Home : Ex Libris : 1 October 1997

ex libris reviews

1 October 1997


You are only young once, but you can stay immature indefinitely.
Anonymous


Contents


In This Issue

This issue is dominated by Elizabeth George, Honor Harrington (both continued from last issue) and Horatio Hornblower, with the newest Terry Pratchett thrown in for spice. In addition, Jane finally makes a real appearance in these pages; she reviewed this issue's children's book.

In other news, David celebrated the end of his seventh month with two teeth-- after four months of intermittent teething. There would be great rejoicing, except that we're still waiting for the two teeth in the upper jaw....

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New In The Archives:

I've created a C.S. Forester page; it lists all of the Horatio Hornblower books, with the beginnings of a publishing history.

-- Will Duquette


Books to Read Aloud

by Will Duquette

Exit the Milkman
By Charlotte MacLeod

We've finally finished reading this, but we had to finish it separately, and silently. We were both disappointed. On the one hand, the writing in Exit the Milkman is better than in MacLeod's two previous books--there are many fewer passages that seem like filler, and more amusing scenes. On the other hand, the plot stinks. MacLeod is known for whimsical, offbeat plots, and eccentric, amusing characters, but this one is just plain bizarre, and completely unbelievable.

Once MacLeod would have been toward the top of our list of authors to read aloud, and now, I fear, she has fallen off the list completely. I'll probably continue to buy her books in case the slump comes to an end, but I'm not too hopeful.

Maskerade
By Terry Pratchett

On a more cheerful note, there's a new Pratchett book out in hardcover which Jane and I have almost finished. It's a pleaser, as Pratchett always is.

Most of Pratchett's books spend a good bit of their time spoofing something; initially it was the sword-and-sorcery genre, and now it's anything that strikes his fancy. In this case, it's clear that he deducted the cost of tickets to Andrew Lloyd Weber's Phantom of the Opera from his income tax, assuming that you can do that in England. Maskerade takes place in the Ankh-Morpork opera house, where the show must go on, despite a variety of deaths and bizarre goings-on. Among the most bizarre of the goings-on are Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, down from the Ramtop mountains in search of Agnes Nitt, who ran away to join the opera.

If you've read no Pratchett, this is probably not the book to start with. See our Terry Pratchett page for information about the earlier books.


Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Well-Schooled in Murder
By Elizabeth George

I found this one less gut-wrenching than A Great Deliverance, and just as well-written. A boarding school boy is missing on a Sunday evening. The school believes him to have gone on a trip to friend's home for the weekend; the friend thinks he's in the school infirmary. Instead, he's found murdered several days later. Why did he run away from the school? Or was he taken? Inspector Thomas Lynley's chief obstacle is the prep school code of honor: one must never betray one's classmates. Especially when one of Lynley's classmates is a teacher at Bredgar Chambers.... The continuing story of Lynley, his sidekick Barbara Havers, and their friends progresses nicely, and the mystery itself is filled with twists and red herrings. Not for the squeamish, though.

Playing for the Ashes
By Elizabeth George

In this book, Inspector Thomas Lynley is investigating the death by arson of cricket star Kenneth Fleming. This is rather a departure for George; about half the book takes the form of a manuscript by Olivia Whitelaw, a young, confused, bitter, angry woman whose life is contrasted with that of both Kenneth Fleming and that of his son, Jimmy. This book is as much about parenthood as it is about murder.

I've read four of George's novels now, and enjoyed all of them; but perhaps "enjoyed" isn't the right word. They are gripping page-turners; they are well-written; and they tend to leave me in an unpleasant mood. Let the reader beware.

The Honor of the Queen
By David Weber

This, the second of Weber's stories of Captain Honor Harrington, is even better than On Basilisk Station. The Star Kingdom of Manticore is edging ever closer to war with the People's Republic of Haven; at present the conflict centers on the neighboring systems of Grayson and Masada. The two systems, enemies of long standing, lie in a strategically sensitive area between Haven and Manticore. Naturally, Manticore is playing up to Grayson as Haven is playing up to Masada. Harrington is given command of a small force--two cruisers and two destroyers--escorting the Queen's Envoy to Grayson, and naturally ends up defending Grayson against a superior Haven/Masada force. That's the main plot.

Grayson was originally settled by members of an anti-tech religion, the Church of Humanity Unchained, followers of St. Austin Grayson. Conditions on Grayson were not cooperative, and the settlers found that technology was essential to their continued existence. The necessary compromises caused the church to schism, and after a bloodly civil war the "Faithful" fled to nearby Endicott's Star and founded Masada. By Honor Harrington's day, Masada and Grayson have fought five or six inconclusive wars, and Masada is in the hands of a truly nasty theocracy. The government of both planets is theocratic, in fact, but the Masadans are almost too nasty to be believable. More important, though, is the position of women in both societies. In Grayson women are loved, cherished, well-treated, and kept firmly on a pedestal; in Masada, women are little better than property.

Neither society is prepared to cope with Honor Harrington... but they'll learn.

I have one minor nit to pick. I'm getting tired of the wild-eyed, chavinistic, Luddite fanatic. There's no doubt he exists, but he's over-represented in fiction these days. Weber is more even-handed about religion than most science fiction authors, and presents the Graysons as misguided but sincere, and willing to learn better, even as he presents the Masadans as despicable fiends. Even this is a two-edged sword, as the message seems to be that religion is all very well, provided that it doesn't affect your actions. If you stand your ground even when it would be expedient to sacrifice your religious principles, you're a dangerous fanatic. Ah, well.

The Short Victorious War
By David Weber

Most of the citizens of the People's Republic of Haven are on the dole, and are interested primarily in steady increases to the Basic Living Stipend. Such increases are funded by the political equivalent of corporate raiding: Haven must conquer and loot ever more systems to feed the mobs. The government of the People's Republic of Haven has decided that a short, victorious war is just the thing to distract the people from a steadily deteriorating economy, and the Star Kingdom of Manticore is the intended target.

Honor Harrington, recovered from her injuries in the Battle of Yeltsin, is given command of the Nike, as flag-captain to Admiral Sarnow. Together they must defend the Hancock system against desperate odds, trying to buy time until reinforcements show up. Honor behaves as courageously as one would expect.

With this book, Weber introduces additional similarities with Horatio Hornblower's day. Manticore is clearly England, leaving Haven to be France. Haven at this time is ruled by a Hereditary President, supported by the Legislaturist families. Most of the senior commanders in the Haven navy are Legislaturists. But a popular leader named Robert S. Pierre is planning a revolution which will change all of the rules.

Field of Dishonor
By David Weber

The only complaint I have about the Honor Harrington series is the cover art; they've carefully designed all of the covers to emphasize that they belong to the same series, but have depicted Honor Harrington differently on each one. This cover is particularly awful. It's not just me, either; I showed Jane the book, and she said, spontaneously, "Why does she look like Michael Jackson?"

Nevertheless, the book is quite good. Honor returns home from the Hancock system to a political crisis. One of Honor's fellow officers is courtmartialed for cowardice after the Battle of Hancock, and he blames Honor for his downfall. Weber delights in giving Honor hard decisions to make...and letting her follow the hard but honorable path. This is a bleak but solid book, and makes a good centerpiece for the series.

Flag in Exile
By David Weber

After the Battle of Yeltsin, the grateful Graysons bestowed the title of Steadholder on Honor Harrington, the first woman ever so titled. Steadholder is a serious title on Grayson, with real duties and responsibilities, and real powers. In this volume, Honor takes leave from the RMN to attend to her people on Grayson. Naturally, being a woman and an agent of change, she is not uniformly popular on Grayson; equally naturally, she is asked for help by the Grayson Navy--as Admiral Harrington. All threats, both internal and external, are nicely dealt with by the end of the book, as usual, not without personal cost to Honor, also as usual.

Only one more Honor Harrington book has been published to date, Honor among Enemies; I'll most likely get to it next issue.

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower
By C.S. Forester

In the last issue I blithely compared David Weber's On Basilisk Station with Forester's Horatio Hornblower novels (it's even dedicated to Forester); later it was brought to my attention that I'd never really read any of the Hornblower books. I've started to remedy that.

This volume is the only one I had attempted to read previously; my dad gave me a copy when I was a kid, hoping I'd enjoy it as he had, and I didn't. I got about half way through, and stopped dead. It was with some trepidation that I approached it again.

I can see why I didn't enjoy it then. It's not a novel; it's set of loosely connected short stories about Horatio Hornblower's days as a midshipman. The stories were written after Hornblower was already an established character, for the benefit of fans eager for his earlier history. In short, they took too much for granted to be accessible to a young kid. Hornblower was much bullied as a midshipman, which struck too close to home. Despite that, two of the stories were still strong in my memory after all these years.

I enjoyed the book considerably more this time, but I wouldn't recommend it as the starting point for someone new to Hornblower.

Lieutenant Hornblower
By C.S. Forester

The next book is much better, and I recommend it. Forester is not quite the writer that Patrick O'Brian is, and I suspect that I will always prefer Jack Aubrey to Horatio Hornblower, but Hornblower is a gentler introduction to the Royal Navy and the Napoleonic era.

In this volume, Hornblower is junior lieutenant on a ship commanded by a paranoid madman who suspects his officers and plies the crew with rum, with predictable effects on discipline. Eventually, the captain is critically injured while trying to arrest his lieutenants for mutiny (did he fall? or was he pushed?), and the senior lieutenant, Buckland, takes control of the ship. Buckland proves weak and indecisive, and the ship succeeds in its mission only because of the coolness and intelligence of Hornblower, who surreptitiously guides Buckland to success.

Hornblower and the Hotspur
By C.S. Forester

Hornblower receives his first independent command as Master and Commander, the sloop-of-war Hotspur. Freshly but reluctantly married, Hornblower spends most of the book on blockade duty outside Brest, a French naval base, a duty of which Jack Aubrey sees remarkably little. Horatio Hornblower complements Jack Aubrey nicely in that way. There's a point of correspondence, as well. The Hotspur is ordered to accompany the Indefatigable, the Amphion, the Lively, and the Medusa to capture a Spanish treasure fleet. As any fan of Patrick O'Brian's knows, Jack Aubrey was in command of the Lively on that mission.

Hornblower and the Atropos
By C.S. Forester

This book completes Horatio Hornblower's early career; he spends most of this volume in the Mediterranean recovering sunken treasure, evading Turkish ships, and finally fighting an action with a Spanish frigate. This is my favorite Hornblower to date. The opening scenes highlight the tension between Hornblower and his wife Maria as they travel to London by canal boat. Hornblower trys to play the dutiful husband, but delights in helping the boatmen to get to London on time.

Beat to Quarters
By C.S. Forester

This might be the first Hornblower book to be written; chronologically, it's the last I have possession of, so I can't compare the copyright dates yet. The step from Hornblower and the Atropos to Beat to Quarters is quite jarring. Commander Hornblower of the Atropos is a mature character (if not a mature human being), well-developed and complex. Captain Hornblower of the Lydia is a new creation, and some of the background given in Beat to Quarters is inconsistent with the officer of the (chronologically) earlier books.

This book also has more of a pulp flavor to it, but perhaps that's because it's firmly in what I think of as Patrick O'Brian territory: the Lydia has travelled around the Horn to foment rebellion in Spanish America. Alas, Hornblower has no Stephen Maturin, and most of the political action takes place off stage.

This is by no means a bad book, but Forester can do better.


Children's Books

Jesse Bear, What Will You Wear
Written by Nancy White Carlstrom and illustrated by Bruce Degen

This is a delightful board book that follows Jesse Bear through his day from getting dressed in the morning to falling asleep at night. The rhythm is strong and repetitive, which David really likes, and the pictures are delightful for all of us. It is especially nice that this is a board book because David is learning that pages can be turned and everything he really likes eventually goes into his mouth. This a very good cuddle book and would be great to read right before tucking a child into bed.

The illustrator, Bruce Degen, has also written Jamberry, which we reviewed last month.


Letters

The Web could use more sites like this! I am student teaching 4th grade, and I have to read a chapter of a book out loud to the students (we do this every day, while they are eating their snack). We are just finishing "Into the Land of Unicorns" by Bruce Coville. Any other suggestions? (recent literature a plus!).
-- Charlene Ligouri

Most of the books Jane and I have read aloud are really above the fourth grade level; which is not to say that your kids wouldn't enjoy them, but their parents might not approve. And my knowledge of recent literature for that age group is slim and none, though I'm sure that will change.

Thinking back to the books that I enjoyed when I was fourth grade, I think I'd recommend any of C.S. Lewis's Narnia books, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, and The Great Brain and its sequels, by John D. FitzGerald. Joan Aiken has written some great books for that age group; The Wolves of Willoughby Chase comes to mind. Oh, and Susan Cooper's series, The Dark is Rising, might be good.

While I've actually read none of these aloud, I'm looking forward to trying them all when my son David is older.


Have any comments? Want to recommend a book or two? Think Will's seriously missed the point and needs to be corrected? Like to correspond with one of the reviewers? Write to us and let us know what you think! You can find the e-mail addresses of most of our reviewers on our Ex Libris Staff page.


Home : Ex Libris : 1 October 1997
Copyright © 1997, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
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