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ex libris reviews

1 November 2002


Americans are considered crazy anywhere in the world. They will usually concede a basis for the accusation but point to California as the focus of the infection. Californians stoutly maintain that their bad reputation is derived solely from the acts of the inhabitants of Los Angeles County. Angelenos will, when pressed, admit the charge but explain hastily, "It's Hollywood. It's not our fault--we didn't ask for it. Hollywood just grew." The people in Hollywood don't care; they glory in it. If you are interested, they will drive you up to Laurel Canyon, "--where we keep the violent cases." Lookout Mountain Avenue is the name of a side canyon which twists up from Laurel Canyon. The other Canyonites don't like to have it mentioned; after all, one must draw the line somewhere!
Robert A. Heinlein


Contents


In This Issue:
More Views from the Foothills

For the past month and a little I've been posting almost daily to our new web log, The View from the Foothills; most of my book reviews for this month appeared there first, along with quite of few of Deb English's reviews for the month, and a number of other choice bits that aren't book reviews and so won't appear here in ex libris reviews at all. If you haven't taken a look at the web log I invite you to do so.

I started it as an experiment, and it's turned out rather well. Here's fair warning--the days of ex libris reviews may be numbered. All the content of ex libris can appear in the web log, and the monthly web log archive can serve as a digest for those who'd rather only take a look once a month. I may well decide to retire ex libris

On the other hand, I've spent the last six years building up the ex libris name, so I'm not inclined to throw it away without due consideration. In particular, I'd like input from my readers: Have you tried reading the web log? Do you find the ex libris format to be preferable? Have you any other comments on the subject? I'll look forward to hearing from you!

In other news, the ex libris discussion mailing list, "bookclub@lists.wjduquette.com", has in its first month gotten off to a resounding silence. Deb English and I have joined, along with one other brave soul, and there's been zero message traffic. Ah, well, some experiments fail. But I'm not ready to pull the plug yet. If you'd like to share your comments and opinions about our reviews or about other books with others of our readers, you can still 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.

Finally, I didn't get around to Patrick O'Brian this month; somehow, with all that was going on, I forgot about it. It may simply be that with only two volumes left in the Aubrey/Maturin series I'm just putting off the inevitable day when I've no new O'Brian books left to read. I plan to get back to The Hundred Days during the coming month.

-- Will Duquette


Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Eternal Frontier
By James H. Schmitz

Over the last year, Baen Books has been publishing anthologies of all of Schmitz' published fiction; this is the penultimate book in the series. The previous anthologies collected his short stories and novellas in related series; this one collects everything else but his outstanding novel The Witches of Karres (which will be re-released in a few months).

A few of the stories in Eternal Frontier have been anthologized since their original magazine appearances; most have not, in some cases because the magazine folded shortly afterward, and nobody had ever heard of them. So there's likely to be something new here for all but the most hardcore Schmitz fans, and it was all new for me.

I wish I could say that I liked this volume as much as its predecessors, all of which have been great fun. On the other hand, I'm not sorry I bought it; some of the stories ("Crime Buff", "The Big Terrarium", and "Summer Guests", to name of a few) are very good. But this isn't where I'd start.

If you like science fiction at all, and you've not read any of these reissues, you owe it to yourself to pick up The Witches of Karres when it comes out. If you like that, I'd look for the first few books in this edition and only buy this one if you enjoyed those.

Starman Jones
By Robert A. Heinlein

I've been avoiding Heinlein's juveniles for years because of bad experiences I had with them in elementary school. I tried reading two or three of them--of which this might or might not be one, I'm not sure--and every one of them seemed to begin with some poor kid in an intolerably painful clash with authority and no appeal. At the time, this was not something I was prepared to cope with. Those I've read in the last few years have done nothing to weaken that impression; in fact, I think it's truer than I realized. Fortunately I'm no longer twelve and can get past all that.

But all of Heinlein's work appears to be back in print these days, so on the strength of the Heinlein books I read on my recent trip to Vancouver I've decided to make the effort to pick up the rest of the set. Here's the first of the lot.

Starman Jones is the tale of Max Jones, a young kid in trouble. His dad is long dead, leaving him to run the farm and support his step-mother; his step-mother has married the town ne'er-do-well; his late uncle the Astrogator neglected to add his nephew's name to the rolls of the Astrogators' Guild. For Max lives in a future United States where all of the professions are controlled by hereditary guilds. He has the talents and many of the skills he needs to go to space, and no way to get there.

Of course these little problems are resolved satisfactorily, with a plethora of exciting adventures; but what struck me most is Heinlein's impression of what space flight would be like. (Note: Starman Jones was written in 1953.) The most important person on board ship is the Astrogator; it is his job to pilot the ship into the charted anomalies which provide quick transport around the galaxy. To do the job, the Astrogator must track the ship's position minute by minute as the ship approaches the anomaly; he must continually compute and apply course correction factors or the ship might be lost in space when it leaves the anomaly again. He has the help of a couple of chartsmen and a "computerman"; the chartsmen feed him numbers from a book of tables, and the computerman enters the result of the Astrogator's calculations into the ship's computer to perform the needed course corrections. That's right--the important calculations all take place in the Astrogator's head.

Even more interesting is the way in which they take sightings of the ship's position. They take photographs of the star field (real photographs, on photographic plates) and compare them with photographs on file or taken just previously.

It's as though you built a starship with all 1953 technology, except for the space drive.

I do have to given Heinlein credit; he's one of the few science fiction authors who gives the feeling that he really understands what computing orbits and trajectories is all about. And the mechanisms he describes would probably do the job. But man! Just thinking of relying on fallible human beings and brute force analog technology to do such accurate computation in real time makes me cringe.

It's a good book though; easily better than Red Planet.

Farmer in the Sky
By Robert A. Heinlein

This is book about pioneering, survival, and the Boy Scouts--on Ganymede, one of Jupiter's satellites (A condensed version of it appeared in Boy's Life magazine). And actually, it's quite good, and has much, much less of the dated feel of Starman Jones, despite having been written three years earlier.

I had somewhat the same feeling reading this as I did reading 1632 a month or so ago--a sense that I was reading about values that our popular culture has done its best to trivialize out of existence. When did basic morality become something to laugh at, rather than to adhere to? When did the Boy Scout Oath start seeming quaint? I think we're coming to a time when such things will seem less like a laughing matter, and more like a way of life. I sure hope so.

But anyway, it's a good book. I liked it.

A Bad Spell in Yurt
By C. Dale Brittain

I remember when this book first came out. I remember picking it up, looking it over, and saying to myself, "Oh. Another incompetent wizard. How nice." Then I put it back on the shelf. At that point I'd read a number of Terry Pratchett's books about Rincewind the inept wizard, and a number of Craig Shaw Gardner's books about Wuntvor the Eternal Apprentice, as well as several other singletons along the same lines, and frankly I was tired of the whole thing. I'm still very fond of Rincewind, but you couldn't pay me to read anything by Craig Shaw Gardner these days (nor for many years prior to this one). But I was browsing about the bookstore the other day, and saw it on the shelf, and thought to myself, "You know, this book has been continuously in print for the last ten years. Perhaps it's better than I expected." So I bought it, and today (so as not to go through the Heinleins I bought too quickly) I picked it up and read it.

Frankly, it was a victim of bad packaging. Daimbert, the hero, isn't so much inept as lazy; as a student he'd been too fond of drinking and skipping lectures to learn what he was supposed. And while the cover makes it look like a zany comedy, it's really nothing of the kind, which is a good thing--few authors are really good at it, and bad zany comedy is unspeakably bad, like a failed souffle. Which is why I no longer read Craig Shaw Gardner; I made the mistake of trying to read one of his books aloud to Jane once. Like the souffle it fell; and there was no point in trying to revive it again.

But I digress. Daimbert, new graduate of the Wizard's School in the City, is hired as Royal Wizard of a small kingdom called Yurt. And Daimbert hasn't been there very long when it becomes clear that there's something wrong. The King is aging unnaturally; Daimbert's wizard locks are broken; the evil something the previous Royal Wizard though he had permanently pent up in his tower chamber is gone. And eventually, Daimbert figures out what it is.

As a mystery, the book is only so-so; the clues were clear enough that by the time Daimbert fingered the nominal culprit the answer had been obvious for quite a long while. But as a fantasy, it was quite competent, and it provided me an entertaining afternoon while Jane was celebrating her birthday. (She had a group of girlfriends to an English High Tea. I was not invited. I was not sorry not to be invited, either. Some things Man was not meant to know.) The book has a good heart.

One other thing that's worthy of note: it's one of the few fantasy or science fiction novels I've read in quite a long while in which organized religion is treated at all positively; and more surprisingly, the religion is Christianity. What a Christian church is doing in a fantasy world I have no idea; but the local priest, while lacking somewhat in humor, becomes Daimbert's good friend. The presentation of Christianity is neither detailed nor profound (nor, in this sort of book, should it be either)--but the very fact that it's positive is remarkable.

Tunnel in the Sky
By Robert A. Heinlein

My last few Heinlein reviews have all contained caveats, not least that the reviewed books have all been dated in various ways. This one I can unequivocally recommend--not least because it's what I call a "small" story.

I class plots as "big stories" and "small stories". The Lord of the Rings is the canonical big story--the fate of the entire world is at stake. I like epics as well as anyone else, but they are problematic. When you're writing a big story, the tale you're telling is by definition the most important thing going on in your world. At best, that spoils your world as a setting for smaller stories; at worst, it trivializes your story if the tale you're telling isn't good enough to carry the weight. And then, of course, you get plot inflation--somehow your big story has to be grander and more explosive and have a more memorable ending than the next guy's.

The big story is a natural temptation, of course--having invented an entire world, one naturally wants to use all of it. And so I find that in the F&SF genre, small stories, stories about events that are important to those involved but which do not shake the world as a whole, are not only more interesting, but also better written than the big stories. The author of a small story has learned some restraint.

Such is the case here. Humanity is colonizing the galaxy, spreading from planet to planet by means of teleportation gates. Pioneering on newly discovered planets is extremely hazardous--no one knows all of the dangers until much later. And so, in order to qualify as a colonist, one must have completed a detailed course in survival. The course culminates in a survival test: each individual is dropped onto a wild planet, they know not where, and must somehow survive until retrieved some days later. It's not easy--if you survive, you pass the test. If you fail, you're dead.

This book is the story of one particular survival test, a test that goes grossly awry. The only book I can compare it with is Lord of the Flies--except to say that Heinlein is much more optimistic about the human capability to adapt and survive and maintain civility than William Golding. As a descendant of pioneers myself, I think Heinlein's more likely to be correct.

Anyway, it's good stuff--not earthshaking, but a good solid novel. If you like Heinlein's style, go buy it.

Sir Apropos of Nothing
By Peter David

This is a deceptively silly book about destiny and the nature of fantasy fiction. I picked it up on a whim, based on the cover description, thinking that it was more likely to be really bad, but if good might be a lot of fun.

It's the story of a young man named Apropos, the son of a prostitute and the child of an unknown father. He's got a mishapen and useless leg (a birth defect), a flame shaped book mark, and a bad attitude; he's a classic anti-hero in the style of Harry Flashman. In fact, the book reads rather like a mixture of Harry Flashman with Monty Python and the Holy Grail. For a period of time, Apropos is squire to Sir Umbrage of the Flaming Nether Regions (the name describes his manor, not his person); at one point he encounters the dreadful Harpers Bizarre.

Except that sometimes it's more serious than that.

I began the book skeptically; I grew to enjoy it; by the end, after numerous twists and surprises, I was really rather pleased. The closing scene is as good a close as I've seen in quite awhile.

There's a sequel out in hardcover, The Woad to Wuin; I'm looking forward to it.

The Pickwick Papers
By Charles Dickens

I'm not a big fan of Dickens; I usually find him tedious and long-winded. But it would take a far more curmudgeonly fellow than I am to dislike Mr. Pickwick and his travelling companions, to say nothing of the inimitable Sam Weller, Mr. Pickwick's unsinkable servant.

This was my second time through The Pickwick Papers; I doubt it will be my last. The first time I read it, it was as a Project Gutenberg e-text on my PDA. I picked up a paperback copy while I was in Vancouver last month. I needed a book to read while I ate dinner, and the only bookstore I could find was a remainder shop. Fortunately it had a number of remaindered classics, Pickwick among them.

This is a very long book to read straight through, and I don't recommend that you do that; but being largely episodic in nature it's a wonderful book to pick up every so often, between other books, and that's how I read it.

Bring a little bit of patience, and don't take too much at once, and I think you'll enjoy it considerably.

A Pinch of Snuff
By Reginald Hill

I bought this on the recommendation of one of my correspondents; I'm glad I did.

A Pince of Snuff is a gritty police procedural set in England; it features a pair of directives, Detective-Superintendant Andrew Dalziel, and his subordinate Detective-Inspector Peter Pascoe. It reminds me of Peter Lovesey's Peter Diamond series, in an inverted sort of way. Diamond is fat, gruff, and given to plain speaking; so is Dalziel. Diamond is an old school detective; so is Dalziel. Diamond has a younger subordinate who's gotten special training in new ways of doing things; so had Dalziel. Diamond frequently has to put his subordinate in his place; so does Dalziel. Diamond finally puts all of the pieces together; so does Dalziel.

The difference is, Peter Lovesey's books are written from Diamond's point of view; Hill is writing (in this book, anyway) from the subordinate's point of view. There's an interesting complementarity here. The other main difference is that Lovesey gets more into the heads of the other characters than Hill does; and Hill is correspondingly more gritty, as is hinted at by the title--A Pinch of Snuff as in "snuff films".

I've been told that no genuine snuff film has yet been found by the authorities, though they loom large in urban legendry thanks to books like this one. If you're fortunate enough not to have encountered the term, I think that I won't enlighten you; a Google search will likely tell you more than you want to know.

That said, the details in Hill's book aren't nearly as disturbing as those in Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder novel (I forget the name) that involved snuff films. Or, for that matter, as disturbing as An Exchange of Hostages, which I reviewed last month.

I tend to prefer mysteries more toward the "cozy" end of the spectrum, and I'll admit that I enjoy Peter Diamond more than Dalziel and Pascoe. Nevertheless, this is a good police procedural and I enjoyed it. I'm looking forward to reading more of Hill's work.

A Morbid Taste for Bones
By Ellis Peters

Deb English mentioned Ellis Peters a few days ago, and it got me thinking. I read one Brother Cadfael mystery quite a few years ago; I don't recall disliking it, and yet I'd never bothered to read any more about the Welsh monk. The series is perenially in print, and I decided it was time to investigate. Suiting deed to thought, I picked up a couple of Cadfael titles; this one (the earliest) and one written many years later.

For those who are unfamiliar with Brother Cadfael, he's a Benedictine monk; he resides at the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul in Shrewsbury, England. Born in Wales, he had an adventurous youth before settling down as a monk. He was a crusader on the First Crusade, and was with Godfrey of Bouillon when Antioch was taken. After the Crusade, he became a sea captain, and roved over all the Mediterranean world. Finally desiring a little rest he joined the Benedictines and settled down to grow herbs.

The present book concerns the efforts of the ambitious Prior Robert to acquire a saint's relics for the Abbey. Relics (that is, bones) were a big deal then; one gathers that there was something of an (I apologize in advance) arms race among the various cathedrals, abbeys, and monasteries to see who could get the best relics. Prior Robert has set his sights on the bones of St. Winifred, a little-know Welsh saint. As a native speaker of Welsh, Cadfael goes along on the trip to get them.

There's so much here that Peters gets right. Cadfael and the other monks, and the people they meet, are all believers, as they would have been. Some are more susceptible to superstition than others (many believe that a corpse will bleed if the murderer touches it); others are quite willing to invent signs, wonders, and visions to advance their cause. But in Cadfael, Peters makes it clear that she understands the distinction between the reality of God and the mockery we all-too-often make of Him in our scheming. It's a fine line to walk, treating the Christian faith with respect while recognizing the frailty of individual Christians, but Peters makes it look easy.

The Hermit of Eyton Forest
By Ellis Peters

This is a much later book than A Morbid Taste for Bones (see previous review) and it's interesting to see how the character has developed and changed in the meantime.

The most notable thing is the change in Brother Cadfael's standing. He begins as a minor, if important, member of the Abbey community; he has to work the angles to make things come out the way he wants them to. By the time of this book, though, he's the acknowledged expert on certain things, and well trusted.

Another notable thing is that the cast of continuing characters has solidified; every successful amature sleuth needs a friend among the constabulary, and Cadfael's is Hugh Beringar, the local Sheriff. Hugh didn't appear in A Morbid Taste for Bones; here, his friendship with Cadfael is a matter of long-standing. Ambitious Prior Robert and his friend the obsequious Brother Jerome are still around, but the dreamy, unworldly abbot of the first book has been replaced by the no-nonsense Radagulf, and Prior Robert is clearly on Radagulf's leash.

But the real question is whether the quality has slipped, and I can fairly say that it hasn't. I'll be looking for the other books in the series.

Arms and the Women
By Reginald Hill

OK, now I'm impressed. While I liked it, I compared Hill's book A Pinch of Snuff somewhat unfavorably with Peter Lovesey's work. Having read this later book in Hill's Dalziel/Pascoe series, I still think the comparison is apt, but no longer unequal. Arms and the Women is as good as any of the Lovesey books I've read, and still feels somewhat similar in style. As with the later Peter Diamond book, the main characters have mellowed somewhat.

Arms and the Women is less a murder mystery than a thriller. It begins very confusingly: there's a cache of illegal guns, and a shoot-out, and the who's and why's remain murky until much later in the book. Then there's an extended internal monologue by a character whom I'm not sure whether I'm supposed to recognize or not, before good ol' Pascoe appears. (There's a twenty-one year gap between this book and the previous one in calendar years, and at least six to eight in internal years, and it's not clear how much has happened in the mean time; it makes it hard to know who the players are.) Once it gets rolling, though, it cooks right along.

The heart of the book (it would merit publication on its own) is an extended narrative written by Pascoe's wife, Ellie. She's an aspiring novelist, and is in fact waiting to hear from a publisher about a manuscript she sent in. It had come back the previous time with some encouraging comments, and so she reworks it and polishes it, and sends it in again--and then finds herself completely unable to work on anything serious while she was waiting. So she starts writing a tale, for her eyes only, about a meeting between Odysseus and Aeneas on Calpyso's isle. Aeneas is there with his army. He's not gotten to Carthage yet, but he's clearly a man of destiny, and it's clear to everyone, including himself, that he's going to make it to Italy and found Rome. Odysseus, just as tricksy as you'd expect him to be, is just trying to get home. It's a lovely, funny little creation, and worth the price of admittance.

Meanwhile, Columbian gun runners are closing in on the cache of weapons--where so ever it is--and a government spook named Gawain Sempernel is closing in (so we are led to understand, by hint and by whisper) on the gun runners. And closing in as well on their English confederates, one of whom just might be Ellie Pascoe. She might actually be innocent, but it's clear Gawain doesn't much care; this is his last operation and if she stands between him and a comfortable retirement, she's expendable.

I don't want to give any more away, but I will say that Hill shows the same restraint that Lovesey shows in The Vault--he lets the narrative speak for itself. He doesn't explain all the jokes at the end; he assumes that we're smart enough to notice them and appreciate them without his help.

I'll definitely be looking for more from Mr. Hill.

Double Star
By Robert A. Heinlein

Heinlein wrote this in 1956, and won a Hugo award for it. I'm not sure just when they first started awarding the Hugo, but this must have been one of the first Hugo winners.

Man, how times have changed.

This is a novel of imposture. A prominent politician has been kidnapped; it's urgent that it not be known. So an out-of-work actor with the politician's bone structure is dragooned (more or less) to impersonate him--just for a few days. He's successful, and the politician's staff manage to rescue him. Alas, the great man is much the worse for wear, and the impersonation must continue....

It goes on fairly predictably from there. It's a friendly little tale, well-told, but I am shocked that it won a Hugo.

The Door into Summer
By Robert A. Heinlein

This is a pleasant time travel story padded to novel length. I enjoyed it well enough, but a classic it ain't.

Dead as a Dodo
By Jane Langton

Deb English has reviewed a couple of Langton's novels, and she finally persuaded me to give one a try--she thought that they might make good read-alouds for Jane and I. She further suggested I start with the earlier books in the series. I don't think this one is particular early, but it was the earliest I could find at the bookstore.

Homer Kelly, former detective, Harvard professor, transcendentalist, and his wife have been invited to Oxford for a term; Homer will be a visiting lecturer. Meanwhile, a number of odd events occur about the building and inhabitants of the Oxford Museum. A night watchman falls to his death; many jars of sadly decayed crabs are found mysteriously under a tarp in an area where refurbishment has been going on. Might they have been collected by Charles Darwin?

Before I start tearing into it, I'd like to say that I did enjoy it; it filled a pleasant afternoon.

To begin with, it isn't much of a murder mystery; there's a little mild-but-inconclusive investigation, and just a dribble of suspense, but there's no real deduction; the case, such as there is, just sort of solves itself over time. Homer Kelly doesn't so much solve the case as simply stamp "Solved" on its cover. (I seem to recall that Deb has made the same criticism.) And yet everyone is convinced that he's a great sleuth.

On top of that, the book is essentially a long meditation on evolution and the difficulties of bridging the gap between Science and Religion; it seems that one might sooner drive a Camel through the eye of a needle. And it's not a gap that I, at least, have any great difficulty bridging. I see no reason to interpret the first chapters of Genesis literally; it's a description of the creation suited for the first ancestors of the Hebrews. They weren't stupid people, by any means, but they weren't scientifically sophisticated. And given that understanding Divine Creation is probably beyond the human intellect anyway, it wouldn't matter much if God updated Genesis with a description suitable for people of our age--it still wouldn't tell the whole story. So what's the message of the creation story? In a nutshell: this is God's world; he created it; he created us. That's the meat of it. Who am I tell God what mechanisms he's allowed to use? God's got Eternity to work in; perhaps He decided that starting with a Big Bang and working His way up over billons of years to the first people was the most beautiful way to do it.

And so, given that the tale turns on the chasm between Science and Religion it didn't completely work for me.

But still, I did enjoy it; it was even a little goofy in spots. It didn't pass the read-aloud test, in that I wasn't motivated to share all of the good bits with Jane as I was reading it, but it was fun.

The Tide of Victory
By David Drake and Eric Flint

This is the fifth book of Flint and Drake's "Belisarius" series, now finally available in softcover; I reviewed its four predecessors last fall. For those who've joined us since then, it's an alternate history series with a fun but goofy premise. Evil people from the far future have sent an artificially-intelligent computer called "Link" to Earth in the days of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I and his highly-competent general Belisarius. Link's goal, naturally, is to so adjust Earth's history that its creators ultimately end up on top of the kind of world they like. Pursuant to this, Link has caused the founding of the Malwa Empire in India. The goal of the Malwa empire, naturally, is to take over the world in the most brutal and inhuman way possible, all under the guidance of Link. This is a series with White Hats and Black Hats, and the Black Hats (with the exception of a few misguided souls who eventually come 'round) are very Black indeed. It's not enough for them to have evil ends; they must have despicable means as well.

On the other side you've got General Belisarius and his happy, jovial crew of soldiers of all kinds. Belisarius is accompanied by another visitor from the far future, the crystalline entity called "Aide". Unlike the inhuman, emotionless machine-entity Link, Aide is funny, sarcastic, and caring by turns--but Aide is equally determined to see Link fail. Naturally, both Link and Aide give advanced technology and tactical tips to their teams. The difference is, of course, that fascist Link wishes to control the flow of information whereas Aide is happy to give Belisarius and his followers anything they can possibly use.

Unsurprisingly, competence, good humor, and the free flow of ideas is going to triumph over evil totalitarianism, and this is book in which we begin to see it happen. Like it's predecessors, it's a rollicking good time; the good guys beat the bad guys six ways from Sunday, the villains get theirs in suitably ironic fashion, and so on and so forth--though there are some surprises.

There will be at least one more book in the series, in which Link and the Malwa Empire will presumably be destroyed; it's to be called The Dance of Time.

If this sounds like anything you'd enjoy reading, I think you'll enjoy it quite a bit. I did.

Breaking the Maya Code
By Michael D. Coe

This book is a popular survey of Mayan archaeology, with the decipherment of Mayan writing being the uniting theme. The topic may sound dry, but the book isn't--because it's really the story of people. It's the tale of the Mayans themselves, of course, but even more of the wide and varied cast of characters who have studied them over the last five-hundred years. And unlike the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics, which was accomplished (with the help of the Rosetta Stone) by the great Champollion in two busy years, the decipherment of the Mayan script took many strange turns and odd directions courtesy of the many strange and odd people who have studied it.

It's a surprisingly engaging tale--this is my second time through it, in fact. I learned quite a bit about the Mayans, dispelling quite a few myths, but also about language and writing systems in general (by the end, our alphabet alphabet seems a thing of wonder).

It's also something of a cautionary tale about trends in academia. The Old Guard in Mayan Archaeology had decided that Mayan script was "ideographic", that is, that each glyph corresponded to a particular idea, rather than to any particular word. The same has often been said of Egyptian writing, and Chinese as well, and it turns out that it's hogwash. Every writing system known encodes spoken language, and every writing system known has a phonetic component. In Mayan script, for example, a jaguar's head might be used to mean "jaguar", but it might be used purely for the sound of the word "jaguar" as part of another word. If we wrote English the way the Mayans wrote their language, we might use a glyph that looked like a cat to mean "cat", but also as the first sound in "catapult", "cattle", "category", and so forth.

This has been known to be true for Egyptian, for example, since the mid-nineteenth century; the Old Guard's ideas were 50 years out of date even at the beginning of this century. And although the first successful phonetic decipherment of Mayan script was done in 1952, it was thirty years before that small beginning was able to blossom and bear fruit--largely because the staunchest member of the Old Guard was dead by then.

Anyway, it's a cool book. There's a second edition out, with more pictures than I've got in mine; I should probably find a copy.

Ruling Passion
By Reginald Hill

The blurb on the back cover of a mystery novel is rarely a great piece of writing, and no one really expects it to be. There's usually a bit of plot summary, a bit of conflict, and some dire hints of trouble ahead for the sleuth. (Alas, that sounds rather like one of my reviews.) But in this case, the dire hints of trouble are so off base that it makes me wonder. Is the blurb simply wrong, or was the blurb-writer dragging a red herring across the trail?

Be that as it may.

Written in 1973, this is an early outing in Hill's Dalziell/Pascoe series, predating last month's A Pince of Snuff. Pascoe is still a lowly Detective Sergeant; he's recently become reacquainted with Ellie, a girl from his college days, and though they are moving toward marriage it hasn't happened yet. The two arrive at a little village in Oxfordshire for a reunion with some other college friends only to find three of them shot dead and the fourth missing. As a member of the Yorkshire CID Pascoe is out of his jurisdiction, which is just as well, as he doesn't like the direction Directive-Superintendant Backhouse wants to take the case. Meanwhile, Pascoe's boss Dalziell wants him back in Yorkshire to work on a string of burglaries.

One of the things I like about Hill, so far anyway, is that he doesn't do the obvious thing, and he doesn't write one-sided characters. Backhouse could have been set up as an unreasonable, hard-nosed bogey-man. In fact, he's considerably senior to Pascoe, and good at his job. And while Pascoe disagrees with him, and does some poking around on his own, Hill doesn't play it for such high drama that Pascoe endangers his career.

On the whole I liked this better than A Pinch of Snuff, which bodes very well for the future.

The Fantasies of Robert A. Heinlein
By Robert A. Heinlein

This is a trade paperback anthology of some of Heinlein's harder-to-find work. Despite the title, it's by no means all of Heinlein's fantasy, a category that includes Glory Road and (I'd argue) Stranger in a Strange Land as well; and I can't see why they included the lightweight "...And He Built a Crooked House" without including "By His Bootstraps". But on the whole this is a charming collection, and well worth your money.

It begins with the novellas "Magic, Inc." and "Waldo", which used to available in a single paragraph. "Magic, Inc." is a look at what business would be like if magic was just another of the professions; it's in a similar vein to Harry Turtledove's Case of the Toxic Spell Dump. "Waldo" is notable mostly as the source of the name for the remote manipulators used for handling radioactive materials. They call them "waldos" after the title character.

The volume also includes "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathon Hoag", an eerie detective story; "Our Fair City", about a corrupt city government swept clean by a friendly whirlwind; and "--All You Zombies--", one of the more unusual time travel stories I've read.

But the real gem is "The Man Who Traveled in Elephants", which is an ode to American celebrations: parades, fairs, carnivals and the like. It reads less like Heinlein and more like a cross between Ray Bradbury and Stephen King. Replace Bradbury's dreaminess with King's photographic description, and get rid of the scary bits, and you've got it. The book was almost worth it just for this one story.

On Beulah Height
By Reginald Hill

This book is the immediate predecessor to Arms and the Women, and I wish I had read it first; the story arc has Pascoe and his family going through a crisis and alas I already knew how it turned out.

But that's my only regret about On Beulah Height, which is better than Arms and the Women in almost every way (which is saying something). Arms and the Women is less a murder mystery and more a thriller than On Beulah Height; and it's also the kind of book you find every so often in long-running mystery series that grows almost entirely out of the continuing character's past history in the series instead of out of current events. Such a thing is often gratifying to long time readers, but it's less accessible to newcomers.

On Beulah Height, though, is a different kettle of fish. The police procedural aspect is here in full force, and while past history is involved (Andy Dalziell's, in particular) it's history that predates the beginning of the series. The book is therefore self-contained, and thoroughly well-done.

The tale begins in the Yorkshire village of Dendale some fifteen years before the main action. Three young girls have disappeared, one by one, and the village is frightened. Many people are suspected--the halfwit who lives with his grandmother on the fell, the worker from the new dam at the end of the valley who has made friends with everyone in the village--but the halfwit disappears, and the worker has an alibi, and no arrests are made. And days later the people of Dendale move to the neighboring town of Danby, the dam is completed, and the village disappears under the surface of a new reservoir, living young detective Andy Dalziell with a profound sense of disquiet.

Fly forward fifteen years: a girl, the daughter of one of the Dendale transplantees, has disappeared in Danby. There are signs that the halfwit--not so halfwitted after all--is back in town, and the townsfolk are scared. And now there's a chance for Dalziell to redeem his failure of fifteen years before.

Like Arms and the Women this is a recent entry in a long running series, and it's interesting to see how the dynamics among the detectives have changed. In A Pinch of Snuff Pascoe is still very junior; he's still learning how to work with his superior, the Fat Man, Andy Dalziell, and Detective Sergeant Wield is emerging from the mass of interchangeable legman to become a member of the team.

By the time of On Beulah Height Dalziell, Pascoe, and Wield form a smoothly working machine known to others at the station as the "Holy Trinity". The newcomer is Detective Shirley Novello (always called Ivor by the Fat Man), a lusty yet pious Roman Catholic who is determined to be accepted as a member of the team despite being a woman. The funniest thing is that it's all in Novello's head--Dalziell, Pasco, and Wield take her pretty well as she is. She's junior, sure, and that colors how they treat her, but her sex doesn't enter into it.

I've now read four of Hill's more than twenty good thick books; I foresee a lot of happy reading ahead.

Mother of Demons
By Eric Flint

I've been reading a lot of Eric Flint's stuff over the last year--the Belisarius series, co-written with David Drake, 1632, The Philosophical Strangler, and a variety of things he's edited or co-written with others. He's a hard author to pin down, not least because he often collaborates with others; it's hard to know what his voice sounds like. I thought I'd gotten him tagged when I read the whimsical and rollicking The Philosophical Strangler, and said so in my review, but my brother Chuck told me I was mistaken and should try this book, Mother of Demons. I finally located a copy, and took it with me on a recent business trip.

Chuck was right, of course. His other work, even when it has a serious undertone, is played rather more for laughs and often begins with a premise that's so blatantly absurd that you just throw up your hands in admiration and go on with the story. This, on the other hand, lies in the realm of what I might call serious science fiction.

Flint has created a world in which the dominate land-going species are all evolved from mollusc-like creatures. There are two intelligent races, which I suppose you could think of as the mollusc equivalents of homo sapiens and homo neanderthalis. The social set up isn't exactly like anything on Earth, though it seems vaguely Asian; you've got city dwellers and tribal barbarians and so forth.

Add to the mix the survivors of a ship-load of human colonists. The colony ship suffered a malfunction as it entered the system. The original crew consisted of a certain number of adults and an equal number of children all around six or seven years old, all in cold sleep for the voyage; only five or six of the adults survive, along with forty or so children. And they soon learn that the local food is poisonous at best and unnourishing at worst--it appears that they will all die until they come to an understanding with a local group of owoc (the neanderthal-like species). The owoc produce a kind of pap for their young that the humans can safely eat. A symbiosis develops, in which the humans cultivate plants for the owoc to eat, and the owoc give pap to the humans. And as the children begin to grow up and have children of their own, the wider world begins to intrude.

One of the leaders of the human colony (indeed, one of the only two surviving adults) is Indira Toledo, a historian who is seriously conflicted about her knowledge. In order to survive, her people are going to need to be able to defend themselves. They have one advantage already: without belaboring the snail jokes, land molluscs are slow compared to vertebrates. Any human, even a child, can move so quickly that to the owoc and the smarter gukuy they seem a blur. But more than that will be required. Will Indira be willing to unlock the knowledge of military history she has in her skull for the short-term benefit of her people--and possibly to the long term detriment of the locals?

My only quibble is the extent of Indira Toledo's historical knowledge; it seems unlikely to me that a woman of her leanings would have a grasp of military history that extended to knowledge of the strategy and tactics that decided various famous battles. But that's a minor point; while I can't say that Mother of Demons is the greatest book to come down the pike in the last few years, it's still a good solid read, and I enjoyed it.


Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

A Civil Campaign
By Lois McMaster Bujold

Will suggested I read the books in this series in order so that I don't spoil them by knowing too much ahead of time and I would agree that is the way to go. You have to have all the background so that you can FINALLY get to the best book in the series and actually get all the jokes Bujold throws at you in such short a time. And while you are at it, you might want to brush up on Jane Austen and Bronte and the others she lists in her dedication because they all show up in the book one way or the other. So do Hamlet and Rumpole but you don't really need to know them as well.

The plot is fairly simple. Miles falls in love and, being Miles, sets about courting with the same tactics he used to take over planets and conduct covert ops for ImpSec. Unfortunately, he forgets to include his lady love in on the mission plan. Also unfortunately, his brother, Lord Mark, has been undergoing therapy on Beta colony for his, um, "issues" and met up with the brainy, chesty daughter of Miles' mother's former female bodyguard. And Lord Mark comes home with a scheme to make money on Barrayar using genetically altered bugs that make something like tofu in their guts, setting up shop in the basement of Vorkosigan House. Oh yes, and Emperor Gregor is getting married and the entire city of Vorbarra Sultana is preparing for the social and political event of the season, including poor Ivan who is assigned to run errands for his mother, Lady Alys, who is in charge of the entire wedding and tired of her son running after anything in skirts and not settling down to provide her with grandchildren. And that's the simple version of the plot. I left out all the sub plots, including the sex change operation of Lady Donna to get herself a Vor Countship and dear Pym, playing straight man in the whole mess.

If you are a Miles fan and haven't read this one, buzz thru the books before so you can read this one. Go back and reread the others later for themselves. It's worth it just to read the scene where Miles throws a dinner party. Honest!

Sleep While I Sing
By L.R. Wright

I have read other mysteries by Wright and been impressed with her plot lines and general writing so when I found this one in the used bookstore I pulled it off the shelf right away. After I got home, I realized they charged me $6 for it because it's out of print but, hey, it's less than the price of a movie and it took me at least a couple hours to read it.

The story opens on a rainy night with the murder of the young woman by some shadowy man in a dark clearing in a woods outside of Sechelt, British Columbia. No names, no motives and no descriptions of the people involved. Fortunately, Sechelt is blessed to have Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg, of the CMP, to handle figuring out the who's and why's of it. Not that he fits the profile of a Mountie, mind you. He's slightly overweight, doesn't wear the red uniform, is middle-aged and drives a beat-up car rather than flinging himself on a horse. His subordinates aren't really movie Mountie material either. Plus Alberg has his eye on the local librarian who, unfortunately, is having an affair with a movie star taking a sabbatical from the pace of life in California. As the lone stranger in town, the movie star is the prime suspect.

The whole thing sounds pretty lame but it actually reads quite well. Summarize the plot to a Stephen King novel (who I think is a dynamite storyteller), and it sounds just as hokey. Wright uses the weather beautifully, particularly the rain, to add to the eerieness and suspense of having a murderer in the town. There's brush and brambles and dripping water and fog. She adds some local color characters that ring true and sets up some other possible victims that you just know are going to get it next. My only beef is that the ending moved a little too fast. She could have drawn it out a little more and gave the killer more lines but, all in all, I really like this book.

I wish I could find more of her books. Sadly, none of the chains carry her.

Death and the Chapman
The Plymouth Cloak
By Kate Sedley

Sedley writes mysteries set in 1400's in England during the War of the Roses. Her detective is Roger the Chapman, a failed monk who peddles door to door from his pack--oddments like laces, needles, pins and assorted pieces of fabric. The conceit is that he is telling each story looking back on his life from old age, 50 years after the action has taken place. "Death and the Chapman" is the first in the series and sets up the life of Roger leaving the monastery to seek his fortune on the road after his mother dies and frees him from his obligation to fulfill her wishes that he become a monk. The cloistered life is not for him so he buys a pack of inventory from a retiring Chapman and sets out. He discovers, eventually, that the son of a wealthy Alderman has disappeared on a journey to London and promises to investigate when he reaches London.

"The Plymouth Cloak" follows shortly afterwards when Roger is asked to protect a messenger of the Duke of Gloucester on his journey to deliver a secret letter to France. The Plymouth Cloak refers to the club that Roger carries as his weapon on the journey. Unfortunately, he and the messenger are not particularly compatible and his discovery that the guy has engaged in kidnapping young children and dwarves and selling them to royalty for court jesters doesn't endear him either. They are attacked and Roger must figure out if the attacks are directed at the message they carry or are retribution for the messenger's former shady trade.

These were OK mysteries. The action dragged in places and I often wished she'd hurry up and put something into the plot to make it more interesting. The period detail was there but could have been done better. Roger isn't a compelling detective. He seems to stumble upon the answer rather than figure it out. I kept comparing these books to Ellis Peter's Brother Cadfael mysteries and they seriously fall short of the standard Peters created. I have one more in the series that I purchased along with these so perhaps they will improve as they go along. If you like medieval mysteries, they might be worth picking up at a used bookstore. I doubt I would pay full price for them, though. There are too many really good mysteries out there.

The Perennial Boarder
By Phoebe Atwood Taylor

Thankfully, Foul Play Press, which I believe has been bought out by Norton, keeps Atwood Taylor's books in print. Someone out there besides myself must read them because they are consistently on the bookshelves in the Large Chain Bookstores I browse on occasion. I keep a list in my wallet of which ones I own so I can snap up those that aren't on the list when I find them.

The Perennial Boarder has Asey Mayo returning to Cape Cod for a weekend off from helping Bill Porter refit his car plant to making tanks or planes. Just as he walks in the door, still in his city clothes, his cousin Jennie insists he help her deliver clams to a local hotel because her husband, Syl, has twisted his ankle and can't drive the truck. After some breakdowns with the truck and problems with military convoys taking up the road, they get the clams to the hotel just under the time deadline only to find it deserted with a dead body in the telephone nook. And the dead body is dressed in the clothes of one of the guests who has been coming to the hotel during the summers for years and years. And there is a tomato pincushion in the middle of the floor. Asey decides to investigate.

These books aren't for everyone. They are definitely period pieces with convoluted plots that don't follow the normal formula for setting up murder mysteries. Asey really has no gimmick to distinguish him from other detectives except that everyone on the Cape trusts him to solve mysteries, including the local cops. There is no luscious descriptive writing to fill in the set and the dialog tends to be terse. And I love them. They are an absolute hoot to read because you never know what is going to happen next or how Asey is going to get himself out of the fix he's found himself in. The stories are straight from the era of radio drama when the good guys were good and the bad guys were bad. No psychotic killers with a horrible childhood to lend sympathy. Just plain old murders for plain old reasons like, well, money.

Flesh and Blood
By Jonathan Kellerman

I normally eschew suspense thrillers for the more traditional mystery but every once in a while I will pick one up. I read Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta series whenever I can find a new one in paperback. And I read Faye Kellerman's Decker/Lazarus series. But that's about it because they tend to have too much gore and violence for my taste. However, Faye Kellerman is married to Jonathan Kellerman and his books are everywhere so I thought I'd pick one up and give it a go. It was just what I expected.

Alex Delaware, the "hero," is a former child psychologist who is now working as a consultant in LA on police and custody cases. He works primarily with Milo, a gay homicide detective. His live-in love is Robin who builds and rebuilds expensive string instruments for a living. She has issues with his police work centering on his knack for getting himself into tight situations involving guns. Oh, and he has a mastiff named Spike. Alex has a visit from a former, failed therapy patient, a young hooker named Lauren, who then turns up dead a few days later, shot in the head and dumped in a dumpster. Alex feels all sorts of guilt and angst over not doing more to help the child she was years ago and his investigation goes from there.

The book kept my attention. The plot twists were unpredictable and kind of interesting. His characters were certainly realistic. Kellerman kept Milo, the gay detective, real and didn't stereotype him too badly. But beyond that, it was just ok. I remembered why I don't much care for suspense thrillers and got it out of my system for a few months. Too much gore and violence. Too many graphic descriptions that I don't need in my head.

Pigs Have Wings
Summer Lightning
By P.G. Wodehouse

In high school, years and years ago, a friend of mine read Wodehouse and, on her recommendation, I read a couple Bertie and Jeeves stories. They were OK, I guess. I don't remember much more than that. Then a couple years ago our local PBS station ran or reran the Bertie and Jeeves stories with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie and I loved them, especially Stephen Fry as Jeeves. So when I started reading Will's reviews, bells went off and whistles whistled in the back of my head but I never got around to buying any of them. Then last summer, I was looking for Virginia Woolf in the used bookstore and found Wodehouse instead so I bought a couple. But I never got around to reading them. So last week, I was browsing the shelves in my sewing room where all my books are stashed and I found the books I bought and read one. And then I read another. And then I went to the Large Chain Bookstore and bought a bunch more. Which is to say, I am hooked. Thanks, Will.

Anyway, I started with Pigs Have Wings, a Blandings story published in 1952. The Blandings stories have at their center Blandings Castle and it's owner the slightly dim Lord Emsworth. And the center of his world is the Empress of Blandings, his beloved pig, whom in this story he is fattening up to win the prize at the local Fair for largest pig. And then there is Sir Galahad Threepwood, his old but rakish brother, and Beach, his port-drinking butler. His competition at the Fair is his grossly overweight neighbor, Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe and his pig, The Queen of Matchingham. And he employs Lord Emsworth's former "pig man," George Cyril Wellbeloved who smells of, um, pig and has a mighty taste for beer. There are love stories, deceptions, mistaken identities, pig thefts and general rushing about in the two seater that fill in the plot of the novel. Summer Lightening, published in 1929, is essentially the same with different girls and a few other characters. In fact, whole passages are repeated at the beginning of the book, which gave me a weird sense of deja vu. I suppose Wodehouse thought it worked well one time, why not repeat it again.

The first thing I noticed is the language. His puns are merciless. I spent much of the time reading and chuckling out loud, to my husband's annoyance. Sir Galahad Threepwood has some of the funniest lines I have read in a long, long time. And the descriptions of the way characters move or look is priceless. I thought about underlining them so I could go back and find them later. About half way thru the Pigs have Wings, I realized that Wodehouse had woven a pretty complicated web of interconnection between the characters that he then was peeling back one by one in the final pages of the story. You know the ending will be happy, you just don't quite know how he is going to do it.

I can't wait to read Bertie and Jeeves.

Fall From Grace
By L.R. Wright

For some reason that I haven't quite discovered none of the Large Chain Bookstores carry books by this author. Even Small Independent Bookstores don't stock her work unless they have a used section. A pity, because she writes award winning mysteries that are excellent for suspense without all the guts and gore you find in a great many of what is on the shelves these days. I don't like guts and gore. Plus, I've read 5 or 6 of her mysteries now and she hasn't repeated a plot. Usually after that many, the mediocre start getting repetitious.

Fall From Grace centers on the relationships of 5 people who went to high school together way back when. The Good Looking Bad Boy, Bobby Ransome, is back in Sechelt after doing a stint in prison. And for some reason, the school nerd and photographer, Stephen Grayson, who hasn't shown his face in Sechelt since leaving right after high school, has decided to come back to visit his elderly widowed mother. And then there is Annabelle, Wanda and poor frustrated Warren, who are just trying to live their lives with messed up relationships and none too hot marriages. So when Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg finally gets his girlfriend, Cassandra, on a boat to go sailing for a day, it seriously interrupts his romantic visions to find Stephen Grayson lying at the bottom of cliff with all the signs that he has been pushed and a whole crew of people who could have done it.

This is one of those mysteries where you know who did it but you can't figure out why. The pleasure from reading it comes from watching Alberg work his way thru all the leads and clues. And with this one, the solution is delightfully ambiguous. Did he or didn't he?

Good Wives: Image and Reality of Women in Northern New England 1650-1750
By Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

This is Ulrich's first book, published in 1980. Unlike her other two, The Age of Homespun and A Midwife's Tale, she broadens her scope to encompass most of what is known about women's lives during the late 17th and early 18th century. It is an examination of the reality of women's lives and how it compared to the Puritan ideals of wife, mother and woman. Ulrich's use of primary materials and the stories of real women is fascinating and, as with the other two books she has written, her writing is crisp and clean. The early half of the book dealing with the role of woman as Bathsheba was particularly good. I should clarify that the Puritans saw Bathsheba as the mother of Solomon whom he idealized in Proverbs 31: 10-31, rather than David's tempting bather on the housetop. I enjoyed the book a great deal and if you are a reader of colonial history, I would certainly look it up. It has perspectives not normally found in the more traditional history of the times.

Enter Jeeves: 15 Early Stories
By P.G. Wodehouse

I am actually only reviewing the first half of this book that has the stories that deal with Bertie and Jeeves. The second half has all the Complete Reggie Pepper stories which I skipped in my hurry to move to more Bertie and Jeeves. The book is published by Dover Publications. If you haven't encountered them before they are a publishing house that only puts out material in the public domain and does it in inexpensive paperback copies. I have been getting their catalog for years.

This is a collection of the eight earliest Jeeves stories. The first "Extricating Young Gussie" is minimally a Jeeves story since his entire set of lines include "Indeed, Sir." and "Very Good, Sir." After that his light begins to shine and eventually he has taken hold of Bertie, his wardrobe and the messes he gets himself into. The stories also introduce The Aunts, particularly Aunt Agatha, who can strike terror in Bertie's heart even from across the Atlantic. Most of the stories take place in New York where Bertie taken up temporary residence.

I enjoyed them. They were not as funny as some of the later stuff I have read in the mean time but it was interesting to watch Wodehouse take Jeeves and develop him into a full fledged force in keeping Bertie out of trouble.

The Alden Amos Big Book of Handspinning: being a compendium of information, advice and opinion on the noble art and craft.
By Alden Amos

Spinning is one of those things that you can't learn from a book. Actually, I suppose you could, but it is way easier to sit next to someone and have them show you how, correct your mistakes and generally be there to calm your anxiety until the whole thing clicks in your brain. There are all sorts of little tricks and dodges that books normally don't talk about. So normally, I am skeptical when I see spinning books. They are usually expensive, don't have particularly good pictures and cover the basics only. This book has been written up several times in the spinning magazines I subscribe to so when I saw it on the shelf I picked it up and started reading. Then I went and bought it.

Chances are most of the folks who are reading this review aren't spinners, don't care a rat's patoot about the technical stuff needed to produce useable yarn and think of spinning as a quaint old timey thing that they did way back when. And that's ok. It's how I feel about a lot things. But, if that's the case, you may know a spinner or a spinner wannabe. And Christmas is coming. And it would make a great present for someone who is a spinner.

What makes this book so much better than the others in the genre is that he combines technical material like drive ratios, RPM's, S vs. Z twist etc and how that affects the ply of the yarn after winding off with basics like the difference between a double drive and a single drive wheel. And he's funny. I read darn near the complete glossary aloud to my husband after finding the definition of the "jerk and curse" draw which he defines as what happens during to nervous spinners in their first demonstration in front of tourists. Under "boon" he explains why Sleeping Beauty couldn't have pricked her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel, something I have always wondered about myself since they aren't sharp. Plus, as an added bonus the Appendix has some pretty nifty recipes for soap, ginger beer and crackers as well.

Bertie and The Crime of Passion
By Peter Lovesey

I haven't quite decided whether I like this mystery or not. On the one hand, the conceit of The Prince of Wales, who would eventually become King Edward VII, as Bertie the detective and his friend Sarah, famous actress Sarah Bernhardt, is certainly unique and at first amusing. But after a while, the whole thing got tiresome and I just wished he'd stick to being royalty and quit putting the moves on The Bernhardt. Especially since the novel included pious letters to his wife, the Princess of Wales Alexandra. I have problems with guys who cheat on their wives, even if they are royalty. And the valet, Knollys, is totally ignored, which is a pity. He could have carried the day in the manner of Bertie and Jeeves.

The plot is simple. Bertie has come to Paris while Alix is in Denmark visiting her family. He runs into Sarah and finds out that the whole town is buzzing with the news that the fiancé of a French aristocrat has been shot in the back at the Moulon Rouge. He decides to investigate since most of the French aristocracy are friends of his. Sarah decides to let the packing for her world tour be done by her staff and the two set out to follow up on the clues.

Lovesey is trying to be amusing but it doesn't totally work. I didn't like Bertie. That's a problem. And he wasn't either bad enough or good enough to keep my interest. Sarah Bernhardt isn't much better. I think I'll stick to Lovesey's Peter Diamond series. They were a little more honest.


Craig's Recent Reading

by Craig Clarke

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones
By R.A. Salvatore

Unabridged reading by Jonathan Davis. I had decided to boycott the travesty that has become the Star Wars series, George Lucas having decided that computer graphics are more important than imagination. However, being that the first trilogy was an integral part of my childhood, I feel an inner call to keep up with the story.

The story is good, not great just good. Being a middle portion of a trilogy, the story is weaker and is simply just a link from One to Three, which I suspect will play like gangbusters, what with all the material left to cover. (The same fate befell Back to the Future II, but surprisingly, not The Empire Strikes Back, for most people the best entry in the original trilogy.) Also, Lucas seems to have developed a theory that the death of a major character constitutes an ending. That and the cutesiness he exhibits in characters like Jar Jar Binks and names like Newt Gunray (you think Lucas is a Democrat?) make me think he has long passed his prime and that perhaps I should be grateful that he isn't making a third trilogy.

The love story between Anakin and Padme is what we're here for, though, and it delivers. Especially in Salvatore's description. I'm not sure what else to attribute to Salvatore's talent, so I will say that he has done one act that is completely necessary for the story to succeed. He has disappeared and let the story be the story, only stretching it in the points needed. But Salvatore has written other Star Wars novels, so I suspect he is used to that.

Jonathan Davis was the perfect choice to perform this selection. He has an arsenal of voices (including a terrific Yoda and C-3PO). Also assisting with this impression are snippets of John Williams' score and various sound effects, most notably from R2-D2. When Davis reads, I can easily picture the characters (or rather the actors who play them), as his Obi-Wan sounds in spirit just like Ewan McGregor and his Mace Windu like Samuel L. Jackson. The combined effect is that one feels as if this were an adaptation for radio, done with a full cast.

Thus, Davis also disappears and the myth of Star Wars is allowed to take over. Normally, in creative endeavors that would not be good, but when dealing with a "brand name" like Star Wars, it is necessary. The main idea holds prominence, demanded continuity in product. Although different people write books and screenplays, it all feels like it came from George Lucas, for better or worse.

So, it's not a great novel in that it cannot stand by itself. Anyone coming into this story would be totally confused because there is much that it is assumed you already know. But as a second in a trilogy, it does its thing and carries the story along, giving needed information for the third installment, in much the same way as The Two Towers does. If you're not a fan, I'd stay away because simply as science-fiction, it is unremarkable.

Ella Minnow Pea
By Mark Dunn

This self-proclaimed "lipogrammatic epistolary fable" is a delightful first novel from playwright Dunn. It concerns an island off the coast of America called Nollop, where the local hero is Nevin Nollop, author of the "perfect sentence"--"The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog"--which contains all 26 letters of the alphabet while itself being only 35 letters long.

The locals have erected a statue to Nollop (as well as naming their land and all its towns after him), with the fabled sentence at its feet. One day, a letter falls from the statue. The town council sees this as a divine message and immediately bans its use from their language--written and spoken--the punishment for a third offense being banishment from the island. The townspeople think it silly but don't really mind until other letters begin falling with the same consequences.

This was great fun to read and I finished it in a matter of hours. The main attraction is that Dunn--fitting with the storyline and due to its letter-writing format--is forced to limit his use of letters to those available to the townspeople. This makes for very creative writing. The story is secondary but contains enough suspense (the only way the council will rescind its orders is if someone on the island comes up with another perfect sentence containing only 32 letters) to keep the reader turning the pages. I laud Dunn not only for giving himself this challenge, but for living up to it.

Stupid White Men (...and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation!)
By Michael Moore

(Unabridged reading by Arte Johnson.) I'm not too sure about Michael Moore. He seems to know what he's talking about, but says it in such a clunky way (often repeating himself) that it makes for a lesser experience. This combined with reader Arte Johnson's lack of knowledge of current events (he mispronounced both Kofi Annan and Antonin Scalia) made me take his information less seriously than I would have if it were presented more clearly.

He is nonpartisan in his targets, however. While he generally harps on President Bush's urge to drill for oil in the Alaskan refuge, his final chapter regarding the similarities of the two major political parties and how President Clinton saved his best actions for his last days in office--leaving many others undone--was the best and most cohesive and was well-chosen as a closer.

I like Moore in general (I loved his film "Roger & Me", which he plugs throughout the book), but what I came away from this book was that Moore has a lot of good ideas, but that I'm not his target audience. I don't automatically believe something just because he says it. To me his books are just a lot of information looked up by his assistants and wrapped up in a clever title.

But he is good at titles.

As Time Goes By: A Novel of Casablanca
By Michael Walsh

(Abridged reading by Edward Herrmann and Lynn Redgrave.) Once you get past the idea that this is a sequel to Casablanca and that it will never approach the quality of the original, what you have is a pretty good tale featuring familiar characters.

Walsh takes up the story directly from the end of the film, with Rick Blaine and Captain Louis Renault walking through the fog after the take-off of the airplane carrying Victor Laszlo and Ilsa Lund and the murder of Nazi Major Heinrich Strasser. We are taken along with the characters to see what happens next--and what happened before. Walsh tells us about Rick's past and why he is without a country.

He also engages in creative name-dropping, making characters out of people associated with the film: George Raft (who was slated to play Rick) shows up in a nightclub, Ilsa goes undercover as Tamara Toumanova (a Russian ballerina who auditioned for Ilsa, and for whom one of the screenwriters had changed the character's name from Lois to Ilsa), Herman Hupfield (composer of "As Time Goes By") is hired as young Rick's nightclub's house composer.

This sequel/prequel also sheds much light on the mysterious character of Victor Laszlo. One leaves with a new idea of his motives and how far he will go for his cause. Ending in a highly suspenseful denouement but lasting for too long (even in this abridgement), As Time Goes By misses its mark by a slight margin, but it is still a valiant effort.

I read an article by Walsh stating that it was his challenge to himself to write the story based solely on clues given in the film. He slips dialogue from the movie throughout and it fits his story wonderfully. It is a controversial book, but one that will find its audience. Those who think it should not have been written can simply not read it, leaving those of us who are interested in the time after the film to get lost in the world of Casablanca again.

Edward Herrmann's reading of this audiobook is nearly perfect. He knows what we expect and delivers. His renderings of the character voices from the film capture the essences of Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains while not resorting to simple mimicry. Lynn Redgrave performs only Ilsa but her continental accent brings Ingrid Bergman's face immediately to mind. Other readers would not have made this as complete an experience as these wonderful actors have.

Slightly Chipped: Footnotes in Booklore
By Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone

Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, after years of trying to outbuy each other with lavish Christmas gifts, finally decided to put a spending cap on it. They promised each other that they would spend no more than $20 on each other. This led to more creative thinking, which led to a search for a used edition of Tolstoy's War and Peace. Little did they know that this search would send them spiraling into the world of book collecting.

This story is told in their first book, Used and Rare. In this, their second, the stories are just as fun as they continue in their search for rare and unusual books--thriftily. During their quest, they meet many interesting people with very different personalities. These people can always be depended upon to have curiosities to show off. Thus, they are privy to Bram Stoker's handwritten notes for Dracula, are educated in the writing of the Bloomsbury Group (which included Leonard and Virginia Woolf, as well as Vita Sackville-West) and their mix-and-match sexual escapades, and visit an auction of the belongings of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (where someone pays $26,000 for a still-boxed piece of wedding cake).

This is a terrific read and is noteworthy as the first book I read entirely while sitting in a Borders cafe. It is quickly paced, humorous, and full of wonderful stories, literary anecdotes, and other information. Their books may, as they did me, get you interested in collecting books yourself.

Violets Are Blue
By James Patterson

This is a typical Patterson "Alex Cross" novel. Fast-paced, violent, with an interesting villain. Or in this case, several interesting villains. We have the Mastermind, still around from Roses Are Red, but there are also several murders being committed by "vampires."

Whether they are vampires or "poseurs" does not matter to Cross (except when he is bitten and plays the phrase "You are now one of us" over in his head), what matters is that they be stopped. Unfortunately, the Mastermind keeps calling him at the most inopportune times and threatening his family.

We are introduced to William and Michael, two brothers who grew up in a commune and believe themselves to be vampires. These are characters like I haven't met since Poppy Z. Brite's novels. But Patterson adapts to them well. He seems to be stretching himself, going in different directions. Plus, he is giving Cross two problems to deal with here. If he is away solving crimes, his family may be in danger. The showdown with the Mastermind at the end (I easily figured out who it was) was rather anticlimactic, though, and the ending seemed too well wrapped-up.

This was a very quick read and I finished the 400 pages in a total of about six hours over three days. Patterson is always entertaining and is a good bet for mindless pleasure reading on the commute, or when winding down of an evening.

Indigo Slam
By Robort Crais

Private Investigator Elvis Cole is hired by a group of teenaged siblings to find their missing father, Clark Haines. Cole's investigation uncovers a counterfeiting ring (Haines' real occupation was as a printer), and a few more secrets about Haines' life and the reasons for his disappearance.

Cole is a typical hard-boiled P.I. First appearing in the Edgar-nominated The Monkey's Raincoat, this is his Crais' seventh novel about the gumshoe and his partner, Joe Pike. My main impression of Cole was that he was funny and sensitive, but so is Spenser and Robert Parker's novels are vastly more entertaining than this one. Based on this novel alone, I may pick up another Crais, but probably only if nothing better is available. It's fun, but there's not much substance.

However, I did learn a lot about counterfeiting; useful information should my present career options not work out.


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