Home : Ex Libris : 1 August 2001

ex libris reviews

1 August 2001


So I didn't have a plan. I did, as I stood there, start to get the seeds of what might, sometime, become a vague step generally in the direction of an intention. I may be stating that too strongly.
Steven Brust


Contents


In This Issue:
Non-Readers 3, Readers 2

The battle for universal literacy is being lost here, now, right in my own home. Jane and I have held the line as best we can, but for the last two years (ever since our son James was born) that's been the best we've been able to do. Oh, we've read to James; we've read to our older boy, David; but, nevertheless, Jane and I remain the only two readers in the house.

Still, we have managed to hold the line--until now. You may have noticed that I posted Ex Libris a couple of days early this month; that's because, on or before Tuesday the 31st of July we are going to be outnumbered. Yes, on Tuesday we are expecting the arrival of yet another illiterate in our home (figuratively speaking; the new arrival probably won't actually come home for a couple of days).

Still, time wounds all heels, uh, heals all wounds, and I have hopes that the deadly disease of illiteracy that is blooming in my home may yet be cured. Yes, kindergarten waits in my older boy's future; kindergarten and (dare I say it?) elementary school! One day perhaps even our newest arrival will (gasp) learn to read. A consummation devoutly to be wished.

Next month: vital statistics on the new arrival.

Enjoy!

-- Will Duquette


Books to Read Aloud

by Will Duquette

The Fifth Elephant
By Terry Pratchett

After having so much fun with Thief of Time, I wanted to keep going; so I pulled down Pratchett's previous book but one, and give it a try. Jane had been rather distracted when The Fifth Elephant was first published, and we didn't get very far, reading aloud; but this time there was no such problem, and Jane enjoyed it thoroughly.

Anyone who has read Ex Libris for any length of time knows my opinion about Terry Pratchett; see our Terry Pratchett page for ideas on which books to start with. As a read-aloud, The Fifth Elephant was middle-rank. It was fun to read, with lots of lines that made us laugh; on the other hand, it took us a couple of weeks to get through. By comparison, we got through Lois McMaster Bujold's last book in about four days.

Issola
By Steven Brust

Steven Brust is simply one of the best writers of fantasy currently working, and a new book from him is always a treat. His Dragaera books, of which this is latest, are on two select lists: books we buy in hardcover, and books which I read aloud to Jane immediately after we buy them.

Brust is currently working on two different (though related) series about the Dragaeran Empire; this one is the latest tale of Vlad Taltos, fugitive, one-time assassin, and friend of some of the most powerful wizards in Dragaera. It answers many long-standing questions (and poses as many new ones) and Jane and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

All that said, this is not the book to begin with. Check your bookstore for The Book of Jhereg, a trade paperback omnibus of the first three Vlad Taltos novels. Then buy it.


name deleted's Recent Reading

by name deleted

Boy in Darkness
By Mervyn Peake

Sometime, Never is a three-story anthology containing "Envoy Extraordinary" by William Golding, "Consider Her Ways" by John Wyndham, and "Boy in Darkness" by Mervyn Peake. It was published in 1956 and has since unfortunately gone out of print. If you happen to stumble upon a copy, I would suggest buying it, if only for the last novella. If you want to save yourself the trouble of looking for the other two, but are still curious about "Boy in Darkness", you should be able to find it either at the children's/young adult section of your local bookstore (if you're in Britain) on Amazon.co.uk (if in America).

I have a feeling that "Boy in Darkness" will be my favorite of the three, but I have not read the other two in their entirety. I tried to get through the Golding story and failed (though I'll try again), and have glared at the topic of Wyndham's story. Wyndham's seems a critique of the feminist concept of an 'ideal' world without men. Whilst I at times may fantasize about this, it would never occur to me to spew it out into the open with any amount of vehemence, for shame. Apparently some arcane branch of feminism did, and Wyndham means to butcher it. God forgive women for croaking under the yoke.

"Boy in Darkness" is set in the world of Peake's well-known Gormenghast trilogy, and tells another story with Titus at its head. It is a dreamlike (nightmarelike) sort of fable in which the young Earl flees Gormenghast, his adumbrate home, after his fourteenth birthday, which has been duly turned into another round of senseless, seemingly endless ritual.

But the day does end, and Titus (mostly called 'the Boy' throughout) makes it away from the Castle, to find himself lost and alone and facing a wide and still river beneath the moonlight. Making his way across in a skiff, followed by an eerie pack of silent, yellow-eyed dogs, he reaches an entirely different world at the other side, where the sun gleams brightly but seems to drain the things below it of color. There he encounters three creatures: the fawning Goat, the vicious Hyena, and most terrifying of all, the Lamb their overlord, who exists in a vast space of Mines underground, away from daylight. To say substantially more about the plot would be to say too much.

"Boy in Darkness" relies on atmosphere even more, I think, than it relies on plot (sound familiar?). Gormenghast is also like this but Gormenghast you have more time to see the characters fleshed out. The novellas in Sometime, Never seem to focus more on presenting ideas and settings than on presenting characters. Back to Peake: I felt as if I were actually present as the story unfolded, and this wasn't always an invariably good thing. A reviewer at Amazon gave it two stars (out of five), saying he'd read it first at thirteen, and that it was not a children's book. And it isn't, though people are advertising it nowadays as such (in Britain, as it's not in print in the US, as I've said). It's horrific, at times it nearly made me feel claustrophobic. Peake demonstrates, over and over, his remarkably ability to form characters that are easily visible in the mind's eye, and not easily expelled from it. (Whether or not they are fleshed out in the conventional way.) It seemed to me that there were overtones of reaction to primitive mythology and the theory of evolution in the tale.

To sum it all up: "Boy in Darkness" is not what you can call escapism or light reading. For me, it's miles spookier than anything by Stephen King or Dean Koontz.

Speculative fiction, though often tagged as escapist, is rarely so. There's no better medium for channeling taboos than fiction. (I wonder if I read that somewhere.) "It's not real," a person can say, and their minds can remain unimpaired. "Boy in Darkness" isn't real--it's a smidgeon more than real. I'd highly recommend it to anyone who wants to think a little and who can handle a disturbance in the Force.

Orlando
By Virgina Woolf

What can I say but: re-read pending? (Okay, a lot more.)

I will come back to this novel. I will be drawn to it. This is inevitable. Whether or not I finish it in its entirety in an organized and traditional fashion is an entirely other matter. There are so many things that I invariably like in the book, and so many that make me cringe. This is a real reading experience, whatever else it is.

Sometimes I'm intimidated, or at least reluctant, when it comes to picking up works of literature that folks will, at one time or another, make us read for school. This is too bad, since I'm sure many of these intimidating books are probably good. I just don't want to like them, and hate them after being forced to study them to the death. One reason I picked Orlando to read first instead of one of Woolf's other books, is because it seems to cover different territory than her others (and is probably the least likely to be assigned in school). It has a sort of dreamlike execution (been reading a lot of these lately): Orlando begins as a young courtier in the time of Elizabeth I and somewhere along the journey manages to turn into a woman; and age with extreme slowness so that he/she experiences Elizabethan times through Victorian and ends up at the novel's close, in the England of 1928. Not that he/she stays put in England the whole time. (Keep in mind, the whole time this is happening, Orlando is not amazed in the least.)

I finished Orlando about a month ago. I keep picking it up and re-reading snatches of it over and over again. Perhaps part of this has to do with its cover. If you are in the US, drop by your bookstore and take a look at the Harcourt one in print today. It's got a lady lying down among lavendar flowers, hodling a few in her left hand, her lavender gown spread out around her. The quality of the cover and the pages is very sound. It smells nice.

Orlando is very quotable. Try this on for size: "Different though the sexes are, they intermix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above. Of the complications and confusions which thus result every one has had experience."

I love being quoted to. So whilst in some parts I was dozing, in others I was feasting. I find myself enjoying the little hints of Woolf's own feelings and character (am I going too far? I hope not). She was a lady very involved in the women's rights movements (if I remember properly). The tongue-in-cheek dedication to Vita Sackville-West is really something. The character of Orlando (which at times can be nauseating!) hints at Vita Sackville-West's, and Sackville-West wasn't so pleased about it. I ought to write an essay. Picture it: The evolution of Orlando's "Oak Tree" and the writing of V. Sackville West (don't steal this idea, it's mine, I tell you!). The "Oak Tree" being a manuscript of Orlando's which follows him/her throughout her whole rather long and generally eventful life. Throughout the novel, Orlando alters it, re-reads it, hides it, dirties it, forgets about it, is hurt by critique of it, rediscovers it, etc. What is Woolf saying about Sackville-West, if anything? I've heard on-line that Sackville-West's own writing comes nowhere near the quality of Woolf's.

Orlando himself/herself is a difficult character to like, some of his/her more interesting characteristics getting in the way, ironically. It is easy to see why Sackville-West was angry at this "witty little book", as Doris Lessing called it. It's a little less easy for me to see why Jorge Luis Borges called it Woolf's "most intense", mostly because I am unfamiliar with her other works and so cannot compare them.

Woolf was very well-read, and makes allusions to the great writers of Orlando's (very long) day, such as Swift, Marlowe, Browning, &c. I read somewhere once that Woolf gives _Orlando_ a fluctuating writing style, by switching from one technique to another as Orlando moves forward in time (adopting the popular writing styles of those times, perhaps?). I'm not *that* well read and so will withhold my judgement here.

I would recommend this book to any person in need of a breath of fresh air and asphodel.


Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Desolation Island
By Patrick O'Brian

Each month I'm reading and reviewing one book from O'Brian's justly acclaimed Aubrey/Maturin series. This is the fifth in the series; if you are new to ex libris, you may wish to jump back to the April Issue.

It's with this book that O'Brian finally spreads his wings and really lets himself fly; it's with this book that we reach the heart of the series: the long, long voyages, to all parts of the world, that span two, three, or even four novels. Hitherto, each book has told of a succession of cruises, or a single mission; Jack Aubrey has been between voyages, sometimes for as long as a year, between each book.

With Desolation Island all that changes. With this book, the series becomes essentially a continuous narrative, each book picking up immediately after its predecessor, each book ending after its main climax, wheresoever in the world Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin might happen to be.

This is not to say that Desolation Island and its successors are mere unstructured sequences of events, with no internal coherence; far from it. Rather, it's the tale of an American woman, Louisa Wogan, who is arrested in London for spying and sentenced to transportation to Australia, and of her weak-willed lover, Michael Herapath, who stows away to be near her.

Although Wogan's guilt is certain, her spymaster's name is unknown. Thus, she is transported not in the normal prison ship, but by Jack Aubrey's latest command, H.M.S. Leopard, under the gaze of physician and spy Stephen Maturin.

When I first read this book, I was athirst for nautical adventure, which this book holds in plenty; and the doings of Mrs. Wogan seemed merely an annoying addition and the ending of the book anti-climactic. I've revised my opinion considerably since then; the nautical adventure is a great treat, but in this case it's really what's going on to distract us from the main story. This is, in fact, a far more subtle and well-crafted tale than I had at first realized.

Next month: The Fortune of War

High Tartary
By Owen Lattimore

This is the sequel (if that's an appropriate term for a work of non-fiction) to Lattimore's The Desert Road to Turkestan, which I reviewed a couple of months ago. The former book is Lattimore's story of travelling from China to Central Asia with a camel caravan; this one picks up where the other leaves off, and is about Lattimore's travels through Central Asia with his wife.

When I first read this book, I enjoyed it thoroughly; but then, I read it first, and the book about the camel caravan second. And, alas, the story of Lattimore's camel caravan has a liveliness and an immediacy that is somewhat lacking in his second book. It's as though linking up with his wife made a distance between himself and the people they met. Whether that distance was real or only in his telling of it, I can't say...but the fact remains, The Desert Road to Turkestan is much more fun.

However, for those of you who (like me) have (for some odd reason) an interest in Central Asia, this is still a fascinating book: one of the last Western accounts of what is now China's Sinkiang province before the old ways were swept away for good.

Later this summer I'll review Turkestan Reunion, Eleanor Lattimore's account of her trip from China through Siberia to Sinkiang, there to meet her husband. It's a delicious treat that both Jane and I enjoyed exceedingly, and I'm looking forward to reading it again.

The Swords of Lankhmar
By Fritz Leiber

This is the only real novel in Leiber's tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and it remains my favorite. Lankhmar is in a bad way. The Overlord is a weak-minded sadist, easily lead by his evil advisors; the city is under threat of attack by Movarl of Kvarch Nar, unless the promised tribute of grain is delivered; and something keeps destroying the grain ships. Our heroes go along at the Overlord's request to find out what's going on. Along the way, they meet beautiful maidens, dangerous kittens, two-headed sea-serpents, hordes of ship-eating rats, a German time-traveller, and a dangerous rodent named Skwee.

Not bad for a buck-fifty, which is about what the book cost me when it was new.

The Ecolitan Operation
The Ecologic Secession
By L.E. Modesitt, Jr

These are two of Modesitt's older books, recently brought back into print in the omnibus volume Empire and Ecolitan, and they are as good as anything he has written more recently. I'd been looking for them for some time, having read and enjoyed two later books in the same series, The Ecologic Envoy and The Ecolitan Enigma (see our L.E. Modesitt, Jr page for links to reviews). Thus, I was delighted to find them, and devoured them eagerly.

The time is perhaps one hundred years or so prior to the events of the later books. Jimjoy Earle Wright is a major in the Imperial Intelligence Service's Special Operations department. The Empire has learned that certain kinds of people are dangerous but useful; the best way to handle them is to give them the kind of work they are good at, in sufficient quantities that sooner or later they fail to return from a mission. This is called killing two birds with one stone.

But Jimjoy somehow manages to keep surviving. And on his last mission for the Empire--a mission during which his own side is supposed to kill him--he finds a place that can not only make use of his skills, but can also give him something worth surviving for.

The Godwulf Manuscript
By Robert B. Parker

Some while back I got into detective fiction, and ran through the whole set of Parker's "Spenser" novels, of which this is the first. I was looking for something light and airy to read, and Spenser didn't fail me.

This is not the best of the series, by a long shot. Spenser isn't quite himself yet, as is so often the case at the beginning of the series; and while ignoring current events, the book nevertheless reeks of the late 1960's. But it was a fun, quick read.

God Save the Child
By Robert B. Parker

This is the second tale of Spenser, the wise-cracking, poetry-reading, gourmet-cooking private detective. It's considerably less dated than its predecessor--indeed, it seemed remarkably fresh--and Spenser is much more himself, partially due to his meeting Susan Silverman, his pretty-much perpetual girl-friend.

With all of that, this one isn't my favorite either. It's a kidnapping tale, and I didn't much care for anyone involved but Spenser and Susan. But it provided diversion for a very tired couple of hours.

Port Eternity
Voyager in Night
By C.J. Cherryh

These are two of Cherryh's older books, recently republished with one other in an omnibus edition entitled Alternate Realities. I'm reviewing these two together because, although they are nominally unrelated, they are really two different variations on a single theme: a small group of human spacefarers is captured by an alien vessel and permanently removed from human space.

The former book begins on the space yacht of a wealthy woman; she is accompanied by her current lover, and by her staff of tape-trained clones. Such clones (called "azi" in most of Cherryh's books, though not here) are unlike normal human beings; their behavioral patterns are due to rigorous taped conditioning from the day they were decanted. They are, in a sense, biological machines, trained for particular purposes.

The wealthy woman is a romantic, and would see herself as Guenevere; her staff's names are Lancelot, Gawain, Mordred, Elaine, Percivale, and Viviane, all chose by temperament and training for the roles she assigns them. Not that they are aware of the significance of their names; far from it.

And then their ship, The Maid is swept into hyperspace and stranded on the surface of an ancient ship the size of a planetoid, and forced to cope with stresses for which they were never designed. And then they discover the tape of Arthurian legends in the ship's library...

That undoubtedly sounds cheesier than I intended, and I must stress that this book is in no way a retelling or re-enactment of King Arthur's story; the clones are always fully aware of what they really are. And (and this is a constant theme in Cherryh's work) what they are, despite the conditioning, is human.

Voyager in Night is a somewhat similar tale of a family of asteroid miners collected by a passing alien spacecraft. It is a stranger tale than Port Eternity, and I didn't like it as well; I question whether it was wise to put them together back-to-back like this.

But no matter; the book is worth buying for the third entry alone.

Wave Without a Shore
By C.J. Cherryh

A correspondent recommended this one to me recently, and so I was on the look-out for it when I found the omnibus edition mentioned above. It takes place on a planet called Freedom, where a particularly pernicious philosophy is universally accepted--that reality is what you wish to believe. You have power so far as you can coerce others to accept your reality in place of their own. The book is, in this sense, a contest between the two most powerful men on the planet.

But it is also a cautionary tale: reality is, whether you believe in it our not, and when your Reality conflicts with the real universe, your Reality will lose.

I don't want to say too much about this book, for fear of giving too much away, but it's definitely worth reading.

Bone Dance
By Emma Bull

Last year I had the good fortune to attend some writing workshops conducted by Bull and her husband, author Will Shetterly. It was truly an engaging experience, and so when I learned that Emma was doing a signing at a nearby bookstore I jumped at the chance to say hello. And this is one of the books I took to get signed.

I first read it some few years ago, and hadn't gotten back to it, though I remembered liking it. I opened it while I was waiting for the signing to begin, and then, well, there was nothing to be done but finish it.

I found it an interesting, compelling, and in some ways troubling book, well-worth the time spent reading it. At first glance it appears to be a science fiction novel set fifty or a hundred years after a nuclear holocaust--but it isn't, really. It's really an urban fantasy set in a far future city.

More I cannot say without giving the plot away, which would be a bad idea; find a copy if you can (which you probably can't).

Fortess in the Eye of Time
Fortress of Eagles
Fortress of Owls
Fortress of Dragons
By C.J. Cherryh

I'm reviewing these four books together because they really constitute one extended narrative. They also constitute one of the best new works of High Fantasy I've read in many, many years, and I recommend them.

The saga is the story of a man named Tristen, not born of woman but created as a wizard's Shaping, and his quest to fulfill the wizard's purpose, be faithful to his friends...and perhaps, just perhaps, even survive when his purpose is complete. It's a surprisingly compelling tale, and not nearly as claustrophobic as many of Cherryh's novels.

Indeed there's almost too much of the wide open spaces in this one. As usual, the most interesting part of the narrative takes place in the heads of the main characters, primarily Tristen and his friend and lord, Prince Cefwyn. And yet, whenever our heroes are out and about she fills the pages with heaps of description of the terrain that to which I found it nearly impossible to attend--nor did it matter all that much.

But that's a minor nit.

My Body Lies Over The Ocean
By J.S. Borthwick

This is Ms. Borthwick's ninth mystery involving Sarah Deane. The cover blurb describes it has having "her signature blend of wit, whimsy, and intrigue." Library Journal describes it as "Engaging work from a proven author." Publisher's Weekly says that "this novel succeeds as a tightly controlled and unflagging thriller.

All I really want to say about this stinker (which entirely failed to hold my attention) is "Don't believe everything you read."

Still, I have to at least try to be fair.

Perhaps I would have liked this book better if I had read the previous eight books, and had already learned to enjoy and sympathize with the continuing characters. I hadn't, however, and I found the continuing characters, including Sarah's "feisty Aunt Julia," about as engaging as weak tea. Even at that, they were an improvement over the various suspects, most of whom arrive on stage, spout a paragraph or two, and vanish again.

Perhaps I would have liked this book better if I liked mysteries for the puzzle aspect--assuming this book is a good puzzle mystery. I'm no judge.

But given the praise heaped upon it on and inside the cover, I was hoping for something similar to Charlotte MacLeod or Elizabeth Peters or Sharyn McCrumb or even (if I were lucky beyond belief) Sarah Caudwell. No such luck.

Sigh.


Children's Books

by Jane Duquette

Good Night, Gorilla
By Peggy Rathmann

This book is the current favorite of our soon-to-be two-year-old son. It is a delightful board book with just a few words and wonderful pictures. It tells the tale of a gorilla who gets the keys from the zookeeper and lets all of the animals out of their cages and into the zookeeper's bedroom for the night. It definitely appeals to a small boy who's still sleeping in a crib.


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 August 2001
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