Radicalization & Disillusionment

Title: Just Another Jihadi Jane
Author: Tabish Khair
Genre: General fiction / Faux autobiography
Pages: 230
Rating: 4 of 5

When a Muslim raised in the West joins ISIS or murders in the name of Allah, there is talk of “radicalization.” In this book, Tabish Khair tries to show what that looks like from the inside by having a disillusioned young woman narrate her journey from a conservative Muslim family in England to an ISIS stronghold in Syria and beyond. Inextricably woven into her story is that of her best friend who comes from a much less rigid Muslim family but follows a similar path.

Since this is fiction, I don’t know how closely it resembles an actual experience of “radicalization,” but it was believable and thought-provoking. Coming from a pretty conservative Christian background, I recognized the attitudes of resentment, alienation, and self-righteousness that a “fundamentalist” worldview can generate. In this case, those feelings are fanned into the flames of an ever-narrowing and increasingly violent “us vs. them.” Who or what does the fanning? There seems to be no pat answer as Jamilla blames radical clerics, ISIS propaganda, prejudice from non-Muslims, biased media, etc.

The narration itself is presented as Jamilla telling her story to an unidentified author who seems to be a nominal/liberal Muslim. She occasionally answers questions or comments that are “unheard” by the reader, so it’s a bit like listening to one side of a telephone conversation. Her speech is sprinkled with religious and cultural terminology that goes largely undefined and whose meaning isn’t always obvious from context so have Google handy if you’re not up on Islamic culture. Toward the end there were a few parts that felt unnaturally preachy in advocating a moderate uncertainty-filled version of tolerant Islam, but the author mostly does a good job of keeping it conversational and making his points naturally.

Overall, I wasn’t a huge fan of the writing style (more of a personal preference than anything the author did wrong), but this was an excellent look inside radical Islam (and had a satisfying ending).

Dark Fantasy East vs. West

Title: A Cruel Wind: A Chronicle of the Dread Empire
(omnibus containing A Shadow of All Nigh FallingOctober’s Baby, and All Darkness Met)
Author: Glen Cook
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Pages: 600
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Before creating the mercenary Black Company, Glen Cook wrote about the struggle between the deeply divided West and the Dread Empire of the East. The Western nations are nominally the “good guys”…mostly by virtue of our protagonists being from the West and the Dread Empire being efficiently expansionist and militaristic (and we are told repeatedly that they are “pure evil” though their actions aren’t demonstrably more so than the Westerners). The pettiness, scheming, brutal pragmatism, deep character flaws, and occasional atrocities of the Westerners make for a moral ambiguity that is typical Glen Cook dark fantasy.

This appears to be set in a different world than the Black Company novels, but Cook clearly developed a lot of his Black Company characters, plot devices, and writing style in these books (to say nothing of a character that Steven Erikson steals almost wholesale for use in his Malazan Book of the Fallen). The writing style is a bit rough with occasional awkward transitions, vague/incomplete descriptions that leave you saying “okay, what just happened?”, characters making literary/historical/religious allusions that don’t make much sense in their world, and a confusing profusion of people and places (with no maps). Nonetheless, if you like dark fantasy this is well worth a read: plenty of convoluted schemes, sorcery, battles, sudden and ignominious deaths of major characters, etc.

Poirot’s First

Title: The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Author: Agatha Christie
Genre: Mystery
Pages: 178
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Hercule Poirot is already in fine form in this, his first novel. The small, dandyish Belgian with a penchant for spouting off French phrases sails through this case of poisoning at the manor house with aplomb. At times, I find Poirot’s smugness and withholding of relevant information until right before “the big reveal” to be a bit annoying, but fans of the little detective should enjoy this.

The case itself is entertaining enough. There are plenty of believable suspects with good motives and a few red herrings to keep you guessing (the narrator falls for all of them, of course). What actually happened is fairly convoluted, but not to the point of being completely unbelievable. Overall: an enjoyable “cozy mystery.”

‘Merica!

Image result for happy treason day peasants

Treason doth never prosper; what’s the reason?
Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason. – John Harington

But seriously, I am thankful to live in a country where (theoretically at least) “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and I pray “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (I Timothy 2:1-2).

More Mini-Reviews

I’m still on vacation with the brain only half-engaged, so here are a few more mini-reviews. Most of these are books that I read earlier this year and didn’t have the leisure or inclination to review at the time.

Title: The Inimitable Jeeves
Author: P. G. Wodehouse
Genre: Classic Humor
Pages: 240
Rating: 5 of 5

I love the Jeeves and Wooster books, and this one is no exception. The adventures of good-hearted-but-a-bit-dim Bertie Wooster who navigates the “trials” of post WWI English high society with the help of Jeeves, his genius valet, always provide a chuckle. This book (the second in the series) collects a number of loosely connected short stories which mostly feature Bertie trying to help the frequently-love-smitten “Bingo” Little (and then having to be extricated from difficulty by Jeeves).

Image result for Dracula book coverTitle: Dracula
Author: Bram Stoker
Genre: Classic Gothic/Horror
Pages: 416
Rating: 4 of 5

This book that originally popularized the “sexy vampire”  doesn’t have as much to offer thematically as the equally classic Frankenstein, but I found it creepier and a lot more fun to read. Stoker was definitely sexist (and shows flashes of other common prejudices of his day), and there’s the usual Gothic ramblings and melodrama, but if you can just roll your eyes at the worst of it, it’s well worth a read.

Title: The Thin Man
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Hardboiled Detective
Pages: 201
Rating: 4.5 of 5

If Oscar Wilde had written  hardboiled/noir fiction this is how it would have turned out. The interplay between perpetually-tipsy ex-detective Nick Charles and his young wife, Norah is reminiscent of Wilde’s characters who say “wicked” things just to get a rise out of people…all this while solving the usual Hammett-style case. I didn’t care for this the first time I read it because I didn’t catch Nick’s slightly tongue-in-cheek tone, but after seeing William Powell’s portrayal of Nick Charles in the 1934 Thin Man movie, it made more sense and I really enjoyed it.

Title: Poems of Heaven & Hell from Ancient Mesopotamia
Translator: N. K. Sandars
Genre: Ancient Religious/Narrative Poetry
Pages: 192
Rating: 4 of 5

A large part of the page count for this book is commentary by the translator, much of which is helpful even if it does necessarily include a bit of speculation. For me, the poetry itself (the longest one is the Enuma Elish / Babylonian creation account) provides interesting background for what various people in the Old Testament would have believed (e.g. Abraham and his family when they lived in “Ur of the Chaldees”).

Black Wings Has My AngelTitle: Black Wings Has My Angel
Author: Eliot Chaze
Genre: Crime Noir
Pages: 154
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This is a fairly typical crime-spiral-of-self-destruction novel on the same order as The Postman Always Rings Twice or Thieves Like Us (or the real life Bonnie and Clyde). There’s not a lot to say about it other than it’s a competently executed example of the genre.

Ten Days in a Mad-House by [Bly, Nellie]Title: Ten Days in a Madhouse
Author: Nellie Bly
Genre: Exposé
Pages: 110
Rating: 4 of 5

In the late 19th century, journalist Nellie Bly deliberately got herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island. Her report of the callous treatment of the women there (many of whom she believed to be perfectly sane) is deeply disturbing. Apparently the publication of her observations resulted in NYC earmarking an additional $1 million for helping these women, but I don’t know if there were any lasting reforms.

Title: The Great God Pan
Author: Arthur Machen
Genre: Horror/Weird
Pages: 84
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This story deeply influenced other horror writers, especially in the field of cosmic horror (that “something incomprehensible/evil/wholly other is ‘out there'” themed sub-genre). As with some genre-defining stories I didn’t find it as enjoyable as the works of authors who refined the formula (e.g. H. P. Lovecraft), but it was still interesting, if rather predictable and verbose.

Title: Othello
Author: William Shakespeare
Genre: Play
Pages: 180 (about half was commentary)
Rating: 4 of 5

I wasn’t going to review this because I kind of did so when I reviewed New Boy, but for the sake of being able to say I reviewed everything I read this year I’ll include it. A lot of people see this as being primarily about race since Othello is a Moor, but it is much more about jealousy and ambition (fueled only partly by racism). The despicable, manipulative Iago just might be one of the nastiest villains in Shakespeare. A great tragedy (though I prefer Hamlet and “The Scottish Play”).

And with that I’ve reviewed all the books I have read so far this year (63 of them)!

5 Mini-Reviews

I’m on vacation…I have two whole weeks off from having to prepare for Bible studies, sermons, counseling sessions, etc., so my brain has gone into “idle” and refuses to write any full reviews (to say nothing of Grandma’s slow/unreliable internet connection). However, I’ve been reading some interesting stuff so here are five mini-reviews:

Image result for book cover miseryTitle: Misery
Author: Stephen King
Genre: Psychological Horror
Pages: 339
Rating: 4 of 5

Author Paul Sheldon is “rescued” from a car accident by his “number one fan,” and held captive while he is forced to write a sequel to his most recent potboiler. The spectacularly unstable Annie Wilkes demonstrates that psychotic human behavior can be more terrifying than anything supernatural. As is usual with Stephen King, I’m not a fan of the profanity (though Annie uses silly/cutesy faux-curses), but that man can write!

Title: Inferno
Authors: Larry Niven & Jerry Pournell
Genre: Horror / Retelling
Pages: 237
Rating: 2.5 of 5

Allen Carpentier, a sci-fi writer (who is an agnostic), dies in a stupid drunken accident and awakes in what appears to be hell as described by Danté. There, he meets Benito who conducts him through the “nine circles of hell” in an effort to leave the same way Danté did. Along the way, Carpentier tries to figure out “what’s really going on,” sees some clever modern updates to “classic sins,” and explores a theology that is equal parts atheistic “God is a moral monster” argument, C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, and Rob Bell’s Love Wins. B+ for creativity, D- for theology.

Title: Gwendy’s Button Box
Author: Stephen King & Richard Chizmar
Genre: Horror/Weird
Pages: 180 (with a lot of blank space & illustrations)
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This short book falls more into the “weird” category than actual horror. It could be seen as a sort of twist on the story of Pandora’s Box…only this box comes with sinister buttons (especially the big black one) and a couple nice levers. This isn’t high action and doesn’t provide nice neat answers at the end, but it’s an excellent example of “the weird.”

Title: Wayne of Gotham
Author: Tracy Hickman
Genre: Superhero
Pages: 304
Rating: 2 of 5

This story digs into the background of Thomas Wayne (Bruce Wayne’s father) and dirties him up a bit. I’m only a casual Batman fan so I don’t know how well it fits with “canon” (poorly, I suspect). Continuity/canonicity issues aside, it just wasn’t a very good book; the author obsessively describes Batman’s tech (even in the middle of action scenes), mentions Batman’s advancing age and slowing reflexes every few pages, and somehow manages to make Batman boring.

Title: Trouble Is My Business
Author: Raymond Chandler
Genre: Hardboiled Detective
Pages: 224
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I love noir/hardboiled detective stories, and Chandler is one of the best (only Hammett is on the same level). The four (longish) short stories in this volume all feature his iconic detective, Philip Marlowe. Marlowe doesn’t seem to be as well developed in these stories as in his full length novels (he seems a little less snarky and well-read here), but this is still well worth reading.

Authors, Try Harder

Title: Humans, Bow Down
Authors: James Patterson & Emily Raymond
Genre: Dystopian Sci-fi
Pages: 373
Rating: 1.5 of 5

It took just three days for the robots (hu-bots) to seize power and slaughter most of humanity. The remaining humans either serve as “reformed” slaves in The City or live as “savages” (mostly drug and alcohol addled delinquents) on The Reservation. Our story follows one such delinquent (first person narration) and one hu-bot detective (third person limited omniscient narration) tasked with finding her after she and her thuggish meathead friend steal a car (or is there another ill-explained reason?! Dun-dun-DUN!).

Whether this whole robots slaughtering/enslaving/ghetto-ing humans is a somewhat localized situation or global is unclear. The author seems to want to convey the impression that it is global, but all the action centers on a very small geographic area and there is little or no reference to what might be going on anywhere else in the world (Other cities and reservations? Mad Max style anarchy? Uninhabitable wasteland? Isolationism to contain the robot threat within North America? Who knows!). A similar lack of precision prevails throughout the book – characters suddenly know a crucial piece of information, survive an unsurvivable situation, have a radical changes of heart, or suddenly become central to the story with very little explanation or reason for doing so (other than it is needed to advance the story). Shoehorn in a transgender hu-bot and a hint of lesbian romance (to get the proper token diversity, I suppose), sprinkle on some glaring errors (e.g. referring to a speedometer as an Odometer, having a character call her best friend by the wrong name, etc.), narrate the entire thing in the present tense (which I personally find grating), and you have this very disappointing book.

Meet the Continental Op

Title: Red Harvest
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Noir/Detective Fiction
Pages: 215
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I first read this book five or six years ago, and I was hooked. Since then Noir / Hardboiled Detective pulp fiction from the 20’s-50’s has been my go-to escapist genre. With the possible exception of Raymond Chandler, nobody writes this kind of story better than Dashiell Hammet.

This first novel-length adventure of the Continental Op (whose name we never discover) has everything you would expect from the genre: bootleggers, gamblers, blazing guns, widespread corruption, murder, mayhem, moral ambiguity, 1920’s gangster slang, and a femme fatale or two. The unnamed Continental Op (basically a Pinkerton detective) is tasked with cleaning up the corrupt town of Personville/Poisonville and, well, the book’s title pretty much says it all.

This book serves as a good introduction to the Continental Op, who also appears in The Dain Curse and a slew of short stories. He is short, stout, and incredibly stubborn. His modus operandi for solving cases consists mostly of verbally poking at suspects and piecing things together from their (often violent) reactions. By the end he has a working theory of how everything fits together and everyone guilty is dead, under arrest, or otherwise out of the picture. Dashiell Hammett seldom reveals whether the Op’s reconstruction of events is entirely accurate, but it’s good enough to get things done and in Hammett’s murky world that’s good enough.

So Very Gothic

Title: The Monk: A Romance
Author: Matthew G. Lewis
Genre: Gothic / Classic
Pages: 420
Rating: 3 of 5

Last year I read Melmoth the Wanderer and reviewed it as “The most Gothic book to ever Gothic.” I was wrong; I think that “honor” goes to The Monk. Almost every single Gothic trope imaginable appears in this book. It contains at least one of each of the following ingredients:

  • An Angry mob
  • A Band of outlaws
  • Corrupt Clergy
  • A Dungeon
  • Excessive Emotions resulting in illness
  • A Faustian bargain
  • A Ghost
  • A Haunted castle
  • An Illegitimate child
  • Judgment (by the Spanish Inquisition…but who expected that?)
  • Killing
  • Lust, Lasciviousness, Lechery (and any other words you can use to describe sexual appetite without getting into too much trouble with your “proper” English audience)
  • Melancholy (used at least once every 5 pages)
  • Naive heroine
  • An Opposed marriage
  • A Potion that makes everyone think you’re dead
  • – nothing relevant starts with Q (unless you count the author’s homosexuality, but I’m not sure if straight people are allowed to use that word without it being considered a slur…)
  • A Rapist/seducer
  • A Secret passage
  • Tomb
  • Unknown parentage
  • A Vision (but no Vampires…I think that’s the only one he missed)
  • The Wandering Jew
  • XYZ – Yeah, I give up, but you get the idea.

So, whip all of that together with melodramatic language, occasional poetry, and a hatred of monasticism and the product just might be the most Gothic novel ever. It was mostly eyeroll-inducing or unintentionally amusing at the melodramatic-ness of it all (and one of the big “surprises” at the end was easily guessable from the first chapter or two).  However, there were occasional truly disturbing parts, and the author made some good (if highly exaggerated) points about potential spiritual dangers, abuses, and weaknesses of Roman Catholic monasticism. Overall, if you’re into classic Gothic literature, you have to read this…if not, you might want to give it a miss.

Also, I’m using this for the “Gothic or Horror Classic” category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge. And that finishes out all 12 categories!

Updated Shrew

Image result for vinegar girl coverTitle: Vinegar Girl
(Hogarth Shakespeare series)
Author: Anne Tyler
Genre: Literary Fiction / Retelling
Pages: 237
Rating: 4 of 5

In this retelling of The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio’s (Pyotr’s) “break her spirit” vibe has been tamed down to something more likable and socially acceptable. This renders the story (for me at least) more enjoyable.

This is a less strict retelling than New Boy was for Othello, but no less entertaining for that. Aside from Kate’s off-putting bluntness, there wasn’t much resemblance to the Shakespearean original until about halfway through the book. The author mostly dispenses with all the hidden-identity/wooing-of-Bianca (Bunny) subplots and focuses on the Pyotr/Kate relationship. I thought that updating “marrying her for her dowry” to “marrying her for a green card,” was particularly clever.

As far as the characters went: at times Kate was so socially clueless that she seemed like she belonged somewhere on the autism spectrum…but I suppose Shakespeare’s Kate was pretty outrageously rude too. Pyotr is much less intentionally mean than Petruchio with a lot of his bluntness/rudeness coming from cultural differences. Kate’s father (Dr. Battista) is transformed into an exaggeratedly eccentric scientist, and her sister (Bunny) becomes an airheaded teenager…both of whom feel a bit more like something out of Austen or Dickens than Shakespeare.

Overall, I’m not a fan of romantic books (or The Taming of the Shrew) but quite enjoyed this book…the Hogarth Shakespeare series continues to impress.