Home : Ex Libris : 1 March 2002

ex libris reviews

1 March 2002

Well, this Dahlia is my good and deserving aunt, not to be confused with Aunt Agatha, the one who kills rats with her teeth and devours her young, so when she says Don't fail me, I don't fail her.
P.G. Wodehouse


In This Issue:
Into the Wodehouse

February is always a busy month around our house. As a result, my reading tended to be on the lighter side, including a considerable quantity of P.G. Wodehouse.

I find I haven't anything profound to say this month, so I'll simply suggest that you go off and read a considerable quantity of Wodehouse. Enjoy!

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Note: Each month for the past couple I've been reading and reviewing one book from Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond series of historical novels. I should have reviewed the fourth one this month, but I started reading it too late and didn't finish. I'll continue with Francis Crawford of Lymond next month. Meanwhile, if you are new to ex libris, you may wish to jump back to the December issue for the review of the first book in the series.

The Letter of Marque
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 twelfth in the series; if you are new to ex libris, you may wish to jump back to the April 2001 issue.

I found last month's entry in the series somewhat dire: Jack Aubrey, unwitting tool, is caught in a stock exchange scandal, pilloried, and dismissed the service. The present volume more than makes up for it.

Even before the voyage related in The Far Side of the World began, it was known that it would be the last for Jack Aubrey's beloved H.M.S. Surprise; too old and small to compete with modern frigates, it would be sold out of the service at journey's end. Jack had contemplated buying her with his prize money, but of course his dismissal from the service and subsequent lack of pay precluded any such thing.

But Jack is not without friends--not only Stephen Maturin, but also Sir Joseph Blaine, head of Naval Intelligence. And as it happens, Blaine has a mission in mind for which a King's Ship would not be at all suited...and Stephen Maturin has just inherited richly from his Catalonian godfather. Armed with letters of marque and reprisal against Britain's enemies, provided by Blaine, and with Tom Pullings at his side, Stephen purchases the Surprise and has her sailed to the town of Shelmerston, haven for privateers.

Naturally, the Surprise needs a captain...and with a sufficiently large victory, even the captain of a letter of marque might hope for reinstatement in His Majesty's Navy.

Next month: The Thirteen Gun Salute.

Agent of Vega and Other Stories
By James H. Schmitz

Schmitz is the author of one novel, the delightful The Witches of Karres, and many, many short stories and novellas. These have seldom been in print, but Baen Books has been remedying that over the last year or so; this is the final volume, and as such is something of a catch-all. Consequently, the stories range from the truly outstanding to the so-so.

But say what you will; this is classic space opera. If, like me, you've been buying these books as they come out, you'll want to get this one too. If you've not been buying them after my previous reviews (and I've reviewed each of them), then, well, perhaps they aren't for you.

Hit List
By Lawrence Block

This is the sequel to Block's novel Hit Man, an odd, somewhat funny, somewhat disturbing tale about a hit man named Keller. But then, Keller's an odd kind of guy. He's friendly. He's low key. He collects stamps. He maintains a polite, mildly flirtatious correspondance with a stamp dealer in another city. He goes out and meets people, and sometimes he dates them. And once in a while he gets a phone call, hops a flight to a distant city, kills somebody for money, and comes home. That's his life. And then, it becomes apparent that some rival hit man is trying to narrow the competition--permanently. Who'll get who?

I enjoyed this book, but I also found it somewhat distressing. Yes, Keller's the hero, yes, the bad guy is trying to get him, yes, I the reader want him to get the bad guy first. But the fact remains, Keller's a cold-blooded killer, pretty much a sociopath. I suppose I have to give kudos to Block, though; he doesn't whitewash Keller a bit.

Hearse of a Different Color
By Tim Cockey

This is Cockey's second book, and his second mystery about undertaker Hitchcock Sewell. I had some problems with the first book, but liked it well enough to give Cockey a second chance, and I'm happy to say that he didn't make the same mistakes this time around. This is a much better mystery novel. On the other hand, I didn't like it. The subject matter was both sleazy and tedious, and while Sewell is a witty narrator (I did laugh out loud, occasionally), I don't like him very much...and certainly not enough to spend another book with him.

Your mileage may vary, however; I expect that Hitchcock Sewell will suit some readers to a T. Posthumously, anyway.

Rats, Bats, & Vats
By Dave Freer and Eric Flint

I picked this book up because of its silly cover, and bought it because it promised to be completely outrageous. Alas, it didn't quite hit the target. When writing farce, the temptation to take your farcical creation too seriously is almost overwhelming, and that's the problem here. The authors want a farce and a serious tale at the same time, and it just doesn't work.

But it was entertaining enough in its way to deserve a few more words.

Harmony and Reason is a colony world with a problem: an incursion of rapacious alien Maggots. Fortunately, an FTL Korozhet ship arrives just after the invaders; the Korozhet offer their help--for a price. Among other things, they give the humans the technology to uplift rats and bats and turn them into soldiers. And the tale follows a doughty group of rats and bats and one human--a member of the vat-born underclass--as they take the battle to the maggots.

Although uplifted, the genetically altered rats and bats remain true to their background; the rats, in particular, can't keep their minds off of three things: food, alcohol, and sex. This leads to a predictable sort of Falstaffian badinage that I think is supposed to lend the book much of its humor, but which soon palls.

So, no Hugo, no Nebula, and (I'd bet) no second printing...but it did help a few hours to go by somewhat pleasantly.

The Mr. Mulliner Omnibus
By P.G. Wodehouse

Of course, it isn't Dave Freer's fault, or Eric Flint's either, that I was reading P.G. Wodehouse at the same time as Rats, Bats, and Vats. Pure farce wins over inept farce any day, and reveals it for what it is.

Mr. Mulliner is an angler, and like many of his fellows is much inclined to tell unlikely stories. Mr. Mulliner tells his stories over many a glass of hot whiskey and lemon in the bar-parlor of a pub called the Angler's Rest, and if his audience is not always willing listen, still, he's always willing to tell.

Unlike other fishermen, however, Mr. Mulliner's tales don't tend involve fish. Instead, they involve his relations: a few brothers, a few remote cousins, and nephews by the score. Usually they involve the pursuit of True Love; and if the path of True Love ne'er runs smooth, neither does it run straight, for these are some of the silliest (and funniest) tales you're likely to run into.

This book, a collection of all of Wodehouse's Mr. Mulliner stories, is hard to find; I bought it in Canada, and I've never seen it on sale in this country. But not to worry; a complete hardbound edition of Wodehouse is being brought out by Everyman in Britain and by Overlook in this country, and naturally you'll want to buy every one.

Eggs, Beans, and Crumpets
By P.G. Wodehouse

As the title implies, this is a collection of tales from the Drones Club, home from home of Bertie Wooster, Bingo Little, Pongo Twistleton, Freddie Widgeon, and other noted men about town. Or mostly from the Drones Club; there's a tale or two about that noted scavenger Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, and even a Mr. Mulliner story. I'd read most of these before, but not to worry; I'll gladly read them again in future.

Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit
By P.G. Wodehouse

Bertie Wooster and his resourceful valet, Jeeves, were born in short stories; but about the time Wodehouse invented Mr. Mulliner, they graduated into novels and there remained. This is one of them; as per usual, Bertie spends his time trying to avoid becoming engaged to women on the rebound, trying not to be crushed by the men they are on the rebound from, and trying to help his dear Aunt Dahlia put one over on her beloved but curmudgeonly husband, while Jeeves shimmers about putting things to rights.

I think Wodehouse is at his best in his short stories, but of all his novels I think I like the Jeeves and Wooster tales best--not least because of Bertie's inimitable narrative style. And just today, I'm thinking that this is one of the better Jeeves and Wooster novels.

So go read it.

Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

A Midwives Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based On Her Diary 1785-1812
The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation Of An American Myth
By Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Both of these books could probably be classified as "women's history" since they deal primarily with the history of particular women or their roles in the colonial period of American history. However, one of my pet peeves with that classification is that it seems to separate the lives of women from the lives of men and creates divisions that seem simplistic. It is a bit like saying that a book addressing the history of WWII battles is men's history even though the war profoundly affected women of the period. If you want a full understanding of a particular time you must look at both sides, distaff and shield. What Ulrich does is show how particular women contributed on a daily basis to the economy and social structure of their communities by examining their lives in relation, not only to the other women they knew and worked with, but with the men and institutions that surrounded them. What the books also do extremely well is show that history is the act of taking a primary source or object like a diary and telling the stories that are behind it. History is a good story that happens to have facts and figures to back it up as true.

A Midwive's Tale examines the life of one woman, Martha Ballard, who kept a daily diary for 27 years while she was housekeeping, farming and working as one of the community's midwives. The diary itself is terse without many details included. It functioned more as a daily reminder for Martha of work done and as an account/log book of the births she attended and the payments made for them. Ulrich takes selected weeks from the diaries and expands upon them, filling in many of the details from probate records, other diaries kept by men of the time, court records and wills and family papers. What comes through is a story of a working woman struggling with feeding her family, getting the laundry done, bickering with her husband and watching her children grow up, marry and move away as she herself ages. It could have so easily been badly done but Ulrich's structure and writing makes this woman and her family come alive. Martha is a professional woman, respected by the male medical practitioners in her community who look to her expertise and respect her opinion. She is also a housewife skilled in growing, preserving and cooking all the food her family consumes, making not only the family clothing but also the cloth they are made from and keeping a clean house in a time when soap was made from ashes leached for their lye and from fat carefully collected from the animals butchered at home for meat. That she was able to do both and do them well is remarkable. Ashes were traded for shingles and money give in payment for attendance at a birth. Both were economic transactions between men and women, yet only one is recorded in the account books kept by the men of the time. Martha's story rounds out the picture and show how women participated with, now, non-traditional economic relationships. The book makes clear that while women did not participate in the documented economic activities of the time like lumbering or shipping, they were vital and necessary parts of the economic well being of the community as a whole, using barter and labor exchange rather than money or credit. Because it was off book, historians have glossed or ignored that contribution and missed how important it was to both the women and the men of the community. I have to admit I fell into this book and could nearly hear and see Martha by the end. The website www.dohistory.org was another reference I used while reading the book. Ulrich has taken the diary, scanned it into a computer and setup the coolest website about history I have found on the web yet. It only added to the book.

The Age of Homespun is Ulrich's newest book, which I actually read first and which, I must admit, was a little tougher going than the story of Martha Ballard. Her main premise is that taking a prosaic, pastoral view of the past when looking at colonial and precolonial history is actually inaccurate at best and bad history for the most part. With this book she focuses her attention on "feminine" artifacts like a spinning wheel or an unfinished stocking and uses them as examples of how women and women's work contributed to the economic and political climates of the times the objects were used in. She expands upon the documented provenance of the object and uses each item to exemplify a particular period of history up to about 1825. This book didn't hang together quite as well as the Ballard book mostly because the premise isn't clearly attached to each chapter and the book becomes a series of disjointed, if really interesting, essays. I thoroughly enjoyed it but I must admit if my interest in fiber and colonial textile production wasn't as well developed as it is, I would have put it down in exasperation.

Deathblow Hill
Death Lights a Candle
By Phoebe Atwood Taylor

Both of these books are part of the Asey Mayo Cape Cod series which was written by Taylor in the 30's and 40's. Asey Mayo, the detective, is the local man of all work who has earned a reputation solving murders. In Death Lights a Candle a group of wealthy business men are invited down for a weekend getaway at Albert Stiles' Cape house. Stiles' niece is there as well and a friend of Asey's is asked to chaperone for the weekend, something you won't find in any contemporary mystery. Everyone goes to bed late in the evening and in the morning they discover the host, Stiles, dead in his bedroom. Plus, a huge snowstorm is blowing in. They call the sheriff who sends Asey and the doc, of course, just in time to be snowed in. Someone in the house murdered the host and Asey has to figure out who and how before anyone else, including himself, gets killed as well. The murder weapon in this book is the most original one I have ever seen in a murder mystery and it amused me no end to watch Asey try to figure out just how the murderer did it.

"Deathblow Hill" is about a family feud that has gone to the point where two related neighbors have put up a chain link fence topped with barbed wire between them. Of course, the issue is the fortune that is never found and believed to be hidden in the old mansion/lighthouse called Deathblow Hill. The mansion owner, poor as a churchmouse and running a B&B to make ends meet, has put up the fence to keep her relatives in the next house from constantly harassing her and breaking into the house. Now there are some strange happenings and folks prowling around waving yellow handkerchiefs and frightening her. When someone ends up dead on her doorstep, garroted with a yellow handkerchief, Asey gets involved. I was prowling around myself on the web and found a write-up on these books that called them "pulp mysteries" and I thought, yep, that's exactly what they are. If they were written by a contemporary author I probably wouldn't bother but the period details are so delightful and the plots are such a convoluted mess that I find them utterly charming.

Murder at Monticello
By Jane Langton

Ok, I know I am an avid Jane Langton fan. When I saw she had this book out but only in hardcover I must have picked it up and put it down at least a dozen times before deciding to wait for the paper edition. And then when the paper edition came out, I snapped it up, ran to the car and beat feet for home to read it. And again, I wasn't disappointed.

Homer Kelly is the "detective" in this series of mysteries and a really unlikely one at that. He and his wife, Mary, teach American Lit at Harvard. To be specific, they teach the writers of the American Trancendentalist movement. Sometime in the hazy past Homer had some elusive connection to the DA's office in Cambridge and, what do you know, still carries his aged credentials around in his wallet. He is large, clumsy and prone to becoming obsessed with whatever writer or artist is on his mind at the time. The Harvard connection creates all sorts of neat opportunities for cultural activities and travel usually resulting in a murder or mysterious disappearance that Homer, ever curious, has to investigate. The whole series is funny and light and decidely upbeat. Plus, Langton includes in most novels her line drawings of the places she has set the books in.

This time, Homer and Mary are invited to the bicentennial celebration of Jefferson's election to the Presidency at Monticello. An old student of theirs, Fern Fischler, has received a grant to write a book refuting the current criticism of Jefferson's life and politics, especially the slavery issue and his affair with Sally Hemmings. When Fern happens onto a young, tall, red-headed man named Tom while walking in Jefferson's garden and finds he is obsessed with the Lewis and Clark expedition, she invites him to work in her office in the Dome room of Monticello. At the same time, a serial killer is on the loose nearby killing young women and leaving weird messages written in archaic language that no one can figure out. Homer, who can't resist a good mystery and is currently obsessed with Jefferson, gets involved in solving the murders, especially after Tom is arrested as the alleged murderer. If you are new to Langton's mysteries, you don't really have to read them in any order to enjoy them. Some are better than others; my personal favorite is Natural Causes with Dead as a Dodo running a close second.

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 March 2002
Copyright © 2002, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
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