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ex libris reviews

1 December 1999

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense.
J.K. Rowling


In This Issue:
Georgia On My Mind

It would misleading to say that I don't think much of Georgia, but in fact, Georgia is seldom in my thoughts; nor is it particularly on my mind this month. A number of other topics, however, are, and I propose to unburden myself of them before moving on with the subject at hand. (Do I sound pompous? Yes, I sound pompous. Ah, well.)


Some of my readers may have noticed the appearance, last month, of a box in the lefthand column of ex libris directing them to XpertSite.com. It's still there this month; if you can't see it, just scroll down a little ways; it'll be there. What it signifies is that ex libris reviews is now an affiliate of XpertSite.com. Or, in other words, for every person that links through to XpertSite.com from this site each day, I'll be getting ten cents--but only in $100 increments. That's right; 1000 people need to link through to XpertSite.com before I see a dime. Or 100 people on each of ten days, or ten people on each of 100 days, and so forth. Given the level of traffic this site gets, and the tendency everyone has of bookmarking sites they like after encountering them the first time, I'm not expecting to see any money any time soon, if ever. So why be an affiliate?

XpertSite.com is a search engine, like Yahoo or Lycos, but rather than helping you to find websites, it helps you to find experts: human beings with expertise in a variety of areas. You do a search, or just browse their categories, to find a set of registered experts who might be able to answer your question. For each one, you can see a short blurb they've written about their expertise. You select the expert or experts you're interested in, type in your question, and off it goes! The experts answer the question, or decline to do so; you're notified, and with luck you've got your answer. It's an interesting experiment, and I'm curious to see how it will play out. It serves a function that has traditionally been served by Usenet news groups and their FAQ lists, but allows greater precision.

What I'm most curious about is the business model. I don't see any ads on the site, and so far as I can tell the people asking questions aren't charged. Also, I don't see what the experts get out of it, other than a warm altruistic glow. I'm a registered expert in three areas, and it's kind of fun to help people...but if the volume of questions increases, and if my expertise rating stays high, I'd certainly want to see a little money coming my way.

Luck of the Eldritch

And now for something completely different.

Over the last couple of months I've been commenting on different styles of fantasy. One regular contributor to the rec.arts.sf.written newsgroup, a woman whose opinions I've learned to respect, recently drew a distinction I had not previously considered, and which makes a great deal of sense. In her terms, there are two kinds of fantasy: realist and eldritch. Most of what's being written today is realist fantasy: fantasy that plays according to the rules. That is to say, the fantasy world has different rules than ours but it still has rules, and they have to be followed. The Lord of the Rings is realist fantasy, for example; J.R.R. Tolkien was attempting to write fantasy-as-history. Further, as he himself says in his essay On Fairy Stories, he regards the author as a subcreator under God; just as God created a world with fixed rules, so should the author.

But there is a different tradition, exemplified by the works of Lord Dunsany. In eldritch fantasy, the accent is on the atmosphere. The author is not trying to create and describe a logical if alien world; rather, the author is trying to create a feeling of strangeness in the reader. In this style, things are often best left unexplained.

Eldritch fantasy is not often found on the bookstore shelf these days, and when it is, it's liable to be a Dunsany or H.P. Lovecraft reprint. It's harder to write; one must be endlessly creative without the benefit of a overt structure on which to hang ones creations. But it's worth seeking out, for there alone can you hear the trumpets of elfland ringing out across the fields.


I'm changing my subscriptions policy; if the NetMind.com registry isn't working well for you, send me e-mail and tell me you'd like to subscribe to ex libris reviews; I'll add you to my mailing list and send you e-mail whenever it changes.

Would you like to contribute?

Do you read a lot? Do you like to tell others about what you've read? Would you like to contribute to ex libris on a regular or semi-regular basis? For some time now I've been pondering opening up the monthly issue to other contributors; Jane's talking about reviewing some of the books she's read, for example. Interested? Here are some of the ground rules, just off of the top of my head:

  1. I get to edit any submissions for style. I won't change your opinions, but I might change your spelling.
  2. The books you review should (ideally) be books you've read in the last month, as that's the format I've been following.
  3. I get to veto reviews I don't like, for any reason whatsoever.

Now, don't just start sending me reviews to include; I'm not going to work that way. But if you'd like to work with me and send me some reviews every month or every other month, drop me some e-mail, and we'll see what we can come up with.

-- Will Duquette

Books to Read Aloud:
The Kid Don't Like It

by Will Duquette

The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams
By Lawrence Block

Late last month I pulled this book down off of the shelf and began to read it to Jane. We got about halfway through, and then got stuck. I'd like to emphasize that it isn't the book's fault that we haven't finished it; it all lies on the pudgy little shoulders of my new son James. Here's the deal: Lawrence Block has written a number of charming, lighthearted books about a burglar named Bernie Rhodenbarr. He lives in New York; he steals in New York; he runs a used bookstore in New York; he has a friend or two, including a lesbian dog groomer, and a cop who's always willing to take a share of the proceeds; he's highly skilled, and personable to boot. I've often thought that Jane would enjoy these books. I picked this one in particular because it took a couple of books for Bernie to really hit his stride, and this one's comfortably in the middle of the series. If Jane liked it as well as I expected, I figured we'd work through the others from first to last.

The good news is that the book gets a rating of 2 on the Will & Jane Read-Aloud scale:

Jane loved it, couldn't get enough of it, and basically made me spend every waking hour reading it to her until we finished.
Jane liked it, and asked me to read it to her at every opportunity.
Jane liked it, and was happy to be read to whenever opportunity arose, but didn't go out of her way to request it.
The book started OK, but after a while Jane would think of something else to do when I suggested reading it. We rarely finish these aloud.
Jane didn't like the book from the very first page. We rarely get more than a few pages into these.

I hasten to say that these are not ratings of the quality of the book, but rather of Jane's enjoyment; a book might be a 1 if Jane's tired or distracted and a 3 when she's in a better mood.

Anyway, Good Ol' Bernie was drawing about a 2, and I expect would have gotten a 3 if Jane wasn't so distracted by sweet baby James. And as a 2, I would have expected to finish by now. But there's a problem.

One of the places I read to Jane is in car. With two small boys in the house, it is often the only place I can read to Jane. Usually the boys fall asleep in the car, and I read to Jane, and all is right with the world. But James, alas, clearly doesn't like Bernie Rhodenbarr. Everytime I try to read it in the car, he starts crying. When I put it away he stops. The kid don't like it, as I said above, and that's all there is to it. So Bernie's been sitting in the pocket of the front passenger door in Jane's car for most of the month, unopened. Sigh.

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

A Dance at the Slaughterhouse
A Walk among the Tombstones
The Devil Knows You're Dead
A Long Line of Dead Men
Even the Wicked
Everybody Dies
By Lawrence Block

At last I have gotten to the end of Block's Matthew Scudder series, culminating with Everybody Dies, brand new in paperback and which I had not yet read. As always I enjoyed them, and I'm interested to say that they keep getting better. A Walk among the Tombstones is a story of abduction, ransom and murder; The Devil Knows You're Dead is perhaps the most gruesomely violent to date, and is not for the squeamish. A Long Line of Dead Men was, and is, one of my favorites: in the early '60's, 31 one band together to form a "club of 31". They meet for dinner once a year, talk about their lives, and commemorate those of the group that died in the previous year. Scudder is called in when one member decides that the death rate has been unreasonably high. The trouble is, no one knows about the club but its members--is one of them the killer? The only thing that marred this book the second time around is that I remembered who-dun-it, how, and why well-enough to see it coming. (I often don't.) Even the Wicked is better still, with a convoluted, labyrinthine plot and a collection of subplots, and Everybody Dies kept me up well past my bedtime.

The Short Victorious War
Field of Dishonor
Flag in Exile
Honor Among Enemies
In Enemy Hands
Echoes of Honor
By David Weber

These are the third through eighth books in Weber's popular Honor Harrington series, of which I suspect I've written more than enough over the last year. The series concerns the space war between the Star Kingdom of Manticore and the People's Republic of Haven, and was inspired by C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower novels, with Manticore as England and Haven as France. The parallels are by no means exact, however; with the exception of the absurdly named Rob S. Pierre, head of Haven's Committee for Public Safety, there are few one-to-one correspondences between Weber's plots and European history....or Forester's plots, for that matter.

Be all that as it may; I'd been waiting for Echoes of Honor to come out for the last year, the more so as the previous book ended in a real cliff-hanger. I like to read things in context, which is why I went back through the whole series.

It's excellent space-opera; Jane even got hooked (starting, predictably enough, with the last book in the series--she likes to read endings before beginnings). On the other hand, unlike other novels and series which I've re-read time and again, I found myself skimming the middle books in places. There's a lot of meat on them bones, but I'm afraid the fat content is a tad high.

China Mountain Zhang
By Maureen F. McHugh

China is the world's dominant power. The United States is no more; following a prolonged economic collapse, a Chinese-lead revolution brought a socialist regime into place, completely under China's thumb. The book is written from a number of viewpoints, but primarily from that of the title character, Zhang Zhong Shan, an American of mixed Chinese/Phillipino descent who's name, translated, is China Mountain Zhang. It is also the Mandarin form of Sun Yat-Sen, a great icon of the socialist revolution in America (I guess you can rehabilitate any historical figure if you try hard enough), so it is as though he were named George Washington Smith.

The book, which won many awards, is primarily the tale of Zhang's coming of age...of his quest to find a place in a world that doesn't love him, first, because he is only part Chinese, and American born at that, and second because he is gay. Along the way we get tantalizing looks at colonial life on Mars, high-tech virtual reality gambling, and life in a China whose technology and culture greatly exceeds our own.

I just wish I could say I enjoyed it, but I didn't, much. Whenever the story caught my interest, it veered off on to some other topic. Zhang's part is told in a breathless first-person present, which is compelling at first and then just seems manipulative. But the largest problem, frankly, is that Zhang is gay, and his love affairs, his sexual history, and his insecurity with his sexual identity in a homophobic world form, in my humble opinion, far too much of the book. That's a matter of taste, of course, and I can't deny that it's quite well-written; I just wish the emphasis was less on Zhang's internal problems and more on the world he lives in.

Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone
By J.K. Rowling

Has anyone on the planet not yet heard of Harry Potter? Kids everywhere are reading about Harry Potter; parents in South Carolina want, absurdly enough, to ban Harry Potter; bookstores everywhere are stocking Harry Potter; I found my older sister (a long-time connoiseur of kid-lit) reading Harry Potter. So my curiousity aroused, I picked up the first book of the series, and dived in--and I was delighted.

In Harry Potter's world--England--there are two kinds of people: magicians, and Muggles, that is, the rest of us. The magicians, wizards, witches, warlocks, and what-have-you live among us most of the time, using their magic primarily to pass unnoticed; it's bad taste to use magic on a Muggle. All magicians are trained at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and it is with an invitation to come study at Hogwarts that young Harry Potter discovers the truth about his parent's death, and just why it is that he's been sleeping in the closet at his aunt and uncle Dursley's house all these years.

It's a fantasy; it's a school story in the fine old English tradition; it's a mystery; it's a joy. It isn't perfect, mind you; but given that it is Rowling's first book and written for children, this adult thinks it is quite fine. I'm eager for the subsequent volumes to come out in paperback.

The Commodore
The Yellow Admiral
The Hundred Days
By Patrick O'Brian

Over the last year I've read myself all of the way through O'Brian's epic series, just waiting for The Hundred Days to come out in paperback so that I could read it in context. It did, and now I have, and it was worth it.

As all of my long-term readers know, O'Brian is the author of a length series of novels about Captain Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy, and his friend the learned scientist and physician Stephen Maturin. The books follow their careers from their meeting and Jack's first independent command, circa 1800, through to Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo in The Hundred Days. Another episode, Blue at the Mizzen, is just out in hardcover; I believe O'Brian has planned to write just one more after that, at which time the series will be complete.

It is very difficult for me to be objective about these books, as they are among my very favorites; and particularly hard to be objective about The Hundred Days. Jack and Stephen are old friends by now, whom I should certainly recognize if I passed them in the street, and merely getting to spend more time with them and learn more of their careers is deeply satisfying. And yet, I seemed to sense a certain detachment in these last two books, as if O'Brian's stated intention to bring the series to a close has caused him to distance himself slightly from his characters. Or it just may be that I read them while under the influence of a nasty chest cold.

Either way, it doesn't signify. If you've read the earlier books (and I heartily recommend them), you'll want to read these; if not, not.

Politics in the Ancient World
By M.I. Finley

I bought this book largely on the strength of the publisher's name, Canto; it is a branch of Cambridge University Press which is charged with making academic works available to a larger market. I've read a number of them by now, and many have been excellent, if dry. The one about the trial of the Knights Templar was very good. The one about the Great Wall of China was outstanding. The one about merchant seaman in the 17th and 18th centuries was almost as full of useful information as it was of indigestible and absurd Marxist rhetoric. This one, now, this one...

Neat, I thought, a slim little book about politics in the ancient world (that is, Greece and Rome). It will probably tell me, concisely, about how politics worked in Athens and Sparta and Rome, probably with a wealth of interesting anecdote; it will probably be, I thought, a nice way to spend a weekend afternoon.

Oh, dear. This book is a scholarly historical monograph of the worst kind, and I'm rather surprised that Canto published it. The author assumes that he is writing for an audience of Classical Scholars--that is, that his readers already know everything I was hoping to read about. On top of that, he is as much concerned with showing up the errors of his colleagues as he is in making his own points, to the extent that, having read most of the book, I'm not at all sure what his position is.

You weren't planning on reading this one, I know--but give it a miss anyway.

The Faded Sun: Kesrith
The Faded Sun: Shon'jir
The Faded Sun: Kutath
By C.J. Cherryh

These three books together form a trilogy--in fact, more a three-volume novel than a trilogy, as they form a single continuous narrative. They are among Cherryh's oldest books; I bought them in a fit of Cherryh completism a couple of years ago, and they sat on the shelf until this weekend. Or, rather, I tried to read the first one a couple of years ago, and put it down after about twenty pages.

That's the thing about Cherryh's work--I need to be in the proper mood. When I'm the proper mood, I find her books quite compelling and enjoyable; in the wrong mood, I sometimes find them unreadable. So it was then, so they went on the shelf until now.

The Faded Sun is the story of the mri: an alien race of mercenaries against whom human beings have fought for forty years and on many now barren planets. The war is over; all but a handful of mri are dead; humanity has won. What is to become of the remaining mri? That question, the question of genocide, forms one leg of the tripod. The second is the story of Sten Duncan, a man who comes to know and then love the last of the mri; a man who goes native, becoming alien to his fellow men. This is a theme Cherryh comes back to in her excellent Foreigner series; the treatment here is slightly more clumsy, but also more shocking. The third leg of the tripod is, of course, Cherryh's way with intrigue and politics.

I wouldn't start reading Cherryh with these; although I like them, they are definitely minor works. Try Fortress in the Eye of Time for a little fantasy; Foreigner or Downbelow Station for her science fiction; or perhaps jump right on to her masterpiece, Cyteen. That's where I started.

Children's Books

A Bad Case of Stripes
By ???

I apologize for not having the author's name for this book; I wrote this review just under the wire, and I couldn't put my hand on the book itself.

A Bad Case of Stripes is about a little girl who actually likes lima beans--loves them, in fact, more than anything else--but who pretends not to for fear her friends would laugh at her. And then one day she wakes up covered from head to toe with rainbow stripes. The doctors are baffled; her friends tease her; and most awful of all, she starts to change color and shape to match whatever they say. She turns red, white, and blue for the pledge of allegiance. When the doctors dose her, she turns into a giant capsule. And so on, and so forth, until she decides to be who she really is, instead of pretending to be who she's not. It's a beautifully illustrated book; the cover picture alone is almost worth the price. I wish I could say the same for the story; there's a very cynical attitude expressed as the parents call in the Doctors and the Specialists and the Experts, none of whom has any idea what the problem is. I don't take fault with their failure to cure the girl's stripes; that's required by this kind of story. It's more the hypocritical way they try to cover for their ignorance that bothers me. I'd rather not find a cynical attitude toward doctors in a book I'll be reading to a small child whom I'll be taking to the doctor upon occasion. There will be time enough for cynicism when when he's a teenager.

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