Home : Ex Libris : 1 May 2002

ex libris reviews

1 May 2002


Lowe unsheathed his sabre: little good it did him. In two hissing passes his right thigh was ploughed up. At the third Stephen's sword was through his shoulder. And at the issue of a confused struggle at close quarters he was flat on his back, Stephen's foot on his chest, Stephen's sword-point at his throat, and the cold voice saying above him 'Ask my pardon or you are a dead man. Ask my pardon, I say, or you are a dead man, a dead man.'
Patrick O'Brian


Contents


In This Issue:
Well?

I've now completed the first set of changes I'm planning to make to ex libris reviews (and, indeed, the whole wjduquette.com website). Most of the changes are invisible to anybody but me; I spent considerable time cleaning up the programs I use to maintain the site, just so that I could make visible changes at all. The most noticeable change (other than the obvious formatting changes) is to the navigation bars at the top and bottom of each page. They are both less obtrusive and more useful. In addition, I've added a number of author pages to the ex libris archives; see the News page for the names.

In future months I intend to add more authors to the archives; there may be additional cosmetic changes as well. But there are several things which will remain constant, and the main one is this: ex libris reviews will always be content-heavy, graphics-light, and quick-loading.

In the mean time, happy reading!

-- Will Duquette


Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Nutmeg of Consolation
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 fourteenth in the series; if you are new to ex libris, you may wish to jump back to the April 2001 issue.

When I first read Desolation Island and found that the book ended with Jack Aubrey and crew on a remote South Pacific island I was nonplussed. On re-reading, I reflected that that book was really a spy novel, and that it had really reached its climax when Louisa Wogan escaped on the American whaler. When the following book got them no further toward home than the North Atlantic I was again somewhat surprised; but again, that book was about the beginning of the War of 1812, and as it ended with the first real British victory of that war, I could forgive it.

Well, last month's book, The Thirteen Gun Salute, ends even less salubriously with Aubrey, Maturin, et al stranded on an island somewhere west of Pulo Prabang. The only excuse I'm able to see for it, plot-wise, is that the book is somewhat the story of Fox, the King's envoy, and Fox perishes in the same storm that leaves our heroes stranded. OK.

The Nutmeg of Consolation gets them, ultimately, only as far as Australia. And though there's something of a stirring climax, it's a bit of a fake: there really is, so far as I can see, no golden thread binding the book together. It ends where it ends simply because it had reached the proper length and a modicum of climactic action. And if I'm not mistaken, the voyage doesn't end for two more books.

But you know what? It doesn't matter. The Nutmeg of Consolation is still a gripping and pleasing narrative. The logic of the standard plot might be absent, but there is still the logic of the lives of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. They act according to their natures, and what they do is of interest.

Much of the book takes place during a stopover in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, which at that time was brutal, bloody, shameful place where the lowest scum of England were overseen by officers who had come to still a lower plane. In a note at the beginning of the book O'Brian commends Robert Hughes' book The Fatal Shore, a history of the early days of Australia, and I do as well, having read it in the past; if anything, O'Brian's description, shocking as it is, still doesn't capture the full horror of those days.

But the book isn't all blood and misery. For example, there's Stephen Maturin's continuing flirtation with intoxicating substances. Having sworn off laudanum (the alcoholic tincture of opium) after an unfortunate accident in Sweden, Maturin took to chewing coca leaves, something he'd first tried in South America. Coca leaves are, of course, the source of cocaine. To be sure he wouldn't run out, he laid in a vast supply.

About this time, everyone began to notice that the rats on His Majesty's Hired Ship Surprise were becoming bolder than usual--bolder, but also more relaxed. Sarah and Emily, two island girls rescued by Maturin, makes pets of several of them. Others are seen all over the ship, in places rats would never ordinarily be seen. Of course, it turns out that the rats had discovered Maturin's chest of coca-leaves...and things began rather interesting when the leaves run out and the rats are forced to quit, cold turkey.

Next month: The Truelove.

The Ringed Castle
By Dorothy Dunnett

Over the last few months I've been reading and reviewing books from Dunnett's Lymond series of historical novels. I'm still working on The Ringed Castle, so I won't be able to review it until next month. In the meantime, you can always jump back to the review of The Game of Kings in last December's issue.

The Little World of Don Camillo
By Giovanni Guareschi

Some months ago I got an e-mail from someone who wanted to know if I'd ever read any of Guareschi's Don Camillo stories. In point of fact, I'd never even heard of them. It was explained to me that Guareschi was an Italian author, and that in the 1950's he'd written a series of stories about a village priest named Don Camillo and about his run-ins with the village mayor, a communist named Peppone. They were described to me as being sort of like Garrison Keillor, but Italian, and that I'd almost certainly enjoy reading the English translations (if I could find them), and here was a website where I could find out more.

I looked around the website, and was somewhat intrigued. So I checked out Amazon.com, and found a copy of the first book of stories, The Little World of Don Camillo. It was ridiculously expensive, but I was feeling adventurous and so I ordered it anyway. That's the good news. The bad news (for the rest of you) is that Guareschi's books have in fact been out of print in this country for decades. The copy I got was printed in 1977, so far as I can tell, as one of an extremely limited run of facsimiles of the original 1950 edition. How Amazon got a hold of them, I have no idea.

But what of the stories?

To begin with, they are extremely Italian. They were written shortly after World War II, at a time when the war was quite fresh in everyone's mind. The war was formative for both Don Camillo and his bugbear, Mayor Peppone, both of whom spent the war fighting with partisans in the hills. Both are familiar with "Tommy" guns, and there's a minefield just outside of town that figures in one story.

Don Camillo himself is a big bear of a priest, a bold, hot-tempered man on whom the peaceful strictures of Christianity do not sit easily, so that he frequently has arguments with Christ, there on his cross above the high altar. (These arguments are easily the most charming part of the stories.) Christ invariably wins, and sometimes Don Camillo is reduced to sneaking past the door to the sanctuary, lest Christ should see him and call on him to refrain from giving Mayor Peppone his well-deserved come-uppance.

Peppone, the mayor, is a less endearing but in the end equal positive character. Although a Communist, and theoretically in favor of Stalinism (as it was in those days), revolution, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the eradication of religion and private property, and so forth, he's still a man of the village. Moreover, he respects Don Camillo as a worthy opponent; when the bishop sends Don Camillo away, Peppone leads a protest to have him brought back.

There's a surprising amount of violence in this slim but delightful book. By violence, I'm not speaking of the graphic Bonnie-&-Clyde-gutters-running-with-blood kind; I'm talking about the comic kicking-political-opponents-in-the-pants kind. I'm not sure if this is Guareschi's own conceit, or symptomatic of the years after the war, or if it simply reflects the free-wheeling Italian approach to politics.

Anyway, I liked the stories, even the ones with bits I didn't quite get the point of, probably because I'm not Italian. I'd like to read the other volumes which have been translated into English, but I'm not sure I want to spend quite so much for them either.

The Fear Sign
Traitor's Purse
The China Governess
By Margery Allingham

Sometime ago, in response to suggestions from my readers, I bought a couple of books by two class British mystery writers, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham. In the ensuing months I sailed gleefully through Marsh's entire body of work, all of which was in print (and might still be); the Allingham, a piece of work entitled Death of a Ghost, simply didn't grab me. I had a number of complaints, but the main one was that Albert Campion, her sleuth, was entirely a dull stick.

Last month, though, another reader wrote in praise of Allingham's books, and I agreed to give her another try. To my surprise, the book I read next, The Fear Sign, had an entirely different feel to it. And slowly I began to figure it out.

Most mystery writers, given a successful continuing character, go on to write a series that's all of a piece. I don't mean that all of the books follow precisely the same formula, but rather that the tone is fairly consistent. Allingham seems not to have worried about this; she experimented gleefully with different styles while retaining the same main character. The three books I read this once provide excellent examples.

The first, The Fear Sign, isn't so much a murder mystery as a spy novel--and, in some ways, a rather farcical one. I enjoyed it, but had great difficulty taking it seriously. The second, The China Governess, is in much the same vein as Ngaio Marsh, and is quite as good in that line as any of Marsh's Roderick Alleyn mysteries. The third, Traitor's Purse, is another cloak-and-dagger tale of suspense--but in this case without any shred of buffoonery. All were good, the latter two quite good, and each was entirely unlike the other two.

I'm rather tempted to dash out to the bookstore and see if I can find some more. I can't recall at the moment which correspondent it was that prompted me to give Allingham another try (my e-mail is on another machine), but I'd like to publically offer my thanks.

The One Kingdom
By Sean Russell

Billed as "Book One of the Swans' War", this is Russell's best book yet, and his first excursion into out-and-out fantasy. His first pair of books, The Initiate Brother and Gatherer of Clouds have a limited sort of magic in the capabilities of the Initiate Brother and the other monks; his next work, Moontide and Magic Rise and its prequels, again have an extremely understanded magical component. Here, at last, he's giving the fantastic elements full play, and a joy it is to see.

Some of you will have read some or all of Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series. I found this book to be similar in many ways--but much, much better, as it makes the "Wheel of Time" look like a comic book.

The book takes place in the lands that were once part of the Kingdom, before a war between two feuding noble families tore the Kingdom apart. The Kingdom is now a patchwork of wilderness and scattered villages, with occasional towns, and the descendants of the two families have held on to their bitterness and their memories of lost glory with a grip of iron. Into the mix wanders three friends, descendants of soldiers and knights who had fled the Kingdom at the end of the wars, who are heading down the river to seek their fortune, accompanied by a storyfinder of the enigmatic Fael. (Russell gets major points for not calling them "elves"--as well as for not making it clear whether or not they are human.)

Immediately they find themselves pursued by men-at-arms in black livery, guilty of they know not what, on a river that does not always flow according the maps. For the two families, under their signs of the White and the Black Swans, are starting to move against each other. And behind them are forces far more ancient than the war that split the kingdom.

All in all, this is a very promising start, and I'm eager to see what happens next.

Lord of the Silent
By Elizabeth Peters

Yet another Amelia Peabody mystery, set against the backdrop of World War I. I won't say much about it, except that I enjoyed it thoroughly; now that she's finally gotten Ramses and Nefret married off, she's well back on track. There's no point is saying more than that; either you've already started reading the series, in which case I need so no more, or you haven't, in which case you should click on Peters' name, and find the reviews of the first books in the series. I believe they are all still in print.

Judge Dee At Work
The Phantom of the Temple
Poets and Murder
Murder in Canton
By Robert van Gulik

More tales of classical Chinese sleuth Judge Dee; see last month's issue for details. Judge Dee At Work deserves special mention, as it's a collection of short stories rather than a novel.

There will likely be more to come next month.


Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

The Cater Street Hangman
Callender Square
Paragon Walk
Resurrection Row
Bedford Square
Half Moon Street
By Anne Perry

Last month I read Laurie R. King's Mary Russell series start to finish and found myself listlessly looking over the bookshelf for something to read after. Nothing was even remotely interesting and some of what I had planned on reading seemed dull at best. Early this month I was browsing the books in the, yes, pharmacy waiting for a prescription and happened upon Bedford Square. It sounded interesting and the cover had a neat picture on it so I bought it. Half way thru I went to the bookstore and got the next in the series, Half Moon Street. Half way thru that one, I realized that I really should start at the beginning of the series and went to the local used book store and bought every one off the shelf they had in stock.

The Cater Street Hangman introduces Inspector Thomas Pitt. He is called in to investigate the garroting and mutilation of proper young women in an affluent neighborhood in London. The families that live on the Street are proper Victorians with enough means to keep them well and nothing much to do in life except gossip, dress and observe all the conventions of good Victorian society. Inspector Pitt intrudes on their sheltered lives, asking questions both above and below the stairs, upsetting and making everyone uncomfortable. He is wise enough to understand his place in the caste system of society, clever enough to bypass it when needed and attractive enough to befuddle and anger the outspoken, forthright daughter in one of the households, Charlotte Ellison. Charlotte is strong willed enough to bribe the butler into letting her read the dailies, something not done by good girls, and dissatisfied with the prospects ahead of her in society marriage and family life. The book intertwines the solving of the ghastly murders with the unlikely romance of Thomas and Charlotte.

Callender Square takes place two years later. Charlotte and Thomas are happily married though the marriage has changed Charlotte's place in society and she is learning to cope with living without servants or a dress allowance. Pitt is called into investigate the finding of the bodies of two infants discoved by gardeners in the Square planting trees. At first it looks as if an unfortunate maid has hidden her indiscretions there but when Pitt can find no servant who could have done so within the time frame of the infant's birth, he is forced to probe deeper into the lives of the families in the Square. Charlotte helps him in his work, using her breeding and social contacts to ask questions and understand the deeper relationships Pitt is not privy to during official interviews.

Paragon Walk and Resurrection Row follow much the same premise as the first two, though by now Charlotte has had a baby, Jemima, and is becoming more adept at coping with housework without servants. These two books introduce the character of Aunt Vespasia, Charlotte's great-aunt-by-her-sister's-marriage. She, by virtue of her superior social position is able to provide social contacts for Charlotte to go "undercover" and ask questions or listen to conversations pertinent to Inspector Pitt's current investigation. All of this is done without Pitt's foreknowledge or consent and usually puts Charlotte in some sort of danger.

Bedford Square and Half Moon Street are set years later. The marriage between Charlotte and Thomas has become broken in and comfortable, though the spice is still there. Half Moon Street has Charlotte off on a trip to Europe with her sister and out of the picture, except for letters, leaving Thomas without his sounding board and intellectual partner. Bedford Square reintroduces a character from Callender Square as part of a group of important gentlemen being blackmailed for dishonorable acts they did not commit.

As well as being murder mysteries, these are novels about the injustices and inequities of British society in Victorian England At times, I found this a little tedious and annoying and really wished that Perry would put more into the murder plot and less into the same period details and problems over and over. But then, they probably weren't written to be read one after another within a week. I decided to space out the rest of the stash I bought to keep the good parts of the novels fresh. And to make a delightful series last a little longer, preventing the listless looking over of bookshelves when the series is finally over.

Death in Holy Orders
By P.D. James

One of my bad habits when reading mysteries is that I tend to look ahead to see how it ends. At least with most that is true. Usually, I can figure out who did it first and the pleasure in reading the book comes either from watching the detective and whatever sidekicks are involved solve the puzzle, or the pleasure is in the listening to the writing and the language used. Mysteries, though, generally aren't written with poignant prose that resonates off the page and when they do they stand out from the crowd like a Jaguar parked in a lot full of pickup trucks.

Death in Holy Orders surprised me by falling into the Jag category. I, for some reason I can't fully articulate, have always avoided P.D. James' books. I saw some of the PBS versions and was completely unimpressed by the stories and the characters and I think that may have tinged my view of the actual books. Adam Dalgleish struck me as washed out and kind of tired which is unfortunate, because after reading this particular book, I can't wait to read more of her work.

The story takes place in a remote seminary on the coast of England. A student has been found dead under the sand of the dangerous and decaying coastline, his cassock and cloak folded neatly aside. The inquest brings in a verdict of accidental death, though suicide may also have been a valid finding since the danger of sand collapsing is well known and the area well marked. Weeks later, his very rich father with political connections receives an anonymous note suggesting that his son's death is neither accidental nor suicide. Adam Dalgleish is called in to investigate, quietly. He is perfect for the job having spent some summers at the seminary as a young teenager and therefore is able to poke around without raising the suspicion of the press or the area residents. It only gets more complicated from there. The school owns many valuable art pieces and religious artifacts and the Church is moving to close it down in favor of consolidated teaching in some of the larger, more cost effective schools. There is a will, a mysterious papyrus dating from the time of Christ of unknown content, and a whole assortment of associated teachers, caretakers and students with complex relationships for Adam to investigate.

I did not peek ahead in this one. I found myself enjoying the writing almost as much as the story and admiring the way James can flesh out a character with only a few very well chosen details. I found myself slowing down the reading to make it last, something I rarely do. Of course, she leaves the end with a twist so that you have to go on to the next book, sadly not written yet that I know of, just to find out what happens. I think I will go back and begin at the beginning to find out what happened before.

Goody Hall
By Natalie Babbitt

Occasionally I browse my childrens' bookshelves just to see what's there that I can recommend next time they come to me looking for a good read. Since they have begun to buy books with their allowance I am less involved in what they are reading though I do have rules about suitability that are enforced. Happily, they generally choose books that are perfectly fine for their age or, at least, not objectionable to my own standard of what is appropriate reading for young adults. What constitutes a "good" book is a matter of taste which I hope they develop more as they grow but for now, I am just delighted they like to read.

I found this book tucked back in a corner and knowing I was going to be sitting and waiting for a couple hours while my daughter's hair was being permed, I took it along to read. I have mixed feeling about this book. Generally, the main plot is a mystery about the strange death of Midas Goody, the builder of the house named Goody Hall. A stranger walks into the local village looking for a job and is directed by the village blacksmith to the Hall where a tutor is being sought to teach the young, incorrigable son, Willett Goody. Every 6 months his mother travels to "town" for a couple days shopping but returns without packages to show for her efforts. And, the child reveals to his new tutor that when they were carrying his father's casket to the crypt, the casket went "clang" when bumped, leading the child to believe that his father is not dead and in his coffin but just gone.

This is a book about Identity and finding your place in the world and, as an adult, I enjoyed the subplot of the tutor discovering his own identity while he investigates the mystery of Midas Goody. I believe really good children's literature can be read on multiple levels so that both adult and child enjoy the same book. What bothers me is that I am not sure the intended younger reader would get the subtleties that make it so rich without some serious direction or discussion with an adult. And I don't think the story is enough to carry the book along on its own for a child. As a read aloud, it might work well though.

The Golden One
By Elizabeth Peters

This is actually a tough review to write. There were things I liked about this book and things I disliked but to fully explain either I would have to give away the plot. And that would be rude, to say the least. I was excited enough about the publication of the book to shell out the $25.95 to read it but others, more financially prudent, might want to wait for the paperback or for the library to acquire it.

First, Peters continues the multiple manuscript format and I found it as annoying as I did in the last book. I understand that as a writer it gives her more freedom to flesh out the background and details without losing the voice of Peabody but I still wish she would just pick one and stick to it. Ramses might be a good narrator. This one is set in 1917 and Peabody and Emerson are, well, getting on in years. A younger voice might provide the same comic elements. Watching Peabody might be as much fun as listening to her. Or a new criminal. Something to juice up the basic plot devices a little would be nice.

Not that I didn't enjoy this book. In fact I enjoyed it a great deal. I kept having a vision of Peabody inventing the fanny pack as a better way than her belt to carry her "supplies" and that led me to a whole set of ruminations on whether Peabody would be as entertaining if she were modern or is it the anomaly of her persona against the background that makes her such a good character. And then there is always the pondering of who I would cast as Ramses in the "movie"--no one has readily come to mind though I did toy with Ben Affleck for awhile. All of the above is my natterings about the book without actually "talking" about the book. If you are a Peters fan, I think you will enjoy it. But I'd wait for the paperback version.

Justice Hall
By Laurie R. King

Justice Hall is King's brand new book, still in hardback. And since it is still new, I have the same dilemma as with the Peters book for much the same reasons. However, this book, unlike the new Amelia Peabody book, didn't leave me feeling ambivalent when the book was done.

Justice Hall is a place. And the time is 1923, five years after the end of the Great War. Holmes and Peabody are back from the exhausting case laid out in The Moor when a person from the past knocks on their door and literally falls, bloody, into Russell's arms. The case is not a traditional murder mystery. No dead bodies in the library with guilty looking butlers lurking about. Holmes and Russell are called to save a friend from a double bind that will destroy him in the end. And that is all I am going to say about the plot.

I enjoyed this book very much. It has all the light hearted elements of a Russell/Holmes mystery. It also goes back to the horror of the trenches during WWI and asks some interesting questions about duty and honor and war. I must admit having recently seen the movie "Gosford Park" helped visualize the upstairs/downstairs elements, at least in my mind, but the central question of what is "right" in war is the theme that left me thinking about this book even after I had closed the covers.

Death of a Winter Shaker
By Deborah Woodworth

Woodworth has a series of mysteries revolving around a fictitious Shaker community in Langour, Kentucky called North Homage Shaker village. They are set in the 1930's, the depths of the Depression, and during the final days of any vitality for the Shaker movement. Technology and social change are providing other options for those who would normally have converted to the Shaker faith and the community is slowly shrinking as the elders die off and the young move out into the world rather than accept the vows of chastity and life without personal property.

Sister Rose Callahan is the trustee of the community, overseeing the financial and, in modern terms, marketing aspects of the community. She has accepted the covenant and at 34 is grounded in the Shaker faith and worried about the loss of converts and the plight of the village as vital skills are lost with the older generation. A Winter Shaker, one who is accepted into the community for shelter but who will likely leave when the weather warms and times are better, is found murdered in the Herb House. The murder rouses the distrust and anger in the community surrounding the village, causing suspicions of witchcraft and threats of violence. Rose must find the murderer before things get out of hand and the Shaker community is too disrupted to function as a group.

This book is certainly a light read. The mystery is OK but not as tightly plotted as it could have been. What gives the book charm is the peek into the Shaker way of life and beliefs and the sense of community that Rose feels in her faith and communal home. The Shakers have all but died out now and you know that Rose is fighting a lost battle which gives her a poignancy that otherwise she wouldn't have. For an afternoon, I enjoyed the book but probably won't reread it any time soon.


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 May 2002
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