4.5 out of 5)
This story follows a young hustler from Harlem who gets involved in the events described in Lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook. Having a relatively sympathetic black protagonist showing us “what really happened” turns a lot of the story’s racism and xenophobia on its head. This is the only straight-up retelling in this collection, and a knowledge of the Lovecraft original definitely gives it some extra punch.

The Dream Quest of Vellit Boe: (3.5 out of 5)
I find Lovecraft’s “dreamland” stories to be his least interesting (preferring his alien god-monsters), so this novella set in the world of The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath wasn’t my favorite. That said, it was clever to reverse the story by featuring a resident of dreamland on a quest to the waking world rather than the other way around. At times the author seems to be more interested in making a point (“patriarchy & theism bad”) than telling a story, but overall this tale of a middle-aged woman on a reverse dream quest was a more interesting than the original.

Hammers on Bone: (4.5 out of 5)
This novella fuses hardboiled detective fiction with the Cthulhu mythos and places it in a more-or-less modern setting. The author doesn’t follow any particular Lovecraft story, but rather pulls elements from all over the mythos. It’s really weird (and gross), but it definitely works.

Agents of Dreamland: (4 out of 5)
This first installment in the aptly named Tinfoil Dossier combines Area 51/tinfoil hat/black helicopters style conspiracy theories with Lovecraftian horror (especially The Whisperer in Darkness). It’s trippy, disturbing, and pretty open-ended. It was a bit more profanity-laced than I usually like to read, but another well-thought out reimagining of the mythos.

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.

Thirdhand Lovecraft

Title: The Last Ritual
(An Arkham Horror Novel)
Author: S. A. Sidor
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Pages: 352
Rating: 2.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 11/3/20 – Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This does not affect the content of the review.

I have never played any of the H. P. Lovecraft-inspired Arkham Horror cooperative games, so I have no idea how well this novel ties into the characters and mechanics. However, I have read a lot of Lovecraftian fiction and 1920’s detective fiction and, to be perfectly honest, this comes across as a watered down version of both.

There are some decent moments of surrealistic horror and creeping dread, but outside of those moments the writing and plotting did not impress. The investigation is desultory, characters react to disturbing events with unbelievable sangfroid, and the only real indication that we’re in the 1920’s is the presence of prohibition and bootleggers. Even “witch-haunted Arkham” seems watered down, deriving its sinister reputation primarily from prohibition-related crime and corruption rather than the sorts of things that Lovecraft et al. wrote about.

The horror set pieces saved this from being a complete waste of time, but its thirdhand nature (novel based on a game based on a writer’s works) weakened it to the point where it nearly slid into Scooby-Doo territory at times. If you’re a fan of Arkham Horror games you might want to give this a try, but if you’re just looking for Lovecraftian cosmic horror you can do a lot better elsewhere.

Weirdness Overload

Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel by [Joseph Fink, Jeffrey Cranor]Title: Welcome to Night Vale
Authors: Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor
Genre: Humorous Dystopian Weird Fiction + Urban Fantasy
Pages: 407
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This book reads like the unholy spawn of Douglas Adams and H. P. Lovecraft that was left on its own to watch untold hours of The Twilight Zone. Its quirky turn of phrase, foreboding Southwestern US setting, and mysterious dark forces (eldritch, dystopian, and librarian) come together in one of the strangest things I have read outside of a Franz Kafka novel.

In one of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books, a paragraph ends with the completely irrelevant observation: “A magician wandered along the beach, but no one needed him.” Welcome to Night Vale is loaded with this sort of weird little digression. Some of them may be references to characters and events from the Welcome to Night Vale podcast (which I have never listened to), but mostly they form a tapestry of weirdness against which the bizarre, bordering-on-farcical action occurs.

Characters include angels who are all named Erika [though no one is allowed to believe in angels so forget I said that], a teenage shapeshifter and his mother, and an eternally 19-year-old pawn shop clerk. I don’t know how to describe the plot without spoilers other than to say that it involves trying to figure out what is going on with a strange man who triggers a strange occurrence (though how anything can be considered strange in Night Vale is beyond me). Amid all the weirdness and witty phrases, it explores serious themes of growing up, family relationships, etc.

Overall, it was an entertaining read with its share of wit and wisdom, but it took me longer than usual to get through because I could only take it in small doses. There is so much random weirdness purely for the sake of being random and weird that I needed frequent breaks from the silliness of it all. I’ll probably pick up the next book in the series and/or check out the podcast at some point, but right now I’m all weirded out.

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.

Gods & Thieves

The Gutter Prayer (The Black Iron Legacy Book 1) by [Hanrahan, Gareth]Title: The Gutter Prayer
Author: Gareth Hanrahan
Genre: Dark Fantasy (Steampunk-ish)
Pages: 544
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Gareth Hanrahan borrows characterization and tropes from across fantasy and horror sub-genres, and somehow combines them into a highly original dark fantasy setting. Worldbuilding was definitely the standout feature of this book. We get to explore the seedy underbelly of the steampunk-ish (trains, guns, alchemy, etc.) old city of Guerdon, inhabited by thieves, Lovecraftian ghouls, stone men (afflicted with a disease like leprosy that slowly turns them to stone), knife-wielding wax golems, and more.

Parts of this world are locked in a horrifyingly destructive “godswar” where deities and their possessed champion “saints” rage across the land, but the city of Guerdon has managed to remain neutral and relatively safe. Of course, things can’t stay that way for long or we wouldn’t have much of a story, so the story opens on a trio of thieves and a heist that goes horribly wrong and drags them into a maelstrom of political and supernatural machinations.

The writing, aside from the worldbuilding, was good, not great. It felt like it really could have used a bit more editing. There were way too many typos and misused homonyms for a final draft, some characters’ motivations/goals didn’t quite make sense or were ill-explained, and a couple sexcapades felt wedged in and cringey. (I’m also not a fan of the “f-bomb” being dropped every few pages, but that’s more about my preferences/standards than an editing issue.)

That said, I enjoyed the book overall. It was dark without wallowing in existential angst. Some plot points were resolved in a very deus ex machina fashion, which usually annoys me, but it worked within the author’s setting. It was a mostly enjoyable first read of the year, and I already have the next one ready to go on my Kindle.

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

Less Lovecraftian than I hoped

Title: Lovecraft Country
Author: Matt Ruff
Genre: Horror/Weird
Pages: 400
Rating: 3 of 5

This is one of those books that has a great central concept and a disappointing execution. The highly episodic story stars a number of black people living in the era of segregation, sundown towns, and Jim Crow. The author uses the fear, danger, and paranoia of their daily lives as the backdrop for the entire book, skillfully demonstrating that you don’t need hyper-intelligent tentacle monsters to evoke a feeling of dread. Man’s inhumanity to man (including H. P. Lovecraft’s own virulent racism) are bad enough to leave a whole ethnic group living in their own “Lovecraft country.”

My disappointment with the book stems from the supernatural elements that drive the story…they just aren’t very Lovecraftian (especially not after the first chapter). Yes, there is a weird cult from the back hills of New England that seeks supernatural knowledge. However, most of their shenanigans resemble pulp sci-fi (a major thread of the book is the difficulty of being a black sci-fi fan in the 1950’s), polite little Victorian ghost stories, or Scooby Doo episodes rather than the cosmic horror of H. P. Lovecraft.

The author is certainly skilled and has a great sense of humor, but didn’t really deliver on the Lovecraft that is so prominent in the title. The Ballad of Black Tom that I read a couple weeks ago (and reviewed here) isn’t quite as clever in its treatment of racism, but does a much better job of incorporating the right kind of supernatural elements.