What I Read October 2019

I got through four books this month, and a couple of them were pretty sizable ones. That includes my birthday present to myself, Warrior of the Altaii by Robert Jordan. It was good to read something like that, completely inessential but very interesting. Otherwise, I finally cleared something off my reading list that has been there for years and a book I got as a Christmas a couple of years ago.

Labyrinth

Kate Mosse

I have been reading this book for what seems like forever. I read its two sequels before starting this one what I think was almost four years ago. Once it gets going it is pretty engrossing. I don’t really know why it took so long for me to finish this; it just sat there partially read forever.

This works along two timelines. The first is in the thirteenth century with the Cathars as the Catholics attempt to exterminate them from Southern France. Alais is the daughter of the steward of Carcassonne, who helps her father keep certain secrets while they fight a war. In the present, Alice works at an archaeological dig near the same place and uncovers some things that have been hidden for eight centuries.

Maybe it is just the prolonged time it took me to read this, but I didn’t realize until way too far into it that it was about the holy grail. Really, how long it took me to read this makes it hard for me to judge a lot of the plot developments. I remember generally what was happening, but I don’t really remember the details. I didn’t enjoy this as much as Citadel or Sepulchre, but then again, I don’t really remember them that well either.

The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul

Douglas Adams

The second Dirk Gently mystery. This one starts with Dirk being hired by a man a giant monster with a scythe. Though not believing the man’s ravings, Dirk takes the case for the money. Things turn serious when the man is found with his head cut off. Dirk’s investigation involves all sorts of weirdness, including Norse Gods and sinister nursing homes and record deals. If you’ve read Adams, you know what to expect. I don’t have a lot to say. I liked it; it is odd and witty and a little cynical. I really enjoyed it.

Warrior of the Altaii

Robert Jordan

This is a delight if you know what you are in for. The classy, sports team logo cover doesn’t really do the pulpy, almost lurid book found inside justice. Warrior of the Altaii is a book Robert Jordan wrote in the late 70’s and this reads like a late 70’s fantasy novel. This reads like the work of a man who wrote both the Wheel of Time and a bunch of Conan the Barbarian stories.

It is, primarily, that old sort of swords and sorcery adventure fantasy. But underneath there are shades of something more complex. There is some good military strategy stuff. The book builds the Altaii as a precursor to the Aiel from the Wheel of Time. There is also a lot of gratuitous nudity, some weird slavery stuff, and some just good, old-fashioned sexism. There are also some well drawn characters and really good action. Warrior of the Altaii would have felt a little old fashioned in the 1980’s, it feels completely ancient now. There is still a lot to enjoy here, but it requires the right mindset going in.

Natchez Burning

Greg Iles

I am conflicted with this book. There is a lot to like; some truly compelling characters, a great understanding of the setting, some really interesting thematic stuff. All of it is good stuff. The problem I have with this book is that it is a 900 page mystery/thriller that does not resolve its central mystery.

Penn Cage is the mayor of Natchez, Mississippi. His life is turned upside down when his father, a respected, half-retired doctor, is accused of murdering one of his patients. That patient once worked for his father as a nurse in the 1960s. Her son believes that Dr. Cage is his father. Looking into all of this brings back a lot of stuff from the civil rights movement, including the murder of the nurse’s activist brother. Soon, Penn is working with a journalist who has been investigating the KKK and the Double Eagles, an even more KKK splinter group.

The book is bloated, but never boring. The problem is that it doesn’t really resolve anything. One of the many villains meets his end here, but it solves none of the mysteries or resolves none of the cases the book has brought up. It also goes on some wild tangents, bringing in conspiracy theories about the assassination of JFK and MLK. It wants to do a lot of wild dumb stuff and important serious stuff, and honestly balances the two well. It just sort of ends before finishing the story. I know there are sequels; I accidentally spoiled one development for myself in the next book that really put me off reading it.

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.