A Worthy/Hilarious Sequel

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

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

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

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!

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!

Innuendos & Poop Jokes

Title: Kill the Farm Boy
Authors: Kevin Hearne & Delilah S. Dawson
Genre: Fantasy Satire
Pages: 384
Rating: 2 of 5
Future Release Date: 7/17/18 (Thank you to the authors and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of this review)

This book promised to be a hilarious romp through every imaginable fantasy trope. If your sense of humor is that of the average young teenage boy, it might deliver on that promise. There were some laugh out loud moments, but the truly clever bits were buried under a flood of adolescent humor. The book is essential one big compilation of gross-out jokes and innuendos (e.g. the elven kingdom of Morningwood provides the authors a seemingly endless source of raunchy puns).

I can’t say much about the plot without spoilers, but I will say that they did indeed cleverly tweak most of the classic tropes. What they did with the “chosen one” trope was particularly entertaining. For me, the constant stream of poo & sex jokes got old very quickly and overshadowed the cleverness. For humorous/satirical fantasy I’d recommend sticking with Discworld or maybe Peril in the Old Country (another eARC I reviewed here).

The Sermon on the TV

Time for a rare non-book review post. It’s been a while since I’ve posted any of my own creative writing, but that’s what you’re getting today. This is my first ever attempt at satire and comes from a sermon series I started a few weeks ago on the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). There seems to be a vast gulf between what Jesus identifies as the values of his Kingdom and the shape that Christianity has taken for many American Evangelicals. From the way some of us behave you would think that this is what Matthew 5:1-12 says:

Now when Pete Johnson got home from work sat down in his recliner, turned on his TV, and the televangelist began to teach him. He said:

Blessed are those who believe in themselves,
     for they shall accomplish great things.

Blessed are those who never express sorrow,
     for they are more well-adjusted and spiritually mature.

Blessed are the brash and arrogant,
     for they shall not be mistaken for sissies.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for possessions, wealth, and ease,
    for they shall live their best life now.

Blessed are the cynical,
     for they shall not be taken advantage of.

Blessed are those who are good at following a list of rules,
     for they are clearly righteous.

Blessed are the angry and argumentative,
     for their passion draws many to righteousness.

Blessed are those who always experience religious freedom,
     for that shows how great this country is.

How shocking for you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of your faith. Complain and be outraged because how dare they?! For this is America, and that shouldn’t happen here.

Here’s what Matthew 5:1-12 actually says

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said:

Blessed are the poor in spirit [those thrust upon divine resources],
     for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn,
     for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek [i.e. humble, gentle],
     for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness [includes the idea of justice],
     for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful [i.e. unconditionally compassionate],
     for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart,
     for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers,
     for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
     for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Let’s not let cultural, political, or nationalistic preferences/tendencies control our worldview and actions more than the priorities of the Kingdom of Heaven! And if by any chance you’re interested in hearing my sermon series it can be found here. It starts on the sermon called Citizens of the Kingdom from June 3. It’s posted on a week delay, and the website is pretty out of date (one of my upcoming projects), but there you go.

Hilarious Dark Fantasy

Title: Peril in the Old Country
(Terribly Serious Darkness – Book 1)
Author: Sam Hooker
Genre: Dark Fantasy / Satire
Pages: 312
Rating: 4
Future Release Date: 6/5/18 (thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for a free eARC – this in no way affects the content of the review)

Sloot Peril the accountant is a nervous/befuddled/pathetic character on the order of Arthur Dent or Rincewind the Wizard, and he lives in a world that sounds like 1984 as written by Terry Pratchett who has just read a bunch of dark fantasy (be careful which characters you get emotionally attached to). Poor Sloot, the most law-abiding of citizens, renders great service to an important man (correcting an accounting report that implied he wasn’t so rich that he didn’t have to count his money) and is plunged into a world of plots within plots.

The characters are ridiculous, the situations are absurd, and the narration is hilarious and snarky (beware if you are easily offended by something you value being satirized). This was on it’s way to being a 4.5 to 5 star book, but the end really annoyed me. There are plot unveilings, deaths, swearing (e.g. “the one that rhymes with elbow” or “the one that starts with m and refers to the face you make right before sneezing”), true love…and then the book ends before we find out how the situation resolves…I hate that kind of cliffhanger ending. If you’re a good author you don’t need to string me along like that! You should be able to offer some resolution and still keep my interest. It annoyed me so much that I almost dropped this clear down to 3 stars, but I had too much fun overall to do that.

Biting Satire

Title: Black No More:
Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free
Author: George S. Schuyler
Genre: Classic Satire / Sci-fi
Pages: 200
Rating: 4 of 5

This classic satire imagines what would happen if an African American doctor discovered a way to make black people into white people. It is by turns hilarious and grim. The character who loosely ties the book together is Dr. Crookman’s (yes, there are lots of not-so-subtle contrived names) first patients to undergo the transformation. He promptly works his way into the upper echelons of a white supremacist organization (basically the KKK) and political/social commentary ensues. Additionally, many of the characters are clearly meant to represent/lambaste some of Schuyler’s “Harlem Renaissance” contemporaries and leaders of the NAACP. Even if a lot of those references go over your head (as they did for me), the main points made seem to suffer very little.

One of Schuyler’s main points seems to be that those who keep the racial tensions boiling (both the KKK and the NAACP) do so primarily for personal wealth and power (especially as a way of manipulating the poor whites in the South). And, of course, there’s the point that people are just people and distinctions based on racial ancestry are ultimately absurd. There’s a lot more going on too for such a small book, but I feel like I would have to read it again (as well as some other “Harlem Renaissance” literature) to be able to discuss it intelligently. Overall: there’s a lot to think about in here presented in an entertaining fashion.

One final note: I am using this book as my “Classic with a color in the title” over at the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018.

Meta Mashup

Title: (OMG) Don Quixote and Candide Seek Truth, Justice, and El Dorado in the Digital Age (LOL)
Author: Stefan Soto
Genre: Picaresque Satire
Pages: 300
Rating: 2.5 of 5

First, thank you to the author for providing me a free copy via netgalley. (this does not affect the content of the review)

This book is basically an excuse to have various fictional characters interact with each other in the modern world. If you look up picaresque novel on Wikipedia, you will get a pretty good idea of the wandering, disconnected style of this book. The focus is on individual episodes and snarky quips rather than an overall plot with the connections between episodes being fairly random and unbelievable. If you like this picaresque style you will probably enjoy the book…personally, I’m not a huge fan (I was expecting a tighter plot due to blurbs comparing it to The Eyre Affair).

As far as the characters go, some of the characterizations were spot on (e.g. the idealistic Don Quixote and vain Cyrano de Bergerac whose interaction is one of the better scenes) and others were less so (e.g. the Star Trek characters felt like the author wasn’t very familiar with them other than in a general make-fun-of-the-best-known-tropes kind of way). The elements of irony, satire, and meta-fiction woven throughout were entertaining enough to keep me reading, but overall it was only a so-so book for me.

All animals are equal…

Image result for Animal FarmTitle: Animal Farm
Author: George Orwell
Genre: Classic / Satire
Pages: 128
Rating: 5 of 5

***WARNING MILD SPOILERS***
(of course, this is a classic so you probably know the gist of the story already…if you can complete the title quote, you’ll be fine)

This is the February group read for the Dewey Decimators. Given all the talk/fears of totalitarianism surrounding the new president, it was a great choice (I’m also currently working my way through It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis). Also, I am using this as my “Classic About an Animal” in the Back to Classics Challenge.

Orwell is best known for the great/terrifying dystopia 1984, but this book packs nearly the same wallop in about 1/3 the pagecount. Animal Farm‘s scope is a bit more narrow than 1984 as Orwell focuses in on not just totalitarianism in general, but Soviet communism in particular.

In a parody of the Bolshevik Revolution, the animals of Manor Farm revolt and, under the leadership of the pigs, seize control of the farm, rechristening it Animal Farm. The two most prominent pigs, Snowball and Napoleon, play the roles of Trotsky (with maybe a touch of Lenin) and Stalin respectively. The tragic, grotesque, violent history of these men and their politics plays out in miniature on the farm over the following years in a most unedifying spectacle.

Despite being satire of a specific political situation, Animal Farm remains relevant as a warning of how despots come to power. As the pigs slowly morph into overlords who are indistinguishable from the former master, we get to see the steps along the way by which they slowly warp their idealistic vision into something that grants them absolute power. In the end, the animals are left with the memorable slogan that so aptly describes Marxism put into practice:

ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL
BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS