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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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!

Multiple Unreliable Narrators

Title: Someone Like Me
Author: M. R. Carey
Genre: Psychological Horror?
Pages: 512
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 11/6/18 (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 messed up…and I mean that in the best possible way! I love unreliable narrators (especially of the quite-possibly-bonkers variety), and this book is full of them. Our two main characters have suffered physical and emotional trauma (trigger warning for spousal domestic abuse & peril to children), and they both know that it has left them with psychological issues.

Liz has discovered a dark, violent side that first surfaced when she had to defend herself against her murderous ex-husband, and Fran, a teenager, has had hallucinations and other mental aberrations since surviving an abduction as a child. As their lives intertwine (Liz’s son becomes Fran’s friend), their interactions and perspectives on each other give us some hints of what is really going on while things spin increasingly out of control…and I can’t go into any more detail than that without spoilers.

There were a few points in the book where I felt that the teenage characters’ catty bickering and sneaking around to keep parents/adults in the dark took this into clichéd YA territory, but overall I enjoyed it. I would highly recommend it if you enjoy the kind of book where you get popped right into the action and have to figure out what is going on (and even what genre you are reading).

Espionage & the Afterlife

Title: Summerland
Author: Hannu Rajaniemi
Genre: Espionage Thriller / Alternate History / Supernatural Fiction
Pages: 304
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 6/26/18 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley…this does not affect the content of the review)

The overall plot of this book follows a mole hunt on the order of LeCarré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. However, in this alternate 1938 death is merely a transition into a different dimension (or something) that still interacts with the world of the living. “The Great Game” continues on both sides of death as the British and Russian Empires vie for supremacy with the Spanish Civil War as their chessboard.

I won’t go into much detail about how Summerland (where dead Brits go) and the Presence (the Soviet collective afterlife) work because gradually discovering how this world operates and what kind of effect the meaninglessness of death has on society is half the fun. The actual spy storyline is well-plotted, incorporating historical characters and events and heading in an unexpected direction by the end.

Unfortunately, there were a few issues with the writing style that detracted from my enjoyment of the book: weak characterization that made it hard to tell characters apart, stilted dialogue due to no one using contractions, and too much time spent on our protagonist’s relationship woes. Some of that may be my own personal preference or exhausting schedule lately, so don’t let me discourage you if this sounds interesting. The author has created a fascinating world, and I would love to read another book set there.

Hackish Pulp/Noir on Steroids

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

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

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

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

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

Farewell to George Smiley

I just finished the last two books in my read-through of John LeCarré’s George Smiley stories. Reviews of the first seven books can be found here, here, and here. These last two books (written over 17 years apart) both take the form of reminiscences by aging spies associated with Smiley. I’m pretty sure that The Secret Pilgrim was supposed to be the last book, but LeCarré couldn’t leave well enough alone. Whether he was bored, broke, had a nagging discontentment with Secret Pilgrim, or something else, I’m glad he wrote A Legacy of Spies because it was a much more satisfying farewell to the pudgy little spy. Below you’ll find shortish reviews of the last two books and my final recommendations on which five of the nine books I think are really worth reading.

Title: The Secret Pilgrim
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 335
Rating: 3 of 5

This is basically a collection of loosely connected short stories strung together in the memory of an aging spy as he listens to the retired George Smiley answer the questions of eager young recruits. The theme of the stories seems to be “I’m a nasty philanderer and all the spy work I did was pretty much pointless, petty, and wasteful of human life including my own.” LeCarré always has seedy characters and a healthy dose of “is the spy business worth the human cost?” in his books, but he’s definitely in full bleak mode for this one.  George Smiley gives some final words of wisdom before bumbling out the door for the last time, but it’s all pretty vague and unsatisfying (which I suppose is typical George so it kind of works). Overall: well, written as always, but far from my favorite.

Title: A Legacy of Spies
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 265
Rating: 4 of 5

In this final (I assume) book, Smiley’s protege, Peter Guillam, is called in from his tranquil retirement in France to answer for his actions during operation Windfall (otherwise known as the events recorded in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold). This book is largely an excuse to show what was going on before, after, and behind the scenes in that book since The Spy Who Came in from the Cold focuses almost entirely on the field agent involved rather than those pulling the strings (aka Control and George Smiley assisted by Peter Guillam).

LeCarré covers completely new material (mostly relating to setting up the mission and its aftermath) rather than subjecting us to watching the exact same scenes play out from a slightly different point of view. As an added bonus, in one brief aside we also get to find out what happened to Karla after the events of Smiley’s People. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I enjoyed it.

The framing story (Peter Guillam answering for his involvement in the mission which resulted in multiple deaths) just kind of petered out, but not before we finally get a relatively solid answer from George Smiley on what his “higher cause” was that kept him going all those years in spite of the beating his conscience took every time he destroyed someone’s life. Overall, I enjoyed it (though the “look how much of a womanized Peter Guillam is” got a bit old) and it was a nice end to the series.


Recommendations on which books to read (unless you’re a glutton for punishment like me and want to push through all of them):

You know how with the Star Trek movies only the even-numbered ones are worth watching? George Smiley has something similar going on, but I’d recommend the odd numbered books:

#1 – Call for the Dead – Worth reading as a good introduction to major characters and a decent story in its own right

#2 – A Murder of Quality – Not terrible, but not a spy novel either. George solves a murder at a boarding school. If you really like George it’s an okay read, but it contributes little to characterization or overall plot.

#3 – The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – If you only read one John LeCarré novel, make it his one! This is THE Cold War spy novel. It is fairly stand-alone, but you would benefit from reading the relatively short Call for the Dead first.

#4 – The Looking Glass War – Probably my least favorite book of the series…incredibly bleak.

#5 (Karla Trilogy #1)-  Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy  George Smiley goes on a mole hunt. The events of this excellent book (based on the discovery of real life traitor Kim Philby) heavily impact the rest of the series.

#6 (Karla Trilogy #2) – The Honourable Schoolboy – A thoroughly seedy protagonist and overlong storyline that rather aimlessly rambles all over the conflict zones of the Far East make this pretty meh, and it does practically nothing in terms of advancing the Smiley vs. Karla conflict.

#7 (Karla Trilogy #3) – Smiley’s People – The endgame between Smiley and Karla isn’t as intricate as some of the other books, but is well worth reading.

#8 – The Secret Pilgrim – The author is in an extremely bleak mood again and George does relatively little in the book.

#9 – A Legacy of Spies – As stated above, a fitting end to the series (but it will make very little sense if you haven’t read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold).

Recapturing the Glory Days

The Looking Glass War: A George Smiley Novel (George Smiley Novels Book 4) by [le Carré, John]Title: The Looking Glass War
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 290
Rating: 3.5 of 5

It’s time for the next installment in my read-through of the George Smiley Books (you can find my reviews of the first three books here). In The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, LeCarré made an effort to show the ugly, amoral side of the intelligence game. Dissatisfied with the effect (since some readers still regarded some of the characters as heroic), he wrote this bleak spy yarn.

Rather than the relatively competent intelligence agency known as the Circus (basically MI6), this book centers on “The Department.” The Department is a pathetic remnant of an agency that ran military intelligence during WWII. It is now filled with stodgy, self-important old men (and one young man) who do very little besides archive the occasional intelligence report and dream of the good old days as the Circus gradually takes over more and more of what they used to handle (Smiley, Control, and others from the Circus make some appearances as the two agencies interact).

When a potentially important report of highly questionable authenticity crosses the director’s desk he sees it as an opportunity to run an operation and return to the glory days (the way it was “during the war”). What follows is an incredible display of incompetence and disregard for human life driven by pride, nostalgia, and inter-agency jealousy. You could almost call it a farce, but it isn’t at all funny…just pathetic and depressing.

Overall, the book is well-written, and the characters ring sadly true…it’s just incredibly bleak.

A Pudgy Little Spy

With the recent release of A Legacy of Spies I’ve decided to read through all nine of John LeCarré’s George Smiley books. The first seven will be re-reads for me, but last time I read them a bit out of order and spread out over several years so I’ll get a more coherent story this time. George Smiley is a stodgy, wistful little academic who is happier studying obscure German poets than moving (and sacrificing) human chess pieces during the Cold War. Unfortunately, his brilliant mind and sense of loyalty continually pull him back into the world of “The Circus” (basically, MI6). Here are mini-reviews of the first three books:

Title: Call for the Dead
John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 172 (including 15-page intro)
Rating: 4 of 5

A member of the Foreign Office commits suicide after a seemingly positive interview with George Smiley following an anonymous denunciation. Details just don’t add up, and the more Smiley examines the matter the less sense it makes. Smiley has a more actively-in-the-field investigative role in this book than he does in many of the others, but it is a good introduction to his character (as well as his protege Peter Guillam  and a major character from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold). The style and themes are fairly typical of the other Smiley novels with plenty of twists and turns, not a lot of high action, and a clear depiction of the ugly human cost of the Cold War spy game.

Title: A Murder of Quality
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Murder Mystery
Pages: 173 (including 15 page intro)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This is the odd one out of the George Smiley books in that it has nothing to do with international espionage. We find Smiley, during one of his not-employed-by-the-Circus phases, pulled into the investigation of a murder at a prestigious boarding school. Despite being purely a murder mystery, LeCarré preserves the same world-weary tone as his other books. I must say that from the writings of Charles Dickens, C. S. Lewis, and John LeCarré I have a pretty dim view of English boarding schools since they are consistently portrayed as havens of snobbery, brutality, and other perversity. Overall, this is a decent mystery that indulges in some cutting social commentary and does some character development of George Smiley, but it is probably completely skippable if you’re in this purely for the spy stuff.

Title: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 240
Rating: 5 of 5!

This is THE Cold War spy novel! It features an intricate chess game between the Circus and the Abteilung (LeCarré’s version of East German Intelligence) centering around a plot to eliminate the head of the Abteilung. George Smiley is very much in the background of this book, doing things behind the scenes as others take center stage. In addition to a masterful plot where nothing is as it seems, the book delves into concerns about the brutal pragmatism and wastefulness of human life by both sides. The spy business is ugly and LeCarré is perfectly willing to point it out without offering nice pat answers that make us feel good about the moral superiority of “our side.” If you only ever read one Cold War espionage novel, this is the one to read! It can definitely be read by itself, but, if you have the time, the relatively short Call for the Dead provides helpful backstory that makes for a richer reading experience.