The Book Thread - January 2012

I am reclaiming this thread as my resolution for the New Year.

Almost finished reading The Crusades, an extremely readable, modernly researched history of the series of events known as The Crusades by Thomas Asbridge. He uses a lot of contemporary writings and new research to lend credence to the idea that the “crusades” (not known as such until the “Third” Crusade of Richard the Lionheart fame) were driven by a deft mixture of geo-politics, religious fervor, economics and lots of other things. The Muslim response was fractured and dis-interested to say the least, and it took several strong leaders to make marked games against the crusaders (and even in these instances it appears that they were driven by various forms of political expediency than anything else).

It’s interesting to compare the events of say 1180-1187 to the movie Kingdom of Heaven; it offers some interesting facts about Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) and his role, including the fact that he had been at Hattin and essentially fought his way out. He made it to Acre and Saladin had allowed him to leave with his wife from Jerusalem (the sister of the friggin’ emperor of Byzantium), but when he got there he was convinced to stay and became the Defender of Jerusalem. After the surrender (which was fairly accurately represented in the film), Saladin pardoned him for going back on his word though Saladin wasn’t quite as magnanimous towards the people. They had to be ransomed for a small amount (several thousand wound up being left behind and were pushed to slavery), but a ton of people got out and in addition, Balian paid a giant lump sum for many thousands. I actually think this whole deal could have even added more interest to the character…

Anyway, Asbridge’s research and ability to be even-handed comes across really well and it’s definitely a recommended work of history for those who don’t know too much about this period but always wanted to know.

— Alan



I’ve been reading the Decline and Fall of the British Empire. If I had any lingering doubt that colonial history and the rise of empires was a profoundly ugly part of history this book removed them all. The level of outright racism present in the system and among colonial officials as well as the general public was, frankly, astonishing and the contrast between the economic exploitation and negligent management of India and later on Africa compared to the predominantly white colonies of Canada and Australia bear it out.

The chapter on the Mau-Mau rebellion was horrifying. English commanders interned an entire ethnic group in literal concentration camps where they tortured and murdered at will ten years after World War 2.

People who talk about the glorious past tend to skip over the details for a reason.

The Crusades does sound interesting. My knowledge of the Crusades pretty much starts and ends with drawings of Paladins in AD&D. (that’s probably hyperbole).

I am reading Saban’s The Sound of His Horn and it is excellent. An English soldier escapes from his WW2 POW camp only to find himself on an alternate world where the Nazis won. This is a tiny slice of a novel, so you don’t even get the world building of The Man in the High Castle, but the focus on the soldier’s experiences with a handful of people in one “fortress” is really nicely done. The book turns into Most Dangerous Game a bit at the end but with a veneer of Nazi decadence to turn up the insanity.

Haha sorry. Yeah monogamous is something very different.

— Alan

I am still trying to finish up my leftover books from 2011, currently reading An Echo in the Bone by Diana Gabaldon, which is equally parts historical fiction, romance, and fantasy time travel.

I also am about to read the QT3 book of the month, but that has it’s own thread!

Mixed tags are almost as bad as mixed metaphors!!!

I just finished Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon based on a recommendation from here.

Y’know when you’re about two chapters into a book and you just know you’re going to love it and you settle in for a great story told well? Yeah, that’s what happened here. I really did laugh, and cry, and feel good, and solve a mystery and it was just a glorious ride through boyhood.

I don’t know how, but I have missed Robert McCammon entirely as an author who I would be interested in reading. From the book quotes I see praise from Stephen King, Peter Straub and Dean Koontz, and from the foreword he talks about this being a very different book than he was usually writing, so I’m guessing he’s usually on the darker side of horror/thriller novels? I’m definitely going to have to pick up some of his other stuff.

On to… something else. Not sure what.

Dean, have you read The Shotgun Rules by Huston?

Nope. Added to the wishlist. I’ve got a huge pile of Christmas books at the moment (including two copies of Ready Player One because great minds and all…)

I’d recommend everything by Charlie Huston. The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death is probably his best, but it’s not as dark as his earlier books. He’s actually gotten progressively lighter as he has written more. His Henry Thompson series ends in a very dark place, but there’s a fair bit of gallows humor on the way. The Joe Pitt books are good as well, but if you are not a fan of urban fantasy (vampires in New York), you might want to skip them.

I just finished the first Skulduggery Pleasant book and was pleasantly surprised by how fun it was. Definitely a step above typical Young Adult fiction.

I’m moving on to book 7 (I think) of A Series Of Unfortunate Events and then the third Hunger Games book. By that point I think I’ll be ready for something a little meatier.

I read Philip Jose Farmer’s The Stone God Awakens for around the third time. I’m going through a phase where I go back and reread all the classics I bought from second hand stores when I was young. I think this and the Dayworld novels are Farmer’s best work, and they both share the mechanic where people can live longer through the form of suspended animation where their bodies are transformed into something like indestructible rock.

This is the edition I have, just love these covers:

Next up is E.C. Tubb’s Dumarest novels.

Just started reading The Prague Cemetery by Eco. Beautifully written, as usual; in fact even better than usual so far – but problematic because the character Simonini is so reprehensible.

Just wait! Everyone is reprehensible!

Most McCammon was pretty trashy horror as I recall, but it’s been a long time.


Oh yeah, I also finished Honor’s Paradox by P. C. Hodgell, another installment in her Jamethiel series. In this one, Jame finally graduates from Tentir, leaving it mostly intact, and not even killing anyone.

I always enjoy these stories, even though they sometimes verge on soap-opera. But because of the darkness and grimness of the subject matter – the stories go from dark fantasy to full-on horror and back – they never assume the saccharine quality that some other female fantasy writers occasionally succumb to in their lengthy series.

Because the character Jamethiel has apparently occupied Hodgell’s psyche for so long, her writing about her has a sort of immanent quality you rarely find in otherwise superior fantasy. I could draw a distant parallel to the way Middle Earth dominated Tolkien’s dreams and fantasies throughout his life, but their writing styles are quite different, so there’s not much juice to squeeze out of the comparison.

So: finished House of Leaves not long before my vacation ended. What a strange, strange book. The Navidson Record itself, as described by the supposed old man Zampano, has all the makings of what could be a really neat found footage movie, and the musings of self-chosen editor Johnny Truant are funny and interesting and occasionally horrifying. I’m really not sure what to make of the portions of the book that purport to be scholarly criticism of the nonexistent movie, or the extremely funky things done with the typesetting, and I’m not altogether convinced that it wouldn’t be a better book without those layers of postmodern weirdness.

I also finished The Cold Commands, and am not really sure what to make of that either. I thoroughly enjoyed nearly all of the writing, and found the sex scenes much briefer and less explicit than I’d been led to expect. On the other hand, it was a pretty long book and I’m not sure all that much actually -happened- in it.

Finally, I finished Avoiding Space Madness, a Kindle freebie written by Qt3’s own Leslie Ernest. Very quirky and reasonably enjoyable, in need of serious copyediting and not, as far as I could tell, actually finished. It just kind of stopped. I got the impression that it hasn’t been formally published, however, so with any luck it could receive that needed editorial attention if it does.

His early stuff was category horror. He shifted gears pretty dramatically into southern magical realism with Boy’s Life and Gone South, then did another shift into historical mysteries. It’s not quite Dan Simmons-level genre-hopping, but he’s kept readers on their toes.

I finished Alexander the Great by Robin Lane Fox just the other day. It is an excellent and very readable biography of perhaps the most important person in western antiquity. More importantly I think Fox really does an excellent service to the reader by explaining very clearly that a vast majority of what he writes needs to be based off guesswork and educated conjecture due to the loss to written works which deeply pains anyone that is really interested in the period. Throughout he goes to lengths - but I don’t think oversteps - to base his conclusions off other surviving elements such as depictions of Alexander on coins or archaeological evidence. I’m highly recommending this if only because Fox manages to get across the message, simply and effectively, that much of what we once knew of him and his world is lost and no argument can change that.

Right now I’m reading the most engrossing book I’ve read in years - The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee. So far it is an amazing book and the fundamentally important reason why it is so is the fact that Mukherjee has an ability to distill complex issues into understandable ones and no point have I been flummoxed by medical terms and throughout he finds what I think are some of the most illuminating quotes.