Home : Ex Libris : 1 October 2002

ex libris reviews

1 October 2002


"Watson, what a devious mind you possess!" Holmes stopped, his eyes twinkling. "That is positively brilliant. Brilliant! Of course, you have neglected all the evidence, but I cannot fault your imagination."
Nicholas Meyer


Contents


In This Issue:
A New Face

We've got several treats this month. First, we've got a new guest reviewer: Craig Clarke. You'll find his reviews down the page a ways. He hopes to write some reviews for us each month, and I hope he does, too.

Next, if you haven't seen it, we now have a web log! It's called The View from the Foothills; I'll be posting book reviews and other short bits to it all through the month. You can get to it by clicking on its name, above, or on the word Foothills over in the right hand column.

Finally, I've created a mailing list, "bookclub@lists.wjduquette.com". If you'd like to share your comments and opinions with others of our readers, you can subscribe to the list at http://lists.wjduquette.com/listinfo.cgi/bookclub-wjduquette.com. Once you've subscribed, you can send e-mail to everyone on the list just by sending it to bookclub@lists.wjduquette.com. As I write this, everyone on the list means me, myself and I, so go ahead and keep me company!

-- Will Duquette


Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Yellow Admiral
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 eightteenth in the series; if you are new to ex libris, you may wish to jump back to the April 2001 issue.

I like this particular book better each time I read it, its deus ex machina ending notwithstanding. Jack Aubrey is a successful captain, the lord of Woolcombe manor, and a member of Parliament, and this leads him into trouble: he know has responsibilities he cannot ignore which lead him into conflict with other wealthy and well-to-do naval officers and hence with the Admiralty. It's a struggle for him, for what he fears more than anything else is that he might become a "Yellow Admiral" -- an Admiral never employed, never at sea, given the title merely as a courtesy to open the way for more-skilled or better-connected captains with less seniority.

What I like most about it, I guess, is that it gives us a more detailed picture of Jack's boyhood than we ever have had before; and for the very first time we see that he has real roots into the land.

Next month, The Hundred Days.

How Buildings Learn
By Steward Brand

Every once in a while I stumble across a really good non-fiction book on a topic that I would never have pursued ordinarily. One such was J.E. Gordon's Structures: or Why Things Don't Fall Down, which I reviewed a couple of months ago. This is another. It's perhaps the first serious discussion of how buildings tend to change over time, and why; and takes the first steps to identifying how to plan for this change, and how to design buildings that work with their occupants rather than against them. It explains why fancy buildings are often detested by their residents, and why temporary structures tend to last forever. It's filled with fascinating pictures and anecdotes, and my only regret is that I borrowed it from a friend--now I'll have to go out and find my own copy.

The Ring of Five Dragons
By Eric van Lustbader

I've never cordially loved van Lustbader's books, and indeed it's been fifteen or more years since I last read one; but my brother likes his stuff, and now, as then, he loaned me one.

The first thing I'll say is that the book takes far too long to get moving. I came close to putting it away several times in the first couple-of-hundred pages; and if it wasn't that I hate not finishing anything I've started I probably would have. But it improves in the second half.

The Ring of Five Dragons is probably best defined as fantasy with science fictional elements. It takes place on a planet that's been conquered by the V'orrn, a quasi-human race that migrates from planet to planet under the direction of its top caste, the Gyrgon, who are always researching and experimenting with the goal of attaining immortality. The V'orrn are inclined to treat all other races as cattle.

The planet was previously inhabited by the Kundalans, folks who are (so far as I can tell) normal humans. The Kundalans are in a bad way: the V'orrn conquest coincided with serious social and religious upheavals, with the result that the traditional Kundalan religion was rejected by many of the previously faithful, and undermined and subverted by its very leaders. And since the Kundalan religion is manifestly true, as we discover in the course of the book, the consequences of all of this might be extreme indeed.

As the book ends, the immediate crisis has been averted; but considerably more is yet to come. I'm awaiting the sequel with a modicum of (muted) eagerness.

Hammerfall
By C.J. Cherryh

This is the story of an ordeal--a tale in which physical endurance against the harsh elements and wild beasts is key. Man against his environment. And the thing about ordeal stories is that it takes endurance to read them. I've always liked Cherryh's books, but I've always had to be in the right mood.

The main character, Marak Trin Tain, is a great warrior. His world, a desert planet settled by humans in the distant past, is but sparsely populated. There are the tribes, nomads who live in the deep desert; the villages, each centered around its spring; and the holy city of Oburan, where dwells the Ila and her ministers amid riches of water. The Ila, somehow, is immortal; she is apparently one of the "first descended" to this planet, and she has made it and its people in her image.

Until recently, Marak Trin Tain has been leading his father's men in rebellion against the Ila. The rebellion failed, and to buy peace his father has sold him to the Ila. He is taken to Oburan with one thought in his heart: to kill the Ila. He doesn't manage it, of course; it would be a short book if he did. Instead, she sends him to seek out the source of the Madness that has come upon many of the people of the Ila's world--a madness that has come upon Marak himself, and which draws him to the east.

And then the ordeal begins.

Cherryh has crafted an interesting world with a unique history, and a unique premise--at least, I've not encountered it before. A culture which possesses the secrets of both nanotechnology and genetics may well use them to make war. And the fiercest battles may not take place across nations or continents, but instead within the confines of a single human body.

I was in the right mood; I liked it. And it's the beginning of a series (though it stands alone perfectly well), so I'm looking forward to the next book.

Starship Troopers
By Robert A. Heinlein

Back in the days when I read rec.arts.sf.written (the USENET science fiction newsgroup) on a regular basis, one of the things I could count on was that any mention of Starship Troopers would trigger a major battle of words. One can (a little unfairly) state the political philosophy of the book in one sentence: only those who have shown that they are willing to put their nation's good before their own good through military service should be entrusted with the right to vote.

This led to endless discussion as to whether Heinlein was right or wrong, and little of it was to the point, which is this: Heinlein wanted to write a coming-of-age story about a spoiled rich kid who learns discipline, maturity, and responsibility through military service. He needed a world in which such a kid might reasonably choose to enlist without being drafted, and without the threat of war (the war begins after Johnny Rico enlists) and so he needed a carrot to entice Johnny and his peers into taking the oath. In Johnny's case he provides two: the franchise, and a beautiful young lady of Johnny's acquaintance who chooses to enlist at the same time (she eventually becomes a pilot). Callow youth that Johnny is, it's the desire to impress the girl that really does the trick.

All else follows from that. Having created this world, Heinlein needed to justify it--to provide verysmellitude as Michael Cantrip would say-- and he does this through the courses in "History and Moral Philosophy" that Johnny is made to take. Heinlein was fascinated by ethics, and he loved to play with ideas. To find out what he really thought about these matters, one would have to look elsewhere.

But although the ethical side is interesting (and, in some cases, compelling), it's not the heart of the book. This is a boot camp story; it's a trial by fire story; it's an adventure story. It's the story of a kid getting over himself and getting on with the job--"getting shut of doing things rather more or less". Plus it's got some really cool gadgets. Powered armor has become a stock prop these days, but I was blown away by the idea when I first read it. So what's not to like?

Hard Rain
By Janwillem van de Wetering

A couple of months ago I read van de Wetering's Amsterdam Cops mystery The Streetbird, and found it to be very strange indeed. My correspondent assured me that most of the books in the series were not quite that peculiar, so I ventured to try him again.

Hard Rain follows after The Streetbird, possibly immediately after, and involves a crisis in the Amsterdam police department. The old Chief Constable (equivalent to our Chief of Police) has retired, and his successor is incompetent at best, and probably crooked with it. His appointments and personnel transfers have been in keeping with this.

When the bad cops come in, the good cops have to be disposed of, naturally; in this case that means our heroes Grijpstra, de Gier, Cardozo, and their boss the commissaris (that's his rank; we never learn his full name, though his wife calls him Jan). So the commissaris is being investigated for corruption, murder cases are being closed improperly, cops are being paid off, and behind much of it is a crook who was once the commissaris' boyhood friend.

Hard Rain still has much of the ethereal, philosophical, whimsical atmosphere of The Streetbird; if you're looking for gritty, hardboiled police procedurals, this isn't the place. Although, that might be a misleading statement--I don't want to leave the impression that van de Wetering's Amsterdam is a suburb of Disneyland, either. The city is rife with drugs, prostitutes, and murder--but the writing is somehow detached from it all.

I read the book with interest, but I'm not at all sure whether or not I liked it.

Me, by Jimmy (Big Boy) Valente
By Garrison Keillor

This is, of course, Keillor's ode to Jesse (The Body) Ventura, and to my surprise (given the public acrimony between the two men) it's not nearly as mean-spirited as I expected. To be truly mean-spirited, a work of satire needs to hew a little closer to the truth than this one does.

At least, if the Jesse Ventura's life was anything like Jimmy Valente's, the world is a much strange place than I thought.

So much for satire; so how was it as a book? If you're a Keillor fan you've probably already read it, and if you're not a Keillor fan, there's probably not much point. It's an extended yarn of the kind he likes to spin once in a while, it's incredibly silly, and it kept me reading until the end. I laughed every so often. But Lake Wobegon Days it ain't.

The Gallery of Regrettable Food
By James Lileks

This is simply the funniest thing I've encountered in years. I tried--tried--to read bits of it to Jane at the bookstore and nearly busted a gut. I literally had to stop and lean on the the bookshelves and catch my breath.

As the story goes, in 1962 Lileks' mom was given a cookbook entitled Specialties of the House; it was a product of the North Dakota State Durum Wheat Commission. His mom wisely consigned it to a remote closet where Lileks himself found it 1996 and was astounded by the nauseating pictures and absurd recipes. The Gallery of Regrettable Food is the result.

It's not, as you might think, a compendium of food which was once popular and is now frowned on; rather, it's about food which was never appetizing at any time, and recipes that no one with any sense ever made. It's a collection of photographs, graphics, and copy from cookbooks of the last century, along with Lilek's own snide (and often distressingly funny) remarks.

Learn how Spry shortening makes everything better, and how to use 7-Up to brighten up your casseroles. Read about the dark side of jello molds and appetizers and the Man who Hated His Spinach. But perhaps not just before dinner.

You can get some highlights of the book at http://www.lileks.com.

Beyond This Horizon
By Robert A. Heinlein

I was scrounging around the local Borders for books to take with me on my trip, and found a couple of old Heinlein titles I'd never previously read. I picked up this one when I got through security at the airport, and finished it about two hours later, just before it was time to board the airplane to Seattle.

I enjoyed it, but, bluntly, this isn't Heinlein's best work. The plot meanders here and there; the real climax of the book occurs about two-thirds of the way through, and the material after that just goes on to the end of the book without any real action.

On top of that, the book's dated, and not in a good way. The book's about a future utopia in which economics and gene selection are solved problems. There are lengthy lectures about Mendelian genetics, mostly stuff I learned in elementary school, which were probably interesting to science-fiction fans in 1942 but which I found merely tedious. Then there's the unintentionally funny scene in which a mathematician balances the national economy perfectly (something which probably isn't even possible) using a mechanical computer made up of rods and cams.

But even Jove nods, and this was one of Heinlein's earliest novels; and it nicely filled the two hours I sat in the terminal at Burbank airport.

There was one interesting plot device: nearly everyone in this Utopia (well, all the men anyway--it was 1942) carries a sidearm. As Heinlein puts it, an armed society is a polite society. When you know that being rude can get you challenged to a duel and possibly killed, you're unlikely to be rude. I bring this up because one of my friends keeps making the same point over lunch, if not as stylishly. (He knows who he is....)

The CEO of the Sofa
By P.J. O'Rourke

This is a heavily-edited collection of O'Rourke's columns over the last five or so years; the conceit is that he's pontificating to the various folks who happen to pass through his house, and they get to make smart-aleck remarks back at him. It works fairly well, and the material is typical P.J.: serious subjects treated humorously, irreverently and sometimes profanely--but only after considerable thought. He's undeniably flippant, but it's still Humor from Knowledge rather than Humor from Ignorance. It's funny, thought-provoking, and occasionally chilling, as when he says, "Smoking crack is a way for people who couldn't afford college to study the works of Charles Darwin."

The only discordant note isn't really O'Rourke's fault. The essays span the end of Clinton's presidency and the beginning of Bush's, but the book was published prior to 9/11/2001. As a result, he spends a certain amount of time fulminating about topics that no longer seem quite so important, and ignoring others that now seem crucial.

But anyway, I liked it.

Red Planet
By Robert A. Heinlein

This is the other early Heinlein novel I picked up for this trip. It's one of Heinlein's so-called "juveniles", and I can barely remember having tried to read it when I was eleven or twelve. The hero is a school kid named Jimmy Marlowe; he gets treated very badly by the school's headmaster, and I found it so unpleasant that I put the book down and never picked it back up again.

The book is both better plotted and less inclined to lecture than Beyond This Horizon, which was written seven years earlier; still, I found it less satisfying. I don't think it's just because it's a juvenile, either, as many of Heinlein's juveniles are first rate. Perhaps the editor's hand was a little heavier on this one.

All-in-all, I found it interesting mostly as a precursor to Stranger in a Strange Land. I don't believe that it's set in precisely the same universe, but the Martians we see only from afar in Stranger in a Strange Land are clearly very much like the ones we meet up close in Red Planet. It was interesting to get a closer look at them.

An Exchange of Hostages
By Susan R. Matthews

This is the story of a young nobleman named Andrej Koscuisko. He's a member of the nobility on one of the planets of a star empire called the Jurisdiction. As the name implies, power in the Jurisdiction is held by the judiciary rather than by an executive or legislative body. The Bench's decisions are enforced by the Fleet. Trial for criminal wrong-doing is by inquisition, accompanied by torture; the point of the torture is twofold, to elicit confessions and to deter other criminals. As a result, the Jurisdiction is always in need of skilled inquisitors.

Due to the practical difficulties involved in using torture as a way of gathering information, it's required that all inquisitors have medical training. It so happens that our hero recently graduated first in his class from the best medical school in the Jurisdiction. His father (for reasons that are never explained) has insisted that he go to Fleet Medical Orientation Station, there to learn how to be an inquisitor/torturer. The book covers the time he spends in training.

I have mixed feelings about this book. It kept me reading, and there are many interesting, well-drawn characters; Andrej's personal development through the course of the book is particularly well described.

But.... there are many extremely unpleasant scenes. This is not a book for the squeamish. Only my concern for the characters kept me reading.

But.... The folks in charge of the Orientation Station are portrayed as being kind, thorough, decent men and women who truly care about their charges, low and high...and yet they have dedicated their lives to training torturers. Why?

But.... after chapters of extremely painful material, the book just kind of ends. There's no satisfactory resolution; young Andrej simply goes off to be a torturer.

In short, I fail to see the point of this book. It was undeniably interesting, but after putting up with all the pain I had hoped for a better payoff. Matthews is an author to watch, but I can't recommend this particular book. Unless, that is, you like to read detailed descriptions of blood and gore.

March Upcountry
By David Weber and John Ringo

What happens when the Empress of a good bit of the known galaxy treats her third son like a mushroom (e.g., keeps him in the dark and, well, you get the idea) from his childhood until he grows to adulthood because he resembles his treacherous father a little too much? You get Prince Roger MacClintock, good-looking, bored, possibly disloyal, unskilled (except at a few things he genuinely likes) because he's never been trusted to do anything important.

You get Prince Roger MacClintock, possible tool of the Empress's enemies. You get Prince Roger MacClintock, obnoxious, ill-tempered, and petulant, the burden of the Bronze Battalion of the Empress' Own Regiment. They'll keep him alive, die for him if necessary, but that doesn't mean they need to respect hiim--and they don't.

And then the ship that's taking Prince Roger and his bodyguard to show the flag on a remote planet is sabotaged. Prince and bodyguard have no choice but to land on Marduk, an extremely unpleasant place with only one starport where they can find a ship back home. And because that starport has just been taken by the forces of the neighboring star empire, they have to land in secret halfway around the planet or risk getting blown out of the sky.

This is a war novel, of the sort for which both David Weber and John Ringo are already known; it's also a coming-of-age novel. Bravo Company is going to have to do considerable fighting to get the Prince safely home; but the Prince is going to have to pull his weight and earn the respect of his troops. Roger's growth through the novel adds some needed depth to what would otherwise be a fairly shallow (if exciting) science fiction adventure.

I feel kind of like Deb English felt last month: I'm not at all sure that this is a good book, but gosh I had fun reading it.

March Upcountry takes Roger and the gang half the way home; the story is continued in March to the Sea, which is now out in hardback (I think). I'll wait for the paperback, but I'll definitely buy it when it comes out.

Oh, and my thanks go to my brother Chuck, who passed this one along to me.

Glory Road
By Robert A. Heinlein

I'm not sure what to say about this one. It's classic Heinlein; it's one of his few excursions into fantasy; it's one of the few books I know in which swordplay figures both largely and knowledgeably. Heinlein was a fencer, and would never wittingly produce what Poul Anderson once called "Thud and Blunder". It's fun. It's a good time. It's got a hero and princess and a sidekick, fierce monsters, daring escapes, pitched battles. It's got a fair dollop of sexual chemistry without getting into the kind of hijinks that marred so many of his later works. On the whole, it's a rousing good time.

But I'm darned if I can say why I like it so much; it's really fairly lightweight.

I guess part of it is that it carries the story passed "happily ever after." What happens after the hero helps the princess regain her kingdom and joins her on the throne? He gets bored stiff, of course. He has no training as a king or a courtier, he's not greatly skilled at either, and frankly no one expects him to be. So what does he do?

He goes a-heroing, of course.

Anyway, if you like Heinlein you should find yourself a copy. If you've never tried Heinlein, this isn't a bad starting point; though I'd probably point you at The Moon is a Harsh Mistress instead.

The Sirens Sang of Murder
By Sarah Caudwell

This is the third of Caudwell's mystery novels, and as I hinted last month it's much better than its immediate predecessor, The Shortest Way to Hades. Once again it's about Oxford professor Hilary Tamar and the young lawyers of her acquaintance; and once again the plot turns on a point of law. In this case, the law is tax law, particularly as it applies to tax shelters--the kinds of tax shelters that involve such offshore tax havens as the Channel Islands between England and France, and the Cayman Islands in the Carribean.

As the first book centered on the dreamy, sensual, unworldly Julia Larwood and the second on the quietly competent Selena Jardine, so this one mostly involves Cambridge graduate and barrister Michael Cantrip--a young lad who's no better than he should be. Michael, along with Julia, has provided a great deal of the humor in the series, and it's nice to see him take center stage.

And in addition to Caudwell's dry, witty prose and the pleasures of the various characters, we add the joys of Cantrip's telex messages home, the occasional scene from Chancery!, a novel which Julia and Cantrip are co-authoring together; and the occasional passage from the "Comfortable Guide to Tax Planning", a sort of privately-circulated travel guide to the Cayman Islands and other tax-havens around the world, each of which is funny in its own distinct way. Few authors ever perfect one funny style; Caudwell used several in each book.

But enough of this; you should just go read this and its predecessors.

The Jackal's Head
By Elizabeth Peters

Written in 1968, I suppose that this must be one of Peters' first novels...but then, I would have guessed that without looking at the copyright date, as the book is remarkably clumsy. An enjoyable read, mind you--I happily turned the pages until it was over--but clumsy. I'd pegged one of the bad guys whole chapters before I had any real reason to suspect him, and I'd figured out the romance (with Peters, there's always a romance) long before the main character did.

Here's the premise: young girl grows up in Egypt with her archaelogist father. Said father is drummed out of the profession for faking antiquities, and takes girl to New York, where he shortly thereafter dies in an accident. Ten years later, girl returns to Egypt to clear her father's name--and no sooner does she get there than the violence starts, culminating in an absolutely ridiculous denouement.

It was a pleasant-enough way to spend a couple of hours, though; and the book is interesting for another reason. It's written present day--but despite that, it's a clear precursor (in terms of plot and characters) to the Amelia Peabody novels, which are anything but clumsy.

If you really like Peters' work, go ahead and find a copy; and if you're interested (as I am) in how novels are constructed and how writers tell a story, you might be interested to read this one and contrast it with Crocodile on the Sandbank, the first Amelia Peabody novel. It's amazing how her skill had grown in the meantime.

Hope's End
By Stephen Chambers

This is Chamber's first novel, and from the cover blurbs on the back you'd think that Chambers is the most promising new science fiction/fantasy author in decades. Frankly, it's all hogwash.

Young Vel is a young thief, con man, and gutter rat who has plied his trade successfully for a remarkable period of time considering that he lives in the only city--indeed, the only human settlement--on the planet. You'd think he'd have trouble avoiding past victims. He's rude, drunk as often as he can be, rude to his "parents" (which they don't deserve), and on the whole is a poisonous little git. Oh, and he's (unknown to anybody but those same "parents") the ailing King's nephew and the heir to the throne.

I bought this one on the strength of the cover picture and the blurbs because I needed some books to take on my trip to Vancouver and was willing to take a chance. And I wasn't entirely disappointed; bits of it were interesting, and bits show promise. But, completely aside from the fact that it utterly failed to grab me, the world he invents strikes me as completely implausible. Bad guys know things they couldn't possibly know; the people of the city ignore things that are under their very noises, even though they cry out for investigation; oh, and a command economy has worked successfully for hundreds of years.

One Usenet poster I remember used to condemn books based on the Eight Deadly Words: I Don't Care About Any Of These People. I'd like to add to these the Seven Deadly Words: I Don't Believe A Word Of This. And in this case I certainly didn't. The only reason I can think of that the book got any good reviews is that the author is a fan of William Blake's and (in a macabre way) Blake's writings play a role in the plot. No doubt the blurb-writers were so stunned by Chambers' use of a Genuine Literary Figure (TM) that they couldn't see the awful truth.

There's a sequel coming out soon; I read a bit of the preview at the back of this book, but I don't think I'll be picking it up.


Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

The Last Chronicle of Barsetshire
By Anthony Trollope

I tend to enjoy long series of novels with complex plots and varied characters. Dorothy Dunnett and Sharon K. Penman's historical series are two examples. But 19th century British literature is also full of long, complex books that can totally wrap themselves around my imagination and allow me to live in the story while it lasts. This novel is roughly 900 pages long. It ties together the previous novels in the series so tightly that if you haven't read them you will miss much of the richness of the story and the subtle references made to the past. It's long and involved and very Victorian.

With that said, I barely could put it down long enough to eat or get some sleep. The essential storyline revolves around Rev. Josiah Crawley's indictment on theft charges for allegedly stealing a check and using it to pay off bills. Crawley is a perpetual curate in a Hogglestock, a small village on the periphery of Barsetshire. He and his wife and kids are near starvation and crushed under the shame of poverty--shame that is made much, much worse by the fact that he was raised a gentleman and is highly educated. But he has a fatal flaw. His gentleman's pride makes him refuse any help and his personality is so prickly with it that he puts off anyone wanting to help him. He even refuses a lawyer for the trial since he doesn't have the cash to pay for one and won't take the charity of his friends. And he has become depressed to the point of being nearly psychotic.

That's the skeleton that Trollope fleshes out with the love story of Grace Crawley and Henry Grantly, the adventures of Conroy Dalrymple and Clara Van Siever, the broken romance of Lily Dale and Johnny Eames and the marital relationships of Archdeacon Grantly and his wife and Bishop Proudie and his wife. Mrs. Proudie is absolutely the best female character I have read in a long time. She's an interfering, prideful, domineering, sneaky woman who so totally overwhelms her husband that she, in fact, is the real Bishop of Barsetshire and he only a figurehead. Everyone, including her husband, hates her with a passion. I did too. Her fate in the end is wonderfully apt. Trollope puts some hysterically funny episodes in this novel, including a scene where Johnny Eames, a minor character, has to escape the clutches of an admiring woman on the make for a husband by crawling out a window because her mother has locked him in. But when Trollope made Mrs. Proudie, he pulled out all the stops.

Uncle Tom's Cabin
By Harriet Beecher Stowe

This is one of those books that everyone knows about and has heard of but no one actually reads anymore. It was so wildly popular in it's day that the reputation and rip offs of the book have become the accepted story line and the text itself is hardly known. And it's the book that supposedly started the Civil War even though it was published in 1852, years before the actual conflict began. Which is unfortunate, because it's a good story with exciting passages, interesting characters and plot twists that you just can't believe are happening. The scene where Eliza escapes the slave hunters by jumping from ice floe to ice floe over the Ohio river, clutching her baby, is so dramatic I had to put the book down for a while. And the final scene with Uncle Tom is so sad it was unbelievable that it was actually happening. What amazes me is that I was able to get a degree in literature from a major university and was never required to read it in a single course. What a pity.

The basic story is about Uncle Tom, a deeply religious black slave who is sold away from his wife and young children when his owner falls into debt. Uncle Tom is not a shambling, "aw shucks massa" character but rather a Christ figure who's horrible fate is caused by the accepted institutions and laws of the land. He's a young, intelligent man with more conscience and grace than any of the white people in the book.

That's what I never realized about the book. Stowe is writing a book for and about white people and their own rationalizations that allowed slavery to continue and even be politically tolerated by the non-slave holding north. Uncle Tom and the other black characters in the book are a mirror that reflected back on the white readers their own prejudices. They are archetypes, not real people. Over time the image has changed and "Uncle Tom" has denigrated to an epithet. If it is keeping people from the book, that is a shame.

Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry
By Harry Kemelman

I had to come up for a breath of air after reading Stowe so I searched around on the bookshelf for a likely looking mystery. The David Small "Rabbi" series have been around for quite a while and, my friend the local bookstore owner, had recommended them to me a while back so I thought, what the hey, I'll give this one a try. Rabbi and detective are two words I normally don't associate in the same thought so if detectives have a "gimmick" and they usually do, then this sounded at least unique.

Rabbi Small is a young rabbinical scholar serving as Rabbi to a small congregation in Barnard Crossings, a small town in Massachusetts. The synagogue is fairly new and serves Orthodox, Reform and Conservative believers, giving Rabbi Small a thin line to tread when dealing with the politics of the congregation. On the eve of Yom Kippur, a man is found dead in his garage of carbon monoxide poisoning. His wife, a Gentile, wants him buried in the Jewish cemetery with Jewish rights since he had been raised a Jew. The police have ruled it accidental death due to the alcohol content of his blood, but the insurance company comes sniffing around making noises about suicide and the suicide clause in his policy. And if he had killed himself, his burial in the Jewish cemetery would make the rest of the land "unclean" which really ticks off an elderly Orthodox Jew who's wife is buried there and who is also about to donate a pile of money for a new chapel addition to the synagog ue. It gets much more convoluted and complex from there but the upshot is that Rabbi Small must figure out if it was suicide, accidental death or murder. And he uses Talmudic logic to work his way thru the puzzle.

I whipped right thru this one. The reading is easy and the story moves along fast enough to keep the pages turning without losing any detail in the process. I found the details about the Jewish faith and customs to be interesting as well and was amused to find that Synagogue politics and Church politics, as depicted by Trollope, are not all that different. I may have to look for more of these to keep on hand when I need a good, light book.

More Work For Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave
By Ruth Schwartz Cowan

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it was an interesting look at housework as a technological process. I have long looked at things like my stove, the vacuum, and the furnace as a tool that I use, but to have those things specifically defined and analyzed in terms of labor and efficiency was new thought. Her premise is that as the "tools" became more efficient, the standards of productivity went up, thereby increasing the amount of actual work involved in "housework." She uses some detailed examples from the hearth to stove cooking comparison to detailing the change from how wood heat to coal to oil changed the nature of how the woman's role in heating and cleaning the house changed. And she includes some of the standard analyses of the Industrial Revolution having to do with the separation of the home from the workplace and the concomitant differentiation of labor into male and female roles.

However, I do have a problem with parts of her analysis because, to be honest, going to the grocery store in a heated car in the middle of winter is a whole lot easier than raising, butchering, cleaning and preserving all the food we eat. And flipping the, yes, more numerous clothes that we have into the modern washer and dryer is really easier than putting everything thru a wringer washer and then hang drying it, not mention the scrub board and the hot water from the stove. So while the actual work involved is still the same and the expectations involved are higher, the actual energy expended by "mother" is much less.

She also doesn't talk about how technology improvements and how they relate to "job satisfaction." Gardening, sewing, knitting, quilting etc. are all things that used to be defined as housework and are now defined as hobbies. And I think the reason for this is that what was left, after all the improvements, isn't particularly satisfying on a personal level. It's much more satisfying to look at a shelf of home canned produce from the garden than it is to put away the groceries. And putting together a quilt that will be used on a loved ones bed is much more satisfying on a human level than driving to Wal-Mart and buying them blanket. The blanket is cheaper and involves less time for a busy person but the quilt is an object of pride. And cleaning, even with all the modern technologies is just plain boring. Easier is some ways but still drudge work.

As I said, I had mixed feelings about the book.

To Lie with Lions
Caprice and Rondo
Gemini
By Dorothy Dunnett

Occasionally, very occasionally, I finish books with a feeling of having experienced a Great Thing. War and Peace was one example. So was Shakespeare's "King Lear". There are books that make me laugh and books that keep me completely enthralled, but mostly they are just good. Not Great with a capital G but, you know, really, really good.

Dunnett's writing is a Great Thing. I read the first 5 books in this series last October and reviewed them in the November issue of Ex Libris. My opinion hasn't changed. I am not going to do any plot spoilers here for those of you who haven't read the series. She wrote this series to stand alone from the Lymond Chronicles, set them much earlier in time, yet she also claimed to tie the hero of this series, Nicholas, to the hero of her previous series. So I read them looking for clues. And they are there. My only hint is that if you look in genealogy charts, you have missed the whole point.

Go out, buy them, read them.

The Queen's Man
Cruel as the Grave
By Sharon K. Penman

I have read the historical novels by Sharon K Penman that she set in 12C Wales and thoroughly enjoyed them. They weren't up to Dunnett's standards of writing but then, who is? So when I found she had also written mysteries set in the same time period I snapped them up to give them a go. And, gosh, they aren't too bad.

The first is The Queen's Man. The detective in this mystery trilogy is Justin de Quincy, a bastard born son of the Archbishop of Chester. He has been raised in the Archbishop's house as an orphan foundling, given all the advantages of an education yet not told of his relation to his father and given no information about his mother. By chance he finds the truth of his birth and in an act of rebellion, leaves his father's household with little more than the clothes on his back and his beautiful stallion, Copper. Wandering in a snowstorm he chances upon a man beset by footpads and fights them off, only to have the dying man press a letter into his hands with the injunction, in his dying breath, to bring it to the Queen. The Queen is Eleanor of Aquitaine and her son, Richard Lionheart, has mysteriously disappeared returning from a crusade leaving his brother, John, sniffing around the throne.

The second book, Cruel as the Grave, has Justin firmly established as the Queen's Man, meaning more like her undercover agent working incognito as a poor young nobleman. John has taken Windsor Castle in an attempt to take the throne from his mother and brother and Justin's mission this time is to mediate a truce with John. Oh, and all the while he is solving a murder of a young daughter of a Welsh peddler for his neighbor who is aunt of the accused murderer. The two plots blend together well as Justin juggles both his identities and has a disastrous run in with his father.

I like these two. The historical detail is well done and the mystery plots are convoluted enough to be interesting without being so involved you lose the gist of what's going on. There are interesting side characters and some continuing plot devices from novel to novel that help with continuity. Justin even manages a love affair amidst all his investigative work, but he is very young and very energetic. I am looking forward to the third in the series, hopefully soon.

The Vor Game
Cetaganda
Borders of Infinity
Ethan of Athos
By Lois McMaster Bujold

I have been down with a cold for a couple days and needed something light to read. And when I say light, I mean both easy to read and not to heavy to hold since I've spent most of it lying down on the couch with just barely enough energy to hold a book up. Big print is good too. These books were on the coffee table so I read them, in no particular order.

Rather than reviewing the plots again, I suggest if you haven't read these to click on the author's name above and read Will's splendid plot descriptions.

I like these books, a lot. Bujold is incredibly creative with her different cultures within the "human" model, getting past race and gender with all sorts of interesting variations on the same themes. Cetaganda amused me completely, especially the face paint on the men and the bubbles around the haut ladies. Bujold is making serious fun of sexual roles in that one. She does the same thing in Ethan of Athos when she created a female free world of men. The doctor sneaking a peak at women authors in his obstetrical journals was a hoot. And the whole system of parenting and child care she creates in that world is fascinating. The hermaphrodite Bel Thorne is another example although that had been done before in Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness..

The books are swashbuckling adventure stories with a softer side in Miles, the handicapped hero. I have to admit I had a hard time swallowing a hunchbacked dwarf as a hero until I realized that Bujold has made herself a hero that can avoid all the macho junk that could go along with it. If Miles had been born normal and grown up as physically perfect as his father, the whole series would lose a lot of what makes it so much fun.

If you like sci fi and haven't gotten the message from Will's reviews, buy them, read them. They are wonderful.


Craig's Recent Reading

by Craig Clarke

The Black Mountain
By Rex Stout

When Nero Wolfe's childhood friend, Marko Vukcic, is found dead--shot three times--it turns Wolfe's routine upside down. His friend and self-proclaimed "amanuensis," Archie Goodwin, interrupts Wolfe's dinner with the announcement and heads down to the morgue to ID the body. Fans of Rex Stout's mystery series will know that only rare and extenuating circumstances will cause detective Nero Wolfe to leave the safety and comfort of the brownstone on West Thirty-fifth Street where he makes his home, complete with full-time chef and orchid specialist.

While this does not approach the best of the Stout oeuvre, it is interesting for facts that are revealed about the elusive Nero Wolfe. The first and most surprising revelation is that Wolfe was not born in America. He was born and spent a large part of his childhood in the village of Montenegro ("black mountain") in what is now Yugoslavia. He also speaks fluent Serbo-Croatian. Also surprising is the news that Wolfe has an adopted Balkan daughter, Carla. This puts an entirely new spin on his character.

Another surprise is the ending that portrays a shocking event and then simply stops telling the story. No wrap-up, we have to invent what happens for ourselves. This was new to me in regard to Wolfe, as I was generally used to Archie finishing the story by telling the consequences of the mystery solution. This showed me that Stout was interested in playing with the conventions of his creation while still pleasing longtime fans.

The Pusher
By Ed McBain

I've only read one other 87th Precinct, and it was this one's successor: The Con Man. The two books are equally good. Coming as they do from the early part of the series (#3 and #4, respectively), they are surprisingly timeless. Although, they were written in the late fifties, they feel as if they could be happening today. McBain was far-seeing enough not to put in period details.

In this one the boys of the 87th run across the body of Anibal Hernandez, a known dope peddler, with a noose around his neck and an empty syringe at his side. It's a clear suicide until the lab returns the cause of death as heroin overdose. Soon after, Anibal's sister is killed. 2nd/Grade Detective Steve Carella is after a suspect known only as "Gonzo," and Lieutenant Byrnes is privy to a very painful discovery.

McBain is always a quick read (and the size allows back-pocket fitting), and I love his description of an Isola winter on the first page. He is known for his knowledge of police procedure and he does not disappoint, making also for an educational read for those interested in the true workings of a metropolitan police force.

Pretty Boy: The Life and Times of Charles Arthur Floyd
By Michael Wallis

Pretty Boy Floyd. Public Enemy Number One. Who was this man who, in J. Edgar Hoover's eyes was a menace to society second only to John Dillinger? Wallis tells us he was a farm boy from Oklahoma--skilled in making moonshine--who just couldn't stand the idea of working for a living.

Charley (as known to his friends) was not a bad guy. The tellers whose banks he robbed always spoke of how polite he was. He only ever shot in self-defense. He would take hostages, but only to facilitate a getaway and, once safely distanced, would then release them unharmed. In addition, he would often give his takings to needy families, or anyone he saw that seemed to be in a tight spot, giving him the title of America's Robin Hood.

Considering his notoriety, Wallis states that Charley did not commit many of the crimes he was thought to have done. Most important of these was the Kansas City Massacre. Some witnesses stated that they had seen him at the scene, but then later recanted their testimony. Hoover, however, following his career ambitions, made Charley his prize turkey, promoting him from his previous Public Enemy number Eight to Number Two.

Wallis' book is an enlightening portrait of a man mainly forgotten in our time. It paints an educational picture of the dangers of becoming a folk hero (misattributed crimes), how the ambitions of Hoover exacerbated that, and especially the old saw that crime does not pay. But its main feature is that it lets us see Charley Floyd the man as well as Pretty Boy Floyd (a name he despised) the gangster.

The West End Horror
By John H. Watson and edited by Nicholas Meyer

With all the Sherlock Holmes pastiches (rip-offs?) available, it is difficult to know which ones to even bother with. However, one name seems to continually rise above the dreck: Nicholas Meyer. The first was The Seven Percent Solution, in which Holmes and Watson met Sigmund Freud, who attempted to cure Holmes of his cocaine addiction. Gimmicky, yes, but it worked.

In The West End Horror, the gimmick factor is raised. Holmes, in turn, meets George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, Gilbert and Sullivan, and others in this study of a murder in a London theatre. Less successful than its predecessor, this novel is still full of all that makes Holmes stories special.

Meyer has obviously studied his sources, yet is still able to add his own little touches. I especially like the editorial footnotes that he uses to explain facts in history that would otherwise have to be explained in the text, slowing down the story.


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