What I Read in February

February was a short month, but I still managed to read five books, though two of them were part of my Wheel of Time Reread, so I’ve only got three books to discuss today. Still, that puts me at 9 new books for the year so far, slightly ahead of the pace I need to set to reach 50 for the year. On with reviews.

Swords of Mars
Edgar Rice Burroughs

I’ve nearly finished making my way through Burrough’s Barsoom books. Here he returns to his original hero, though he again shakes up the plot a little from the usual formula. The first half of Swords of Mars tries to be a spy thriller, with some success. It works at first, with John Carter rather easily infiltrating into criminal society in Zodanga, the city he helped destroy in A Princess of Mars. There he tries to investigate a group of assassins that are troubling Helium. But before he has to actually make any tough choices to keep he his cover, at all times he manages to hold to his morals despite the situation, Carter hears of a plot to kidnap Deja Thoris and rushes to save her. To do so he steals the mind controlled space ship of mad scientist Fal Silvas and even though he is too late to keep them from stealing Deja, he chases them to the moon called Thuria. Where he meets a few moon races and saves the day.

The two halves of this book do not fit together particularly well, but neither is bad per se. I think the imaginative sci-fi at the end is more fitting that the toothless spy at the start, but in all it is another solid entry in the Barsoom series.

The Great Hunt
Robert Jordan

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Stieg Larsson

I’m not really sure I get the phenomenon this book is causing. I guess its not the first time the public has went nuts over a mediocre or bad book, I remember the love for The Da Vinci Code, let alone pure garbage like Twilight. Not that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is on that level, it is better than those books. However, it sits more in the good line rather than the great.

I see no reason to go over the plot, I’m sure everyone who cares knows it. The only thing I took away from this, other than a decent mystery thriller, is that the most everyone who populates this novel is almost completely emotionally dead. They do things not because they enjoy them, but because they half always done them. Blomkvist and his partner have sex no because they have any passion, but relationship or not, they have been having sex since college. I am always conscious of the fact that this is a translated work, and some of the specific word choices are subject to the whims of someone other than the writer, but a lot of the characterization falls flat for me. Luckily the pace is snappy enough that it doesn’t really linger on any of the misses or too easy moments. This is a good read, but it is far from mind blowing.

The Dragon Reborn
Robert Jordan

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking
Susan Cain

Quiet is an exploration of the perceptions of introversion and extroversion in our society, as well as how that compares to other cultures in other parts of the world. The main thrust of the book is that in America we tend to favor the loud over the smart, often to our detriment. Not that being loud is necessarily bad, but that it isn’t actually indicative of being right. Also, that such an emphasis on talking often makes quieter people feel like they are somehow broken and that really shouldn’t be the case.

While some of the research, or lack thereof since there are a few spots were the author admits that no one has studied the basis for a point she is making, makes some of Cain’s points seem a little dubious, as someone who is pretty solidly in the introvert camp this is a very freeing book. If anything just knowing that preferring to be alone isn’t indicative of some sort disorder is a relief. The most important thing to take away from this book is that introvert/extrovert is not a good/bad dichotomy. Being an introvert should not make one feel inferior to their louder, more gregarious compatriots. What is important is knowing who you are and making that work for you. Quiet is an interesting, thought provoking read that I would recommend to anyone.

That is all for this month, I should have more than this next month, since as of right now I’ve already read five books in March, though another one or two will probably be Wheel of Time books.

What I Read in October

October was not a good month of reading for me. I was stuck on a book that I’m not sure I like, though I’m not far enough in to make a judgement. (Acacia by David Anthony Durham) I did read three books on my phone, though. Sorry for how quick these reviews are, I’m writing this while taking a short break from NaNoWriMo to do this.

The Beasts of Tarzan.
Edgar Rice Burroughs.

This book is one long chase scene, with Tarzan trying to rescue Jane and their child from some angry Russians. It doesn’t have the same pop of the some of Burroughs best work. It feels contrived and ridiculous. The only interesting part is the introduction of Tarzan’s pet leopard, Sheeta. I have largely been a fan of the Burroughs books that I’ve read, but this is easily the weakest of his I’ve read.

The Prisoner of Zenda
Anthony Hope.

This is a damn fine adventure novel. Rudolf Rassendyll visit’s a country ruled by his supposed cousins (due to illegitimacy long ago.), only to get involved in a conspiracy dealing with that ruling family. Since Rudolf looks exactly like he cousin Rudolf, he impersonates him to try to foil the evil Black Michael’s plot to steal the throne.

Rudolf, along with some of his cousin’s closest friends, manage to fool the people and fight Black Michael at every turn. Along the way, he falls in love with Flavia, the King’s fiance.

The Prisoner of Zenda is a short, brisk read. The action never lets up and while it occasionally melodramatic, it constantly entertaining.

Rupert of Hentzau
Anthony Hope

This is the sequel to Zenda, and Rudolf returns to Ruritania to defend his love against the villainous Rupert of Hentzau and the jealousy of the King.

It ends up with all the old faces playing the old games. Rudolf loves the Queen, but even after (spoilers!) the King dies he can’t bring himself to take his place, even though everyone wants him to.

It is as fine a sequel as possible, and they are both short enough to read together. I’ve seen these two books referred to as minor classics, and I think that is a good way to refer to them. Zenda and Hentzau are fine romantic adventures, but they definitely tend toward melodrama.

What I read in September.

September was another month when I put away a ton of books with the help of the book readers on my new smart phone. The quality of what I read doesn’t quite match up with most of the rest of the year, but I can’t really say I’m sorry I read any of the books that I read this month. And in the case of the last book on the list, I am glad to be done with what was a more than 6-year long ordeal.

Long Live the King!
Mary Roberts Rinehart.

This was a strange book. I found it on Aldiko’s list of public domain books and it sounded interesting, so I read it. Rinehart is apparently a famous mystery writer, but this isn’t a mystery. It is an adventure with very little adventuring or a romance without much romance. This is the story of a fictional European Kingdom that is trying to fend off a communist revolution and survive the death of an elderly king when the heir is still a small child.

What makes this book even slightly interesting is that it is written from a decidedly American point of view. The revolutionaries are very clearly bad guys, if they were to gain control of the country it would be a disaster. The monarchy, however, is portrayed as mostly corrupt and incompetent. It doesn’t really get the reader to root for them. There is constant talk of America and the great Abraham Lincoln that never stops reminding the reader that this monarchy business is all nonsense. There are plots within plots and several different factions vying for power, but by the end of the novel, nothing really comes from it.

Long Live the King! is a slog. The elements for a quality adventure or romance story are here, but they never build to any sort of satisfactory climax. It is long and too unfocused to be worth reading.

Pagan Passions
Randall Garrett and Laurence M. Janifer

This is the second of my forays into unknown old stuff on my phone. Pagan Passions is a sci-fi story about what the world would be like is the Greek Gods showed back up after being away for 2000 years. And apparently, what would happen are orgies. Big, oddly sexless orgies.

The protagonist (whose name escapes me) is a college professor and disciple of Athena who is suddenly called upon to become the new stand in for Bacchus. Because Bacchus is dead. Since no one says no to the Gods, he does it. Though he does start to wonder how a God died. During an orgiastic festival in his honor, he sleeps with Aphrodite and pisses off Ares. So as he fights Ares, he finally learns what is up with the Gods.

I’ll just spoil it, since this book is kind of trash. The Greek Gods were actually immortal space criminals. Except for a few who had to be replaced. So the new Bacchus turns them in to the space authorities and frees Earth from their influence. The premise of this book is interesting, but what it actually is is garbage.

Tarzan of the Apes.
Edgar Rice Burroughs

There is a damn good reason that Tarzan has remained a part of pop culture for the more than 80 years since this book was written. This is one fine adventure. It draws heavily on Kipling and is full of pure nonsense, but it hit with the force and energy of a train. The whole thing is rarely, if ever believable. Still, it is hard not to get caught up in it anyway.

Tarzan’s story is the one that everyone knows. A family is marooned in Africa and after his mother as die; a tribe of apes adopts Tarzan. His life with them trains him to be superhumanly strong. After reaching adulthood, he chafes at the primitive society of the animals and luckily encounters another set of castaways, including his famous love Jane. This sets of a series of events that lead to Tarzan rejoining human society.

There is no excuse to have not read Tarzan. It is a short, quick read and is easily available since it is in the public domain. It is a thoroughly pleasant diversion.

The Return of Tarzan.
Edgar Rice Burroughs.

This is just more Tarzan. The first Tarzan was about a sadly abandoned boy growing up in the jungle and eventually returning to civilization. This second book simply contains his further adventures.

After he saw Jane betrothed to another man at the end of the first book, Tarzan returns to his friend in France, who sets him up with a job as a counter-spy for the French government. So Tarzan goes to Morocco and wrestles lions while pissing off some Russian spies. What follows is a series of betrayals, shipwrecks and lion wrestling that strains credulity. Even more so than the first book about a boy being raised by gorillas and teaching himself to read.

It is tough to ignore how much of the plot relies on absurd coincidence, but there is still some entertaining pulp adventure to be found here.

The Princess Bride
William Goldman

This is a re-read and the Princess Bride is one of my favorite novels. Also, I want to write a full post about this book and movie. So I am only going to give the merest review here. The Princess Bride novel has everything you love about the movie (and you love the movie because you aren’t a soulless monster, right?) plus more. It is simply slightly better than the movie in every way. And the movie is a classic. Read this.

The Once and Future King
T.H. White

This should be the centerpiece of this month’s book reviews but I can’t write it. Part of it has to do with the troubles I’ve had reading this book. (see here) I have been reading The Once and Future King off and on for nearly 6 years. So yes, the early parts are somewhat foggy in my memory. If any of it managed to sink in past the thoughts of the Disney version of the first book. The fogginess of the early parts makes it hard to say exactly how the themes fit together. And this book is all symbolism, theme and anachronism.

It assumes the reader knows the story of King Arthur and Camelot and its fall. Which everyone does. Right? At least the gist of the story, about the triangle of Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere. And of Mordred’s treachery. People should know it and if they don’t they should follow the advice of White and read Mallory. Instead of doing much in the way of recounting what happened. The Once and Future King tries to explain why the events were inevitable. So the first half of the book is about young Arthur and his education at the hands of Merlin. As well as about the early life of the Orkney clan, Gawaine, Gareth, Gaheris, Agrivaine and eventually Mordred. Then the second half is about Lancelot and his triumphs and failings. Then finally about the fall of Camelot.

Arthur’s problem is his inability to reconcile the concepts of ‘might’ and ‘right.’ He starts off fighting the idea that might makes right, but that eventually fails because he fights might with might. In the end, might must win. He tries other approaches of enforcing right and channeling might, but while he has a vision of how civilization is supposed to work, Arthur lacks the ability to realize this vision.

Knowing how this story ends makes it all the more tragic. Everyone, with the possible exceptions of Agrivaine and Mordred, tries to do what is right, but each and every one of them fails in some way. It ends with Arthur dying and/or heading for Avalon, but not before bestowing his vision on a young Thomas Malory and tasking future generations with trying to realize it. There is so much in this dense, dense work that I feel it needs greater focus than I can give it here. It is enough to say that everyone should read this.

What I Read in August

Aided by my new fangled smart-phone I did a whole lot of reading last month. Up significantly from my average of 4 books a month, I read 7 in August. While that is not a particularly large number, when you factor in the quality of some of those books, I believe it is safe to say I kicked reading’s ass in August. Continue reading

What I Read in July 2011

Another month, another comfortable four books read. This month there is an unintentional theme, though. Superheroes. I like superheroes, but I had no intention of reading three, four if you squint, prose books about them in one month. But it worked out that way, giving my thoughts a convenient thread to tie them together.


Gods of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs.
This is the 2nd of the John Carter books and it manages to top the first one. Gods of Mars is pure pulp action. Each chapter has John Carter and friends facing a new threat and greater odds than the one before it, with no time for reflection or thought or meaningful character development. John Carter is the manliest of men, his prowess being almost ridiculous. Not one but three beautiful women are in love with him; not just 3 women but the three most beautiful women on Mars. He can outfight any 10 men, 20 if he is angry. He is as much of a superhero as any in the books I read this month. In fact, with his otherworldly origin and leaping prowess he bears no little resemblance to certain alien rocketed from a dying planet to Earth, where the yellow sun gave him extraordinary powers.

The expanded societies of Mars are nuts. The white Martians exploit the red Martians, but are in turn exploited by the black Martians. And everybody is exploited by the mad false Goddess Issus. It is a terrible, labyrinthine system that only a man as great as John Carter could free them from.

Gods of Mars is a blistering, exciting read, but the prose and plot can be quite simple. It does offer a somewhat pointed critique of blind faith, but there is little her to stimulate intellectually. Still, it is loads of fun.

Masked, ed. Lou Anders.

Masked is an anthology of short stories about superheroes, written mostly by comic book writers. Like any anthology, the stories vary in quality. I picked this up because I like many of the contributors, such as Gail Simone, Bill Willingham and Matt Sturges. On the whole the collection is satisfying, even if there are some stinkers.

Among the stories I liked were Matt Sturges’ somewhat gruesome “Cleansed and Set in Gold” about a hero who gets his powers through terrible means and Paul Cornell’s campy “Secret Identity.” The capper is Willingham’s A to Z in the Ultimate Big Company Superhero Universe (Villains Too)” the last and longest of the stories that compress an event comic into 40 or so pages. There were also many other really good stories.

But there were definitely some disappointing ones. Simone’s “Thug” has her trademark deranged yet heartfelt tone, but the stylistic choice of having it seem to be written by the mentally challenged protagonist made it painful to read. Also, too many of the stories focus too much on the gruesome side of superheroics, reveling in the blood and destruction and death. It is tiring and occasionally disgusting.

Still this is a really nice collection. I recommend a checking it out from a library. It is a decent enough way to pass a weekend.

Supergods, Grant Morrison

Supergods is acclaimed comic book scribe Grant Morrison’s part biography, part history of superheroes jumble. Both parts are worthwhile, but not necessarily aimed at the same audience. I am not sure who exactly this book was intended for, other than Grant Morrison fans (of which I am one). Supergods is quite properly aimless.

The first half, though both parts blend together, is a brief, idiosyncratic history of superheroes. Morrison shows just how well he gets the characters, but most of the information is rather basic. The second half is mostly biographical, with some in-depth dissection of the important superhero works of the last quarter century, both Morrison’s own and others. The problem is that anyone who has read enough to understand Morrison’s critiques probably already knows the information in the first half. Meaning the either one half of the book is needless or one half is incomprehensible. Still, taken individually both are good. It is worth to me to hear Morrison go on at length about this topic. He is the undisputed master of superhero storytelling.

There are, however, some downright bad chapters. Such as any time he writes about movies. Morrison wants to note who thoroughly superheroes have taken over summer movies, but he doesn’t seem to have much to say about any of the films.

I still recommend people read this book. People I know can borrow my copy if they wish. Morrison gets superheroes like no one else, and writes with a manic joy that is hard to match. Though this is non-fiction, it is never even close to dry. This is a unmissable opportunity to learn at the feet of a master.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is an astounding, wonderful, unforgettable novel. It did not quite know me off my feet like Yiddish Policeman’s Union did, but that is solely because I had already experienced Chabon. I was ready this time. Amazingly, Kavalier and Clay was even better than Yiddish Policeman’s Union.

The novel follows the exploits of Sammy Clay and Joe Kavalier, two cartoonist cousins in the early days of comic book superheroes. The two create their own popular superheroes, Sammy providing the stories and Joe the art. Their story closely parallels the experiences of some real comic book creators, but is definitely their own. Their experiences in life grow to mirror their comics, with Joe and Sammy becoming something like comic book characters themselves. Their friends and enemies are like the supporting characters of a superhero. There is the beautiful love interest, the dastardly villain, the nutty side characters. Life reflects art reflects life.

The novel is an effective history of the Golden Age of comics that never gets in the way of the characters personal stories. Chabon’s prose is lush and extravagant, displaying a love of words and of the subject matter. Though the tome is nearly 700 pages long, it moves with astounding celerity. It is never slow, never plodding, but it is a detailed account of the lives of a group of people over more than a decade. There are many events to cover and while Chabon rarely lingers too long, he also doesn’t rush. The novel breathes, it lives. And it is terrific.

I can’t heap enough praise on what I’ve read from Chabon. Though somewhat longer, Kavalier and Clay is slightly more engaging than Yiddish Policeman’s Union. Both novels are wonderful works of fiction. If you read at all, read Chabon. I am definitely going to track down the rest of his books. Do yourself a favor and do the same.

What I Read in June

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.