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.

Best & Worst of 2019

This year I set a new personal record for number of books and pages read (134 books, 42,308 pages), and the last book I finished was my 1,000th book since I started keeping track in 2008 (and I didn’t even plan it that way!). Without further ado, here are my best & worst lists for the year (excludes rereads). Let’s start with the worst of the year, so we can end on a positive note:

Worst of the Year (Fiction & Non-fiction)

  1. Why Poetry Sucks: [absurdly long subtitle that I’m not going to reproduce here] by Ryan Fitzpatrick & Jonathan Ball – While trying to show that poetry can be amusing, these authors simply demonstrate how much pretentious experimental poetry does indeed suck.
  2. Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeanette Ng – Why, oh why would you spin such an interesting premise around such a creepy/pervy plot point?!
  3. Grifter’s Game by Lawrence Block – I didn’t bother to review this, but it is essentially crime noir starring an exploitive misogynistic cad who “wins” in the end through mental and physical abuse of a female partner-turned-victim
  4. Preacher Sam by Cassondra Windwalker – This had everything that I dislike about “Christian fiction”: repetitive morbid introspection, shoehorned-in romance, shoddy plotting, etc.
  5. The Little Drummer Girl by John LeCarré – This anti-Israeli thriller earns LeCarré the “honor” of being the first author to appearing on both my best and worst lists in the same year.

Dishonorable Mention: Atonement by Ian McEwan – This is another one I didn’t review. I know it’s supposed to be some sort of literary masterpiece, but I thought it was just overwritten and self-indulgent.

Best Fiction

  1. Mechanical Failure by Joe Zieja – I feel a little silly selecting this ridiculous “military sci-fi” book for top honors, but I guess I really needed a good laugh this year.
  2. O Alienista (The Alienist) by Machado de Assis – My first time reading a Brazilian classic was a great success with this satire about psychiatry & science
  3. Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy – This is basically philosophy wrapped in story. It’s the kind of thing I usually hate in Christian fiction, but Tolstoy makes it work.
  4. Macbeth by Jo Nesbo – The Hogarth Shakespeare series continues to impress. Macbeth retold as a gritty, slightly over the top crime drama works quite well.
  5. Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield – This tale of the glory and horror of war provides a surprisingly humanising portrait of the 300 Spartans and their allies.

Honorable Mention: Agent Running in the Field by John LeCarré – This isn’t anywhere near the level of his Cold War novels, but it was a solid spy story.

Best Non-Fiction

  1. The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre – Macintyre makes the “best of” list two years running with another fascinating true spy story culminating in an edge-of-your-seat exfiltration attempt.
  2. How Long, O Lord: Reflections on Suffering and Evil by D. A. Carson – This provides a compassionate yet solid biblical framework for understanding suffering and evil.
  3. Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion by Rebecca McLaughlin – McLaughlin’s thoughtful answers demonstrate the continuing value and viability of Christianity
  4. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild – I finally knocked this off my TBR. Reading about such exploitation and suffering is difficult, but important. Those who forget history…
  5. The Proverbs of Middle Earth by David Rowe – This fed my Tolkien-geek soul…and it’s based entirely on the books, so that’s an added bonus!

Honorable Mention: Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible by Mark Ward – “King James Onlyism” is one of my pet peeves, and this book ably defends and promotes vernacular Bible translations without denigrating the venerable KJV.

Plans for Next Year

This year the two challenges I was in were fun, but I felt a little locked into reading certain books, so in 2020 I’m not planning on entering any challenges. I don’t think that I’ll read anywhere near as many books because quite a few of the titles on my TBR are in the 500-1000 page range. I’m going to set my goal at 78 books (2 books every 3 weeks) with an average page count around 400 pages/book.

Well, that’s it for this year. Happy New Year, everyone!

Shakespearean Crime Fiction

Macbeth: William Shakespeare's Macbeth Retold: A Novel by [Nesbo, Jo]Title: Macbeth (Hogarth Shakespeare)
Author: Jo Nesbø
Genre: Literary Crime Fiction?
Pages: 446
Rating: 4 of 5

The Hogarth Shakespeare series asks popular novelists to retell Shakespeare’s works with their own twist (e.g. Othello as a schoolyard conflict, The Tempest in a prison, The Taming of the Shrew without the Stockholm syndrome). I have been impressed with (or at least entertained by) the ones I have read so far, including this one.

Jo Nesbo reimagines Macbeth as gritty crime fiction. The setting is an unnamed, vaguely located (Scotland? Norway?) coastal city with rather contrived geography and a major drug problem. The central conflict revolves around control of the city with most of the main characters appearing as members of the police force that is trying to shake off its corrupt past.

Nesbo plays up the “Hecate and Weird Sisters as manipulators” aspect/interpretation of the story and finds lots of clever ways to work in well-known lines and situations from the original. In fact, it might be good to read/reread the original before diving into this so that you can catch all the allusions, not just the big obvious plot points.

Obviously, you shouldn’t expect a happy story when you read any version of Macbeth. Nesbo ratchets up the darkness beyond the original level, and might occasionally be a little “over the top” in terms of action. I saw a review that compared this to a Quentin Tarantino movie, and while I might not go that far I can totally see it. Overall it was an interesting take on a classic tragedy that kept me turning the pages just to see where he was going with it.

Two from the TBR

I just knocked two more books off my TBR Pile Challenge list. Both were a bit on the”pulp” side, and each is part of longer loosely-connected series.

Title: The Roads Between the Worlds
(Eternal Champion Series, Volume 6)
Author: Michael Moorcock
Genre: Sci-fi
Pages: 391
Rating: 3 of 5

This volume in the Eternal Champion series does not  feature any of the better-known iterations of the Champion (e.g. Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon). In fact, other than the concept of the multiverse and preachy idealizing of anarchic government, most of the plot elements that pop up in Eternal Champion stories are absent or receive only the subtlest of nods.

The three novellas that make up the volume are on the more sci-fi side of Moorcock’s writing and largely involve political maneuvering and/or revolution on alternate versions of the earth. As is usual with Moorcock, the plots are an odd blend of pulp sci-fi and preachiness. If you’re really into the Eternal Champion series, this is probably worth reading, but for casual readers something featuring Elric, Corum, or Hawkmoon would be a more entertaining introduction to Moorcock’s style.

The Case of the Velvet Claws (Perry Mason Series Book 1) by [Gardner, Erle Stanley]Title: The Case of the Velvet Claws
(Perry Mason, Book 1)
Author: Erle Stanley Gardner
Genre: Mystery/Crime Fiction
Pages: 193
Rating: 3 of 5

My past exposure to Perry Mason was the older, fatter, gentler version in the later TV shows; this book features the hard-boiled original. Perry Mason’s code of ethics dictates that he works for the interest of his client regardless of how nasty (or even guilty) they might be, and this client is as dishonest and manipulative as they come. The plot twists and turns through a pretty middle-of-the-road pulp mystery. There’s none of the snappy snark that you get from authors like Raymond Chandler, but it’s a decent tough-guy detective/lawyer story.

Three Pulps

Ever since stumbling across Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest at a library book sale six or seven years ago, noir/hardboiled pulp  has become one of my favorite escapist genres (especially the stuff written from the 1920’s-50’s). I already reviewed a couple noir tales this year – here are three more:

Night Has a Thousand Eyes: A Novel by [Woolrich, Cornell]Title: Night Has a Thousand Eyes
Author: Cornell Woolrich
Audiobook Narrator: Angela Brazil
Genre: Psychological (Supernatural?) Thriller
Pages: 256
Rating: 4 of 5 for the story / 2 of 5 for the narration

Cornell Woolrich doesn’t rise to quite the same level as Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, but I would probably place him in my top five pulp authors. He tends to use odd descriptions  that are more weird or unintentionally humorous than atmospheric (e.g. “her hand closed on the bill like a voracious pink octopus”), but those aside he can plot a brooding, paranoid crime story with the best of them.

This book differed a bit in subject matter from other Woolrich stories I have read. The same dark paranoia pervaded the plot, but the subject matter centered around prophecy and fate. What do you do when the date of your death is foretold by a man who has repeatedly predicted the future with perfect accuracy? Is there really something supernatural at work or is it some sort of scam? The book was perhaps a bit overlong for extended brooding on this theme, but overall it was an interesting psychological thriller (and had fewer of his weird similes and metaphors than usual).

The narrator of the audiobook I listened to was not great. I think she was trying to affect a cynical, world-weary tone, but it mostly came off obnoxiously flat and slow. Shatnerian pauses added to the painfulness and I ended up listening to it at 1.5X speed to get it up to a more normal reading rate. Avoid the Audible version!

Title: The Getaway
Author: Jim Thompson
Genre: Crime Fiction
Pages: 224
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Jim Thompson has a knack for bringing seedy, nasty criminals to life. He plays on readers’ interest in reading about the underworld but without making the criminals into likeable, sympathetic people. His criminals might have a lot of charisma, but he fully portrays their self-centered exploitive destruction of themselves and the innocents around them.

I have previously read his treatment of con men in The Grifters and a serial killer in The Killer Inside Me. In The Getaway we are treated to an inside look at a husband-and-wife pair of bank robbers. The downward spiral to destruction is typical well-written Jim Thompson, but the ending detours into an unusual dystopian setting. There is an odd shift in tone, but I think it worked very well and rounded out the story satisfactorily. If you like crime noir, this one is well worth reading.

Zero Cool: A Novel by [Crichton, Michael, Lange, John]Title: Zero Cool
Author: John Lange (Michael Crichton)
Genre: Action Thriller
Pages: 240
Rating: 2.5 of 5

While he was in med school Michael Crichton earned money by writing under the pseudonym John Lange. According to some things I read, these books were meant to be cheap, trope-y pulp thrillers completely lacking in originality. If that was truly the goal…bullseye.

Zero Cool features your basic “random guy gets caught in the middle of criminal shenanigans” pulp plot. He hits all the tropes of femme fatale, bizarre Bond-style villains, a mcguffin, amazingly convenient coincidences, etc.. The dialogue in this sort of book is seldom realistic due to smart-mouthed, quippy characters, but Lange/Crichton’s dialogue settled for stilted instead of snarky. This was definitely on the very low end of the pulp fiction scale and probably not worth your time unless you’re a big Michael Crichton fan who is curious about his earliest work.

Noir, Old and New

The Baby in the Icebox: And Other Short Fiction by [Cain, James M.]Title: The Baby in the Icebox:
And Other Short Fiction
Author: James M. Cain
Genre: Classic Crime Noir (and other random short stories)
Pages: 312
Rating: 3.5 of 5

James M. Cain is best known for gritty crime tales like The Postman Always Rings Twice. If watching guilt-ridden criminals spiral downward into self-destruction is your thing, Cain is your man…though not so much in the first part of this book. This volume collects short stories from various points in Cain’s career, so the first half features vaguely humorous social commentary and back-hills rubes rather than the crime noir you might expect from the title and the ominous fedora-clad silhouette on the cover. Overall, it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing to have some lighter fare at the start because a full 300+ pages of Cain’s typical seedy protagonists and trainwreck lives may have been a bit much. As it was, it was entertaining enough for 3.5 stars, and I can check this off my list for the TBR Pile Challenge.

Title: My Sister the Serial Killer
Author: Oyinkan Braithwaite
Genre: Modern Crime Noir
Pages: “240”
Rating: 3.5

The title gives you the main plot point: our protagonist’s much doted upon younger sister would appear to be a serial killer, and the book follows her life and thoughts as she decides how to handle it. The plot jumps right in with her cleaning up after the her sister’s latest killing. From there it is by turns tense, humorous, and disturbing.

Both the “bond of sisterhood” theme and the Nigerian setting gives a slightly different feel from similar crime noir books, which I appreciated. As far as cultural and language differences go, a few small words such as exclamations, kinds of food, and articles of clothing go untranslated but enough can be gathered from context that they add “color” instead of being annoying.

This is really more of a novella than a full length novel. The page count says 240, but the tiny chapters that cover 1-3 pages with widely spaced lines and manage to spill a few lines onto the next page seem designed to seriously pad the page-count. As a noir story, it is competently executed and worth a read if you don’t mind moral ambiguity, a little grim humor, and loose ends.

Back to the Classics Wrap-up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Killer Robot Noir

Title: I Only Killed Him Once
(Ray Electromatic Mysteries: Book 3)
Author: Adam Christopher
Genre: Sci-Fi Noir
Pages: 224
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 7/10/18 (Thanks to the author and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This does not affect the content of my review)

The concluding book in Adam Christopher’s LA Trilogy pulls together plot threads from the previous 2.75 books (one short story + one novella + two novels…reviews here) and ties them up in a nice pretty bow. You could probably read this on its own and be able to follow the plot since there is plenty of recapping (too much in my opinion), but why would you deprive yourself of the joy of reading the full version of what came before?

This final tale of the robot PI-turned-hitman in alternate 1960’s Los Angeles contains some fun twists and turns. Admittedly, most of them you can see coming a mile away as they have been pretty heavily hinted at, but the big one caught me by surprise without feeling completely random. Not too many books do that to me, so that (plus some clever Raymond Chandler in-jokes) made this the highest rated book in the series for me. I don’t want to say much more than that so as to avoid spoilers.

Overall: I highly recommend this series! There are some areas where you have to suspend disbelief and go with the flow (but classic noir is always a bit hackish anyway), and you have to realize that the books are not as self-contained and stand-alone as classic noir fiction, but this series is just a lot of fun, and this book was a great wrap-up to it.

Miscellaneous Mini Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tacky Formatting
Where do I look first?!

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

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.