Home : Ex Libris : 1 June 1998

ex libris reviews

1 June 1998


Any sufficiently advanced civilization is indistinguishable from solipsism.
(With apologies to Arthur C. Clarke)


Contents


In This Issue:
Back to Normal

Things are back to normal this month; I'd like to thank all of you who wrote to express your sympathy over the death of our dog Skipper. Thanks for listening.

We had an unusually busy month of reading aloud. We've discovered that we can sit in the family room and read while Dave plays, without Dave being too much of a distraction. Granted, we have to stop periodically (for seconds or minutes) and hug the boy, but that's a good thing. In addition, there were new books by Lois McMaster Bujold, Terry Pratchett, and J.R.R. Tolkien(!) this month.

On my own, I read the next book in Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolo series, another by Josephine Tey, the next of Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series, and a number of others.

In Times to Come

Books on the soon-to-be-read stack include more by Dorothy Dunnett, Bernard Cornwell, L.E. Modesitt, Jr, and Greg Bear.

-- Will Duquette


Books to Read Aloud

by Will Duquette

When we try a book aloud, there are only four possible outcomes: Jane loves it, and won't let me alone until we finish it; Jane likes it, and we finish it in a reasonable amount of time; Jane doesn't like it, and we don't get more than 20 or 30 pages; or it's OK, but after the first session of two, Jane's just not interested in being read to. We've got examples of all four categories this month.

For example, Truckers, by Terry Pratchett, died the death of apathy. Jane claimed she liked it well enough, but somehow it languished for almost a month...and then another book came along that Jane really did want to hear. Truckers is not a bad book, but it's one of Pratchett's juveniles, and they aren't as over-the-top funny as his regular books. I finished it (and its two sequels) myself; the review is below.

Komarr
By Lois McMaster Bujold

This is the book that administered the coup de grace to Truckers; it was released in hardcover this past month. Komarr is Bujold's latest novel about Miles Vorkosigan, and follows directly after Mirror Dance and Memory, which I reviewed last month. Perhaps the largest topic of discussion among Bujold's fans is "When is she going to find a spouse for Miles?" Miles has had plenty of girlfriends in his persona of Admiral Naismith, but not one of them has been willing to marry the future Count Miles Vorkosigan of Barrayar. As the cover of this volume shows Miles gazing deeply into the eyes of an attractive woman, it was clear going in that the question was about to be answered.

The action takes place on Komarr, a planet in the process of terraforming that happens to sit on Barrayar's only wormhole route out to the rest of the galaxy. A hundred years before, the Komarrans had stood by as the Cetagandans invaded Barrayar through their system; the Barrayarans (including Miles' grandfather) finally drove the Cetagandans out. Never again: Miles' father Aral commanded the Barrayaran fleet that conquered Komarr and earned him the name "The Butcher of Komarr."

Miles is on Komarr to investigate the destruction of a Komarran space station in his role of Imperial Auditor, and the investigation ostensibly drives the plot. It quickly becomes clear, however, that the investigation is secondary to Bujold's purpose; the real story is Miles' introduction to Ekaterin Vorsoisson. The chapters alternate between Miles and Ekaterin's viewpoints as their romance develops. The road is not smooth under their feet...but things have seldom been easy for Miles.

It's not Bujold's best book to date, and I wouldn't recommend it as the book to start with, but any fan of Miles' earlier adventures will find it quite satisfying. It read aloud quite well, and in fact we slammed through it in just three days. We bought it on a Saturday morning, I started reading in the car on the way home, and it swallowed the rest of the weekend.

The Eyes of the Overworld
By Jack Vance

It was with Komarr that we found we could reasonably combine playing with David and reading aloud, and we enjoyed it so much that I immediately looked for another book to start reading. I dug into the library and found a book I consider to be a minor classic. It concerns a sometime thief and con-man named Cugel the Clever, and takes place on an Earth of the far future dominated by a huge, dying sun. The language is beautiful, and the characters witty; even in anger they speak with exaggerated politeness. Alas, that was the book's downfall. The language and dialog have a distancing effect, and while Jane found it mildly interesting, she also found it hard to attend to. We read 22 pages, and then stopped. Sigh.

Roverandom
By J.R.R. Tolkien

Shortly after, we went to the bookstore, and found a gem. This is a genuinely new book by Tolkien, never before published. He offered to Stanley Unwin as a possible successor to The Hobbit, which was being printed at the time. Then The Hobbit was released, and took off, and Roverandom was dropped in favor of a sequel.

Roverandom is a delightful fairytale about a small dog that made the serious mistake of being rude to a passing wizard. In the course of his adventures Rover visits the moon and the depths of the ocean and finally comes home. It is more of a children's story than The Hobbit (and indeed was written for Tolkien's children), and I look forward to reading it to Dave when he's a few years older.

At the moment we are deeply into a book I'll review next month: Jingo, by Terry Pratchett.


Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Brat Farrar
By Josephine Tey

One more book, and I will have read all of Tey's books. Brat Farrar was both a joy and a disappointment. A joy because the writing was excellent, as usual, and made for good reading. The characters were well-drawn and interesting, and I liked them. A disappointment because the conclusion was both pat and predictable. It ended the way I wanted it to, a little too easily, and I had seen the ending coming less than half-way through the book. Long-time readers of this page will remember that mysteries usually continue to mystify me until All Is Revealed at the end. If I can figure it out ahead of time, there's something wrong.

So, it's not Tey's best; but if you've enjoyed Tey's other books, it's worth reading.

Race of Scorpions
By Dorothy Dunnett

This is the third book of Dunnett's House of Niccolo series; I reviewed Niccolo Rising and The Spring of the Ram last month.

The island of Cyprus has been a Latin (i.e., Roman Catholic) kingdom for centuries, since the crusader King of Jerusalem bestowed it on one of his followers. Since then the Ottomans have conquered Asia Minor, the Mamelukes have taken over Egypt, and, most recently, two siblings are fighting for the throne of Cyprus. One is seeking the help of the West; the other has made a deal with the Mamelukes. After his dangerous but profitable stay in Trebizond, Niccolo has become a prominent Venetian banker, and both sides want his help...and his mercenary company. Meanwhile, Niccolo's enemy Katelina van Borselen, has come to Rhodes to bring about his downfall. All in all, quite an involving, devious, scheming gem of a book. I'll be reading the next one during the coming month.

All the Bells on Earth
By James Blaylock

Blaylock specializes in odd, quirky little fantasies taking place under our suburban noses, usually in Southern California. His heros tend to be eccentric, impractical dreamers, and his villians are downright peculiar. This book is no exception, though the hero isn't the most eccentric of the crew by any means.

This is a book about the consequences of selling one's soul to the devil, and one's (slim) chances for redemption. It's about the cost of brokering such a deal. It's about "Monkey's Paw" wishes. It's about 360 pages. And it's OK. Not outstanding, but OK.

The Pride of Chanur
Chanur's Venture
The Kif Strike Back
Chanur's Homecoming
By C.J. Cherryh

These books, together with a fifth, comprise Cherryh's Chanur series, which takes place in the same galaxy as the Union-Alliance novels. Earth had expanded into space for many years, only to have her daughter cultures, the Union and the Merchanter's Alliance, rebel and throw off the Terran yoke. Relations being none too friendly with the rebels, Earth tried to expand in another direction...only to run smack-dab into the Compact, a loose trade organization made up of a number of species, some human-like, some unimaginably alien.

The series is the story of one Pyanfar Chanur, captain of the trading ship The Pride of Chanur. Chanur is a Hani, member of a feline race that is perhaps the least powerful in the Compact. As the Pride sits at dock at Meetpoint Station, a strange animal, tall, nearly hairless, escapes from a Kifish ship and seeks refuge on Chanur's ship. The Kif want the creature back, but Pyanfar Chanur won't give it back...because the creature's name is Tully, and he's an intelligent being from Earth. A new culture has entered Compact Space, and all of the old balances of power are shifting.

Thus begins a four-volume rollercoaster ride as Chanur tries to preserve herself, her ship, her clan, and her world through the largest crisis the Compact has ever seen. The story is seen almost solely through Pyanfar Chanur's eyes, and never through Tully's: human Tully is the alien here, not Chanur. Most of the action takes place in the claustrophobic interior of the Pride, with occasional forays into the deadly world of space station docksides, and the tension is sometimes nearly intolerable.

These are excellent suspense novels, and compare interestingly to Dorothy Dunnett's work. Dunnett's books are much richer in detail....but then, Dunnett didn't have to create her world out of whole cloth. Cyteen is Cherryh's masterpiece, but the Chanur series is definitely worth a look.

Time Enough For Love
By Robert A. Heinlein

This is an old favorite, and one of Heinlein's best books. It is the story of Lazarus Long, born Woodrow Wilson Smith at the beginning of the 20th century and witness to at least 2000 years of galactic history. It is also a book about love and sex and the relationship between them. It's not clear whether Long's views on the subject are also Heinlein's--it's dangerous to assume that the author of a work of fiction agrees with any opinion expressed in the work--though similar views are expressed in many of Heinlein's other books. In any event, I find much to argue with in this book, but the stories are intriguing, and occasionally moving, and the rhetoric is much fresher than it became in his later books.

Sharpe's Company
By Bernard Cornwell

This book brings Captain Richard Sharpe to the siege of Badajoz in 1812. It's well-written, as usual, but I didn't like it as much as the previous books in the series. That's mostly because it's so well written, actually. Sharpe gets into some situations that I find it painful even to contemplate, which makes for uncomfortable reading. The pain all derives from Sgt. Obadiah Hakeswill, a fiend in human shape. Some might think him unrealistic, but I found him all too plausible. Hakeswill is the kind of subhuman who preys on his peers and inferiors while keeping his nose clean in the sight of his superiors. Those who get in his way are punished. Sharpe's follower Sgt. Harper is flogged and busted to Private because Hakeswill stole a number of valuable items from the batallion officers, and planted one of them in Harper's backpack. Sharpe knows, both from current events and past history, that Hakeswill is a snake, but he has no proof--Hakeswill is too careful. I hate this; it makes me squirm. I have the same problem with mistaken identity plots.

Truckers
Diggers
Wings
By Terry Pratchett

Together, these books comprise Pratchett's juvenile Truckers trilogy, also called The Bromeliad. They concern the nomes. Nomes are small people, about four inches high, who live in the spaces left by we humans. For decades, the nomes have lived in a department store, Arnold Bros. (Est. 1905); they've lived there for so long that the existence of the Outside World is no more than a blasphemous rumor. But the Store is soon to be demolished, and the nomes must learn to move on, seeking a place to call Home. It's an enjoyable series, worth reading, and definitely suitable for young readers. They aren't (at present) available in the United States; I had to special order my copy.

The Deep Blue Good-by
By John D. MacDonald

This is the first of MacDonald's Travis McGee novels. I'd heard good things about John D. MacDonald, and bought one of his books, and didn't much like it. Then a friend of mine told me that the Travis McGee novels were just wonderful, and the rest of MacDonald's books were worth missing, so I decided to give Travis McGee a try.

It was OK, at least on a par with Robert Parker's Spenser series, and some parts were excellent. I'll look up the next one as well. But I'm not raving about it, either.


Children's Books

Old MacDonald had an Apartment House
Written by Judi Barrett and illustrated by Ron Barrett

This is a wonderfully illustrated and witty story of the super of a city apartment building who finds that vegetables and cows make better tenants than people do. It's too old for Dave, but we bought it anyway; the day will come when he'll enjoy it.


Letters

First of all, my thanks to everyone who wrote in sympathy about our dog Skipper. You know who you are!

Ana from New Zealand had this to say:

Dear Will first off I am sorry to read of your loss of Skipper - it is sad how shortlived animals are.

I really enjoy your book page. I have to say I struggled through Patrick O'Brien though. I just did not click with it. Possibly in another era of my life where I can concentrate maybe.

I adore Dorothy Dunnett and was ecstatic to find Caprice and Rondo. I had been labouring under the delusion that To Lie With Lions was the end of the series (Lymond being 6 books) and to find that it will be 8 books long was true bliss. Have you tried her mysteries? IMHO they are a bit dated but still read well.

We have a almost 5 year old son, Max and 6 month old, Kasper and they are both enthusiastic consumers of books. Kas quite literally. Good night Moon is grim. Max at 6 months adored Eggs for Tea by Jan Pienkowski - it at least is fun to read.

And Dann Siems said this:

Just a suggestion for a great read-aloud book: The Life of God, as told by himself (Ferrucci). Enjoy! Nice page -- I'll be back!


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.


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Copyright © 1998, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
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