ex libris reviews
1 March 2000
Remember how you felt the first time you buckled on a sword and
went stomping around town? Remember the scabbard clanking against
your leg? Remember touching the hilt with your off hand every now and
then, just to reassure yourself that it was there? If you've never
done it, try to imagine the feeling. There's nothing quite like it; a
little voice in the back of your head goes, "I'm dangerous now; I matter."
Last month I wrote about "Big Changes Coming"; here they are. Over this past month I've done a complete redesign of the look and feel (though not the content!) of our site, plus we'ved moved to our new, permanent home at wjduquette.com. This is our domain; if we ever need to change web hosting services or ISPs, the domain will go with us. Consequently, you'll never need to change your ex libris reviews bookmark again. Speaking of which, if you got here by being redirected from our old site at http://www.cogent.net/~duquette, hadn't you better update your book marks right now?
New Subscription Information
As part of the move, we're changing how we do subscriptions to ex libris. If you've subscribed by sending e-mail directly to me and asking for a subscription, you're already taken care of. If you subscribed by filling out the form at our old location, you'll need to resubscribe. The old subscription mechanism was provided by an outfit called NetMind that watches pages to see if they've changed. When they do, it notifies all and sundry. There is no way I can tell NetMind that ex libris is at a new location, and update all of your subscriptions.
So: to subscribe to ex libris, go to our new Subscriptions page, enter your e-mail address, and press the "Subscribe to Ex Libris" button. You'll be automatically entered on a mailing list to receive news of updates to ex libris. No one else has access to the list; I promise not to sell your addresses to anyone else. If, at a later time, you'd like to unsubscribe, just go back to the same page, enter your e-mail address, and press the "Unsubscribe" button.
One Heck of a Month
In the January issue, I predicted that I'd be sick as a dog for the duration of the President's Day holiday; actually, it got me a week earlier, leaving President's Day alone. I'm not sure whether that's a good sign or a bad sign. What I do know is that this has been one heck of a month, with scattered illnesses, family crises, heavy rainstorms; I won't go into the details. But, as a result, I've had a lot of time to read, including books I'd never previously read by, , , , and , as well as old favorites by , , , , and . On top of that, Jane returns for her third review of the year. Happy Reading!
-- Will Duquette
I've started writing another novel, which means I'm reading it aloud to Jane as it gets written. It will be my third attempt at writing a novel. The first time, Jane wouldn't let me read anything else aloud to her; she wanted me to spend the time writing, instead, so she could find out what happened. I finished that one. The second time, we continued reading other books aloud as usual; I got stopped after three or four chapters, and haven't yet gotten back to it. I hope to, someday; I think it's got some promise. Anyway, this time I'm sticking with what worked in the past. And who knows? Perhaps The King of Elfland's Sister's Kid will get finished.
Last month I read and reviewed a book of MacDonald's short stories, entitled The Light Princess and Other Fantasy Stories. I enjoyed it well enough to go seek out his other children's book, of which At the Back of the North Wind is the earliest. It's the story of a small boy who is befriended by the North Wind, who takes him on a variety of adventures. But it's more than just a fairy tale. MacDonald was a clergyman, and the book is almost an extended religious allegory, though one rather alien to our age. The boy in the story is the very type of the Victorian holy innocent: the young child who loves God and his parents and neighbors and who dies young of sickness but is assuredly received into Heaven. For the North Wind, it becomes plain, is the Angel of Death, and the land at her back is Heaven itself.
I trust I've just made the book seem completely distasteful to at least nine-tenths of my readers. For myself, I rather liked it. The religious imagery was lightly done, and it presents a view of death I found a refreshing contrast to that of our youth-obsessed culture. Indeed, the book discusses a number of deep philosophical and theological issues, but all at a level where any child old enough to enjoy the narrative can understand them. I'd have no hesitation reading it to my children when they are old enough; those with other belief systems will likely respond differently.
The one thing about At the Back of the North Wind that I found somewhat annoying was the narrator's attitude toward the reader: sometimes it is (quite explicitly) the adult condescending to explain matters to the child reading the book. This might have flown in the High Victorian age, but it doesn't fly now.
Lewis has been much one my mind for the last couple of months, partly because I'd been readingand partially for his own sake. And so, one evening when I was looking for an old, comfortable book to read, I pulled this one off of the shelf and fell in. A note to those who find the topic of religion somewhat tiresome: you might wish to shuffle right along to the next review.
This is the third volume of what is commonly called Lewis' "Space Trilogy", which begins with Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra. The trilogy pulls together Lewis' interests in classic mythology, Christianity, and science fiction altogether into one rather heterogeneous package. The odd thing is, when I first read them back in junior high school, I liked the first one best, the second less, and third not at all. Now I like the third one best, and the first one much less. Age brings perspective, and a new slant on things.
The first book of the trilogy can be read as a straightforward science fiction adventure, though of a rather dated sort. Cambridge philologist Elwin Ransom is kidnapped by Professor Weston and his henchman, Dick Devine, and taken to Mars aboard an experimental space ship. Ransom escapes from his captors and is befriended by certain of the inhabitants of Mars, the hrossa. Eventually he discovers that Mars is inhabitated by another class of being altogether, the eldila, who resemble shafts of light as much as anything else, and that Mars is ruled by a great eldil, the Oyarsa--ruled by the Oyarsa on behalf of his master, Maleldil the Young. Earth itself is also ruled by an Oyarsa, and has its eldila...but long, long ago, before mankind ever lived, Earth's Oyarsa rebelled against Maleldil. Earth has been under a state of siege ever since; before the rebellion, Earth's eldila had been free to travel anywhere in the Solar System, just as the eldila of Mars can.
By now, anyway who went to Sunday School as a child has picked up on what's going on here. This is the story, in a science-fictional setting, of the fall of Lucifer. For Lucifer is the Oyarsa of Earth, and the eldila of Earth are those angels who fell with him. The Oyarsa of Mars is that angel whose duty it is to steer Mars through the heavens. Maleldil is, of course, Jesus Christ.
The second book, Perelandra, continues Ransom's adventures. Until Weston's spaceship left Earth, Earth had been under a state of quarantine; Weston's efforts have broken the quarantine, making it possible for Earth's Oyarsa to once again influence affairs in the Heavenly realms. However, it now also possible for the other eldils to descend to Earth. As the book begins, Mars Oyarsa conveys Ransom through space to the planet Venus, a world of oceans and floating islands. There he meets a green lady, one of only two people living on Venus; there also he meets Weston, who has come to Venus in his spaceship, not quite alone. Earth Oyarsa, it develops, has ridden with him, and Weston is, in fact, a man possessed. The description is (to me, anyway) considerably more chilling than your average horror story of demonic possession; it is a portrait of a man of great skill being possessed by a thing of evil that has become so nearly nothing that only hunger for pain remains...but which can still use the man's skills, intelligence, and discipline to its own ends.
The story, of course, is Eden retold, with Weston in the role of the snake and Ransom as the advocate which Eve was lacking in our own history; an advocate made possible by Maleldil's great sacrifice: for just as Maleldil was born as a man, so Ransom is made in Maleldil's image.
I found Perelandra rather tedious on first reading; it began in a promising way, in an intriguing setting, and then settled down to tedious discussions of temptation and counter-temptation that seemed to go on for ever. On later reading, from an older, more experience perspective, I find that that sequence is much shorter than I first thought, and more engaging as well.
That Hideous Strength, the only one of the trilogy I actually read this month, is almost a complete departure in every way. It makes no pretence of being an adventure story; Ransom is present, but only as a minor (though important) character; it takes place completely on Earth. It does have science fiction aspects, notably a decapitated head kept alive by scientific means, but it, like Perelandra, is almost completely a fantasy novel. I didn't like it all the first time I tried to read it; indeed, I didn't even finish it. I believe it took me several tries before I ever got through it; now I find it the most rewarding of the three, and read it with delight.
The book concerns a young couple, Mark and Jane Studdock, and is told almost completely from their separate points of view. Mark is a university professor, fellow of Bracton College in Edgestow, and a man who desperately wants to be on the Inside--a man of no principles save those which will ingratiate him with those in the Ruling Clique of whatever institution he finds himself in. His wife Jane is a student of English Literature who has given up her academic work, for the time being anyway, to marry Mark. She is not happy in her marriage, nor with the new friends Mark is making--for Mark is more interested in being in with the right people rather than being with people who are interesting and enjoyable. On top of these, she has begun to have rather alarming dreams.
The troubles in their marriage reflect a more serious split in the society in which they live, between those who value men and women as men and women, for Maledil's sake (or any other reason, really), and those who wish to eradicate the quirks of individual men and women in the name of science, progress, and the advancement of humankind. It's a marvelous picture of the dreariness and dullness that Evil uses to disguise its work in our world; there is more evil done in boardrooms then there is in crack houses. The particular issues that Lewis chooses to highlight are rooted in the politics and philosophies of the post World War II England, but the nature of the threat is timeless.
Again, I suspect that I've turned rather more people off to this book than on to it. But it's worth reading, it really is.
Lovely in Her Bones
Highland Laddie Gone
So much for religion and philosophy. It came to my attention a while ago that while Sharyn McCrumb was one of our recommended authors, I hadn't actually reviewed many of her books for ex libris. Among other things, that meant that I hadn't read them in quite awhile. So I pulled out these three, the first three books in McCrumb's sparkling Elizabeth MacPherson series. The most recent couple of books in the series have been more serious, bordering on somber, but the first five or so have light, witty, and enjoyable. Elizabeth is the kind of sleuth who is, in fact, not very good at sleuthing; the mysteries are generally solved by someone else altogether, whether Elizabeth realizes it or not.
Sick of Shadows takes place in the Georgia country town of Chandler Grove, where Elizabeth's psychologically disturbed cousin Eileen Chandler is set to be married. Elizabeth is from the poor side of the family; the Chandler side, on the other hand is sufficiently wealthy that all of its members, from Eileen to unspeakable cousin Geoffrey, can afford to indulge their dearest eccentricities. Cousin Alban, for example, has built his dream home, an exact replica of one of Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria's castles. Then Eileen turns up dead; which of this mad and merry crew was responsible. The book also introduces Elizabeth's practical brother Bill and her first love interest, Milo the forensic anthropologist.
Lovely in Her Bones combines McCrumb's love of curious characters with her love of the Appalachians and their people. The professor Milo works for is going to undertake a dig and anthopological study for the Cullowhee indians; they want proof that they are a real Indian Tribe, so that they can protect their ancestral home from development. Milo invites Elizabeth to come along, as she's been expressing an interest in his field. Shortly after they arrive, the professor is murdered--but by the wife he's been cheating on, the student he's been cheating with, the locals who want to see the land developed, or some third party? Through it all Elizabeth develops a taste for forensic anthropology, and discovers that life with Milo might not be all wine and roses.
Highland Laddie Gone is just about as whacky as the first one. Elizabeth and her cousin Geoffrey go to a Scottish Heritage Festival. If you've never been, this is an event in which Americans of all stripes celebrate the Scottish Highlands and the undiluted Scottish blood they fondly imagine runs in their veins. They compete in highland dance and bagpipe competitions, they toss cabers, they wear kilts and highland bonnets, and compare tartans. It's an interesting bit of make-believe that has about as much relevance to the Scotland of today as Mel Gibson does. The attendees are often quite knowledgeable about Scottish history; Campbells are despised for fighting with the English at Culloden; blood-relations to Bonnie Prince Charlie (who grew up in France, and was about as Scottish, culturally, as my left foot) are highly sought after. Bring into this mix Geoffrey Chandler, actor and mischief maker; Lyle MacLachlan, purveyor of Scottish paraphernalia; curmudgeonly Colin Campbell; and one poor marine biologist from Scotland, Cameron Dawson, who has no idea what all this is about, and stir well. Oh, and let us not forget the murdered geese.
For some time now, Kay has been specializing in exquisitely written historical novels masquerading as fantasy novels. This one, the first book in Kay's first new series since the Fionavar Tapestry, is a very thinly disguised Byzantine Empire. Sarantium is Byzantium, Rhodia is Rome, other place names are changed; but except for a few minor episodes everything that happens could have take place in our world. Crispin the Rhodian is a mosaicist of great skill; he travels from his home in, well, Italy to Sarantium at the Emperor's command; the Emperor is building what we would call Hagia Sophia, one of the most magnificent churches in the world. There are the usual politicking and intrigue and chariot races one would expect in a story about Byzantium; religion, the stuff of life to the Byzantines, is emphasized, but much less than is realistic to the period. (On the other hand, it's been said that we would find the Byzantine's obsession with theology completely unrealistic.) Kay did an adequate job of replicating the theological landscape of the day without actually using Christianity or other Earthly religions, but, I'd say, not more than adequate; this is sad, as one of the main themes of the book is the eclipse of the old religions by the new.
All that said, I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I'm happy to recommend it...though you might want to wait until the complete series has been written.
I was at the bookstore, looking at the display of new mystery novels, when I noticed a book by Robin Paige, subtitled "A Victorian Mystery". I gave it the once over, and it looked rather interesting. As it was the latest in a series, I went back to the main mystery section, and found the earliest book they had in stock, that being this one. I wish I could say I wasn't disappointed.
The main characters are Kathryn Ardleigh, a young woman from America who has inherited an English country estate and a sizeable fortune, and amateur sleuth Sir Charles Sheridan who naturally doesn't yet realize that he loves her. Together they solve the mystery of a local constable who's been brutally murdered.
Almost everything is wrong about this book. Kathryn is yet another feminist out of her time, rather like Amelia Peabody Emerson, Mary Russell, and Fremont Jones, only not as well done. It's been done before, and it's been done better, and frankly, the whole thing is getting tiresome. There's no real detection done; the mystery is solved largely by Kathryn happening to stumble across various bits of evidence serendipitously. There's little real suspense; it's obvious early on in the story who the evil-doer must be. One only wonders why it takes everyone else so long to catch on. Finally, the major subplot involves Sir Charles nobly stifling his admiration for Kathryn on the grounds that he believes that first one close friend, and then another, are in love with her. The setup and solution for this unpleasant situation seem equally contrived and facile. In fact, that's a good word for the entire book: everything just seems too easy. Even the presence of Beatrix Potter and her brood of animal friends is insufficient to rescue it.
If you liked this book, or if you've read others in the series and think they improve as they go along, kindly let me know. If this one was just the dog of the series, I might be willing to give Kathryn and Sir Charles another go.
This book was a joy by comparison with Murder at Gallows Green, being superior in most every way; it is also a joy by comparison with the previous book in Barron's series. I had just about given up on Barron, but she has redeemed herself marvelously.
For those who haven't been following along, Barron's books feature a most unlikely sleuth, Jane and the Wandering Eye, was that Jane's behavior was far too forward for an unmarried woman of that time and place. It should have caused her far more trouble than it did in the story. The current volume is much better.. They are based Jane Austen's letters and journals, so that most of the characters are real people, most of the places real places, and the neighborhoods are where Jane actually spent her time. The trouble with the previous book,
Jane is staying with her wealthy brother and his family. A murder is committed in the vicinity, and as justice-of-the-peace her brother must investigate. In this book, Jane is almost a Nero Wolfe figure, sending out her spies to gather information while gathering as much as she can herself during her normal social rounds. It seemed a much more accurate depiction of life in Austen's day, and was a better mystery as well. It was marred in only one way: there are certain suggestive events that occur early in the novel that the characters inexplicably forget about or ignore until much later than one would think reasonable.
Anyway, if you like Jane Austen, you might consider trying Stephanie Barron's books. She's no Jane Austen, but she's OK.
B is for Burglar
C is for Corpse
D is for Deadbeat
While redesigning the website, I became aware that I had only reviewed the most recent of Grafton's Kinsey Millhone novels, which means that I hadn't read any of the earlier ones any time in the last three years. It seemed time to check them out again. The results were mixed.
I have a warm spot in my heart for Sue Grafton; it is thanks to her and A is for Alibi held up pretty well, despite being the most familiar, though she introduces a few elements in Kinsey's personal life that we never hear from again, so far as I can tell: a hotel manager in Los Angeles, and two friends she's always welcome to crash with. The next two were real disappointments, tedious and dull. Partly that's because I remembered them well enough to remember not only who did it but how. D is for Deadbeat, though, I enjoyed more than I thought I would--more, I think, than I did the first time I read it.(and our friend Debbie) that I'm reading mysteries at all these days. So I always feel a touch of nostalgia when I go back to her books. It's always been my belief that any book worth reading once is worth re-reading, perhaps multiple times, and I have in fact read each of these several times before.
Brust is another old favorite who's been scanted in the pages of ex libris reviews. These are the first three of his excellent Vlad Taltos novels; familiarity did nothing to diminish the pleasure with which I read them. As a matter of fact, I read them interspersed with thenovels listed above, and the pleasure of reading Brust's words contributed mightily to the tedium of Grafton's second and third books.
Vlad Taltos is a citizen of the Dragaeran Empire. He is a member of a persecuted minor, being an "Easterner"--that is, a human being, like me, and I would expect, you as well. He is employed by House Jhereg, which is to say Organized Crime. He's a small time boss, being responsible for a number of gambling dens, fences, moneylenders, brothels, and other businesses within a certain part of the city of Adrilankha. He has a wide variety of unusual friends, including certain very highly placed members of the House of the Dragon. He's charming, a good cook, witty, intelligent, utterly ruthless, and one mean SOB. And--oh yes--he's a professional assassin.
These books are the first three in the series; all of them are told in first person from Vlad's point of view. Vlad is an engaging storyteller, if not strictly reliable. They do not take place in any particular order, being written as if from Vlad's memory some time after all of them took place; however, I think they are best read in the order Brust wrote them, and that is the order presented here.
Jhereg takes place when Vlad's career is well-established. In addition to running his area and being an assassin, he is also a security consultant for Lord Morrolan e'Drien of the House of the Dragon. One day he gets an offer of "work" from someone much higher up in House Jhereg; it seems a member of the Jhereg Council has absconded with millions in House funds. One simply doesn't steal from the Jhereg and survive, and the House wants Vlad to find Mellar, and terminate him quickly. A complication arises when the fellow is found in Lord Morrolan's Castle Black; Dragons have this thing about hospitality. If Vlad or anyone else assassinates Mellar in Castle Black, it might precipitate another Dragon-Jhereg war, which would be a Bad Thing.
Yendi takes place earlier in Vlad's career, after he's been running his own area for some time. A neighboring boss tries to move in on him, and he's soon involved in a war for his life. This is one of my favorites in the series; the details of how Vlad runs the area and the war are fascinating. Fantasy gangsters, what a concept. But things are not what they seem, and Vlad isn't the real target. Members of House Yendi are known for their twisty, long-running, devious plots, and the plot at the heart of this book is centuries in the making. This is also the book in which Vlad first meets his wife Cawti.
Taltos takes place even earlier, just after Vlad has become a boss. Actually, it's a complicated piece; there are three strands woven through it. The main story is about how Morrolan and his friend Sethra Lavode seek out Vlad's help in recovering the soul and body of one Aliera e'Kieron from the Paths of the Dead, and how they go about recovering. Intertwined with this is a series of reminiscences from Vlad's early life: getting beaten up regularly by young toughs from House Orca; getting older and learning how to beat them up in turn; starting to work for the Organization; how he became an assassin. The quote at the top of the page is from this book.
I like all three of these books quite a lot; they stand up quite well to repeated re-readings. The next book in the series, Teckla, is more of a problem. It's basically a portrait of Vlad's marriage going completely out of whack, something I find extremely painful to read about. I've only read it twice in the last ten years; I'll probably essay it a third time in the near future, just so I can go on with the next ones, but I'm not in any great rush.
I read these in the wrong order. I picked up Q's Legacy at a local bookstore, started reading it, and was hooked. It was about how, as a young woman, Helene Hanff had found a book by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch ("Q") on how to write prose, and had fallen in love with it. Moreover, she had fallen in love even more with all of the great works of literature he used as examples. I thought it was going to be a book about writing, and I bought it on the strength of the first ten pages. I also bought her other two books on the strength of those same ten pages. I'm not sorry I did, and yet these are truly odd books; I'm not sure I would have bought them had I known just what they were.
84, Charing Cross Road is simply a book of letters: a correspondence between Hanff and several employees at Marks & Co Bookseller, an establishment at 84, Charing Cross Road in London. It is evidently a much-loved book, which has been made into a successful play and BBC TV drama; and I enjoyed it, but I'd be hard pressed to explain why. I've not yet read Hanff's second book, in which she actually travels to London for the first time; the third, Q's Legacy, is basically the story behind the first two books coupled with her remaining trips to London and other adventures related to their publication. I found it fascinating, Helene Hanff being a kind of creature I've never understood.
After moving out on her own, Hanff lived in a number of dingy tenements in New York City before finally managing to get her own two room apartment. She lived in that apartment in New York City for the rest of her life. This boggles my mind. She loved books, which I can understand, but she hated fiction, preferring diaries, journals, autobiographies and poetry. She loved to write, and wrote numerous teleplays for various TV shows, a vast quantity of plays fated never to be performed, and numerous books that all went into the incinerator on completion because they simply didn't work. In her own words, she could only write good books about things she'd actually done. And she wrote three such books, and from then she built up a following of fans from all over the world.
Fraser is generally a writer of fiction, but he's made a couple of forays into the world of history; this one is acknowledged to be one of best works on that tangled history of the Anglo-Scottish Border. In the century before James VI of Scotland became James I of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, the Border became a land of perpetual violence, with reivers conducting raids across the Border and then ducking for home. Each Kingdom appointed officials, the March Wardens, to prevent this things, but often enough the Wardens were as involved in "riding" as the worst of their neighbors. It was a troubled, turbulent time, now remembered chiefly in the most sappy kind of ballad; it was in large part, I think, those ballads that lead Fraser, himself a native of the Border region, to write this book. The ballads make the reivers seem honorable, romantic figures fighting against oppression; they were nothing of the kind, as he clearly shows. It's a fascinating, well-written book, and I recommended to anyone with an interest in history or in that particular time and place.
Diets are the subject of this month's books. Dr. Atkins' "New Diet Revolution" is the best known of the high protein/low carbohydrate diets that are currently so popular. The book describing his diet is well written, easily understood, and highly controversial. The standard diet is low fat and high carbohydrate. Atkins believes that high carbohydrate intake, especially of sugars, causes obesity. He starts the dieter out with the Induction Diet--two weeks of unlimited protein and fats but severely limited carbohydrates. Gradually, as weight loss is achieved, a limited amount of carbohydrates are reintroduced. The book includes lots of examples from his practice to illustrate his points. It also includes about 60 pages of recipes, none of which I've tried. Atkins also recommends vitamins, stressing them as a solution or preventative for every ailment.
Protein Power is a more scientific take on the high protein/low carbohydrate diet. As such it is not as readable or well-organized as Atkins' book is. The Eades believe that insulin triggered by carbohydrates is the root cause of obesity. The plan centers on determining the minimum grams of protein that you need per day and consuming that amount, evenly divided between your three meals, along with a limited quantity of carbohydrates. The plan is more liberal on carb consumption than Atkins; it is also more complicated to explain. As a long term diet, however, I think this one would be fairly doable, and easier in the long run than Atkins' (no change in eating habits is ever easy). The Eades also include information on supplementary vitamins, plus close to 70 pages of recipes, again none of which I've tried.
If you have tried and failed at the low fat diets, or if you are never quite satisfied and always hungry on a low fat diet, and you like meat, eggs, cheese, and butter, these are books to seriously read and consider. These are not plans for vegetarians.
PS: I've lost about 18 pounds using a combination of these plans. Will hasn't lost anything as yet, but he's still eating bread, pizza, and waffles.
Our copy of Winnie the Pooh is a small, tan-colored hardcover edition that my mother read to me when I was small; it was printed in 1950, which is before my parents were even married, so I'm not at all clear on just where it came from, or who bought it. No matter, it's mine, and now I'm reading it to David. He's a little too young to appreciate it yet, especially the first chapter in which Pooh Bear comes thumping down the steps behind Christopher Robin, but sometimes he sits very attentively and happily for me anyway. Ah, well, some day he'll grow into the Pooh stories, probably about the time he's reading them to his own children.
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.