Potpourri

It’s time for a handful of mini-reviews – all from different genres, none so spectacularly good or bad as to generate a full scale review, presented in order read:

The Lords of Silence (Warhammer 40,000) by [Chris Wraight]Title: Lords of Silence (Warhammer 40,000)
Author: Chris Wraight
Genre: Grimdark Military Sci-Fi
Pages: 400
Rating: 3 of 5

Pretty much anything Warhammer 40,000 falls into the grimdark category (I think the WH40k tagline is actually the origin of the word). Books, like this one, that star chaos space marines have an extra helping of grim and dark…and since these chaos space marines are dedicated to the plague god there’s also an extra helping of gross. This is worth reading if you’re interested in seeing the internal workings of plague marines and how they relate to the ongoing “Black crusade.” The overall plot was a bit meandering, but a solid entry for this escapist sci-fi-bordering-on-horror universe.

Things I Want to Punch in the Face by [Jennifer Worick]Title: Things I Want to Punch in the Face
Author: Jennifer Worick
Genre: Humorous Ranting
Pages: 136
Rating: 2 of 5

There are some funny turns of phrase in this series of rants, but if you read more than a couple end to end they just feel mean-spirited. These would probably be a lot funnier as occasional blog posts interspersed with other content than they were collected into a book. Also, she’d save a lot of time by just saying “I hate everything that hipsters and nerds like.”

The Night Manager: A Novel by [John le Carré]Title: The Night Manager
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 576
Rating: 2.5 of 5

This isn’t terrible (if you’re okay with LeCarré’s pervasive cynicism), but I feel like I’ve seen it all before and better in his other books: inter-departmental rivalry, possible leak/mole, seedy/promiscuous agents, questionable value of the intelligence game when compared to the human cost, etc. etc.. There just wasn’t much new here, and certainly not enough to justify the bloated page count.

The Alienist: A Novel (Dr. Lazlo Kreizler Book 1) by [Caleb Carr]Title: The Alienist
(Dr. Laszlo Kreizler: Book 1)
Author: Caleb Carr
Genre: Historical Fiction Mystery
Pages: 600
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This book’s late 19th century setting throws in some fun historical goodies (including Teddy Roosevelt as a prominent secondary character), but this is primarily a “criminal profiler” book. The focus throughout is on constructing a profile of a serial killer, with a lot of time and discussion given to the role of childhood in determining a person’s course through life (all very heavy on behaviorism). The nature of the serial killer (he preys primarily on male child prostitutes) makes for disturbing discussion and situations throughout, so this is not a book for the easily traumatized. There are moments of action, but the overall pace is plodding and methodical. Not my usual read, but I enjoyed it enough that the sequel is on my TBR.

Title: On Tyranny:
Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
Author: Timothy Snyder
Genre: History & Politics
Pages: 128
Rating: 4 of 5

Is this largely an attack on President Trump? Yes
Are parts of it a bit overblown? Also, yes
Are parts of it worryingly relevant parallels between the autocracy of German fascism, Soviet Marxism, and the current administration? Also, also yes!

Sold out Trumpers won’t like this, but it really is worth reading with your critical thinking cap on. And that’s all that I really want to say about this because I don’t do the whole “get in political debates with strangers on the internet” thing.

Steampunk Wodehouse X2

Back in March this collection of mini-reviews included the first book in the Reeves & Worcestor Steampunk Mysteries series. I just finished the next two novella-length books and would highly recommend these hilarious sendups of Wodehouse’s Jeeves & Wooster series (in this universe, Reeves/Jeeves is a steam-powered automaton and Worcester/Wooster has delusions of being a consulting detective on the order of Sherlock Holmes).

Reggiecide (Reeves & Worcester Steampunk Mysteries Book 2) by [Chris Dolley]Title: Reggiecide (Book 2)
Author: Chris Dolley
Genre: Humorous Steampunk Mystery
Pages: 81 (audiobook 2 hours 7 minutes)
Rating: 5 of 5 (audiobook narration 1 of 5)

So far, this is my favorite book in the series in terms of story. It could be read stand-alone, but does reference plot points from the first book: most notably, the existence of Prometheans (reanimated corpses). You can guess the identity of the most recently raised promethean from the cover. Hilarity ensues as Worcester tries to find out where Guy has run off to, what he might be planning, and just what is so menacing about Roger Mortimer with a poker…

I do not recommend listening to the Audible version of this narrated by Kieran Phoenix Chantrey. It is one of the worst audiobooks I have encountered. He gives the suave Reeves an uneducated cockney accent so that rather than sounding like the smartest, poshest person in the room he sounds like a London cabby. The narrator mispronounces words such as: apse (to the detriment of a funny joke), draught, misshapen, and Nebuchadnezzar (absolutely butchered it several different ways…clearly he’s never been to Sunday school). His female voice (for Worcester’s girlfriend: a suffragette who likes chaining herself to things) sounds exactly like Hugh Laurie doing an intentionally bad girl voice in Blackadder. Worst of all, he will start a phrase, realize that the voice or intonation isn’t quite right and repeat the whole thing…without it being edited out of the recording (once starting over multiple times in the course of a single sentence).

Overall, I would highly recommend this book. The author continues his pitch-perfect imitation of P. G. Wodehouse’s style while crafting his own zany steampunk story. Just avoid the audiobook…

The Aunt Paradox (Reeves & Worcester Steampunk Mysteries Book 3) by [Chris Dolley]Title: The Aunt Paradox (Book 3)
Author: Chris Dolley
Genre: Humorous Steampunk Mystery
Pages: 135 (audiobook 2 hours 35 minutes)
Rating: 4.5 of 5

In this installment, things go all wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey when H. G. Wells’s (call him Bertie) aunt steals his time machine. The story pulls in classic time travel tropes from Back to the Future, Doctor Who, and more. The plot is well-written as far as “messing up and then trying to fix the timeline” stories go. I might have to read or listen to it again to see how well it all hangs together, but it was as lighthearted and enjoyable as the first two books in the series.

The narration of the audiobook was much better than in Reggiecide. Paul J. Rose does an excellent job, reminding me of my favorite narrator for the Jeeves & Wooster books (Jonathan Cecil). I highly recommend these books for lighthearted fun; especially if you are a fan of P. G. Wodehouse.

Miscellaneous Mini Reviews

Leading a church through the craziness that is 2020 (trying to keep people compassionate, encouraged, safe, & law-abiding) continues to be exhausting, but I have just enough brain power left right now to catch up with several mini reviews.

Title: Agent Zigzag:
A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal
Author: Ben Macintyre
Genre: Spy biography
Pages: 310
Rating: 4 of 5

I enjoy Ben Macintyre’s historical accounts of spies. His A Spy Among Friends and The Spy and the Traitor were two of my favorite non-fiction reads over the last couple years. This one was still interesting, but it lacked some of the “wow” factor of the other books.

The author never gave the impression that Eddie Chapman made quite as big of a contribution to history as the spies in the other two books. I was left with the impression that he was colorful (in a self-promoting, bigtime criminal, womanizing cad kind of way) and bold, but he was just one of many double agents working for British intelligence during WWII. It was still a well-written book, but the stakes didn’t seem as high, which slightly lowered my interest.

All Quiet on the Western FrontTitle: All Quiet on the Western Front
Author: Erich Maria Remarque
Genre: Modern Classic / Historical Fiction (barely)
Pages: 296
Rating: 4.5 of 5

What a horrifying book! The author barely fictionalizes his experiences in the German trenches during the Great War (WWI). This is a soldier’s-eye view of the dehumanizing horrors of war. I was especially struck by the question of “how can we possibly go back to living normal lives after experiencing this?” This is a difficult, disturbing read but an important sobering balance to the “war is glorious” way of thinking.

Title: The Moonstone
Author: Wilkie Collins
Genre: Classic Mystery
Pages: 418
Rating: 2.5 of 5

Reading Victorian era books with enjoyment often requires that you look past product-of-its-era casual sexism, racism, colonialism, etc. This is definitely one of those books with an extra helping of cringe. I think that at times Collins was intentionally satirizing the prejudices of his contemporaries, but other times not so much. I quite enjoyed Collins’  The Woman in White even with all its improbabilities and eye rolling moments, but this classic mystery didn’t work for me. I’m not sure if it was really any worse or if I just wasn’t in the mood to charitably overlook his nonsense.

Audiobook Mini-Reviews

The last week and a half has been a bit rough here with myself and all three of the kids sick (my amazing wife activated Mommy-immunity and stayed mostly healthy). So, while lying miserably in bed or on the couch I made it through four audiobooks that I’ll be review now. I had a fever, headache, etc. through most of the time I was listening to these so take everything I say with a grain of salt. I don’t really have any comment on the narrators other than nobody stood out as either terrible or phenomenal.

What Ho, Automaton! (Reeves & Worcester Steampunk Mysteries Book 1) by [Dolley, Chris]Title: What Ho, Automaton!
(Reeves & Worcester Steampunk Mysteries – Book 1)
Author: Chris Dolley
Genre: Steampunk Mystery Parody
Pages: 292
Rating: 4 of 5

This is clearly intended as a parody of P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves & Wooster stories, and I’d say the author nails it. He captures the tone perfectly while transforming Jeeves (Reeves) into a steam-powered automaton and giving Wooster (Worcester) delusions of being a consulting detective on the order of Sherlock Holmes. Like the Wodehouse original, it’s light, breezy fun.

The Scapegoat by [du Maurier, Daphne]Title: The Scapegoat
Author: Daphne du Maurier
Genre: Classic Crime?
Pages: 348
Rating: 2.5 of 5

In this unlikely tale, a boring British professor of French history (John) meets his aristocratic French double (Jean) who (more-or-less) forces him to switch places. It turns out his French doppelganger is a morally reprehensible person from a family with a myriad of unsavory secrets. The story slowly unfolds as over the next week John plays at being Jean, uncovering and tinkering with the workings of the corrupt de Gué family. There is some interest in the slowly unfolding story, but overall it is completely unbelievable and has a non-ending that leaves pretty much all the storylines up in the air (and I really didn’t appreciate the casual attitude toward a married man having a mistress…especial with her seemingly being one of the wisest/best people in the book).

The House Of Night And Chains (Warhammer Horror) by [Annandale, David]Title: House of Night and Chain
(Warhammer Horror)
Author: David Annandale
Genre: Sci-Fi Horror
Pages: 244
Rating: 2.5 of 5

This is a fairly standard haunted house story set in the Warhammer 40K universe. Early on, an awful lot of time is spent on details of political maneuvering that is completely overshadowed and made largely irrelevant by the avalanche of events and revelations later in the book. The Warhammer 40K setting doesn’t contribute much to the story other than making local government into planetary government, substituting a cleric of the Emperor for a priest of God, and similar cosmetic tweaks. If you’re into haunted house stories you might enjoy it…I found it pretty “meh.”

The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by [Turton, Stuart]Title: The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
Author: Stuart Turton
Genre: Trippy Mystery
Pages: 480
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This book starts like a classic “murder at the manor house” kind of story, but things quickly get all wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey. I don’t want to give away too much since figuring out what is going on is half the fun. The over-simplified version that’s not any more spoilery than the back cover of the book is: our narrator inhabits 8 different witnesses, reliving the same day 8 times trying to solve (or stop) a murder. Most of the people involved have a nasty secret or two, and the twists, turns, and surprises come thick and fast all the way up to the end. I think that in the end it all weaves together nicely and makes sense, but I’d have to read it again (when I’m not sick) to be sure. It’s well worth reading and will probably make my “top 5 fiction” list for the year.

Grownup Gwendy

Title: Gwendy’s Magic Feather
Author: Richard Chizmar
Pages: “330” (probably half that when use of white space is taken into account)
Genre: Horror/Weird/Mystery/Family Drama
Rating: 2.5 of 5

The first Gwendy book, a novella in which Chizmar collaborated with Stephen King, was one of my favorite reads of 2017. I originally said this about it:

This short book falls more into the “weird” category than actual horror. It could be seen as a sort of twist on the story of Pandora’s Box…only this box comes with sinister buttons (especially the big black one) and a couple nice levers. This isn’t high action and doesn’t provide nice neat answers at the end, but it’s an excellent example of “the weird.”

Chizmar’s solo effort at expanding the Gwendiverse was disappointing in comparison. The titular “magic feather” has very little part in the story. Instead, we’re treated to another round of Gwendy inexplicably receiving the magic button box and indecisively dithering about whether or not she should use it…but only after 1/4 of the book catches us up on what Gwendy has been doing with her life over the last couple decades.

We already have a pretty good idea of the general function of the button box, so that major fascinating element of the original story is missing. It’s replaced with a hodgepodge of storylines including Gwendy engaging in AIDS activism, being an anti-Trump (though he’s not called Trump and it’s the 90’s) congresswoman, trying to catch a possible serial killer, and dealing with her mother’s cancer. Toward the end the box does demonstrate one new power, but it just feels like an amazingly convenient way to wrap up one of the storylines.

Overall, it felt like this mocking description of Darth Vader from one of the Night at the Museum movies:

Grim Christmas

A Midnight Clear by [Hooker, Sam, Leyva, Alcy, Morrison, Laura, Windwalker, Cassondra, Storm, Dalena, Jane, Seven]Title: A Midnight Clear
Authors: Sam Hooker, Alcy Leyva, Laura Morrison, Cassondra Windwalker, Dalena Storm, & Seven Jane
Genre: Short Story Anthology (5 Fantasy & 1 Mystery)
Pages: 250
Rating: 3 of 5
Future Release Date: 11/5/19 (Thank you to the authors and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of my review.)

Black Spot Books tapped six of their authors to pull together this short story anthology under the overarching theme of “not-so-merry Yuletide whimsy.” The result is truly a mixed bag [insert lame Santa’s sack joke].

The Good: The opening story by Sam Hooker is far and away the best of the lot. Who knew you could combine a sugary cute version of the North pole (reminiscent of what it’s like in the movie Elf) with a visit to R’lyeh? Laura Morrison’s hellish (yet humorous) riff on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is imaginative and entertaining as well, and Dalena Storm’s dive into Slavic mythology wasn’t bad. I wouldn’t take my theology from any of these stories, but they were a lot of fun to read.

The “Meh”: The other three stories left me cold. In a couple, the Christmas element felt shoehorned in, and they all had the kind of pacing that I associate with lousy Christian fiction: the majority of the page count taken up with the protagonist moping, sulking, or mooning around followed by a burst of action at the very end that may or may not connect well with all the repetitive morbid introspection that came before it. Obviously, your mileage may vary.

Overall, the oft repeated descriptor for short story anthologies is “mixed bag,” and that holds very much true here. If nothing else, you need to read Sam Hooker’s cutesy elf/Cthulhu mythos mashup.

A Cheap Dupin Knockoff

The Old Man in the Corner: The Teahouse Detective: Volume 1 (Pushkin Vertigo) by [Orczy]Title: The Old Man in the Corner:
The Teahouse Detective, Volume 1
Author: Baroness Orczy
Genre: Armchair Detective Mystery
Pages: 224
Rating: 2.5 of 5
(Thank you to the publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This does not affect the contents of this review in any way)

In 1887 Arthur Conan Doyle  stole  borrowed Edgar Allan Poe’s eccentric detective C. Auguste Dupin, and transformed him into the wildly popular Sherlock Holmes. While Holmes is arguably more entertaining than Dupin, the host of imitations created by other authors trying to cash in on the “genius detective” craze were seldom more than pale imitations. Such is Baroness Orczy’s unnamed Old Man in the Corner.

This collection of short stories features conversations between a young reporter and an “odd scarecrow” of a man who sits in the corner of a teahouse tying complex knots in a piece of string while quietly (but arrogantly) expounding to her the answers to unsolved crimes. His deductions are based almost exclusively on attending inquests and reading the stories as they appear in the newspaper. The old man has no desire to bring the criminals to justice and offers no concrete evidence that could do so. He is content with working out to his satisfaction (and his listener’s amazement) what must have happened.

For me, everything about the book was very bland. The characterization was shallow, relying on the same few stock descriptions (“scarecrow” “sarcastic” “tying and untying complex knots”). The subject matter of the stories was the usual assortment of blackmail, gambling debts, unhappy marriages, inheritance disputes, etc, with nothing terribly unexpected, exotic, or spine-tingling, and the solutions to the mysteries became tediously similar after the first two or three. The eARC Pushkin Vertigo edition that I read provided nothing in the way of background, commentary, or any other added interest.

Overall, if you’re really into classic armchair detectives, you will probably enjoy this, but if you’re just dipping into the “genius detective” genre go with Holmes or Dupin.

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.

Hackish Pulp/Noir on Steroids

Title: Killing Floor
(Jack Reacher – Book 1)
Author: Lee Child
Genre: Mystery / Thriller
Pages: 407
Rating: 2.5 of 5

I know a couple people who are really into the Jack Reacher novels so I decided to give them a shot. This felt like what some of the more hackish pulp/noir authors of the 1920’s-50’s would have written if they had been allowed to use more profanity and gore.

The first person narration is clipped with 3-5 word sentences and fragments galore (and way too much info-dumping). Our protagonist/narrator is a bit of a sociopath. He is brutally, murderously pragmatic in how he handles his enemies, clinically and remorselessly describing the violence he is inflicting on them. For him, law and order might be useful tools, but they get in the way as often as not. His relationships with people he “likes” could be described in terms of protectiveness and/or mutual lust but are otherwise cold.

The overall plot wasn’t especially plausible, even for this kind of story: the coincidence that gets him involved in whatever shadiness is going on in small-town Georgia defies credibility; one minute he is making deductions of Sherlockian complexity and the next is missing painfully obvious clues; police officers chirpily go along with (or at least turn a blind eye to) his murderous and illegal activities; and I could go on. The bad guys’ conspiracy and government’s response to it is riddled with absurdities, but I don’t want to spoil it so I’ll leave it at that.

Overall, if you’re into violent but intelligent tough-guy characters you might enjoy this, but I think I’ll stick with the hacks from the 20’s-50’s when I’m in the mood for this sort of thing…I prefer snark to profanity and am okay with violent scenes not describing the sensation of a person’s skull shattering.

Diotima Takes the Lead

Title: Death on Delos
(Athenian Mysteries – Book 7)
Author: Gary Corby
Genre: Historical Fiction Mystery
Pages: 330
Rating: 4 of 5

Nicolaos (Socrates’ fictional older brother and slightly bumbling agent / investigator / fixer for Pericles) and his wife Diotima (historically, one of Socrates’ teachers) are back for another case. I love how the author always centers the action around a major historical event in Athenian history. This time it’s the seizure of the Delian League’s treasury by the Athenians…for safekeeping, of course!

The murder mystery is well-constructed as usual with plenty of red herrings and a convoluted but believable solution. This time Diotima, ten months pregnant by the Athenian calendar, gets to take the lead. This isn’t isn’t too different than usual as she’s generally the smarter of the two, but this time it’s official.

I don’t read much historical fiction or mysteries (other than vintage noir), but I love this series, and this book was no exception.