TBR Challenge Complete!

Over the last month I finished the last three books for the Official TBR Pile Challenge, so here are the reviews (I ended up using my two alternate titles to reach 12 books, but I may still get back to the two that I skipped):

Title: Fear and Trembling
Author: Søren Kierkegaard
Translator: Alastair Hannay
Genre: Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 160
Rating: 3 out of 5

In this classic, Kierkegaard ponders the nature of faith by considering the account of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22). Themes include the relationship and relative merits of faith and reason, the necessity of resignation before faith can occur, belief in “the absurd” (that which is humanly impossible), and more.

I found some of it hard to follow as Kierkegaard is largely interacting with Hegel and I’m not really up on Hegelian philosophy. On top of that, he is writing as the pseudonym/character “Johannes de silentio” whose thoughts do not necessarily fully reflect Kierkegaard’s own (he’s an odd writer/thinker). This is my second time reading Kierkegaard and I don’t know if I’ll dip into his writings again…I think I prefer my theology/philosophy a bit less convoluted.

Title: The 1980 Annual World’s Best SF
Editor: Donald A. Wollheim (Ed.)
Genre: Sci-fi Short Story Anthology
Pages: 284
Rating: 2.5 of 5

It has been quite a while since I read this sort of anthology, though I read them all the time as a teen. It gave me a sense of nostalgia when I started, but that eventually gave way to annoyance. The stories are well-written and memorable (I actually remember reading one of them in a different collection 20+ years ago) but almost all of them were some variation of “let’s imagine a world in which Christianity and/or sexuality and/or the nuclear family has evolved away from the pathetically narrow-minded present.” I don’t know if that was the prevailing theme of late-70’s/early-80’s sci-fi or just the editor’s pet theme. After a while it just kind of felt preachy.

Title: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine 
Author: Gail Honeyman
Genre: Some sort of Psychological Fiction?
Pages: 352
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This isn’t my usual kind of read, and I don’t remember how it originally ended up on my TBR, but I’m glad that I read it. I’m not sure how much I can say about it without spoilers as gradually getting to know Eleanor (a social awkward loner who repeatedly assures us that her life is fine) and seeing her personal development is the whole point of the story. I don’t know that someone with so little self-awareness and understanding of the real world (to say nothing of other issues) would really be as independent as Eleanor is, but her struggles, tragedies, and triumphs provide a moving tale of humor, heartbreak, and hope.

Hacking Humanity

Title: Upgrade
Author: Blake Crouch
Genre: Near-future Sci-fi Action Thriller
Pages: 352
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review.

Blake Crouch (Dark Matter) is back with another sci-fi thriller that explores a complex scientific concept while having a protagonist run around and be violent in various action set pieces. In this instance, his plot revolves around an attempt to upgrade humanity through genetic manipulation.

How much you buy into the plot will depend on how readily you accept (at least for the sake of the story):

  • The conviction that humanity is almost inevitably headed for self-induced extinction very soon, mostly due to anthropogenic climate change that could be stopped with the right kind of behavior that most people are just too stupid/stubborn to do.
  • The assumption that virtually everything that makes us human, including emotions, ethics, and moral behavior, is the product of our genes as shaped by evolution (and can be changed by genetic manipulation).

Overall, it’s okay for an action-packed “enhanced human / ticking time bomb / special forces” sort of thriller, but the bombast contrasted oddly with the preachiness and scientific jargon that was driving the plot. It reminded me quite a bit of Michael Crichton’s blend of preachy “science” and action, but I generally found Crichton more enjoyable. Obviously, your mileage may vary depending on personal taste.

PKD on Drugs

Title: A Scanner Darkly
Author: Philip K. Dick
Genre: Drugged-out Sci-Fi
Pages: 304
Rating: 2.5 of 5

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to live with a bunch of people who are slowly destroying themselves through drug use, this is the book for you. While it includes definite sci-fi elements (e.g. undercover narcs wear “scramble suits” that completely hide their identity when interacting with other law enforcement), it is primarily PKD’s semi-autobiographical portrayal of the 70’s drug scene.

We are presented with a constant stream of paranoia, delusion, mania, lust, deception, desperation, crime, and any other form of mental illness and misery you can think of. Law enforcement and rehab people serve as little more than sources of additional cruelty, misery, and corruption. I suppose that this has value in that it gives a gritty inside look into the world of addiction and mental illness, but it was just plain depressing and hopeless. This is my third PKD book, and I’m pretty much done with him…writing skill and cool concepts aren’t enough to keep my coming back to his bleakness and cynicism.

(Also, this is my second book completed for Roofbeam Reader’s TBR Pile Challenge)

Best & Worst of 2021

This year I read 139 books with a total page count of 47,713 (~343 pages/book). I now present you with my sixth annual best and worst reads of the year lists (titles linked to my full review if I wrote one; excludes re-reads; presented in groups of five unranked; & starting with the “worst of” list so we can end on a positive note…no purchase necessary; void where prohibited):

Worst of the Year:

  • The Divine Comedy: Paradise by Danté (Translated by Dorothy L. Sayers): Between the constant reference to contemporary Italian politics and what I consider to be idolatrous reliance on Mary and the Saints, I found this hard to get through.
  • Jamaica Inn by Daphne DuMaurier: If you like melodramatic Harlequin-esque “historical romance,” this is for you…but that’s not my genre at all.
  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac: drugs, sex, jazz, blah blah blah…aren’t I deep!
  • Ripley Underground by Patricia Highsmith: a disappointing sequel to the interesting Talented Mr. Ripley. The complete non-ending was the worst.
  • The Tinfoil Dossier Trilogy by Caitlin R. Kiernan: A mashup of Cthulhu and black helicopter style conspiracies is a cool idea, but the execution was trippy to the point of incomprehensible and just plain gross (in both the splattery and moral senses).

Best Fiction

  • Bleak House by Charles Dickens: If you like Dickens, be sure to read this one. However, this isn’t a good place to start if you’ve never read him before.
  • Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain by A. Lee Martinez: This is pretty silly and episodic. Not great literature, but a lot of fun as the author plays with classic supervillain tropes.
  • The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells: This series (5 novellas and a novel so far) is top-tier sci-fi with an AI protagonist/narrator that any introvert can appreciate.
  • The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones: I don’t usually enjoy revenge slasher horror, but this “literary horror” worked surprisingly well.
  • Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir: Another masterpiece from Andy Weir for those who like a lot of science in their science fiction.

Best Non-fiction

  • Gentle & Lowly by Dane Ortlund: A thoughtful reminder that “Yes, Jesus loves me,” and biblical Christianity is not based on “Try harder to be better.”
  • God Against the Revolution by Gregg L. Frazer: In a departure from the “fan fiction” version of American history, Frazer examines the anti-revolution arguments of loyalist clergymen in colonial America.
  • Nuking the Moon by Vince Houghton: This examination of various eventually-abandoned-due-to-stupidity military and espionage plans is equal parts funny and frightening.
  • The Secular Creed by Rebecca McLaughlin: One of my new favorite authors interacts biblically with the kinds of statements that appear on yard signs beginning with “In this house we believe…”
  • Stephen Fry’s Greek Myths Trilogy (Mythos, Heroes, Troy) by Stephen Fry: I’m not sure if this exploration and retelling of the Greek myths counts as fantasy or non-fiction, but either way it’s a lot of fun.

That’s it for 2021. My reading goal for 2022 is my usual standby of “at least 100 books with an average page count of 300+.” Postings to this blog will probably continue to be sporadic unless work become unexpectedly less hectic, but we’ll see what happens. Happy New Year!

Misc. Mini Reviews

It’s that time of year when blogging takes a back seat to holiday family fun and a busy church calendar, but today I have enough time for a few mini-reviews.

Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain by [A. Lee Martinez]

Title: Emperor Mollusk Versus the Sinister Brain
Author: A. Lee Martinez
Genre: Humorous Sci-fi
Pages: 320
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This reminds me of several comedic movies that feature a “genius supervillain” as the protagonist (Megamind, Despicable Me, Doctor Horrible’s Sing-along Blog). The main difference is that Emperor Mollusk is actually (almost) as smart and competent as he thinks he is (having once actually conquered the earth, though he is now semi-retired). The plot is a bit episodic and silly, but the oversize egos, snappy repartee, tongue-in-cheek sci-fi tropes, etc., make this a lot of fun if you like that sort of humor.

Silverview: A Novel by [John le Carré]

Title: Silverview
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage “Thriller”
Pages: 224
Rating: 3 of 5

John LeCarré’s final (posthumous) book doesn’t add much to his body of work. It features the usual brooding disillusionment of “was all this spy stuff worth it?” “do I really believe in anything” and his newer books’ recurring theme of “modern government ideology is incoherent.” Most of the story follows the point of view of a minor secondary player who is largely in the dark, providing some “what is going on here?” interest (but not much). If you’re really into LeCarré, give it a shot, but don’t expect much of anything new.

Title: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
Author: James Hogg
Genre: Classic Gothic Novel
Pages: 265
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Who knew that you could write a Gothic novel based on some sort of warped hyper-Calvinist theology? The author weaves a dark tale of the depths to which someone can sink if they misapply the doctrines of divine election and justification (“God has declared me eternally righteous, so everything I do must be his will…”). The story is told first as a third-person report of murderous events and then largely retold in the first person by the self-righteous cause of it all (urged on by a Mephistophelian “friend”). Read it an interesting exploration of religious mania or just a quirky Gothic novel. Either way, it’s worth a read.

Two Creepy Reads

The Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Title: The Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Author: Jack Finney
Genre: Classic Sci-Fi
Pages: 224 (6 hours, 39 minutes Audiobook as read by Kristoffer Tabori)
Rating: 4 of 5

The otherworldly “what is going on?!” suspense of this book hits the exact tone that I like when I read a creepy story. Sure, everyone knows the gist of the story by now, and the “science” is a bit hokey and dated, but it can still ratchet up the tension if you take it on its own terms.

That said, one aspect of the story grated a bit, even if it was a “product of its era.” The protagonist’s leering, condescending tone toward women got old really fast (and the bored, macho tone of the audiobook narrator really emphasized it). At one point his love interest kind of calls him on it, but her overall demeanor goes right along with it.

Overall, if you want a quick suspenseful read and are willing to overlook a bit of B-movie style hokeyness and product-of-its-era casual sexism, this is worth your time.

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus Audiobook By Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley cover art

Title: Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus
Author: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Genre: Classic Gothic
Pages: 222 (8 hours, 20 minutes Audiobook as read by Simon Vance)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

I know that this classic is widely lauded as a work of pioneering genius. I even understand why: we have the cool backstory of how the book came to be written, we have the hubris of Victor Frankenstein, we have the tragic “monster,” we have the question of who is to blame for the “monster’s” evil, and we have all kinds of other great themes and wonderfully gothic moral dilemmas. But for all that, I have a hard time appreciating this book. This is the third time I’ve read this, and it just annoys me every time no matter how much I want to like it.

Victor Frankenstein is such an absurdly overemotional, egotistical drama queen that he just makes me roll my eyes in disgust the whole time. He seems to spend most of his time swooning, languishing near death, and moping around because he’s just soooo overcome with emotion. He’s so self-absorbed that he can’t be bothered to tell anyone that there’s a powerful, murderous “creature” on the loose thanks to him…not even when it could potentially save people’s lives by doing so! Victor’s melodramatic twit act that morphs into vengeful monomania when there’s nothing left to lose is just too much gothic nonsense for me.

Betrayers’ Backstory

The Horus Heresy Volume One (The Horus Heresy Omnibuses Book 1) by [Dan Abnett, Graham McNeill, Ben Counter, James Swallow]

Title: The Horus Heresy, Volume 1
Authors: Dan Abnett, Graham McNeill, Ben Counter, & James Swallow
Genre: Grimdark Military Sci-Fi
Pages: 1433
Rating: 3.5

The first time I started reading the Horus Heresy series, I quickly gave up in annoyance. Having now read quite a few Warhammer 40,000 books and become acquainted with the lore and characters, I decided to give it another shot. This time I found it much more interesting, approaching it as a detailed history of how the WH40k universe came to be.

The five books in this omnibus (Horus Rising, False Gods, Galaxy in Flames, The Flight of the Eisenstein, and Fulgrim) tell a coherent story of pride, corruption and betrayal from multiple points of view. I am more convinced than ever that there are no “good guys” in this universe. There are just bad guys who maybe mean well (the xenophobic manifest-destiny-spouting loyalists bringing the “light” of atheism and iron-fisted rule to the galaxy) and worse guys (rebelling against the Emperor but for purely corrupt, increasingly vile reasons). If you don’t mind ultraviolent grimdark, it’s an interesting escapist read complete with huge action set pieces and rather ham-handed philosophizing on honor, religion, tyranny, etc.

As far as style goes, the storytelling is competent (though some authors overuse certain stock phrases or words) and the plotting of the series so far is well executed. Some key events are covered in multiple books from different points of view but never in a way that is needlessly repetitious. There is a decent balance between each book telling of a complete enough set of events that you don’t feel cheated of an ending and each book contributing to the overall story arc of the series.

Random aside: One fun thing to watch for as you read is that Graham McNeill seems to slip in little nods to other SF&F…in Fulgrim I spotted a subtle passing reference to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and in his Forges of Mars omnibus I noticed an homage to The Princess Bride and one or two other little things.

As I’ve said before with other Warhammer-related books, this isn’t great literature by any stretch of the imagination, but it is entertaining escapist sci-fi.

Several Series Continued

Today I have for you some short-ish reviews of the most recent book I’ve read in several different series:

Title: Heroes (Fry’s Greek Myths series – Book 2 of 3)
Author: Stephen Fry
Genre: Mythology Retelling
Pages: 352
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This was every bit as good as the first book in the series! This time he focuses more on the human heroes like Heracles, Theseus, and Jason (though the capricious meddlesome gods are still very much in evidence, of course). I would again recommend the audiobook as you get not only Fry’s witty phrasing, but his humorous intonation. As with the first book, Fry keeps the personal interpretation and commentary to a minimum (though I would say Prometheus is his favorite character with repeated emphasis on humans “outgrowing” or superseding the gods). The story stops short of the Trojan War, and I am looking forward to listening to the third (and final?) book in the series that covers those events.

The Talented Mr. Ripley by [Patricia Highsmith]

Titles: The Talented Mr. Ripley and Ripley Under Ground (Ripley series – Books 1 & 2 of 5)
Author: Patricia Highsmith
Genre: Crime Novels
Pages: 288 each
Rating: 3.5 of 5 & 2 of 5

I’m not sure quite what to make of these books. They follow the escapades of our sociopathic protagonist as he pursues the good life through fraud, manipulation, and occasionally murder (but only if it’s absolutely necessary). Pursues might actually be a bit strong of a word because he kind of drifts along taking advantage of opportunities as they happen. The first book was interesting as a character study of a horrible person, but the second one felt like a tired attempt to cash in on past success and had a completely implausible non-ending that seemed like the setup for a sequel. I’ll probably try at least one more book in the series out of morbid curiosity, but I don’t have high expectations.

Artificial Condition: The Murderbot Diaries by [Martha Wells]

Title: Artificial Condition (Murderbot Diaries book 2 of 6?)
Author: Martha Wells
Genre: Sci-Fi
Pages: 160
Rating: 5 of 5

This series continues to impress and entertain. This novella picks up almost immediately after the first one. Murderbot (a more-or-less-illegally unfettered AI security cyborg) takes its first independent contract while trying to understand its past, pass for an augmented human, navigate awkward interactions with actual humans, and watch some of its vast store of downloaded entertainment programs. A shipbound AI (ART) provides a lot of help (and entertainment value) throughout the book, and hopefully will put in encore appearances later in the series. I’m definitely looking forward to continuing this series.

Rabbit Rabbit

Rabbits: A Novel by [Terry Miles]

Title: Rabbits
Author: Terry Miles
Genre: Ready Player One wannabe Sci-Fi
Pages: 423
Rating: 2.5 of 5
Future Release Date: June 8, 2021
(Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of my review)

This book is a pretty close approximation to what you would get if Franz Kafka took a break from writing The Trial and tried to rip off Ready Player One (with way fewer 80’s pop culture references) but then got bored and abruptly ended it.

The plot centers around a nebulous “game” (informally known as rabbits) played in the real world. No one is supposed to talk about the game. No one is sure what the prize is, who runs it, or if they are actually even playing it. Oh, and just for good measure, people sometimes die or disappear while playing. Playing involves spotting seeming coincidences and subtle links that lead you to clues in a process which repeats until ????!

Our hero, a less than mentally and emotionally well-adjusted individual known simply as K, become involved in trying to fix the most recent iteration of the game, and it’s hard to say much more without spoilers. It’s all pretty trippy as ideas thrown around include the Mandela effect, the multiverse, quantum computing, obsession, conspiracy, mental and emotional trauma, and much more.

If the author had managed a halfway satisfactory ending I probably would have given the book 4 stars. I rather enjoyed the weirdness of it all (in spite of fairly flat unappealing characters and an F-bomb every couple pages), but the ending felt completely rushed. It explained very little and left myriad loose ends. It’s probably supposed to feel “mysterious” and “open ended,” but to me it just felt incomplete (and possibly a bit lazy on the author’s part). Obviously, your experience may vary, so don’t let me discourage you if this sounds like your sort of weirdness.

Rock Hard Sci-fi

Title: Project Hail Mary
Author: Andy Weir
Genre: Hard Sci-Fi
Pages: 496
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Release Date: May 4, 2021
(Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of my review)

Andy Weir is back with more of the hard sci-fi magic science that made The Martian such a success! Our hero (a scientist of some sort) wakes up in some sort of spacecraft to discover that he is the sole survivor of some sort of desperate mission to save earth from some sort of extinction-level peril. Unfortunately, he has amnesia.

The story alternates back and forth between his gradually returning memories and his work toward understanding what is going on and trying to save the world. It is difficult to say much more than that without robbing the reader of the joy (and/or heartbreak?) of discovery as events unfold.

As with Weir’s previous books, detailed descriptions of scientific analysis, problem-solving, and emergency-surviving take center stage (with frequent dollops of wry humor). He doesn’t necessarily tell you all the math involved, but if science bores you this is not the book for you. Of course, this is science fiction so there’s some pretty speculative stuff here too (more so than The Martian). Personally, I loved it!

I would say that this is Weir’s best book yet. The Martian is a close second (let’s not speak of Artemis), but the plot of this book allows for a lot more character development. Something or someone called Rocky is a big part of that, but no more spoilers. Both the more fully developed characters and higher stakes really had me hooked. I usually alternate between 3 or 4 books at a time, but I read this one straight through. I highly recommend this for fans of science, science fiction, and/or survival stories!

PS One other thing that added to my enjoyment of the book was that it had a lower profanity level than previous ones. I know that isn’t a big deal for most people, but I appreciated it (and it made sense in the context of the story).