I read four books in June and that is starting to look like my average for this year. But there were some gems in the four books I read this month. Especially A Princess of Mars and Yiddish Policeman’s Union
Sepulchre, Kate Mosse
Sepulchre follows two stories set about 200 years apart. In the present day, (2007) American Meredith Martin is in France doing research for a biography she is writing, as well as looking for information about her birth parents. That information is tied to the adventures of Leonie Vernier in the late 19th century. Meredith searches for her family and has a romance with a young British hotel owner. While not uninteresting, it is easily the weaker half of the story. Leonie and her brother Anatole visit their recently deceased uncle’s young wife while trying to avoid a murderous rival of Anatole’s. Leonie spends most of her time exploring the wild grounds of the family estate, the Domaine de la Cade and painting. Of course, the two threads weave together by the end.
The character Leonie is fun. Her adventures drive the novel. I was much more interested in the historical setting than the present day one, and Leonie’s is the point of view that really explores it. She develops and interest in the occult, or at least tarot, and bonds closely with her aunt, who is not much older than she is. She is a woman of the times, leaving most of the decision making to her brother, but she shows more initiative and independence than the most of the other women in her story, such as her aunt. She is just an interesting, complex character.
The problem is that Mosse uses a many many words to tell a rather small amount of story. It is not a bad story, or even badly told, but it is often plodding. It makes for a slow read, but still a mostly satisfying one.
A Princess of Mars, Edgar R. Burroughs.
The first book of Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom series is simply perfect pulp adventure. Civil War veteran John Carter is transported to Mars. In its wrecked, dying remains he fights with giant green aliens and falls in love with a red Martian princess.
The plot, a planetary romance, has more in common with fantasy novels than science fiction ones. The prose is simple, as are the characters. There is a refreshing lack of depth and nuance to John Carter. He does what is right because it is right, or at least his definition thereof. The people, yeah lets call them people, he meets are either unrepentantly evil or we are told they are good. It is simple, but the focus is on the adventure of the plot and not on the characters.
John Carter, whose Earthly biology helps him even against the massive green Martians, finds himself on a world in decay. The bestial Green Martians make their in the ruins of ancient cities and even the more human Red Martians do not fully grasp the technology of their past. Through his heroic actions, he shows the Green Martians about human emotions and help Dejah Thoris, the princess, unite her people with the Green Martians and defeat their mutual enemy. Mostly through exciting, straightforward action.
This book is still remembered and popular for a reason. It is just a thrill ride in 200 or so pages. It is also clearly not a great work. The setting and the action are great enough to mostly overcome the simplicity.
What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, Daniel Pool
This is brief but entertaining overview of life in Victorian times. It is definitely aimed more at readers of the literature at the time than a wholly historical perspective, which is not a bad thing. Unfortunately, it relies heavily on examples from the text of various novels. So most of the information from this book can be gleaned from context in the novels it is seeking to explain. Still, it is an entertaining enough read and does clarify some aspects of life in those times that a person today would not know. Worth it for a big fan of novels of the time who has not quite exhausted the fiction of the time. So it may deepen your understanding of the ones you’ve read and prepare you to dig deeper. Unnecessary, though.
Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Michael Chabon
Reading Chabon is a revelation. Yiddish Policeman’s Union is by far the best novel I’ve read this year and the best in some years previous. Before I even get to any sort of review, I implore you to go and read this. It combines an alternate history set up with a noir plotline. It is wonderful.
Yiddish Policeman’s Union follows Meyer Landsman, a police detective in Sitka, Alaska. In the world of the novel there was essentially a Jewish reserve made in Alaska during World War II after the quick collapse of Israel, so most of the population is Jewish. The world diverges more from the real one, but it is tangential to the plot, merely part of the wonderful exploration that is the novel. Meyer investigates the death of a junkie in his apartment building who turns out to be much more than a simple junkie. As these things often do, the mystery goes farther than anyone can imagine.
Chabon writes with an absolute love of words, piling them on the page in joyful, absurd, inventive sequences. In a story that, while winding, is little more than a simple detective thriller he manages to craft a thoughtful, imaginative but not totally imagined new world. The world of Yiddish Policeman’s Union is often bleak, but the story never is. Terrible things may happen, but the characters always keep a sense of humor that buoys the novel. The cast is real; they are human, with failures and faults but also honor and convictions. Chabon has not only created a believable alternate world, not a task many speculative fiction writers seem to be up to, but he has also populated it with characters that ring true. Yiddish Policeman’s Union is absolutely terrific. I can recommend no book more.