Crime on the Moon

Title: Artemis
Author: Andy Weir
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 320
Rating: 3 of 5
Upcoming Publication Date: November 14, 2017 – thanks to NetGalley for an eARC!

Like many (most?) people interested in this book, I decided to read it because I enjoyed the author’s The Martian. I think that any author’s next work after a wildly popular book (especially if it is not a sequel) has a hard time living up to the hype, and that is certainly the case with Artemis. The adventures of a petty criminal drawn into dangerous intrigue in the only city on the moon has its good points, but it didn’t wow me.

The edge-of-your-seat pacing of the criminal plots that drive the story was excellent and is what kept me reading. The pace only lets up when the author/characters describe the science behind what is going on (whether everyday life in the moon colony or the most recent criminal shenanigans). Personally, I love this aspect of Weir’s style, but those who aren’t into science might find it annoying.

Most chapters ended in a cliff-hanger way where you could almost hear *dun-dunDUN* suspense music, which was maybe a bit cheesy but kept me interested anyway. Some of the action, especially during the final crime and its aftermath, ranges into the unbelievable, but that’s par for the course in a criminal caper kind of book so it didn’t bother me.

What did bother me was the characterization. The protagonist/narrator was just not a pleasant person. She is an immature, angry, foul-mouthed, self-loathing petty criminal with a huge chip on her shoulder. Even though she is 26 she interacts with everyone as if she were a sullen teenager and continually makes monumentally foolish decisions even though she is probably a mechanical genius and apparently a criminal mastermind. Most of the other characters are pretty flat, and the way most people react to the final caper once the dust settles is not very believable.

Overall, this is probably worth reading if you like Weir’s style (and don’t mind quite a bit of profanity), but don’t expect the same quality as The Martian.

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Back to the Classics Challenge Wrap-up

Thanks to Karen for hosting the Back to Classics Challenge 2017! This is my wrap-up post, listing the books I read for each category (I ended up reading way more than 12 classics this year, so I actually found a couple that fit each category):

19th Century Classics

  • Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens – A stereotypical Dickens very much in the style of Oliver Twist or David Copperfield
  • The Turn of the Screw by Henry James – A ghost story made excellent by a potentially unreliable narrator

20th Century Classics

  • The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad – A depressing spy story similar to something written by LeCarré
  • The Pearl by John Steinbeck – A tragic tale of greed and colonialism

Classics by a Woman Author

  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë – Gothic romance at its finest
  • Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys – An angry, post-colonial prequel to Jane Eyre

Classics in Translation

  • Histories by Herodotus – Greece vs. “the barbarians” (plus plenty of other factoids) from the father of history
  • The Peloponnesian War  by Thucydides – Athens vs. Sparta showing how history tends to repeat itself

Pre-1800’s Classics

  • The Gilgamesh Epic (Anonymous) – The granddaddy of all epic poetry (read in a disappointing translation)
  • Othello by William Shakespeare – Tragic bitterness and racism boil over into multiple deaths (as you would expect from the Bard)

Romance Classics

  • The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare – Not sure if this is actually romance or Stockholm Syndrome
  • Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze – A fairly typical crime-noir novel that centers around romance (or lust, at least)

Gothic or Horror Classics

  • The Monk by Matthew C. Lewis – Quite possibly the most Gothic book to ever Gothic
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker – The original sexy vampire

Classics with a Number in the Title

  • The 39 Steps – Largely responsible for the “innocent man on the run with dash of political intrigue” trope
  • Ten Days in a Madhouse by Nellie Bly – A chilling exposé from the late 19th century

Classics About an Animal (or with an animal on the cover)

  • Animal Farm by George Orwell – What if Stalin and Trotsky were pigs and Russia was a farm?
  • The Master and Margarita – The devil and his posse (including a talking cat) visit Soviet Russia (and Jesus and Pontius Pilate are involved somehow too)

Classics Set in a Place You’d Like to Visit

  • Perelandra by C. S. Lewis – What if Eve hadn’t immediately fallen for the serpent’s lie? (as played out in Venus’s version of Paradise)
  • The Inimitable Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse – Bighearted but a bit dim Bertie Wooster survives the perils of English high society with the help of his genius butler

Award-Winning Classics

  • The Chosen by Chaim Potok – The life and friendship of two Jewish boys in New York who come from very different backgrounds
  • Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein – A love letter to fascism disguised as military sci-fi

Russian Classics

  • Taras Bulba by Nikolai Gogol – A literary version of many of the themes found in the Conan the Barbarian stories
  • The Captain’s Daughter and Other Stories by Alexander Pushkin – a little bit of everything: romance, bandits, a twist ending, tragedy, and a hint of the supernatural

So there you have it! If I happen to win, you can contact me here.

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.

Praise the Lord!

Title: Sing!
How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family, and Church
Authors: Keith & Kristyn Getty
Genre: Theology
Pages: 176
Rating: 5 of 5

The conservative Christian circles in which I grew up spent a lot of time arguing about music. Unfortunately, most discussion centered around “proving” that most styles of music (regardless of lyrics) were inherently sinful, physically and spiritually dangerous, and quite possibly demonic. For example, I remember reading this gem whose title translates to The Traitorous Dangers of Rock:

Image result for os perigos traicoeiros do rock

This drive to justify/sanctify traditional preferences led to generally absurd question-begging and straw man arguments based on dubious research and Bible verses pulled grotesquely out of context.

In Sing! Keith & Kristyn Getty don’t stoop to engage in these “worship wars.” Rather, they offer a comprehensive view of what the Bible as a whole actually says about music and (especially) singing in the Christian life. They say very little about style because *gasp* the Bible says very little about it. The writing style is a quick, easy-to-read combination of beautiful theological insight and encouraging application interwoven with and illustrated by lyrics from the Psalms and newer songs. The “Bonus track” appendices offer some specific applications for pastors, worship leaders, musicians, and songwriters that perfectly round out the book.

Overall: if you want to know what the Bible actually says about God’s beautiful gift of music and song, this is the book to read. As a survivor of the “worship wars,” I’m glad that I can enjoy and benefit from a wide variety of Christian music whether the Getty’s own  traditional-sounding, theologically rich In Christ Alone (one of my all time favorite songs) or something like Fix My Eyes by for KING & COUNTRY or The Greatest Story Ever Told by Shai Linne who raps the story of the Bible in about 4 minutes with more theological precision than some classic hymns.

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this through net galley (thanks guys!) in exchange for an honest review. This in no way affects the content of the review…it really was an excellent book!)

Ghosts or Madness?

Title: The Turn of the Screw
Author: Henry James
Genre: Classic/Horror/Ghost Story?
Pages: 96
Rating: 5 of 5

I love an unreliable narrator, especially in a creepy story, and this classic novella hit the spot! The introduction (which seems like it is meant to be a framing story but the frame is never completed) is a bit long-winded but the first person account by a governess of her ghost-haunted employment is satisfyingly creepy.

The big question is: are there really ghosts or is the governess mad (or a liar or some combination of the above)? I can’t decide whether the ghosts are meant to be real or not, but I’m pretty sure there’s something very wrong with the governess. Her paranoia, the way she jumps quickly to dramatic conclusions, the way she dotes on people she has just met and deliberately says things to get them “on her side,” and the way she is quick to cast the same people as villains if they cross her all remind me very much of a couple people I know who are narcissistic pathological liars whose children have suffered as a result. Maybe my interaction with some of the worst of human nature is just making me read between the lines a bit too much. Whatever the case, if you like unreliable narrators in creepy stories (or just good creepy ghost stories for that matter) this is a must read!

If you’ve read this, what did you think? (My brother-in-law informs me that it’s just ghosts…but his only reasoning is that he doesn’t like stories where the ghosts aren’t real so he doesn’t want it to be anything else.)

Happy Reformation Day!

Five hundred years ago today is the traditional date for Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg and sparking the Protestant Reformation. There are plenty of areas where I would disagree with Luther, and people in my denomination (Baptist) like to argue about whether we actually came out of the Protestant Reformation at all (it’s complicated), but I still see this as a day to celebrate. The movement unintentionally launched by Martin Luther 500 years ago ended up bringing back to the Christian consciousness at large 5 essential truths.

SolasScripture Alone is the basis of Christian faith and practice (II Timothy 3:16) which teaches that true righteousness comes from Faith Alone (Romans 1:17) which is a completely undeserved gift of God’s Grace Alone (Ephesians 2:8-10) resulting in good works, not produced by good works because it is made available through the death and resurrection of Christ Alone (2 Corinthians 5:20-21) with all Glory to God Alone (2 Peter 3:17-18).

Happy Reformation Day! (If you haven’t had enough of my preaching, here’s a link to a sermon I preached a couple weeks ago on the life of Martin Luther).

Not the unique book I hoped for

Title: Mere Sexuality:
Rediscovering the Christian Vision of Sexuality
Author: Todd A. Wilson
Genre: Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 187
Rating: 3 of 5

Tod Wilson’s goal is to articulate the common beliefs that Christians of virtually all denominations (whether Catholic, Orthodox, or some sort of Protestant) have historically (down through the centuries until the last 50 years or so) held on the topic of sexuality (by which he primarily means sex in the sense of maleness and femaleness especially as expressed in sexual relationship). I was looking forward to this because so many books on biblical sexuality are focused almost exclusively on explaining why homosexuality is incompatible with the original teachings of the Bible rather than offering a full-orbed discussion of sexuality.

The author does a decent job of providing a fairly comprehensive overview. However, he does this with an eye constantly turned to how it relates to homosexuality and with little or no discussion of how this has played out historically in the writings/practice/etc. of the church. While I didn’t disagree with many of his conclusions, I don’t think his argumentation effectively took the issue much past basing it on biblical authority and the example of Jesus (and while I have no problem with those as bases, the author was supposedly going to distinguish his book from similar ones by going beyond that).

Overall, I think that the biggest contribution here was on the empathy of Jesus, and there are some other good points, but it really wasn’t the stand-out book I was hoping for after reading the publicity blurbs.

A Pleasant Surprise

Title: The Night Circus
Author: Erin Morgenstern
Genre: Romantic Fantasy
Pages: 517
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I’m wary of wildly hyped books; I seldom read stories centered on romance; I am usually annoyed by present-tense narration; and sumptuous descriptive prose really isn’t my thing. All that to say:  there is no way that I should have enjoyed The Night Circus…but I did! (and, yes, I  know I’m late to this party).

I don’t want to say a lot about the plot because the publisher’s blurb is spoiler-y enough (while still seeming to completely miss the tone of the book). The novel is as much a dreamy (but not psychedelic or nonsensical) exploration of the Night Circus itself as it is about the romance and conflict of the characters. I enjoy character-driven stories, but I have to say this was the first setting-driven story I’ve come across as far as I can remember. The exotic black white and gray swirl of tents, automata, and performers is captivating, and as the book  meandered dreamily along I found myself worrying about whether all this magical beauty was going to be engulfed in tragedy and death by the end (I’m not telling whether that’s the direction this ultimately takes or not).

Overall, some of the romance made me roll my eyes a bit, but I was drawn to the magical, dreamy descriptions and slowly unfolding plot.

Luther Demythologized?

Title: Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World
Author: Eric Metaxas
Genre: Biography
Pages: 464
Rating: 4 of 5

The introduction to this book boldly claims that “much of what the world has come to ‘know’ about [Martin Luther] is fiction” and “sloppy glosses on the actual facts.” So does this volume illuminate for us the One True Luther as he has never been revealed before? Well…it is certainly a good biography that provides a lot of historical detail, but I don’t think it is anything groundbreaking. Like any biography, it has its strengths and weaknesses.

Metaxas’ strength is in describing the historical events. When it comes to the timing of occurrences, the words that were spoken/written, the people who were involved, the settings, etc. there are no “sloppy glosses” here. He usually shows sound historical research to back up his descriptions. However, he does occasionally indulge in speculation in what seems to be an unnecessary effort to suck the grandeur out of the best-known events (e.g. Maybe the 95 Theses was posted a couple weeks after October 31 by the church custodian and Maybe it was stuck up with paste instead of nails and Maybe Luther’s “Tower/Cloaca conversion experience” took place while he was sh*tting on the toilet…and, yes, he did use that word repeatedly).

The discussion of the theological and political issues involved was a little more hit-and-miss. Metaxas’ main takeaway throughout is that Luther unintentionally opened up the way for the modern pluralist understanding that people should be allowed to investigate spiritual truth themselves and draw their own conclusions and beliefs (whether right or wrong) without coercion.

He does discuss Luther’s developing theology on justification by faith alone, the sacraments, the relationship between church and state, etc., but it is largely subsumed into his freedom of conscience (or priesthood of the believer) emphasis and is not discussed with the level of detail you can find elsewhere (e.g. Here I Stand by Roland H. Bainton which I reviewed here). I found this a bit disappointing and possibly a bit misleading. Luther took great strides in acknowledging the Bible as the only authority for Christian faith and practice, but he did not advocate religious freedom or separation of church and state as we know it today (e.g. he agreed to the execution of peaceful Anabaptists who preached something different than the state church…which this book completely omits).

Overall, this is well worth reading for the rich historical detail even if the strong emphasis on pluralism and freedom of religion does feel a bit forced and Americanized.

Light vs. Dark (and a whole lot of gray)

Title: Night Watch
Author: Sergei Lukyanenko
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Pages: 480
Rating: 3.5 of 5

The age-old war between light and darkness is on hold…kind of. In an effort to limit the massive loss of human life that has occurred down through the centuries, the agents of light and darkness (the Others – whose ranks include vampires, werewolves, seers, magicians, etc.) have agreed to a treaty in which direct intervention by either side is severely limited. The goal is to preserve the current balance of light and darkness, and to this end the Night Watch (light ones who keep an eye on the dark ones) and Day Watch (dark ones who keep an eye on the light ones) were formed. The situation results in behind-the-scenes scheming and maneuvering that is reminiscent of a Cold War spy novel (but with magic).

Because the author and characters are Russian, the novel centers around the activities of Russia’s Night and Day watches and takes place mostly in and around Moscow. Seeing a completely different culture/worldview added a lot of interest to the story for me.

The magic system includes another dimension (“the twilight”) that is explained in some detail. However, for the most part there isn’t a tremendous effort to explain how magic works, and it seems to come in many varieties (which I am fine with).

The overall conflict of Light vs. Dark is frequently said to be Good vs. Evil, but the Light side can be pretty morally ambiguous. It’s really more Altruism vs. Selfishness where Altruism can be coldly manipulative and calloused toward individuals as long as what it does is for the greater good. The self-serving dark ones come off as more honest and less damaging than the “altruistic” light ones…it felt like Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness played out as fantasy. While providing interesting moral dilemmas (that our main character wrestles with ad nauseum) it also made the book a bit preachy and despairing. I’ll probably pick up the next book at some point, but I’ve had enough of the “Good is weak and possibly illusory” philosophy for a bit.