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ex libris reviews

1 July 2002

Friday morning, having nothing else to do, I solved the case. I did it with cold logic. Everything fitted perfectly, and all I needed was enough evidence for a jury. Presumably that was what Saul Panzer was getting. I do not intend to put it all down here, the way I worked it out, because first it would take three full pages, and second I was wrong.
Rex Stout


In This Issue:
Crass Commercialization

I'm taking a bold step this month; I'm making it possible for readers of ex libris to make cash donations in support of this website. I've thought long and hard about it, and now that we've survived five years of service I decided it was time. But it is a bold step, and I wanted to say a few things about it.

First of all, all content on this site may be read for free. This has always been true; It shall remain true. So if you don't wish to contribute, please don't feel bad about it.

Second, ex libris isn't a commercial venture; it's a hobby. I'd be reading all of these books anyway, and it's fun to write down my thoughts about them and share them. I've gotten e-mail from all over the world, which is simply too cool for words. And while the domain name and web hosting does cost me money, it's certainly no more than I'd spend on any other hobby.

So why am I asking for money? There are two reasons: curiousity, and broad-band Internet access. I'm simply curious how many of you have benefited sufficiently from my reviews to want to spend money on them. (Honestly, I'm still amazed I have readers.) It's vanity, I suppose--at least, that's the answer I gave my Dad when he asked why I wanted my own domain name to begin with. But in addition, it would be really nice to have broad-band Internet access. One reason that ex libris has a monthly format is that the pain of uploading everything is such that I really don't want to bother with it more often than once a month. Given an always-on broad-band connection and a home network, I'd be willing to update the site far more often; it could even become more of a book review weblog.

But while basic Internet access is treated as a utility at our house, broadband access would be a gross extravagance--unless to some extent it paid for itself.

So that's the story. I don't want to make anyone feel guilty; ex libris will survive even if no one chips in. But if ex libris has been of value to you, and you'd like to make a contribution in support of future hardware upgrades, the Amazon Honor System paybox is over there on the right. Amazon will gladly take your money, and they'll even forward most of it directly to me. You can pay anonymously or openly--or not pay at all. It's your choice.

-- Will Duquette

Books to Read Aloud

by Will Duquette

Diplomatic Immunity
By Lois McMaster Bujold

I haven't read aloud to Jane very much in the last year; something to do with sleep deprivation on her part I think. But a new Miles Vorkosigan adventure by Lois McMaster Bujold will always bring her out of any fatigue-induced haze, and this one was no exception. We started it one evening and finished it (very late) the next evening, by which time I'd become well-acquainted with vocal muscles I hadn't previously been aware of. And then Jane hid it so that she could revisit the good bits, which means that even though we read it almost two months ago it didn't get into last month's issue because I couldn't find it.

It came to light, finally, so here's my review. I've got some good news, some bad news, and a prediction.

The good news is that we enjoyed it thoroughly from beginning to end. Fans of the series will have no complaints.

The bad news is that this is a much less ambitious book than its predecessor, A Civil Campaign. It's markedly thinner, it's simpler, and taken all-in-all it isn't going to win Lois her next Hugo. That's to say, it's a very good book--but she's occasionally done much, much better.

I'm not sure how much better this particular book could have been, though. Miles Vorkosigan's life, as chronicled in Bujold's books, has been a constant struggle to prove himself. In Memory he became an Imperial Auditor, one of Emperor Gregor's right-hand men. In A Civil Campaign he finally finds a girl worth marrying who'll marry him--the incomparable Ekaterin Vorsoisson.

In short, this is the book in which we see Miles after He Gets What He Always Wanted. He's won. He's proven himself, publically, in every way that matters. He's finally a complete, integrated human being, and it shows. He's still brilliant, but the manic edge is gone. And that leads me to the prediction: this is the last book that Bujold will write that focus primarily on Miles.

I was discussing the Vorkosigan saga with a friend the other day, and we agreed that Bujold had pulled off something amazing: she's written many books about Miles without ever once repeating herself. Each book is about something different. None are formulaic. I simply can't see how she can do another book about Miles without repeating herself.

Of course, I could be wrong... :-)

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Wine-Dark Sea
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 sixteenth in the series; if you are new to ex libris, you may wish to jump back to the April 2001 issue.

Quite some books ago now, it was suggested that Jack Aubrey should convey Stephen Maturin, physician, naturalist, and unpaid British agent, to South America for the purpose of fomenting rebellion against the Spanish Crown--a touchy business, as Spain was nominally Britain's ally at this time. Thanks to the two traitors Stephen disposed of a couple of books ago, the Spanish got wind of it, and it was necessary to create a diversion. And so Jack was sent to take a special envoy from the King to the Sultan of Pulo Prabang in Malaysia. It was an important mission, but the whole point was to get Jack and Stephen quietly to the South Pacific and and South America so that Stephen could foment rebellion.

This is the book in which they finally get there, and it's always been a disappointment to me. Everything goes wrong from start to finish, and the only real upbeat note in the whole book comes at the end when you realize that at long last they all get to go home.

And so ends Jack and Stephen's last great voyage. Next month we begin the homestretch: the sequence of books in which O'Brian strives to get Jack to flag rank.

Next month: The Commodore.

By Dorothy Dunnett

Over the last few months I've been reading and reviewing books from Dunnett's Lymond series of historical novels. This month I discuss Checkmate, the sixth and last book in the series. If you're a newcomer to ex libris, you might wish to jump back to the review of The Game of Kings in last December's issue.

I've been working on Checkmate on and off all month, and more off than on. There several reasons for this. Dunnett's prose is wonderful, but it has a peculiar density to it (peculiar because it lies more in what's not said than what is). It's next to impossible to read Dunnett while riding herd on three small children. And then, I need to be in the right mood to enjoy it; and then, this particular volume is just plain tedious.

Tedious? Yes. There's a wealth of interesting historical pageantry and derring do, occupying many hundreds of pages, and the problem is that most of it is beside the point.

The point is this. Lymond has discovered through diverse sources that he is a bastard, or worse. He's always had a special relationship with his mother; now he feels betrayed, and refuses to see her. Meanwhile, Phillipa, introduced as a young girl in the first Lymond novel, has now grown into a beautiful, intelligent, accomplished woman, in every way Lymond's equal for learning, wit, and bravery. She's discovered, too late, that she loves Lymond--but for some misguided reason refuses to tell him. Lymond has discovered that he loves Phillipa, but his honor will not, for some misguided reason, let him tell her. Neither knows how the other feels.

Do you get the idea that nobody's really talking to anybody else about anything that really matters? I hate that. Both Lymond and Phillipa do some incredibly stupid things trying to figure out the secret of Lymond's parentage; neither, evidently, thinks of asking Lymond's mother Sybilla, for which no adequately explained reason is given. Neither talks to each other about how they feel about each other.

And all the rest of the book is just unimportant detail passing by as little by little our hero and heroine finally get a clue--but not before they create a whole lot of needless pain for themselves and each other. I haven't gotten to the worst part yet, but I remember it from the first time I read it.


I'll probably have more to say next month, when I actually finish it. At least it ends happily.

The False Inspector Dew
By Peter Lovesey

This is a strange little mystery with many peculiar twists, and I liked it a lot, though I didn't believe the ending for a minute. It's not the best Lovesey I've read--but it's still quite well-written and entertaining.

The time is 1921. Lydia Baranov is a fading beauty of the London stage, no longer able to get work, though she refuses to admit it. Her husband Walter is an ex-vaudeville mentalist and current dentist. He likes dentistry; he's starting to do very well at it when Lydia decides they most sell everything and move to Hollywood where she can be a star of the silver screen. In a pig's eye, it's pretty clear, but she's determined, and the practice was bought with her money. She sells the dental practice, and books passage on the ocean liner Mauretania. Walter is greatly distressed.

Meanwhile, Walter gets a new patient, Alma, a spinster of incurably romantic notions; a century earlier, she'd have starred in Northanger Abbey. She conceives a bold plan: Walter must tell Lydia that he refuses to go. Instead, he will secretly book passage for himself under an assumed name. He'll smuggle Alma on board, then go to Lydia's room, kill her, and that night he'll dump her out the porthole. Meanwhile, Alma will impersonate Lydia. Once they get to America they'll claim all of Lydia's money and live together in bliss.

Walter decides to go along with it, and in a fit of whimsy chooses to use the name "Walter Dew"--the name of the Scotland Yard Inspector who caught the famous Dr. Crippen when he tried to escape to America on an ocean liner. And when murder is discovered on the Mauretania, to whom do the captain, crew, and passengers turn to to investigate it but the famous Inspecter Dew. And so the murderer gets to be the sleuth.

Considering the premise, and the fact that it begins with the sinking of the Lusitania, this is a surprisingly light-hearted, cheerful little book, with none of the stomach-churning tension I usually associate with books about imposters. It might almost be a P.G. Wodehouse novel--than which there is no greater compliment.

Rough Cider
By Peter Lovesey

Like The False Inspector Dew, this is a standalone novel rather than part of a series. It's set twenty years after World War II. The main character is a professor of history who, as a nine-year old during the Blitz was evacuated from London and made to live on a country farm for several months. There he met a number of locals, and a couple of American GIs who were stationed nearby. There was a murder, and one of the GIs--the boy's special friend--was convicted and hanged for it, partially on the boy's evidence.

Twenty years later the GI's daughter comes to England to confront the professor and investigate her father's conviction, and things commence to get very, very convoluted.

It reminded me of The Vault, which I reviewed last month, in that about halfway through I said to myself, "Oh, good grief, he's doing THAT, I thought better of him," only to discover that it was but a feint, a red herring, and that the real solution was much, much more interesting.

Diamond Solitaire
By Peter Lovesey

This is Lovesey's second book about detective Peter Diamond; it follows after last month's The Last Detective. Having resigned from the CID in a fit of pique, Diamond is making some sort of a living as a security guard at Harrods' department store in London when there's an after-hours alert: an intruder is in the building. The intruder turns out to be a little Japanese girl, no threat to anyway, but as she turns up on the floor Diamond was supposed to clear, he gets the sack.

Over the next few weeks, as he's looking for work, he becomes fascinated with the little girl, whose parents still have not been found. He wants to know why. He traces her to a school for autistic children--the girl shows signs of serious autism--and then the fun begins. The denouement is somewhat unlikely, but how many police procedurals combine autism with the awesome power of Sumo?

The Streetbird
By Janwillem van de Wetering

Van de Wetering was recommended to me by a correspondent from Wisconsin. I recognized the name immediately; his books have a distinctive red and black spine, and are shelved right next to Robert van Gulik's. But I'd never read anything by him and in fact knew nothing about him. I don't always rush right out and buy whatever people recommend to me, but I'd had good luck recently with Peter Lovesey and Robert Barnard, so I decided to give him a try. My correspondent had suggested a couple of titles, neither of which I could find at the bookstore, so I picked this one more or less at random.

The Streetbird is from van de Wetering's "Amsterdam Cops" series, and the man knows whereof he speaks, for he once was an Amsterdam Cop himself (in the Reserve, at any rate). Van de Wetering is also a Buddhist, and spent a considerable amount of time living as a Buddhist monk. I acquired this information from the back cover, and so it was with a mixture of curiousity and apprehension that I opened the book and began to read.

It seems that one of Amsterdam's top pimps has been murdered, and Amsterdam's homicide detectives swing into action. There's Adjutant Grijpstra, his partner Sergeant de Gier, and their boss, whose is identified only as the "commissaris". I gather that in these books, it's Grijpstra and de Gier who do all the legwork, but the commissaris who puts everything together. Now, having gotten this far I was expecting, allowing for translation, a standard kind of police procedural. This is exactly what I didn't get. Both the style and the plot are very strange. I'll take the plot first.

None of the cops in this book seem to do any real detecting. They take frequent breaks to eat something, and they wander about, and they talk a lot, but little of it seems to be of any purpose. And when it is directed toward some purpose, it seems to have little relation to the murder at hand. I frequently asked myself whether this was some kind of Buddhist thing. Purpose death is an illusion, mystery is an illusion, and murders will solve themselves if we but give them time and Enlightenment. It turns out that there's a good reason for the cops to wander about aimlessly, but that doesn't completely answer my question.

The style is also weird. Mystery novels are usually very visual, almost cinematic. The author wants you to see just what the detective sees. Van de Wetering is clearly tending toward the other extreme. He seldom describes people's appearance. There are frequent sections where a group of people are interacting, examining some crime scene or some piece of evidence, and all he gives us are their voices. The object is not directly described, nor are their actions; we have to deduce, say, that the object is being passed from hand to hand by what they say. And though Amsterdam is a strange city to me, I didn't really get any sense of it. To put it in cinematic terms, if this were a movie, every shot would have been in extreme close-up, and often the close-up would be of something mostly irrelevant.

I have to add, it's clear that the book is the way it is on purpose; it's not simply a matter of incompetence.

Having finished it, I was at a loss to know how much of this strangeness is the author's normal manner, and how much was due to the plot of this particular book, so I sent a note to my correspondent asking the question. His answer was partially reassuring; apparently The Streetbird is a peculiar book even for van de Wetering. So I'm going to give him a second try next month.

Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
By J.K. Rowling

I doubt I need to say much about these. We recently got the DVD of Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone, and then Jane started to read them, never having read them before (she loved them), and while the movie tallied pretty well with my memory of the book, I got curious about exact the correspondence was. So I re-read 'em.

The first one is rather more lightweight than I remembered; the other two are less lightweight than the first. They are still good fun, and they are just as obviously flawed as they were the first time through.

On the DVD there's an interview with the director, producer, and so forth of the Harry Potter movies in which they rave about how J.K. Rowling has created a whole world with its own history and culture and how she has notebooks full of detail she hasn't used yet and so on and so forth, and it's really quite evident that none of them are fantasy and science fiction fans, because as a world-builder Rowling is no more than adequate. I'd point, especially, at the boundary between the wizard and muggle worlds. On the one hand the wizards have no conception of electricity or telephones or any of those things, and they go to great lengths to keep the muggles from knowing about them; and on the other hand they sometimes marry muggles or come from muggle families, and they somehow successfully manage to get to various London train stations. There's a serious disconnect there.

But, when all's said and done, the books deliver on their promise, and I can't say fairer than that.

Lord Emsworth and Others
By P.G. Wodehouse

From the title, one might expect this to be a collection of short stories taking place at Blandings Castle, home of Lord Emsworth, his sister Lady Constance, and that unmatched pig, Empress of Blandings. That being the case, I was pleasantly surprised twice by this book, as the Blandings stories are my least favorite of Wodehouse's work.

The first surprise was that the lead story, "The Crime Wave at Blandings," was certainly the best Blandings Castle story I've read to date. The second surprise was that this is a mixed anthology--only the first story takes place at Blandings. For the rest, there's a Mr. Mulliner story, three Golf stories (about which more below), a Drones Club story, and several Ukridge stories, and most of them were new to me.

Good stuff, all around.

The Clicking of Cuthbert
By P.G. Wodehouse

At some point in his life Wodehouse discovered golf, and one gathers that it was a trial to him. But it led to him writing a series of Golf stories, all related by the "Oldest Member" at an English country club. They are much like his other stories, in that they usually involve some kind of romantic comedy: Mr. Doe trying to woo and win the hand of Miss Roe, or Mr. A and Mr. B competing for the affections of Miss C. Still, there's an added dimension, for some of the cast members are Golfers, and some are Non-Golfers. And for the Golfers, Golf is the one true religion, the thing that separates man from beast. When a Golfer falls in love with a Non-Golfer, you can imagine the sparks. And when two Golfers compete for the love of a non-Golfer, you can only hope that both will come to their senses before the ending of the determining match.

I'm not much of a Golfer, myself; in fact, from a religious point of view I'd have to classify myself as a Non-Golfer. But I enjoyed these stories anyway, as would anyone whose parents used to watch golf matches on TV on Sunday afternoons. As a plus, I hadn't read many of these particular stories before.

The Philosophical Strangler
By Eric Flint

It's funny, but although I've read a number of books with Eric Flint's name on them, they've all been collaborations (the Belisarius novels with David Drake; Rats, Bats, & Vats with Dave Freer). The thing I noticed in these other books was an imperfect blend of over-the-top humor with a somewhat serious story. Enjoyable books, yes, but flawed.

In fact, I'd pretty much written off Eric Flint as a minor talent who probably couldn't deliver an entire novel on his own. Then I saw The Philosophical Strangler at the bookstore, and remembered that my brother had recommended it, just as he had the Belisarius books. I'd enjoyed those, despite their problems, and I confess I was curious to see what Flint could do all by himself.

To my surprise, it's a much better book than his collaborations. Partly this is because it's all of one piece, which is to say it's over-the-top humor clear through. It's also bawdy, fast-paced, inventive, anti-clerical (one can't have everything), and puzzling.

The Philosophical Strangler is the story of a very large assassin named Greyboar, and his friend and agent the diminuitive Ignace. When it comes to strangling for hire, Greyboar's thumbs are in a class by themselves; that invaluable reference "Janes' All The World's Perps" is considering giving him his own rating. The two are doing pretty well, all things considered, when everything goes to hell. First, Greyboar discovers philosophy and starts to refuse jobs that aren't philosophically correct. Then, Greyboar's revolutionary sister Gwendolyn comes back into their lives, seeking help for dwarfish rights. On top of that, there's evidence that the second coming of Joe is imminent. Joe? He's the guy who invented religion, and when he sees what the Almighty has done with it, he's going to be extremely displeased.

The book means to be funny, and it succeeds. It takes place in a colorful and interesting and silly world. Flint clearly put a lot of work into it. And yet, the book has no real center; the way the tale is told makes sense only if this is the first book of a series. And yet, the book ends in a way that makes additional books with the same characters seem unlikely to me--or at least they'd be very different books. I don't know what to make of it. Maybe it's simply that Flint isn't very good at plotting out a novel; maybe that's what his collaborators have provided.

Anyway, I'd like to see Flint do more work on his own. He might need to work on his plotting, but he does better work when it's all his own voice.

Don Camillo's Dilemma
By Giovanni Guareschi

After my review of The Little World of Don Camillo, one of my correspondents was good enough to send me three more Don Camillo books he'd picked up at various used bookstores. I'll not identify him publically, but he knows who he is, and he has my thanks.

My previous review gives the scoop on Don Camillo and his little world, so I won't repeat it here. I'll just say that this is more of the same, just as charming and witty and Italian as before, and that I'm saving the other two for later.

The Doorbell Rang
Some Buried Caesar
Three Doors to Death
Three at Wolfe's Door
Homicide Trinity
Prisoner's Base
Trio for Blunt Instruments
Three Witnesses
Not Quite Dead Enough
Trouble in Triplicate
The Mother Hunt
Three for the Chair
And Four to Go
By Rex Stout

I'd like to begin by saying that I didn't read all of these back to back.

I first made the acquaintance of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin almost two years ago, and immediately bought as many of Rex Stout's tales of the duo as I could find. That amounted to precisely ten novels, out of 72 total, and this despite the fact that each one has some advertising in it proclaiming that they are part of the "Rex Stout Library", an effort to bring all of his books back into print. I figured that it was just my bad luck that I'd chosen to start reading about Nero and Archie at the tail-end of the publishing cycle. Over the last two years I've occasionally seen one or another of the ten on the bookstore shelves, but that's been it. (I've bought a couple of them twice, accidentally.)

But there's a new "Nero Wolfe" TV show on A&E, and when I happened to look under "S" in the Mystery shelves at the bookstore I found a whole slew of books I'd not read, all with "As Seen On TV" on the cover. I was extravagant, and bought all of them. As you might guess, the ones with some variation of the world "three" in them are not novels but collections of three novelettes. This is a good thing, because you get three doses of Nero and Archie instead of one.

I realize that I haven't yet said much about the specific books listed above, but you'll surely have realized by now that they are something special. If you've never heard of Nero Wolfe before, you might care to check out the TV show on Sunday nights; I've seen just two episodes, and as I happened to read the novellettes that they were based on at about the same time I can tell you that they are doing a fine job. But better yet, go to the bookstore and pick out two or three at random and have fun.

Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

Equal Rites
Wyrd Sisters
By Terry Pratchett

Well, for openers, I have a 14-year-old son who reads incessantly. It just so happens that Pratchett has been one of his favorite authors for maybe 2 years now. He will read me passages from his current book in the car or after homework is done but usually it's tough to get what's so funny because he keeps breaking up into the sweet giggles that only a young, adolescent boy is capable of.

Now you would think a kid who reads everything from cereal box labels to his Dad's wood/plastic/fibre-composite tech journals and can actually discuss some of the more esoteric aspects of a magazine such as "Invention and Technology" would not have troubles getting a passing grade in reading as a subject in school. Boy, that is not the case in our house. So, after the last round of progress reports, I was thinking about how to get him to read some more of the mainstream books he will probably have to read in High School and thought that a "deal" would be good thing. He can inflict any book or author on me as long as he also reads what I recommend. He is currently reading To Kill a Mockingbird and I will probably spend a good deal of the summer reading sci-fi. My first author was Terry Pratchett.

My first book was actually The Last Continent but I am not going to review it here because, to be honest, I think you have to have read some of its predecessors to enjoy it. However, I did find Equal Rites on his bookshelf. And I found Wyrd Sisters right next to it. Will has reviewed both books in the past so I would suggest you go to the recommended authors page and read up on them if you are new to Pratchett and want a summary of the plot. All I have to say is, well, they were ok. Kind of funny, sometimes really funny. I doubt seriously my son is getting all the jokes, particularly in Wyrd Sisters where he parodies both Macbeth and Hamlet and turns Shakespeare into a dwarf. I enjoyed these two even if they were a little lame at times. Ok, so they were really lame at times. They were still loads of fun. And if it gets my son to read more than Pratchett, Brian Jacques or Star Wars books, it is certainly worth my time to read a couple more. Not right away though.

Cannery Row
By John Steinbeck

I read Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" in college for an "Intro to Lit" class. I hated it. It depressed me completely. The guy is supposed to be one of the great American writers of the 20th century and I couldnt see what all the brouhaha was about. That depressed me too. I must be missing something here. I found it heavy handed and wordy.

Well, now I am looking for books to make my son read this summer as part of our "deal" and I recall my guy friends in high school just raving about "Cannery Row." I vaguely remember reading it myself sometime after college when the movie came out with Nick Nolte. I remember the book was better than the movie and that's about it. So, rather than recommend something I am not totally sure is appropriate, I thought I better have another go at it first. Actually, the plot is hard to summarize for those who haven't read it. The setting is a little easier to capture. It takes place in a part of Monterey that's on the wrong side of the tracks. Next to the canneries, the streets are full of neglected waifs whose fathers have to work long hours, if they are around at all. There is a a bordello with warm-hearted whores and a grocery run by a pragmatic Chinaman. A vacant lot is inhabited by homeless bums who eventually move into the Chinaman's vacant building. And Doc, the marine biologist, has his business collecting specimens from the sea and selling them to research facilites and schools.

The book is about community and loneliness and ingenuity and failure. It has an incredible opening prologue that just took my breath away. There a moments of slapstick humor and moments when I wanted to cry. And the really brilliant part is that Steinbeck manages all this in beautifully clean, precise writing. After reading this book, I like Steinbeck much more than I did before. I probably will recommend it to my son. Hopefully, he will remember it years from now and go back to reread it.

Deep Fathom
By James Rollins

This book has a disaster scenario plot. The entire Pacific rim is hit by huge earthquakes and tidal waves causing mass destruction. LA and San Francisco are smoking rubble. The Aleutian Islands sink into the ocean. Japan and the Asian coasts are a mess. And wouldn't you know, all this happens while the President is on an important disarmament talk with China. He is shuttled onto Air Force One post-haste when the quakes start only to have the plane mysteriously disappear into the Pacific. The last words from the cockpit are "The sky is opening up." And the Vice Pres is a rabid anti-China hawk who is now in power and blames the whole thing on China. And the really cool part is a lost city in the Pacific suddenly resurfaces with mysterious crystals that change their weight when exposed to sunlight.

I guess before 9/11 I found disaster books mildly interesting. When Tom Clancy took an airline jet into the Capitol building during the State of the Union address and killed off the entire American government, except for Jack Ryan, I laughed out loud. That's one way to solve the problem in government. However, that all changed when the real thing is presented on national television, as it happens and you watch, live and in color, while so many people die. I read this book because my son recommended it. Part of our deal over the summer. But I would not recommend it. The plot is forced, the characters are boring and and the whole premise of why the earthquakes happened is just plain lame.

Flash for Freedom
By George MacDonald Fraser

I read Flash for Freedom first and then went back to start the series with the opening book Flashman. Will has a author's page for Fraser which I suggest you go read if you are interested in these books. In fact, I highly recommend you go read the page and Pay Attention to what he says. My 14 year old son was home sick with strep this spring and he was looking for something to read in bed so, unknowingly, I gave him one of the books. He loved it, asked for another one and loved that one too. I went back to Will's author page and reread it having, I confess, just skimmed it the first time thru. Then I read a little of one and, oh my goodness, these are not appropriate for 14 year olds. Major whoops on my part.

Harry Flashman is one of the most despicable, low down, self-centered, cowardly, opportunisitic "heroes" I have ever encountered. He also will take a tumble in the sack with just about anything that qualifies as female. Most of the time I fluctuate between wanting to slap him silly and wondering what sort of antics he will come up with next. He's so icky he's fascinating. And the neat part about the books is that he's somehow toadying his way thru major events in history.

Flash for Freedom has Flashman experiencing every aspect of the slave trade in 1848 and 1849. He captures slaves on the coast of Africa and works on a slaver across the Atlantic. He runs slaves north, or tries to, for the Underground Railroad. He works as an overseer on a plantation and experiences New Orleans and the slave markets. He even manages to get himself sold into slavery only to escape and find himself making his way north as a runaway. And of course, he's wenching the entire way. Until I realized what Fraser was doing, I admit, I found the book just a little too much to take. Some of the pictures were not particularly pretty or funny. But for a snapshot of the slave trade and its economics, it wasn't too bad.

Flashman introduces Harry Flashman in 1839 as he is being kicked out of Rugby School for drunkeness. He toadies his way into the army and finds himself posted to India and then Afghanistan. He survives the rout of Kabul, returns to England a national hero and ends up finding himself married to Elspeth, a female version of himself, after showing her just what the word "fornication" means. It helps that her father is loaded and can force him into it.

I liked these books. I am not sure if I like myself for liking these books but then I can rationalize it that they are pretty accurate historically and the author does give us those nice footnotes explaining the historical details. A guy at work tells me he read the original Flashman in Playboy in the early 70's which doesnt surprise me at all. Playboy is known for its quality, um, literature. I do have the entire series on my bookshelf. They are on the lowest shelf and my son now has strict instructions to leave them alone.

In This Mountain
By Jan Karon

Mitford is one of those mythical places, like Sesame Street or Lake Woebegon, that you sometimes wish you could move to. Father Tim and Cynthia are back in Mitford after a hiatus on the coast, all the main characters from the previous books are back plus a couple of very significant more. Father Tim is still diabetic, still retired, still married to Cynthia who is still illustrating books about Violet, the cat. Puny still cooks and cleans for him and Dooley still wants to be a vet. And that's as close to a plot summary as I am going to make right now. The book is still in hardback and far be it from me to spill the beans. Father Tim was much more real in this one than he has been so far. And there is actually a really awful character. Suffice it to say, I liked this one the best of the series, except for maybe the first, and I liked the series a whole lot. I just wish I could get a copy of Esther Bollick's orange marmalade cake recipe.

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Home : Ex Libris : 1 July 2002
Copyright © 2002, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
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