What I Read August 2020

I finished three books in August, though Lonesome Dove is a sprawling tome that I spent a lot of time with.

Cold Fire

Kate Elliott

The second of Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker trilogy gave me more of what I wanted, though it is also a book that feels kind of jagged at times. It starts right as the last book left off, with Cat and her cousin Bee wanted by powerful Cold Mages and needing somewhere to turn. Each apparent place of safety quickly turns dangerous for them. About a third of the way into the book, the setting and circumstances change, turning focus in a new direction and opening up more of the world.

A mishap in the spirit realm separates Cat and Bee, with Cat ending up across the world in the Caribbean. She escapes from an island of lepers/zombies and meets up with Vai, her erstwhile husband. While their relationship grows, she also tries to work out how to save her cousin from an imminent threat and soon starts to conflict with the war hungry General Camjiata.

The jaggedness I mentioned is in how it transitions from the early book to the middle book to the late book. How the situation and problems that Cat faces constantly changes without resolving. This is not a book with a plot that flows seamlessly. It is a book that gets where it needs to go by seeming brute force. That’s too harsh; this isn’t the smoothest ride, but it gets where it needs to go.

What worked much better for me in this book is that it slowed down enough to let me feel like I was gaining an understanding of the world and of characters other than Cat. It shuffles out the old setting for a new one, with a population with a frustrating to read dialect, but it also presents a clearer picture of the world and how magic affects that world and works within it. It also presents a host of new characters who have time to develop since this book stays in one place for long enough for that to happen. It also deepens the relationship between Cat and Vai, actually giving that some time to develop. This book felt like it gave me more of what I wanted than the first book did, while keeping the things I liked about that book.

Lonesome Dove

Larry McMurtry

This is a bleak, beautiful western epic. It is not a complex story. Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call are two retired Rangers who run a cattle company near the Mexican border. Call does all the work and McCrae spends most of his time sitting on the porch drinking whiskey. When an old Ranger friend of theirs blows into town with a plan to start a cattle drive up to unspoiled land in Montana, the two decide it is time for one last adventure. So they do.

The real draw of the book are the numerous interesting and well rounded characters the book introduces. Setting aside Call and McCrae for now, there are the other members of their Hat Creek company. There is Deets, the black man who is the best scout and tracker any of them have ever known. Pea Eye, the dim but reliable hand. Young Newt, an orphan raised by the company who doesn’t know who his father is and who faces the adventures with fresh eyes. McMurtry keeps introducing characters as he goes, from the enigmatic and philosophical cook Po Campo to the unfortunate and in over his head Sheriff’s deputy Roscoe. There is Lorena, the prostitute who forces her way out of Lonesome Dove to try to find a better life in San Francisco, only to be met with the cold unfeeling world of the west. Really, that is what all the characters are facing. I could go on with characters that are worthy of being remembered; this novel is just full of them and is not afraid to treat them ruthlessly.

It is also about the cold, unfeelingness of nature. The west, as described here, is beautiful and dangerous. Even old hands like Deets and Call are not completely safe; the inexperienced are always in peril. The world is a harsh place, and the people in it are not making it any less harsh.

In the end, Lonesome Dove centers on Call and McCrae. Call is all work and McCrae is all play. It is easy to like McCrae. He does some amazing things over the course of the book, but he never stops being an irresponsible layabout. Call is harder to like, harsh and unforgiving. You keep wanting him to finally come out from behind his walls, but by the end it becomes clear that there is nothing there. He will never be able to express any actual emotion. The truth is that Clara, McCrae’s lost love, has the best read on Call with her utter disdain for him.

Lonesome Dove is an amazing book. Definitely worth reading for any and everyone.

Gentlemen of the Road

Michael Chabon

I am a big fan of Chabon, but somehow this one slipped by me. I didn’t know it existed. So I bought a copy for some post-bar exam relaxation and I am glad I did. It is a short book, sticking true to its pulp inspirations.

Gentlemen of the Road follows two jewish bandits in the Dark Ages Middle East. Amram is a giant of a man from Africa, Zelikman is a spindly man from Europe. They travel around, running small cons and robbing. One evening they get a proposition to take Filaq, a fugitive prince who has had his kingdom usurped, to a nearby friendly kingdom. While they don’t agree to that plan, they are left with the prince and plan to turn him over for ransom to whoever will pay.

From there, they go on several adventures to try to get Filaq to safety or put him on his throne. Chabon uses very pulpy, very sparse prose. It can be poetic, but it mostly just tells the tale in as straightforward a manner as possible. It works to get the reader very close to its trio of heroes. Originally published as a serial, it feels episodic. Each section of the adventure has a beginning, middle and end. Things move fast and the excitement never lets up. It’s a lot of fun. It feels special to have this much skill and care to this kind of material.

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.