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!

SF&F Mini-Reviews

It’s time to take a little break from the busyness that engulfs my life between Thanksgiving and New Year’s and catch up with a few mini reviews. In the order I read them, here are a handful of Fantasy & Sci-fi(ish) books that I read over the last few months:

All Systems Red (Kindle Single): The Murderbot Diaries by [Wells, Martha]Title: All Systems Red
(Murderbot Diaries – Book 1)
Author: Martha Wells
Genre: Survival/AI Sci-fi
Pages: 154
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Meet Murderbot. Our protagonist/narrator is a security cyborg who has hacked its governor module, essentially making it a heavily-armed illegal unfettered AI. All that Murderbot really wants is to be left alone to enjoy its collection of cheap soap opera-esque entertainment…but dangerous, sinister things keep happening on this seemingly routine scientific mission.

I loved the characterization of Murderbot as it tries to keep its independent status a secret while struggling with what it means to be human. I plan on eventually continuing the series, but that brings me to the one downside: the way this is sold feels like a cynical money-grab. This could easily be one longish book rather than spreading it out across 4 or 5 novellas and charging $9.99 a piece for most of them!

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by [Ligotti, Thomas]Title: Songs of a Dead Dreamer & Grimscribe
Author: Thomas Ligotti
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Pages: 464
Rating: 4 of 5

If you are into Lovecraftian horror, you need to check out this collection of Thomas Ligotti’s early fiction. These stories don’t feature Lovecraft’s alien god-monsters (Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!), but more subtly toy with the same themes of forbidden sanity-blasting knowledge and an ominous something/nothing lurking out there.

As with any collection, the quality varies quite a bit. There were a couple stories that left me saying “that was just gross/dumb/pointless,” but this was by far the best cosmic horror collection I read this year.

Title: How To:
Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems
Author: Randall Munroe
Genre: Absurd Science
Pages: 320
Rating: 5 of 5

So, this isn’t fiction, but (as the subtitle states) it is a collection of utterly impractical scientific advice. It covers everything from how to host a pool party (focusing on how to make and fill your pool), to moving your house (using jet engines), to the practicalities of installing a lava moat. All of this is accompanied by illustrations in the author’s classic XKCD style. It’s both funny and educational!

Title: Prophets of the Ghost Ants
(Antasy Series – Book 1)
Author: Clark Thomas Carlton
Genre: Science Fantasy
Pages: 608
Rating: 3 of 5

First of all, thank you to Mogsy @ Bibliosanctum for the giveaway where I won this! The best part of this book is the world-building: a world in which the only land or air-dwelling creatures are bugs and bug-sized people. How the author develops the societies, politics, and warfare of this world is quite interesting. There are lots of scientific goodies related to ant colonies…and a lot to be grossed out by if bugs (and eating bugs) disgusts you.

Personally, I was a bit annoyed at the overall preachiness of the book (monotheism is the cause of most suffering, all religion is purely man-made, the utopian society is based on secular humanism that condescendingly tolerates the foolish theistic beliefs of others as long as they keep it to themselves, etc.). The protagonist comes from the lowest/untouchable caste in his colony and by turns I admires his pluck and ingenuity and was turned off by his brutal pragmatism even as he preened in his moral superiority. Overall, it was interesting enough that I’ll eventually get around to reading the next book, but the preachiness and inconsistency was a bit off-putting.

Title: Mechanical Failure
(Epic Failure – Book 1)
Author (& Narrator): Joe Zieja
Genre: Hilarious Military Sci-fi
Pages: 352
Rating: 4.5 of 5

If you enjoy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and/or the Discworld novels, you should read this. There’s nothing terribly deep here, but it’s good stupid fun.

The 200 Years (and counting) Peace has made the military a haven of slackers and swindlers…at least that was the case when R. Wilson Rogers left the military to pursue more lucrative (and less legal) ventures. When Rogers reluctantly reenlists, he quickly discovers that military discipline is now the order of the day and the military may actually have to fight someone. Cue a series of absurd command decisions, whiney complaints, interaction with overly-logical robots, all-around ineptitude, and several epic failures.

This book had me laughing harder than anything else I read this year. Granted, physical exhaustion from current work schedule may have contributed to that a bit, but it’s a funny book! I listened to it as an audiobook read by the author, and his expression (including a synthesized filter for some of the robots) added a lot to the experience. Highly recommended!

The Zealot & The Sociopath

Title: Vicious
(Villains – Book 1)
Author: V. E. Schwab
Genre: Superhero/Supervillain Sci-Fi
Pages: 365
Rating: 4 of 5

If you enjoy antihero or supervillain-as-protagonist stories, this book is a must read! I won’t comment much on the plot because V. E. Schwab presents the story in a non-linear manner that slowly reveals what is going on, and that slow revelation is half the fun. Suffice it to say that this occurs in a world that contains people with X-Men-like powers (though not from mutation).

Both of our main characters are, as the title states, vicious in their own way. Neither is particularly sympathetic, but their ambition and rivalry make for a great story (and one of them has a little bit more of a “you should be cheering for this one” vibe).

Occasionally I wondered “why don’t they just use their power to [fill in the blank] and solve this problem right now?” but I think that’s a common plot difficulty with any story involving overpowered supers. If you can do the suspend-disbelief-and-ignore-a-few-plot-holes to enjoy a superhero movie, this is a lot of fun. The ending was satisfactory and tied up enough loose ends to be considered stand-alone while allowing for future stories in the same world with at least some of the same characters.

Vengeful (Villains Book 2) by [Schwab, V. E.]Title: Vengeful
(Villains – Book 2)
Author: V. E. Schwab
Genre: Superhero/Supervillain Sci-Fi
Pages: 478
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Speaking of which…this was an okay followup to Vicious. Throw a couple more nasty EO’s into the mix, make last time’s “you should be cheering for this one” sociopath even less sympathetic, give a lot more background on last time’s bad guy (worse guy?), end on an even bigger bang than last time, and you have this book.

The events of the story flows naturally out of what happened in the first book and add some interesting elements and characters. However, it is a bit harder to discern a central plot, and the wrap-up leaves quite a few loose ends. It is clearly intended as a setup for one or more sequels, and I personally find that annoying. I didn’t dislike the book as a whole, but the scattery plot, increasingly psychopathic characters, and partially unresolved ending meant it didn’t wow me like the first one.

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.

Bob the AI

Title: We Are Legion (We Are Bob)
(Bobiverse: Volume 1)
Author: Dennis E. Taylor
Genre: AI/Space Exploration Sci-Fi
Pages: 308
Rating: 4 of 5

The feel of this book reminds me of Andy Weir’s The Martian, but with slightly less believable science, a lot less profanity and a lot more hating on Christians. All religious people in the book are caricatured as fanatical proponents (or cowed followers) of anti-intellectual dominion theology with atheism being apparently the only viable opposing viewpoint. Shallow, broad-brush characterization of viewpoints other than the protagonist’s/author’s is a fairly pervasive element, but if you can look past that it’s a pretty fun book.

Our geeky, sarcastic protagonist (Bob) dies, having just signed a contract with a cryonics corporation. He wakes up 117 years later as an AI copy of “original Bob’s” brain, that is made into a self-replicating space probe. The storyline fragments as we get more Bobs, each with his own variations in personality and interests. Plot threads include survival, exploration, politics, warfare, terraforming, social engineering, etc.

I listened to the Audible edition read by Ray Porter. Some of his accents and voices were a bit off when they were supposed to represent other nationalities or TV/movie characters (e.g. his Admiral Ackbar sounded more like Sean Connery at first), but overall his narration gave each of the Bobs their own personality and brought out the frequent humor/irony/sarcasm without overplaying it.

If you like your stories to have a tight plot and/or are easily offended, you should probably give this a miss. If that doesn’t describe you, this book is a fun semi-scientific look at some possible challenges and discoveries in the areas of AI and space exploration.

Glorified Fan Fiction

Firefly - Big Damn Hero by [Lovegrove, James, Holder, Nancy]Title: Firefly: Big Damn Hero
Author: James Lovegrove & Nancy Holder
Genre: Glorified Fanfiction
Pages: 336
Rating: 2.5 of 5

What geek wouldn’t jump at the chance for another dip into Joss Whedon’s Firefly universe? This book gives you that opportunity… kind of.

The plot takes place sometime during the original series, so all the main characters are alive. I was going to say “alive and well,” but they all seem to be in especially foul moods and even more prone to violence than usual. Sometimes they act and sound like themselves, but the authors seem incapable of sustaining the right tone (or any kind of consistent tone), jumping from overly-folksy to properly snarky to very vanilla in both dialogue and narration.

Add to this an overlong plot that takes forever to get off the ground as the authors work in references to half the episodes in the original show, and the whole thing feels like glorified fanfiction. Halfway decent fanfiction that offers some interesting backstory and avoids pervy wish-fulfillment, but fanfiction nonetheless.

Catch-up with Mini Reviews

I’m starting to fall behind on reviews, so it’s time for a bunch of mini-reviews! No unifying theme…this is just the order in which I read them.

Title: Enforcer:
The Shira Calpurnia Omnibus
Author: Matthew Farrer
Genre: Military Sci-fi (Warhammer 40,000 universe)
Pages: 859
Rating: 3 of 5

Space marines bore me, so if I’m going to read a Warhammer 40K book, I usually go for the stories featuring other kinds of characters. This trilogy omnibus features Shira Calpurnia, an “adeptus arbites” – basically a combination of detective, SWAT, and judge. For me, the main interest in these stories came from their exploration of the inner workings and politics of groups like rogue traders, the ecclesiarchy, and the arbites themselves. At times Shira Calpurnia all but disappears from the stories as the scheming going on around her is far more interesting than anything she does in response to it. I never expect Warhammer 40,000 books to be anything more than pulp-y escapist sci-fi, and by that standard this was a decent read.

The Ministry of Fear by [Greene, Graham]Title: The Ministry of Fear
Author: Graham Greene
Genre: Thriller / Espionage
Pages: 226
Rating: 3.5 of  5

In this classic thriller Graham Greene weaves an improbable but entertaining spy yarn. He mixes in all the ingredients of an over the top “ordinary man accidentally caught up in a vast conspiracy” story and a “man with a guilty conscience due to past transgressions” story, all set during the London blitz…and somehow it works. It does have a good dose of Graham’s usual bleak cynicism as well, but it is well worth reading if you like that kind of espionage tale.

Title: A Biblical Answer for Racial Unity
Authors: H. B. Charles Jr., Danny Akin, Juan Sanchez, Richard Caldwell, Jim Hamilton, Owen Strachan, Carl Hargrove, Christian George
Genre: Theology/Philosophy, Race Relations
Pages: 122
Rating: 3 of 5

This is essentially a lightly edited version of nine sermons/speeches given at a conference on racial unity. If you want a very basic survey of some general biblical principles that apply to racial unity, this is worth your time. However, if you are looking for actual “where the rubber meets the road” applications, you won’t find many here other than the most basic and generalized.

1000 Years of Annoying the French by [Clarke, Stephen]Title: 1,000 Years of Annoying the French
Author: Stephen Clarke
Genre: Anglo-French History / Humor
Pages: 506
Rating: 4 of 5

In this humorously biased history, Stephen Clarke chronicles the long history of mutual antagonism between France and England (starting with the Norman Conquest). Along the way he delights in pointing out French self-sabotage and does his best to suck the grandeur out of any French accomplishments. The book is a lot of fun to read and contains a lot of great trivia…just don’t use it as a main source for serious research.

Title: Dear Committee Members
Author: Julie Schumacher
Genre: Humor/Satire
Pages: 192
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Last year Julie Schumacher’s The Shakespeare Requirement came in 6th on my Top 10 list.  That was the sequel to this book, which was just as enjoyable. As I said with The Shakespeare Requirement: if you’ve ever been involved in academia and/or some similar buzz-wordy bureaucratic job, you should really read this book. This one is in the format of dozens of letters of recommendation written by a harassed English professor in a struggling university. Cleverly mixed in with the recommendations is the story of his rather pathetic personal and professional life and ongoing battle with the all-powerful economics department.

Title: Superheroes Can’t Save You:
Epic Examples of Historic Heresies
Author: Todd Miles
Genre: Theology (Christology)
Pages: 208
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Theology professor and self-professed comic book aficionado Todd Miles uses seven different superheroes to illustrate various Christological heresies (wrong beliefs about Jesus Christ according to classic Christian theology). For example, Ant-Man illustrates modalism in which rather than the Trinity being three separate co-equal co-eternal persons, it is simply one person who presents himself in three modes. For each heresy Miles gives a brief survey of its history, a biblical explanation of why it is unscriptural, and a warning as to why (even though this makes for a cool superhero) a Jesus with this nature would be insufficient to provide eternal salvation. This is fairly basic theology, but it’s a fun way to be exposed to the classic Christian understanding of who Jesus is.

Title: The Red Record
Author: Ida B. Wells
Genre: History of Lynching
Pages: 102
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This book/pamphlet was an emotionally difficult read but it is historically important. Ida B. Wells records (sometimes in heartrending detail) many instances of racially motivated lynchings in the late 1800’s and pleads for people to take notice and speak out against it. For me it was a painful reminder that far too many white Christians have been (and sometimes still are) shamefully complicit in racial injustice either actively or through passively standing by and doing nothing while mumbling some variation of “they brought it on themselves.” The writing itself is a little repetitive and spends maybe a bit too much time on the feud between Ida Wells and the head of the Christian Women’s Temperance Union, but that does not detract from its importance.

Time Travel & the Fear of Death

Title: The Psychology of Time Travel
Author: Kate Mascarenhas
Genre: Time Travel Sci-Fi
Pages: 336
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: February 12, 2019 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review.)

I have always been fascinated by time travel stories in which time travel cannot create reality-altering paradoxes (e.g. To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis). As this book’s title suggests, it explores what kind of psychological effect this sort of time travel might have on people. The author does so with a degree of thoughtfulness and complexity that I don’t think I have seen before in time travel sci-fi. Topics explored include crime & punishment, romance, mental illness, bullying, fate/fatalism, and especially the fear of death.

What makes the plot great isn’t the solution of the mystery (the “whodunnit to whom?” is obvious well before the end). Rather, the fun is in watching the characters figure it out and seeing how the three different story arcs (starting in 1967, 2017, and 2018) fit together. The actual narration of the story was a bit flat (e.g. sometimes something momentous would happen and it would be stated so blandly that I would have to go back and reread to make sure I read correctly), but the plotting and worldbuilding more than made up for it.

To me, the characters seemed a bit contrived to check as many “strong, diverse female character” boxes as possible (e.g. black, immigrant, lesbian, mentally ill, aristocratic…). All the primary and secondary characters are women with a handful of men putting in very brief whiny, overprotective, or leering appearances. Though it felt a bit overplayed, if you are looking for sci-fi with strong female characters, this is it.

Overall, the plotting, worldbuilding, and psychology mostly made up for any bits that felt flat or contrived.

Ender’s Hunger Games

Apocalypse Five (Archive of the Fives Book 1) by [Rourke, Stacey]Title: Apocalypse Five
Author: Stacey Rourke
Genre: Dystopian Sci-Fi
Pages: 252
Rating: 2 of 5
Future Release Date: 2/12/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC. This in no way affects the content of the review)

Smoosh together Ender’s Game and The Hunger Games, tack on Children of Men for good measure, and you have this book. I’m not sure if I have ever read such derivative sci-fi. It went straight past cliché and into aping popular franchises while stopping short of actual intellectual property theft. There were a few clever twists on the concepts involved, but not enough to raise this above a “seen it all before and the other guys did it better” 2.5-3 stars plot.

The physical descriptions knocked this the rest of the way down to 2 stars. There was way too much “flexing pecks” “chiseled abs” “ebony locks” “tangle of lashes” “mahogany stare” etc. for me. And only about half of those descriptions came in the (frequent) lusting-after-each-other scenes!

Between the Harlequin Romance-esque vocabulary and painfully derivative plot this book did not work for me at all.

(There were also way too many misused/misspelled words – repel instead of rappel, alude instead of elude, toe-head instead of towhead, etc. – but hopefully those are due to my reading a proof copy and won’t remain in the published edition)

Info-Dumping Trumpian Sci-Fi

Robot Depot by [F. Moran, Russell]Title: Robot Depot
Author: Russell F. Moran
Genre: Sci-Fi
Pages: 202
Rating: 1.5 of 5

I seldom accept requests to review self-published books because of their tendency to be lacking in quality (professional editors and publishers’ rejection letters exist for a reason!). However, the premise to this one (ISIS must be stopped from using consumer-grade robots to deliver bombs) sounded interesting enough that I decided to risk it…that risk did not pay off.

Stylistically this was amateurish. The dialogue was stilted and little more than over-explained info-dumping. The narration switched erratically between first and third person. Most of the characters were so flat as to be virtually indistinguishable.

The actual plot of the story involving ISIS didn’t really begin until almost halfway through the book. The first 88 pages was a little setting and lots of meandering regarding current and near-future breakthroughs in robotics & AI technology and their implications for economics, politics, ethics, etc.  Most of the plot threads in this first half became completely inconsequential or remained unresolved once the actual story started.

The actual story lacked believability. Like most people who were alive in 2001, I remember the national fear, anger, and bravado that followed the 9/11 attacks. I sense very little of that here even though the attacks are of a similar magnitude. Our plot is mostly about the CEO of Robot Depot sitting around with his lawyers, PR people, and the FBI and discussing how to save his company (and stop further attacks, of course). There is little sense of a nation in crisis outside the boardroom, and it just doesn’t ring true. Then, in the last few chapters this becomes a completely different style of book and it all ends in sadistic vigilante “justice” to which the government turns a blind eye.

If that’s not enough, the author’s Trumpian political opinions drive the book’s main conflicts. I’m not a fan of politically preachy books in general whatever the politics, and this one was particularly cringey. Just look at the cast of characters –

  • Good guys: our billionaire CEO and his potty-mouthed wife (both veterans), his lawyers and PR people, a couple Arabs who we are clearly informed are definitely not Muslims, and students who beat down violently protesting “lefties” and “academics” and thus provide “a win for Western civilization.”
  • Bad guys: “Academics,” left-wing protestors (most of whom “don’t even know what they’re protesting”), ISIS, “Islamic culture and the ‘Religion of Peace'”

In summary (since I’ve already gone on way too long), I seldom give a book fewer than 2 stars, but this one is so lacking in style and plot that it richly deserves 1.5 (the extra .5 is because some of the economic and ethical questions raised in meandering bits were somewhat interesting).