Home : Ex Libris : 1 September 1999

ex libris reviews

1 September 1999

Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself.
Aral Vorkosigan


In This Issue:
The World Turned Upside-Down

In the last issue, I began the countdown to the birth of our second child. James William Duquette arrived on August 4th, a week before his due date, and we've spent the rest of the month catching up. I'm not sure we're caught up yet. In fact, we probably won't be caught up for some years. Be that as it may, I spent most of the month putting out fires, which is to say, watching our two-year-old and handling various catastrophes as or just before they occurred. While waiting for fires, I spent a lot of time reading, and a fair amount of time thinking about what I'd read, and a fair amount of time just plain brain-dead, and it wasn't always clear which state I was in at what time, so this promises to be an interesting issue. Wish me luck.

I don't have much to say about my new son at this point, except to make the observation that having two children is much, much different from having one child. This was apparent right from the moment of birth. When David was born, I kept thinking, "We did this. Jane and I did this. What a miracle this baby is!" When James was born, I kept thinking about how much bigger David now is, and how much more capable he's gotten, and thinking, "Gosh, James can't do much, can he?" I was overjoyed, of course, and still sensible of the miraculous nature of it all, but I was equally sensible of how far James has to go.

Anyway, I hope you all have had a pleasant month; happy reading!

-- Will Duquette

Electronic Books:
See Below

After some consideration, I've decided to retire this section of Ex Libris Reviews. Originally, I was writing about how to read books on the PalmPilot just as much as I was about the books I was reading on the PalmPilot, but I covered that topic adequately well in the first few months. Now I'm just writing about the books, and I already have a section for doing that. I'll continue to read electronic books, however, and I'll continue to include source information in my reviews.

Books to Read Aloud:

by Will Duquette

A Civil Campaign
By Lois McMaster Bujold

I had not thought to discuss any books in this section this month. As of last Thursday, August 27th, we hadn't ready anything aloud at all since before James was born, what with one thing and another. Then, having got word that Bujold's latest novel was out in hardcover, I swung past our local SuperCrown and nabbed a copy. We started it that night, and I spent all of my available free time from then until Monday, August 30th, reading aloud to Jane and James. I read aloud for five and six hours at a stretch on the Saturday and Sunday afternoons, while David played or napped and Jane cared for James. I read until my voice was going and it hurt to speak. Each delightful page, all 405 of them.

We usually read the really, really good ones in short order, but this was something else again. I can honestly say that Jane and I have not enjoyed any book we've read aloud together as much as we've enjoyed this one. I can also honestly say that A Civil Campaign ranks among our most enjoyed books, period.

A Civil Campaign is Bujold's latest effort in the long running Vorkosigan saga. I've previously described said saga as the best space opera going; but in fact the last several books haven't really been space opera. They've hardly been science fiction, except for their futuristic settings. This one is subtitled "A Comedy of Biology and Manners", and I suppose that's as good a pigeon hole as any. It is a comedy, certainly, though with points of deep seriousness. It definitely involves biology; a good bit of the plot (and humor) hinges on staid Barrayar's reaction to Galatic biotech. It's a romance; in fact, it's several romances. It's damned good fun. And, finally, it is exquisitely written. Trust me: when you read a book aloud, the clumsy lines are dreadfully apparent. Prose that doesn't flow is equally so (and painful to read). Reading this book aloud, the hours flew past, unnoticed, until I realized that my throat was sore.

It's going to be a hard act to follow.

I don't suggest that the reader start with this volume, however; part of its charm is that it suitably (but unpredictably) concludes any number of long running story arcs, and thus assumes a fair amount of knowledge on the reader's part. Go look for Shards of Honor or The Warrior's Apprentice, Bujold's first two books; or, failing that, Cordelia's Honor and Young Miles, omnibus volumes including the first four or so books in the series. The early books don't reach quite the same height, but even with that they remain among our favorites.

Go on--you'll be glad you did.

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

A Superior Death
Ill Wind
Fire Storm
Endangered Species
Blind Descent
By Nevada Barr

Last month I reviewed Barr's first Anna Pigeon novel, Track of the Cat. I rated it adequate light reading, and predicted I'd read more of her books in the coming months. As it happens, I read most of them this month. If the first book was merely adequate, the subsequent books are much better than that.

Anna Pigeon is a National Park Service ranger. I was wondering, after the first book, how many murders could be committed in a single national park, but I was reckoning without the whims of the NPS. A ranger, at least at the lower levels, is rarely assigned to a particular park for more than a few years; and even then rangers are often loaned to other parks for short periods of time. Thus, each book is set in a different national park.

It's really the settings that make each book. A Superior Death takes place on, around, and below the surface of Lake Superior; Ill Wind visits the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde; Endangered Species is set on a small island on the Atlantic coast. Each place is superbly drawn, and indeed plays a role in the nature and working out of the mystery. But it's in Firestorm and Blind Descent that Barr really shines.

National parks are, by their nature, big places with lots of open space. And yet in these two books Barr manages to write the outdoor equivalent of Agatha Christie's cozy mysteries. You know: the country house, the guests (one of whom must be the murderer), the alibis, the clues, who had access to which rooms when, and so forth. At the same time, she's managed to turn them into suspense thrillers. And she's done both these things by skillfully choosing her settings.

Firestorm takes Anna Pigeon, recently trained as an EMT, to the fire line of a forest fire in California. A fire storm cuts off her team; they each hit the dirt in their mylar fire shelters, and wait for the fire to pass. When the fire passes, they are injured, hungry, completely cut off from the rest of the fire-fighting force...and one of them was murdered while the firestorm was raging. Similarly, Blind Descent takes Anna to a recently discovered cavern in Carlsbad Cavern National Park, where a friend of hers is injured. As Anna and the rescue team work to bring her friend out of the cavern, someone is murdered...and the killer must be one of the rescue team.

Barr's novels are not without flaw, however. Like most mystery series, each book has two components: the mystery at hand, and a long, slow story arc involving Anna and her long-term friends, relations, and romantic interests. The mysteries are good; the long, slow story arc is a royal pain. Anna's closest friend in the first two books gets a brief mention in the third book and vanishes completely thereafter. A love interest is built up over several books, and then just sort of fizzles. The only constant is Anna's sister Molly, a shrink in New York City. I have to wonder whether Barr, having created these continuing characters, later regretted having done so, and so wrote them out as quickly as she could. On the other hand, Anna Pigeon is more cold-prickly than warm-fuzzy; she doesn't make friends or sustain relationships easily, and maybe that's the point.

The Nonborn King
The Adversary
By Julian May

Last month I began re-reading May's Saga of Pliocene Exile; this month I finished it. It was as good as I remembered, and well worth reading; these two books are also tightly coupled with May's Galactic Milieu novels, and should be read first.

Jack the Bodiless
Diamond Mask
By Julian May

Herein lies a tale. As I understand it, May first came up with the idea of a galactic civilization called the Galactic Milieu, a civilization based on metapsychic powers like telekinesis, telepathy, clairvoyance, and so forth. She began work on what she called her Milieu Trilogy, and either couldn't finish it or couldn't sell it. Putting the trilogy aside, she turned her attention to the Saga of Pliocene Exile, a wonderful series set partially in the Galactic Milieu, and related in many ways to the events of the Milieu Trilogy.

Once she finished the Saga, she turned her attention back to her trilogy--and found that she had a bigger story than she thought. Consequently, she first wrote Intervention as a precursor to the trilogy proper; it was published in paperback in two parts, The Surveillance and The Metaconcert. After that, she finished the Galactic Milieu trilogy in its final form. And here's the only really clumsy part of this whole thing: Intervention really forms a single long narrative with the three books of the trilogy, and yet May seems to have been so married to the trilogy concept that she couldn't shake it.

Be that as it may...the four books, taken together, describe the surveillance of Earth by the advanced races of the Galactic Milieu, their eventual intervention in the affairs of Earth, and the struggles of the people of Earth as they come to terms with the metapsychic powers which are blossoming among them and with the changes brought about by contact with the Galactics. As such, it's a tale with considerable politicking and adventures. On another level, it's the memoirs of one Rogatien Remillard, a Franco-American from New Hampshire, and a member of the celebrated Remillard family, the family with the strongest metapsychic powers. Marc Remillard, fantastically powerful, eventually leads the Metapsychic Rebellion against the Milieu; failing, he escapes to the Pliocene where he becomes a major character in the Saga.

And on yet another level, the series is an amazing evocation of Teilhard de Chardin's ideas. So far as I understand them, Teilhard believed in the evolution of the soul. Just as single cells came together to form multi-cellular creatures, so the human race will eventually come together to form a new being, as high above humans as humans are above bacteria. In May's world this happens as a race of sapient beings becomes sufficiently numerous and sufficiently strong in metapsychic powers. It's an intriguing vision.

Don't Step in the Leadership
By Scott Adams

I'm sure you're all familiar with Dilbert by now; this is the latest collection. I enjoyed it; but gosh I enjoyed the early days of the strip, when it was less about business and more about weird inventions and bad puns.

Fables and Reflections
Brief Lives
By Neil Gaiman

I carry on with Gaiman's Sandman series; Fables and Reflections was particularly good. What can you say about a comic book that includes, among other things, the mostly accurate story of Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico?

The Sandman: Book of Dreams
Edited by Neil Gaiman and Ed Kramer

One of the things that finally persuaded me to look up The Sandman comic book collections was the existence of this book, which I bought first and saved until now. It's a normal (?) book, a collection of short stories written by an astonishing variety of people and set in the world of The Sandman. The authors include Lisa Goldstein, Will Shetterly, Tad Williams, Gene Wolfe, Steven Brust, and (of all people) Tori Amos, among others. Some of them are quite good; others less so. I enjoyed most of it, and especially the opportunity to contrast the two ways of telling a story. I can't recommend it as an initiation into things Sandman, however; see the original comic books collections for that.

Eat the Rich
By P.J. O'Rourke

I was given this as a Christmas present by my friend Debbie, and only just now got around to reading it. It's about economics, which I studied in college, and which I got over. It's supposed to be funny. I glanced at it, and was unpersuaded that I'd like it, and left it on the shelf. Early this month, just after James was born, our friend Laura came to help out for a few days, pulled the book off of the shelf, and greatly enjoyed it, prompting me to take another look.

It's actually quite a good book (I shouldn't have been surprised; Debbie knows me fairly well). I don't suggest you read it for laughs, though there are many laughs in it. Rather, read it if you've ever asked yourselves any of the following questions: Why is the United States so wealthy? Why, when Africa is loaded with natural resources, are African nations so poor? How come socialism fails miserably in Russia and Cuba, but seems to work in Sweden? O'Rourke tries to answer many of these questions, not on a theoretical basis, but by going and seeing what works. He starts with the New York Stock Exchange, and then visits Sweden, Tanzania, Cuba, Russia, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, looking for clues to each place's wealth or poverty, and comes to not a few conclusions. He even cites relevant figures.

This book won't go on the shelf next to Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations; but on the other hand, non-economists might actually read it.

The Ultimate Egoist
By Theodore Sturgeon

Last May, I reviewed The Microcosmic God, the second volume of a projected ten-volume set containing all of Sturgeon's short fiction. I thought it was enjoyable, if a bit dated; some of the stories, including the title story, were marvelous.

The Ultimate Egoist is the first volume in the series, containing all of Sturgeon's earliest shorts, including several which hadn't previously been published. Only one of the stories, "Bianca's Hands", is truly outstanding, and only a handful are science fiction or fantasy; most of the stories in the book are short shorts Sturgeon wrote, often to editorial direction, for a newspaper syndicate. So, is it worth buying? For non-completists, the answer is probably no. For completists, and for budding writers, the answer is almost certainly yes. Sturgeon had a rare command of the English language; reading through this book is an education in short-story writing.

The Stars Asunder
By Debra Doyle and James D. MacDonald

Oh, well. You win some, you lose some.

This is the latest book in the authors' Mageworlds series, and well it's not awful it's not up to par, either. Now, I'll be the first to admit that I did not read it in the best of circumstances. I started reading it aloud to Jane during the last month of her pregnancy; eventually I was forced to stop because things were just too busy, and because Jane was having trouble concentrating. We agreed we'd each finish it separately. Jane got the first go, and what with one thing and another I didn't get back to it until well after the birth. Few novels can take that kind of abuse without suffering at least a little bit.

Even allowing for that, though, I was disappointed. Not by the basic story; that worked well enough. But there are subplots that don't seem to go anywhere, and other bits that seem to be rather rushed. I wish they had taken a little more time with it. But we're stuck with it now, I guess. For those who've been reading the series, I strongly suggest you wait for the paperback.

Decision at Trafalgar
By Dudley Pope

For all of my readers who are fond of Patrick O'Brian or C.S. Forester, and who wish they had a better idea of what a real fleet action is like, this is the book to read. Pope gives an excellent (if dry) account of the Battle of Trafalgar, starting with its causes, ending with its long term effects, and covering most of the ship-to-ship actions in the middle. I enjoyed it, though it did take a bit of time to get through it.

Diary of a Pilgrimage
By Jerome K. Jerome

Last month, I reviewed (and mostly panned) Jerome's book Second Thoughts of an Idle Fellow. While browsing around http://www.memoware.com for my next e-book, I stumbled upon yet another by Jerome, and decided to give him another chance. I'm glad I did. Diary of a Pilgrimage doesn't measure up to Three Men in a Boat, but it's much better than Second Thoughts. It's a simple story; Jerome and a friend of his travel to Oberammergau in Germany for its decennial Passion Play (an event that still goes on to this day). Then they go home. And all along the way, Jerome writes witty and informative commentary. It's a rhinestone rather than a diamond, and of low weight, but it's still a pretty little thing.

The Summer Tree
The Wandering Fire
The Darkest Road
By Guy Gavriel Kay

The three books listed above, Kay's first work published under his own name, comprise the fantasy trilogy The Fionavar Tapestry. I found them extremely enjoyable, if flawed, when I first read them eight or so years ago; they were still enjoyable this time, but the flaws were even more evident. There are a number of clumsy spots in the narrative (decreasing, happily, with each book); in addition, the trilogy is highly derivative, not just in one way, but in at least six ways.

  1. It's a fantasy trilogy. Well, it was the era for such things.

  2. The names are changed and the serial numbers are filed off, but it's yet another post-J.R.R. Tolkien elf-fest. There are elves living in their hidden land of magic; there are dwarves living in their land under the mountain; there are orc and troll equivalents; there are the riders of horses; there are the noble men from over the sea; there is a Dark Lord, who was defeated (but not destroyed) by an alliance of all of the races some 1000 years ago; said Dark Lord is now stirring again.

    This bit is natural enough; Kay had previously been hired by Tolkien's estate to shape the author's notes into the posthumously published Silmarillion, and one would expect some of it to rub off. And to give him credit, his elves (the lios alfar) don't have cutesy Tolkienesque names.

    Those of my readers who have read Stephen R. Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series will recognize the Dark Lord Maugrim the Unraveller as Lord Foul under another name, and without the sense of humor.

  3. The theosphere of Kay's Fionavar is based thoroughly in Celtic mythology, by way of Joseph Campbell and Robert Graves, including Cernan, Dana, the Wild Hunt, Ceinwen the Huntress, the Cauldron that gives life to the dead, and the King who dies as a sacrifice for the health of the land.

  4. It's yet another book about people from our present day world who are magically transported to another land, there to do mighty deeds, win fame, influence people, and generally save the day.

  5. On top of all this, it's an Arthurian romance, about the damnation and possible redemption of King Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot.

  6. And King Arthur is revealed to be none other than one more incarnation of Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion. To be fair, though, I think Moorcock cribbed the idea of the Eternal Champion from Joseph Campbell to begin with.

Any other author would have been satisfied working one or two of these extremely popular motifs into their book; Kay trumped everyone else I can think of by getting all of them, and adding a fair amount of original stuff of his own. The result has quite an interesting feel to it; it's not quite like anything else that comes to mind, and despite its flaws it's a compelling read.

I am about to wax philosophical for a moment; the allergic may wish to drop down to the next review.

While pondering the similarities of Fionavar to Tolkien's Middle Earth, I couldn't help but ponder their differences as well...and, by extension, the differences between Middle Earth and every other Tolkienesque fantasy world.

All things considered, there is remarkably little magic in Middle Earth. The primary battle in The Lord of the Rings is not between firebolt-hurling wizards or contentious dieties; the primary battle is Frodo's battle against the hardships of his journey on one hand and the temptation to claim the One Ring and put it on the other hand. It is the story of a moral and ethical struggle, not a magical or military struggle. The great battle before the gates of Mordor is a diversionary tactic, no more.

The other Tolkienesque fiction I've read retain many of the trappings of Middle Earth; I don't know that any of them retain this focus on moral integrity. Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series probably comes the closest, while Kay's Fionavar Tapestry is all the way at the other end of the spectrum. The five young people taken from our world to Fionavar undergo great hardships and make difficult moral decisions, but it is clear that they are taking on the roles they were destined to play, the roles their lives had shaped them for. Moreover, the conflict is won as much through the intervention of various dieties--and the action of random chance--as it is through their efforts. Contrast this with poor Frodo, a respectable middle-aged gentlehobbit, of quiet habits, who by his own choice chooses to step out of his comfortable life to perform an extremely difficult task. Nothing has prepared him for the travails that will ensue; at any time he can have given up: and then Sauron will triumph.

But if Kay's world has a different theosphere than Tolkien's, at least it has one that doesn't mirror that of our own society. The characters of all too many fantasy novels appear to be late 20th century human beings who just happen to have been born in some other place and time. Values are relative; there are no absolutes; every nation's moral code is as good as any other nations (except for the bad guys, who are Evil). Most fantasy heroes these days have morals so flexible as to be almost non-existent, as to them the end always justifies the means. I'm thinking particularly of David Eddings' Belgariad, in which the heroes lie, cheat, and steal pretty much without compunction, and in which use of magic abounds.

I bring all of this up because I have been hearing more and more people say, "You know, I tried to read The Lord of the Rings, and I really didn't like it. I don't see why everyone says it's so good." And I have to wonder if it's because after reading so many bad (and good) imitations, chock-full of fire-bolts and situational ethics, Tolkien's more austere world isn't stimulating enough for them.

But enough of this; here endeth the lesson.

By Guy Gavriel Kay

Tigana is that rarest of creatures, a fantasy tale complete in one volume, and also Kay's immediate follow-on to The Fionavar Tapestry. My impression when I first read it was that Kay had matured considerably as a writer; I've not changed that opinion. Where Fionavar was strikingly derivative, Tigana is strikingly original. The world of Tigana bears some resemblance to medieval or perhaps renaissance Italy, but the story reminds me of nothing else I've read.

In Kay's world, the Peninsula of the Palm extends into the sea about halfway between two powerful empires. Both empires invaded, about twenty years prior to the beginning of the story; each holds four of the peninsula's nine provinces. Both sets of provinces are governed by powerful sorcerors. A rebellion is afoot, but must proceed with great care, for at present there is balance. If either governor is destroyed, the other will overrun the entire peninsula. Somehow, they must be defeated at the same time.

If you have any taste for fantasy at all, get this book.

Emperor Norton's Ghost
By Dianne Day

Whoa, "Emperor Norton" again! Yes, that's right, two completely unrelated books in one month, both of which contain prominent mentions of early San Francisco's most colorful character. Emperor Norton was a resident of that city during the last century. Before he donned his imperial uniform he was a successful businessman; facing ruin and bankruptcy he went mad (or crazy like a fox, some say) and declared himself the Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. Occasionally he announced edicts to the people of San Francisco, many of which the people voluntarily submitted to. He issued his own scrip in exchange for money; the scrip was accepted as currency in many San Francisco establishments. He was, in fact, one of the City's first tourist attractions. So much for Emperor Norton, of late, lamented memory.

Emperor Norton's Ghost is nothing so interesting, alas. It's the latest in Day's series of Fremont Jones mysteries, and I have to say it's better than her previous two outings; perhaps the best since her first book. I enjoyed it well enough, all the while being aware that it was second-tier at best. The characters are unconvincing, and somewhat silly, and all that saves the series from oblivion (at least in my case) is the Day's misty evocation of turn-of-the-century San Francisco, a city whose present incarnation I'm somewhat marginally familiar with.

Refactoring: Improving the Design of Existing Code
By Martin Fowler

I rarely review technical books in these pages, not because I don't read them--I do, often--but because I rarely read them cover to cover, and because I generally only review books I've finished. In some ways, then, I've shortchanged my audience. I know some of you, at least, are software engineers like myself, and might be interested.

Refactoring is one of the more interesting books on software development that I've ever seen. Most computer books aimed at the working programmer either attempt to teach a particular language (e.g, Java or Perl) or to teach a particular technology (e.g., the Web), or occasionally, both at once (e.g., Java and the Web). Many of these books are fairly worthless to the professional programmer, if only because one needs only one good introductory book on any particular topic (Note: O'Reilly and Associates publishes most of them. Addison-Wesley publishes the rest).

There are a few good books on the general topic of software engineering. There are a few blessed books, such as Kernighan and Pike's The Practice of Programming, that deal with writing good, solid programs at the lines-of-code level. Fowler's Refactoring somehow manages to be both. Kernighan and Pike's book, among others, will tell you how to use good programming style. Design Patterns, by Erich Gamma et al will tell you how to use well-known, robust object architectures in your designs. Refactoring somehow, miraculously, explains how to apply both good style and design patterns to existing code, resulting in cleaner, easier to maintain software, without introducing bugs.

It's all common sense, really--make small changes, and test at every step of the way--and yet, ten seconds after picking it up I knew that this was a book that would put words to concepts that I had hitherto only used subconsciously. I hope this becomes as influential as it deserves to be.

Children's Books

Chugga-Chugga Choo-Choo
Written by Kevin Lewis and illustrated by Daniel Kirk

Dave picked out this book himself, based only on the colorful picture of a toy train on the dust jacket. I sat him down and read it to him then and there, and afterwards we agreed that it was a keeper. As a story, it's quite simple. A little boy has a toy train, and track that he's run all over his room, building mountains and valleys and rivers out of his other toys and the furniture. He hauls freight all day long, and then goes to bed with the engine. (In one sense, the sight of all those train cars, and all of that track, is quite terrifying. Have you priced Brio trains recently?) But that's not how it's told. In the beautiful-painted pictures, we see the toys loading up the train at one end of the route. The train steams off, through mountains and valleys, "Chugga-Chugga Choo Choo, Wheels Turning, WOO WOO!" Eventually it enters the city where, late in the day, the train is unloaded. Then, a day's work done, the engineer (and the little boy) settle down to sleep.

The pictures are worth the price of admission, and hearing Dave try to chant the words along with me is even more so.

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 September 1999
Copyright © 1999, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
Search this site:

• The View from the Foothills
• Previous Issue
• Next Issue
• Once-Told Tales
• Staff
• Links
• FAQs About Us
• Subscribe

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More

Sites we like:

James Lileks
Banana Oil
2 Blowhards
God of the Machine
Goliard Dream
Reflections in d minor
Blithering Idiot