Best & Worst of 2018

In 2018 I read 121  books (38,307 pages) and reviewed 101 of them. Here are my year-end best and worst lists (excluding re-reads / click book titles for full review where available):

Top 10

  1. How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith & Politics in a Divided Age by Jonathan Leeman – A much needed, truly non-partisan book about how American Christians should view and participate in the political process without losing their integrity
  2.  Darkness Over Germany by E. Amy Buller – A sobering look at the rise of Nazism, written during World War II (but with some worrisome parallels to current events)
  3. Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn – A whimsical dystopia about letters (in both senses of the word) & censorship
  4. Silas Marner by George Eliot – A classic story of providence & redemption that led Charles Dickens to write a well-deserved fan letter
  5. A Spy Among Friends by Ben MacIntyre – A true account of Ken Philby’s career as a Soviet mole in MI-6 (explains the cynicism of espionage authors like John LeCarré & Graham Greene)
  6. The Shakespeare Requirement by Julie Schumacher – A satirical tale of academia & bureaucracy that rings all too true
  7. A Middle Earth Traveler: Sketches from Bag End to Mordor by John Howe – A collection of John Howe’s gorgeous, detailed sketches of Middle Earth
  8. Someone Like Me by M. R. Carey – A creepy thriller with multiple unreliable narrators
  9. Christianity at the Crossroads (no review) by Michael J. Kruger – An examination of the church in the 2nd Century (very similar to Destroyer of the Gods (reviewed) by Larry Hurtado but with a broader focus and better organization)
  10. Peril in the Old Country and Soul Remains (no review yet) by Sam Hooker – The first two books of the hilarious dark fantasy series, Terribly Serious Darkness

Honorable Mention: Robots vs. Fairies Edited by Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe – An anthology of stories featuring our future overlords (robots, fairies, or both)

Bottom Ten

  1. Robot Depot by Russell F. Moran – A muddled near-future sci-fi thriller featuring Trumpian political views and pages of tangentially related roboethics infodumping
  2. Apocalypse 5 by Stacey Rourke – An incredibly derivative dystopian sci-fi story with Harlequin Romance-esque physical descriptions
  3. Our Kind of Traitor by John LeCarré – An espionage thriller with a ridiculously abrupt ending that leaves most plotlines unresolved
  4. The Magic of Recluce by L. E. Modesitt Jr. – A fantasy tale starring a sullen brat and oddly frequent use of onomatopoeia
  5. How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them by Jason Stanley – A political screed with solid potential marred by extreme partisanism
  6. Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs – A classic pulp adventure story complete with all the cheesiness and product-of-its-era racism you would expect
  7. Killing Floor by Lee Child – The first novel starring Jack Reacher in all his sociopathic vigilante glory
  8. Against Nature by Joris K. Huysmans – A tedious exploration of a hedonistic aesthete’s vain search for fulfillment
  9. Kill the Farm Boy by Kevin Hearne & Delilah S. Dawson – A satirical take on fantasy tropes that buries any cleverness under an avalanche of adolescent toilet humor
  10. Plantation Jesus: Race, Faith, & a New Way Forward by Skot Welch, Rick Wilson, & Andi Cumbo-Floyd – A book about a genuine problem that offers few practical solutions and shames those who ask the wrong questions

Dishonorable Mention: Nostromo by Joseph Conrad – An overlong, depressing classic on the consequences of greed and pride

And there you have it…I have one more NetGalley book to review (Soul Remains) and a couple sign-up posts for 2019 reading challenges to write, but this is probably the last post of 2018. Happy New Year!

Final Mini-Reviews

It’s time for one last round of mini-reviews: Two on Tolkien and two on grace.

Title: The Fall of Gondolin
Authors: J. R. R. Tolkien & Christopher Tolkien
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 303
Rating: 4 of 5

The tale of the destruction of the hidden elven kingdom of Gondolin was one of J. R. R. Tolkien’s earliest (and most oft-rewritten) creations. In this book, Christopher presents every available version of the story from his father’s papers. Almost everything here could be found in previously published  works, but it was nice to have all of Tolkien’s brilliant writing on this grand tragedy in one place. As usual, I found many of Christopher’s notes pedantic and redundant, but am thankful for his work in collecting and publishing his father’s work.

Title: A Middle-Earth Traveler:
Sketches from Bag End to Mordor
Author/Artist: John Howe
Genre: Fantasy/Art
Pages: 192
Rating: 4.5 of 5

My wife gave me this beautiful book for Christmas. It showcases John Howe’s gorgeous sketches, focusing primarily on the lands, peoples, and creatures of Middle Earth rather than main characters. A few colored pictures are mixed in with the sketches, but most are so dark that they lack the exquisite detail of the sketches. John Howe’s brief commentary throughout was okay, but I did catch at least one error (he mentions that Sauron was incorporeal and trapped in Barad-Dur which is not the case in the books). The fantastic artwork more than makes up for the so-so narration.

Title: The Grace and Truth Paradox
Author: Randy Alcorn
Genre: Applied Theology
Pages: 96
Rating: 4 of 5

Randy Alcorn reminds Christians that Jesus is described as “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), and that we are called to be like him. The strength of this book is in beautifully describing the depth of God’s grace (undeserved favor) toward us. It is a reminder of why the Gospel is the Good News. Unfortunately, the applications about what it looks like to reflect that same kind of love and grace to others without compromising on objective truth were almost too generic. It would have been nice to see a few “where the rubber meets the road” examples…which is what the next book provides.

Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ by [Naselli, Andrew David, Crowley, J. D.]Title: Conscience:
What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ
Authors: Andrew David Naselli & J. D. Crowley
Genre: Applied Theology
Pages: 160
Rating:  5 of 5

Andrew Naselli & J. D. Crowley give a detailed overview of what the New Testament has to say about the conscience: that inner sense of right and wrong. A large part of the book is taken up with what people in my circles like to call “issues of Christian liberty” (i.e. issues on which God has not given explicit moral guidance and over which committed Christians may differ). The authors offer wise, biblical advice on showing grace and love to those whose consciences differ from our own. I highly recommend this book to any Christian, especially if you grew up in the kind of rules-y (don’t drink, go to theatres, use playing cards, listen to rock music, etc.) environment that tends to go along with conservative theology.

Potpourri

I’m trying to review at least 100 books this year…9 to go. Toward that end, here is a random assortment of 5 mini-reviews.

Title: Our Kind of Traitor
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 320
Rating: 2.5 of 5

This tale of an average British couple whose lives become entwined with a Russian mobster/defector started out as one of LeCarré’s better post-Cold War novels (which, honestly, isn’t a very high bar). However, the ending was just stupid. It felt like LeCarré got bored and just quit writing. The final action of the book made sense, but it was absurdly abrupt and left almost all of the plot lines unresolved.

Title: Fearsome Journeys
Editor: Jonathan Strahan
Genre: Dark Fantasy Short Stories
Pages: 416
Rating: 3 of 5

I purchased this primarily because it has a Black Company story in it. That story was mediocre…as was the collection as a whole. I have no idea why this anthology is titled Fearsome Journeys as there are few stories that focus on journeying. The unifying theme actually seems to be people with morally ambiguous (at best) professions: mostly mercenaries, thieves, and assassins. It wasn’t bad, but a bit one-note.

Title: The Bear and the Nightingale
Author: Katherine Arden
Genre: Russian Fairy Tale Fantasy
Pages: 368
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This is ridiculously well-written for a first novel! The fairytale style and 13th century (I think) Russian setting were fascinating. What annoyed me was the “dour, manipulative, fear-mongering Christianity vs. harmonious paganism” narrative that was fairly central to the story. Depending on your particular worldview, your mileage may vary…stylistically it was a well-executed fairy tale (of the original variety, not the the cutesy Disneyfied kind).

Title: Judge Sewall’s Apology:
The Salem Witch Trials and the Forming of a Conscience
Author: Richard Francis
Genre: Colonial American History
Pages: 388
Rating: 4 of 5

Samuel Sewall was the only judge from the Salem witch trials to publicly apologize for his involvement. While that apology is the source of the book’s title, the book actually covers his entire life as recorded in his journals. The author presents Sewall as charming and ahead of his time in regard to slavery, the treatment of native Americans, etc. He sometimes lays it on a bit thick and seems to read too much between the lines, but overall this is an interesting, informative look at Puritan culture and religion.

Title: The Shakespeare Requirement
Author: Julie Schumacher
Genre: General Fiction / Satire?
Pages: 309
Rating: 4.5 of 5

If you’ve ever worked in academia and/or some similar buzz-wordy bureaucratic job, you should really read this book. I would say that it’s satire, but the woes of the new head of the English department trying to wrangle his colleagues into agreeing to a mission statement while fighting off the economics department (and convince the public that he is not anti-Shakespeare) ring all too true. Hilarious!

Loosely Linked Mini Reviews

Title: George MacDonald: An Anthology
Author: George MacDonald (duh)
Editor: C. S. Lewis
Genre: Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 152
Rating: 4 of 5

C. S. Lewis made no secret of the fact that he was heavily influenced by George MacDonald. In this slim volume he collected 365 excerpts from MacDonald’s writings. Most of these gems come from his (deservedly) lesser-known writings rather than his beautifully crafted fantasy novels which Lewis claims must be taken as a whole to be fully appreciated. The writings of Lewis (especially Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters) do indeed echoe many of these thoughts, though I would say that MacDonald has a more mystical bent and many of his ideas smack of perfectionism of a rather Methodist variety (a doctrine I find unsustainable both Scripturally and through observation of the real world). Overall, this is a great little book with many thought-provoking ideas. However, to see MacDonald at his best I’d recommend reading the two books of the Curdie series.

Title: Creed or Chaos
Author: Dorothy L. Sayers
Genre: Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 85
Rating: 5 of 5

This book also has a vague connection to C. S. Lewis as Dorothy Sayers is considered to be an associate of the “Inklings” literary circle. In this collection of essays she discusses the need of sound, objective doctrine over a more subjective “all you need is sincerity” approach to Christianity. I have previously admired Dorothy L. Sayers as a translator of The Divine Comedy and author of the Lord Peter Wimsey detective series, and I must say she is equally engaging as a theologian/philosopher.

Title: The Dante Chamber
Author: Matthew Pearl
Genre: Mystery/Historical Fiction
Pages: 357
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Speaking of The Divine Comedy, Matthew Pearl has returned to the world of his wildly popular The Dante Club with this sequel. Now people are turning up dead in London, gruesomely killed in ways reminiscent of The Purgatorio. Pearl’s main historical characters for this one are Christina Rossetti (and family), Robert Browning, and Alfred Lord Tennyson (with an encore appearance by Oliver Wendell Holmes). There’s lots of info-dumping of interesting historical tidbits about these people and fawning commentary over the greatness of Danté wrapped around a twisted mystery. It’s basically the exact same formula as the first one and as such felt a bit played out…for me it was only okay.

Title: The Magic of Recluce
(Saga of Recluce: Book 1)
Author: L. E. Modesitt Jr.
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 512
Rating: 2.5 of 5

“Only okay” brings us to our next book. I found The Magic of Recluce to be pretty disappointing and almost DNFed it a couple times. The main character is a sullen brat who constantly complains about being bored and whines that no one tells him the answers to his questions but zones out when given the opportunity to learn anything important. The plot is a wandering “find yourself” narrative where mister whiney-pants suddenly makes huge deductive leaps, vast progress in his skills, or sudden increases in maturity seemingly at random. At the end he’s a better person but it all felt pretty haphazard. The Order vs. Chaos dynamic of the author’s world is interesting enough that I’ll give the next book a shot, but it had better be a whole lot better than this one.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Hercule Poirot) Agatha Christie 0425200477 9780425200476 And when the second and final colume of Williams Collected Poems is published, it should become even more apparent that he is this centurys major American poet. --LTitle: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
(Hercule Poirot, Book 4)
Author: Agatha Christie
Genre: Mystery
Pages: 358
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This book is one reason I’m willing to give an author or character a second chance. I do not care for Hercule Poirot; I am annoyed by his smug manner and holding back information so he can make a big splash at the end. However, this book has one of the best twist endings ever in a “cozy” mystery, so it’s worth putting up with the smarmy little Belgian.

Crime & Detection Mini Reviews

My life is still pretty chaotic so nothing long and detailed today, but here are some mini reviews of several crime and/or investigator stories I have read recently.

Related imageTitle: Kill the Boss Good-by
Author: Peter Rabe
Genre: Crime Noir
Pages: 124
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Tom Fell, A small-time crime boss, checks himself out of a mental institution (against doctor’s orders) and tries to re-assume leadership of his bookmaking/gambling racket. With Tom’s mental stability in question, a power struggle ensues. Plotwise it’s a fairly typical mob story with the added dimension of the protagonist becoming increasingly manic throughout. That dimension gave it some added interest but didn’t pull it up into the category of the great crime writers like Hammett or Cain.

Title: Standard Hollywood Depravity:
(Ray Electromatic Mysteries: Book 1.5)
Author: Adam Christopher
Genre: Sci-fi Noir
Pages: 144
Rating: 4 of 5

This novella of earth’s last robot, originally a programmed as a private eye but now a hit man in alternate 1960’s LA, fits nicely between the first two books (reviews here and here). In this one, Ray’s violent, morally ambiguous hit man side is more on display than  previously. This made him a bit less sympathetic but no less interesting and entertaining. My copy also contained the very first Ray Electromatic short story Brisk Money, but it wasn’t very interesting if you’ve read the other three books since most of it has been recapped at some point.

Title: A Tale of Two Castles
Author: Gail Carson Levine
Genre: Children’s Fairy Tale
Pages: 352 [Audio – 8:27]
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Gail Carson Levine is one of those children’s authors whose works are worth reading as an adult. Her plots are either clever reworkings of classic fairy tales or highly original worlds that are all her own. In this book, a girl trying to apprentice herself to a mansioner (actor) instead finds herself assisting a dragon in investigative work, largely related to the noble, much despised, ogre who owns one of the two castles in Two Castles.  The dragon and the ogre are both outsiders with their own quirks and lore. I found the dragon particularly entertaining IT (that is how you must refer to dragons since they do not reveal their gender) is a commoner who makes most of ITs money toasting bread and cheese skewers in the market. IT is a bit capricious and vain but ultimately a good masteress (master + mistress). I listened to the audiobook narrated by Sarah Coomes and her voices (especially the dragon’s self-satisfied laugh) added to the enjoyment of the book.

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.