Home : Ex Libris : 1 January 1999

ex libris reviews

1 January 1999


I was right in the middle of it, and I still don't know enough about who was doing what to give a complete picture. But I have my incomplete picture; I have to be satisfied with that, and you will too."
Steven Brust


Contents


In This Issue:
Conclusions

December was a light month for reading, not so much because of the Holiday rush, but because we got a new computer, and that meant I spent much of the month hunting down and killing a variety of virtual beasties. That is to say, I was consumed with computer games. I was also consumed with the completion of my novel, and I am happy and proud to say that the first draft is done. I'm currently reading it one more time straight through, with Jane, to catch inconsistencies and similar problems; after that, I'll doctor it up, print it out, and we'll see what happens. One of the consequences of finishing the first draft is that we were able to resume our normal practice of reading aloud, and so I'll have some reading-aloud reviews for the first time in many months.

In Times to Come

Books on the soon-to-be-read stack include novels by Robert van Gulik, George MacDonald Fraser, Anthony Powell, David Weber, C.J. Cherryh, and Laurie R. King.

-- Will Duquette


Books to Read Aloud

by Will Duquette

We're back to normal on the reading-aloud front, and to show it we read not one but two books together this month, an old favorite and a brand new one.

Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less
By Jeffrey Archer

This book is a classic of the "scam" novel, in which a team of thieves plots a series of crimes and carries them out. In Archer's typical style the plot contains a number of twists, beginning with the identity of the thieves: an Oxford don, an art gallery owner, a Harley Street physician, and an English lord. All are victims of a stock manipulation swindle pulled by an American named Harvey Metcalfe. Individually they lost a total of million dollars to Metcalfe; together they intend to steal it back, not a penny more, not a penny less. Each comes up with a scam of his own, and aided by the other three brings it to fruition. It's a fast-paced, humorous book, and reads quite well aloud; this is actually the second time I've read it to Jane. If you've not read it, by all means seek it out.

Dragon
By Steven Brust

Steven Brust is one of the few authors I buy in hardback, and one whose books I almost always read aloud to Jane. Dragon is the latest in his series of stories about one Vlad Taltos, assassin and organized crime boss in the city of Adhrilanka, capitol of the Dragaeran Empire. It's a relatively minor piece; interesting to those who already like Brust's work, but not one I would recommend as a starter. Go get Jhereg, and read that. If you like, continue with the rest. You'll get to Dragon before you know it, and by then it will make sense.


Electronic Books:
Agatha Christie

Last month I uttered a slur against blessed dame Agatha: I said that while she was good with plots and puzzles, I generally didn't like her characterization, and suggested that Dorothy Sayers plots were as good and her people much better. In all fairness, then, I felt I should read another of Agatha Christie's books, and make sure. After a brief search I downloaded the following, which is available at Mike's PalmPilot Library, http://www.pilotlibrary.org.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles
By Agatha Christie

This is a classic Christie novel, featuring Hercule Poirot as the sleuth. Having read it through (and I must admit, it didn't work so well as a e-book others have), I'm afraid I haven't changed my opinion particularly. The characters are dull. The first-person narrator, with whom one naturally identifies, plays the Dr. Watson role to Poirot's Sherlock Holmes, and does so with great stupidity, greater prejudice, and too much chiding from the insufferably clever Poirot. None of the other characters are particularly memorable, existing mostly as mannequins upon which clues can be hung. In short, it may be a great mystery but I didn't enjoy it much as a story. Ah, well.

At present I'm in the middle of Charles Dickens's The Pickwick Papers, which are great fun and very different from anything I had expected. I'll no doubt have more to say next month.


Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Necklace and Calabash
By Robert van Gulik

I'm almost through with Judge Dee; there remains but one more book, which I received for Christmas, and I'll have read all of his adventures. Necklace and Calabash was particularly good, and I recommend it highly. I've said quite a lot about Judge Dee in the last couple of months, which I won't repeat here; see the last couple of issues for more information about the famed Chinese magistrate.

Jane and the Wandering Eye
By Stephanie Barron

This is the third of Barron's Jane Austen mysteries; it takes place in the city of Bath, and involves a murder and love triangle among the troupe at the local theater. As with the others, it takes the form of entries in Austen's personal journal.

It was OK; not, I thought, as good as Barron's previous outing, but acceptable. At present, Barron is on my "B" list (or would be if I had one) -- she writes books, I read them, and they are mildly entertaining, but my life would not be noticeably poorer if I had never run across them.

The Thread That Binds The Bones
By Nina Kiriki Hoffman

This is a sterling example of what I call the "wish fulfillment" novel. (Many of L.E. Modesitt, Jr's books fall into this category.) Take one average guy; endow him suddenly with magic powers and the skill to use them, and lots and lots of magical strength; then, let him apply his magical boot to the fundament of some folks who really deserve it. Gosh, it feels so good! I always feel suspicious when I read and enjoy such books; am I really enjoying the writing and the story, or am I just getting a vicarious self-righteous thrill?

It happens there's more to this book than that, though. It's also about the abuse of power, and surprisingly about redemption as well. The premise is that there are clans of magically adept people living in the United States. Most hide their magic, and live in ordinary towns side-by-side with ordinary people. In one place in Oregon, however, they live openly, near a small town of normal humans. Traditionally the relationship between the town and the Oregan clan has been one of mutual aid, but in recent years the clan has taken to terrorizing the townspeople. Enter our hero to clean things up.

I've read this several times know, and enjoyed it each time. The author has written another book that I didn't like nearly so well, though.

Persuasion
Pride and Prejudice
By Jane Austen

Reading Stephanie Barron's recent book prompted me to re-read a little of the real Jane Austen's writing, just for comparison. Mark Twain once noted that the difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug; this distinction applies here as well.

I started with Persuasion, as I remembered it most fondly from my first reading a couple of years ago. Oddly, it wasn't as enjoyable as I remembered--and then I thought about how I was reading it. These days I do a lot of my reading while watching my little boy; and often while watching my little boy watch cooking shows on television. Yes, cooking shows. He's not quite two years old, and his favorite thing on television are the cooking shows. I got Jane a nice turned wood peppermill for Christmas, and it must have been fifteen minutes before we could persuade David to let go of it. Even then it was a struggle. Anyway, I read most of Persuasion while trying to ignore Dave and cooking show noise. I have come to the conclusion that this is not the best environment in which to read Austen's books. You need to let yourself soak into them. They live by Austen's insightful and acerbic commentary on the characters, and it becomes hard to follow without a certain amount of concentration.

As a result, when I pulled Pride and Prejudice from the shelf I resolved not to read it while watching Dave. This worked much, much better, and I enjoyed it better, if possible, than when I first read it. I especially enjoyed the obsequious, toad-eating (but deadly earnest) Mr. Collins.

40,000 in Gehenna
By C.J. Cherryh

When I first read this book, it wasn't what I was expecting, and I was a little turned-off (or so I recall). I was prepared for it this time, and enjoyed it thoroughly.

The book is set in Cherryh's "Union-Alliance" universe, shortly after the Union and the Merchanter's Alliance have signed a peace treaty at Pell Station. Union has discovered an inhabitable planet just over the line in Alliance space. Planets are power, and Union wants to deny it to Alliance, so they plant a colony--and let it fail. By the time the Alliance discovers the planet, it is home to tens of thousands of men and women, living approximately stone-age lives. The Alliance is thus presented with a dilemma. They cannot remove the inhabitants; they are well-adjusted to their stone-age lives, and would not be able to live on a station or starship. On the other hand, they can't simply colonize the planet themselves, without disturbing the humans who are already there. Or perhaps they could, if it weren't for the calibans.....

Two of Cherryh's pet ideas appear in this book. The first is the notion that while genetics determines potential, it does not determine culture. In Cherryh's view (or, at least, in Cherryh's universe) it is possible for two human cultures to diverge so far as to be completely unintelligible to each other. In the vastness of space, this becomes a matter of great concern; unless care is taken, a multitude of cultures can arise, each more different from the others than any earth cultures ever could be. The second thread is that of human-alien symbiosis. In many books, notably Anne McCaffrey's series The Dragonriders of Pern, symbiosis is easy. Humans converse mentally with their alien familiars, while remaining fairly normal by the standards of those they live with. After reading one of her books, one's reaction is a strong desire to have a dragon of one's own, or at least a firelizard. Cherryh's view is rather darker. Symbiosis can have benefits for both parties--but the result is likely to be strange indeed.

40,000 in Gehenna spans several centuries of history; I think the final bits have interesting implications for the development of Union's culture. So far as I know, though, Cherryh hasn't yet followed up on them.

The Nine Tailors
By Dorothy L. Sayers

I re-read and reviewed most of Sayer's Lord Peter Wimsey novels last month, with great and abiding enjoyment. I finished the last with the sadness of knowing that I was done; that there were no more. Then, at our local bookstore, I came across The Nine Tailors. Imagine my surprise and delight! I had not encountered it before, as (for some reason I have not been able to determine) it is published by Harcourt Brace rather than by the company that published all of the others.

The Nine Tailors is dominated by bell-ringing, and in particular by the eight bells of Fenchurch St. Paul, each of which has its own name. The Nine Tailors of the title are the nine tolls of the "teller" or "tailor" bell that are rung to mark a man's death (women only get six tailors). The average reader may not be familiar with peals, touches, the ringing of changes, hunting, and other terms related to English bell ringing; heaven knows I wasn't, and I finished the book but little enlightened. From what I can tell, change-ringing involves ringing the eight bells in a lengthy sequence based on permutations and combinations of the numbers 1 through 8. Melodies have nothing to do with it; the resulting music is evidently beautiful only to the initiated.

As is usual with Sayers, it's a delightfully involved book, with lots of red herrings, important clues that lead nowhere, and an ending which is no less satisfying for being predictable.

The Beekeeper's Apprentice
A Monstrous Regiment of Women
A Letter of Mary
By Laurie R. King

Many thanks go to my sister, who told me of these absurdly wonderful books last week. The premise of the series is simple enough. In the early days of the first World War, an independent, intelligent, free thinking 15-year-old girl meets a thin, middle-aged gentleman on the downs near her home in Sussex. The girl is Mary Russell; the gentleman is Sherlock Holmes. They strike up a friendship, and ultimately a partnership, as Holmes undertakes to teach her everything he knows about detection.

It sounds a bit ridiculous, and even presumptuous, and had my sister not recommended them I would likely have avoided these books altogether...presuming that I ever noticed them. To my great surprise, King does an excellent and witty job. She makes no attempt to mimic Arthur Conan Doyle, but takes her own path; the result is a sort of cross between Dorothy Sayers and Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series. (Indeed, I rather expect that Amelia Peabody Emerson and Mary Russell are acquainted with each other.) I read the first two in a couple of days while at home for the holidays, and immediately had to go seek out the third.

King has also written a present-day series about a police detective named Kate Martinelli, which I haven't yet read. I've acquired the first couple of books, though, and expect to report on them next month.

The Ringworld Throne
By Larry Niven

I usually like Larry Niven's books. This one, alas, I found I could not give a fair shake to. After only 25 pages I put it down, and did not pick it up again until just today, six-months later. Perhaps someday I'll read it through, but don't hold your breath.

Ho for California!
By Sandra L. Myres

I finished this dry little tome some months ago, and simply kept forgetting to review it, for which I apologize; I'm sure you've all seen it at the bookstore, and have been eagerly awaiting my review before running out and snapping it up. Actually, I'll be surprised if any of my readers ever actually sees a copy.

Subtitled "Women's Overland Diaries from the Huntington Library," the book is an edited collection of five diaries kept by women traveling to California from points east during the later decades of the 19th century. The editor, Sandra Myres, was trying to prove a point: that the stereotypical frontier woman, in gingham dress and sunbonnet, burning buffalo chips for fuel and speaking when spoken to, was not particularly typical after all. She produces these diaries to prove her point. I don't remember enough of the scholarly argument to speak to it in any detail; what I do know is that these diaries were not nearly as interesting as they should have been.

When I started the book, I thought to myself, "How interesting! I'll learn what it was like to travel to California in a covered wagon!" Not so. In typical fashion, the diaries leave out the details of the daily grind, and discuss only the exceptional. The exceptional includes many interesting details, no doubt, but one is left ignorant of the normal, usual, and routine. The boredom factor was further enhanced by the author's preoccupation with the trail taken, where stops were made, and where there was water and forage for the cattle. These preoccupations were only natural, as many a diary served as a guide to later travelers; nevertheless, to one more interested in the process than the route they were a nuisance.


Children's Books

Dinosaur's Binkit
By Sandra Boynton

Traditionally, Dave has mostly enjoyed books with strong rhymes and a pronounced rhythm; I assume this is because they sound good, apart from the sense of the words. This week we have had a milestone; for the very first time, so far as I can tell, Dave is enjoying a story for the sense, not the sound. The story is Sandra Boynton's Dinosaur's Binkit. It's a simple story, and one with which Dave can easily identify. It's time for Dinosaur to go to bed, and he can't find his blanket. It's the most awful thing, and he looks everywhere. Finally he is reunited with his blanket, and goes to bed happy. The book has fuzzy blankets on several of the pages, and things that open (a closet door, for example) on the rest, and Dave likes that; but I think the real attraction is that this is a story he understands. He has a blanket, and he has to go to bed, and brush his teeth, and so on. Anyway, he made me read it two times last night, and then Jane had to read it three more times after he got in bed; he had it several times more before going down for his nap today. I didn't think he'd like it much, because it doesn't have the rhyme and rhythm of other books he likes, but I was greatly mistaken.


Letters

Anna V had this to say:

WRT to Dorothy Dunnett - the research is impeccable and accurate. And slightly terrifying in its detail. I belong to a couple of DD mailing lists - they get terrifying too in the detail they go into. One woman is currently researching the references in King Hereafter in the original Latin.

If you proceed to the Lymond Chronicles which I strongly recommend you do there is a Guide available to help decode the references. I like Lymond far better than Nicholas.

Someone named Ryan had this suggestion:

I was reading the comments on Alexandre Dumas' Count of Monte Cristo - I think it merits more importance. How about adding Leo Tolstoy - War and Peace is certainly one of the greatest texts of our time.

I confess I'm not sure what's desired here, regarding the Count of Monte Cristo; I sent a reply to Ryan, and have received no response. If you're reading this, Ryan, take note! As for War and Peace, I've never read it. The books and authors listed in these pages are only those we've read and can personally vouch for.

Finally, our good friend Debbie just became acquainted with ex libris, and had this to say, in part:

Anyway, I've spent the last couple days skimming all the back issues up to the present and subscribed to future issues. The site is great! I copied a bunch of reviews to take with me to the library (Tey, Karon, Mortimer, Block). I'll report back when I've finished the first stack.

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 © 1999, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
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