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ex libris reviews

1 January 2003

A catastrophe curve, Mr. Bucket, is what opera runs along. Opera happens because a large number of things amazingly fail to go wrong, Mr. Bucket. It works because of hatred and love and nerves. All the time. This isn't cheese. This is opera. If you wanted a quiet retirement, Mr. Bucket, you shouldn't have bought the Opera House. You should have done something peaceful, like alligator dentistry.
Terry Pratchett


In This Issue:
Six Years!

It was just a few days over six years ago when I decided that I should use the webspace my ISP provided me, and as an experiment Will & Jane's Book Page was founded at http://www.cogent.net/~duquette. There have been many changes since then; Will & Jane's Book Page is now ex libris reviews, we've changed ISPs, the web site has moved to its own domain, and we now have three reviewers each month instead of just one (thank you, Deb and Craig!). I had no children when I started; now I have three, and we live in a different house.

I wonder what the site will be like six years from now. With luck we'll be in the same house--and we'll still have three kids.

Anyway, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Happy Reading!

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Blue at the Mizzen
By Patrick O'Brian

So it ends. After nearly two years, reading approximately one volume a month (and skipping a couple of months), I've finally come to the ultimate conclusion of O'Brian's twenty-volume saga, reading this book for the first time ever just this month. I began it with some trepidation, given that its predecessor was only so-so; some of my fears were justified, but not all.

Jack does a lot of hurrying hither and thither in this book, more or less in clandestine pursuit of Chilean independance from Spain; some of the action is to the point, and some of it seems like filler. Stephen's romance with Christine Wood blossoms; I thought the sequences dealing with that topic were among the best in the book, which surprised me considering the cheap and sleazy way O'Brian got rid of Diana in the previous book.

O'Brian didn't know this was to be his last book; the reports of his death indicated that he was a chapter or two into a new Aubrey/Maturin book, and I think that's just as well. The closing pages of Blue at the Mizzen bring Jack the orders making him Rear Admiral of the Blue; and while Stephen's future with Christine Wood (a woman much more suited to him than Diana ever was) is by no means assured, there are promising signs. As this is the last book, I choose to believe that ultimately they are married, and live happily ever after.

And so they sail off into the sunset. What could be fairer than that?

By Deborah and James Howe

I finished reading this book to David the night before last. It's one I hadn't read before; my sister bought it for Dave some months ago, because my niece had loved it once upon a time. I was initially skeptical: a vampire bunny that sucks the juice out of vegetables? But the name of the third Bunnicula book (The Celery Stalks at Midnight) encouraged me to give it a try.

Let's see: the Monroe family find a young rabbit at the movie theater (a showing of Dracula) and bring it home. The family cat, Chester, is concerned; the rabbit sleeps all day and gets up only at night, has fangs, and the family has been finding eerie white vegetables, sucked dry of all juice and color, on the kitchen floor. The rabbit is clearly a vampire! Something must be done! The tale is told by Harold the family dog.

The book read easily and well, though it's a real lightweight compared to what we've been reading together. There were a number of good lines, and a few nifty if offbeat references; Chester the cat, for example, is named after G.K. Chesterton. How many kids' books mention G.K. Chesterton?

So, bottom line: not my favorite, by any means. But David liked it, and I liked it well enough to pick up the next two books in the series.

Recalled to Life
By Reginald Hill

This is yet another Dalziel/Pascoe mystery, and it's just as much fun as the others I've reviewed recently.

When Dalziel was a young detective, he was involved in one of the last "Golden Age" country house murders. A guest was murdered, and the lord of the manor and a young nanny were determined to be the murderers. The lord was hanged, and the nanny sentenced to life in prison.

It's now many, many years later. A TV documentary has raised doubts about the nanny's guilt, and after some cursory investigations by the Home Office, she is freed pending a full police investigation into the case. Early signs are that the result of this "full police investigation" will be a report blackening the name of Dalziels late friend and mentor, Wally Tallantire. Dalziel can't be having this, and despite being told to leave it alone undertakes an investigation of his own--and begins to realize that some of the other folks who were at that country house that deadly weekend are still very important people indeed.

It's not as good as the best of the series, but I enjoyed it thoroughly; also, provides some of the long term background presumed by the later book Arms and the Women.

Look To Windward
By Iain M. Banks

When Neil Madden reviewed Look to Windward last month, I was both pleased and disappointed. Pleased because it meant there was another Banks novel on the horizon; disappointed because I figured he was reading a British edition and that it might be months before it hit the shelves in the U.S. Much to my surprise, I found a copy of it the next time I went the book store.

I won't repeat the plot; Neil covered that in Ex Libris.

This is one of the more accessible Culture novels; and as always the scenery is gorgeous. Banks has an outstanding imagination. The story itself, however, is only so-so; some of his other books (notably The Player of Games) are much better. But I have to admit, the scenery is just about worth the trip. I wish I had Banks' gift for names; the "dirible behemothaur" just about made my day.

Night Watch
By Terry Pratchett

This is Pratchett's latest novel; as usual when a new Discworld book comes out, I commenced to read it to Jane on the way home from the book store. It occupied our evenings quite nicely for the next week or so. It was a delight to read aloud, as is usual, it was sometimes sidesplittingly funny, as is usual, it was a good time all the way around, as is usual.

Sam Vimes is one of Pratchett's ever increasing cast of continuing characters. He first appears in Guards, Guards as the alcoholic Captain Sam Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork Night Watch. Over the next several books in which he appears, the city grows over more diverse, and Vimes rises in rank. By the time of this book he is Sir Samuel Vimes, Duke of Ankh, Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, and a power in the city. And (though no longer a drunk) still the same hardnosed irascible copper he started out as.

As a thunderstorm brews, Vimes' watchmen (and dwarves, and trolls, etc.) have run a silver-tongued psychopath named Carcer to ground atop the roofs of Unseen University. Vimes himself mounts the dome of the University Library to capture him, just as lightning strikes.

On the Discworld, a lighting strike is always accompanied by a strong magic field. And as anyone familiar with Unseen University can tell you, the last place you'd want to be hit by lightning and the accompanying magic field is any part of the University Library. Both Vimes and Carcer are thrown thirty years into past, into an incredibly busy and fraught week.

It's the week after Vimes first joined the Night Watch. It's the week that Mad Lord Winder's madness reaches its peak. It's a week of revolution in the streets. And thanks to the cheerfully murderous Carcer, one of the most important players during that week is dead-on-arrival to Ankh-Morpork. As Vimes soon discovers, he has to take on the dead man's name and role--or history will be changed, and he'll never get back to his own time.

So much for plot summaries. This book is markedly different than its predecessors. It's still funny, it's still well-written, it's still greatly entertaining--but at the same time, it's also dead serious. It's about cities and civilization, and about making things work; it's about being responsible for your own job and your own patch of ground and insisting that here, at least, Evil Will Not Be Tolerated.

It isn't Pratchett's out-and-out funniest book; but it might well be his best to date.

Guards, Guards!
By Terry Pratchett

Having just read about Sam Vimes' earliest days in the watch in Night Watch, I decided that I'd like to go back to the first book Pratchett wrote about Sam Vimes and work my way forward. And that brought me to Guards, Guards!.

When we first see him, Sam's drunk in the gutter. There are two reasons for that; one is that he's normally about two drinks more sober than everyone else, and needs a drink or two just to reach parity. The other is that he's a good copper at heart and there's nothing of any value for him to do but drink. When Lord Vetinari came to power he legalized thievery--chartered an entire Thieves' Guild in fact. The thieves are allowed a certain amount of larceny every year, in return for which they pledge to deal harshly with any unlicensed thieves. More than that, most well-to-do citizens simply pay the Guild a small fee every year, for which they are officially immune from thievery for the year.

So all-in-all, things have been pretty peaceful in Ankh-Morpork, and the Night Watch has become nearly obsolete. Where once it had many watch houses, now there's only one, and that houses only three watchmen. Captain Sam Vimes, Sergeant Fred Colon, and Corporal Nobby Nobbs.

But there are currents of change oozing down the River Ankh. Dwarves and Trolls have been moving to the city in record numbers, along with zombies, vampires, and werewolves. Inter-species violence is on the rise. There will be rioting in the streets if something isn't done.

And then there's an ambitious fool with a plan to give Ankh-Morpork a king again. It's been almost three hundred years since King Lorenzo got a well-deserved axe in the neck, but he had a son who escaped. What's more romantic, more proper, than the notion that the line of kings have bred in hiding all these years, disguised in humble garb, only to come save the city in its hour of need. All that's necessary is to summon a handy dragon to give the city something to be saved from.

And then, and then, there's the Night Watch's first new recruit in ages. Corporal Carrot, the dwarf. At least, he thinks he's a dwarf, although he's well over six feet tall. He was raised by dwarves; they found him when he was a baby in the wreckage of a wagon destroyed by bandits. The people with him were all dead. Hidden in the body of the wagon was a sword. And on Carrot's arm, there's a birthmark in the shape of a crown....

The tone here is entirely different than in Night Watch, which as I've said is hysterically funny and dead serious at the same time. Here Pratchett is simply having fun with the idea of the "City Guard", those poor sods (rather like the Red Shirts in Star Trek) who get called out in every fantasy novel just so they can get killed. And, like many of the Discworld books, Pratchett has a lot of fun with the idea of "narrative causality".

The Disc is a very magical place; it has to be, just to exist. It doesn't have much use for natural laws, but it does have things it uses for natural laws, and one of them is narrative causality--the fact that stories have power, and when a story is happening, certain things just have to happen in a certain way. Thanks to narrative causality, million-to-one shots can be trusted to come up nine times out of ten....

Men At Arms
By Terry Pratchett

This one picks up some time after the end of Guards, Guards. Sam Vimes, still Captain of the Night Watch, is also engaged to marry Lady Sybil Ramkin, dragon-fancier and one of the wealthiest people in Ankh-Morpork. Carrot, watchman and rightful king of Ankh-Morpork, is now a corporal, and has come to know the city very well. This is a good thing, as the steady influx of trolls and dwarves to the city is fueling an equally steady rise in ethnic violence. The Patrician, Lord Vetinari, has responded by insisting that the Night Watch take on some new recruits: a troll, a dwarf, and beautiful woman who's also--but that's getting ahead of things.

One of the old writers of hardboiled detective novels--Raymond Chandler, or Dashiell Hammett--once said that when your plot is stuck, introduce a man with a gun. And that's what Pratchett has done here. There's exactly one gun on the Disc, and it's in the hands of a man who thinks that Ankh-Morpork needs a king again. Will Carrot play along? Therein lies the tale.

By The Great Horn Spoon!
By Sid Fleischman

Now this is an outstanding book.

I first read this, very reluctantly, when I was in third or fourth grade, at my teacher's suggestion. I went on to read it over and over, and then eventually I forgot about it. And then the other day, when I was at the bookstore looking for good books to read aloud to David at bedtime I happened upon it. Renewing my acquaintance with it has been one of the most pleasant aspects of the past couple of weeks.

Oh, and Dave liked it, too.

It's January, 1849. Young Jack's parents are dead; he and his two sisters have been living in the old family home in Boston with Aunt Arabella, and the butler, whose name is Praiseworthy. The family money has run out, and in less than a year Aunt Arabella will have to sell the house. Gold has been discovered in California, and Jack resolves to run away to the gold fields, strike it rich, and return with his fortune to save the family home. Praiseworthy discovers the scheme, of course--and thinks it an excellent plan. As the book opens, Praiseworthy and Jack are stowaways on the good ship Lady Wilma, en route to San Francisco by way of Cape Horn.

That's the premise; how they get to California and the gold fields, and what happens after, is the story. I won't spoil it by telling it all here. I'll just say that Fleischman is an outstanding story teller, and his prose is a joy to read aloud. More than that, without any lecturing he manages not only to tell Jack and Praiseworthy's story, but also to let us in on quite of bit of historical information about the Gold Rush, and the gold camps, and how gold mining was done. I learned a lot of what I know about the Gold Rush from this book, and while I've added to that information in the years since, the book is still striking in its accuracy. (For example--I've been to several of the gold towns Jack and Praiseworthy visit.)

This is a kid's book, sure. But if you're planning a trip to California's Gold Country you could pick a worse introduction. And even if you're not, it makes a heck of a good yarn no matter how old you are.

Feet of Clay
By Terry Pratchett

This book continues the tale of Sam Vimes, Carrot, and the rest of the watch. As before there's a plot to give Ankh-Morpork a king rather than a Patrician--but this time the powers who would be behind the throne have realized that Carrot, rightful heir though he may be, has no interest in listening to them. Consequently, they are carefully researching (and constructing a lineage) for a most unlikely fellow. Meanwhile, Vimes and his men are trying to track down a fiendish killer--who just might be a golem.

This isn't one of Pratchett's better books, though it's nevertheless entertaining; I especially liked the bits about the consequences of painting coats of arms from live models.

Witches Abroad
By Terry Pratchett

One of the main themes of Pratchett's Discworld books, especially the earlier books, is the power of stories. On the Disc, the power of the Law of Narrative Causality is nearly absolute. One noted victim was the evil witch Black Aliss, who took to turning princes into gingerbread and building houses out of frogs. She met her demise at the hands of a pair of young children she was planning to have for supper. It's dangerous to get too cozy with stories.

In the present book, which follows directly after Wyrd Sisters, Magrat Garlick inherits the fairy godmothership for a young girl named Ella, who lives in the far off exotic city of Genua. So happens Ella has two fairy godmothers, and the other one is determined that Ella, though oppressed by two evil step-sisters, will nevertheless wed the handsome prince and live happily ever after--no matter how many lives she has to torque out of shape in the process.

With the godmother's wand, Magrat inherits the injunction not to allow Ella to marry the prince, and in no case to let Granny Weatherwax or Nanny Ogg to help her with the situation. Naturally the older witches join in (which was rather the idea of the prohibition), and the three witches are off to "Foreign Parts". What follows is a hugely entertaining tale in which Pratchett rings the changes on just about every fairy tale you can imagine. It also explains New Orleans cookery.

Lords and Ladies
By Terry Pratchett

This book follows directly after Pratchett's Witches Abroad, and concerns what happens after Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick return home. Highest among the scheduled event is the coming Royal Wedding; Magrat and King Verence have had an understanding for some while (if two people who can't talk to each other without getting tongue-tied can be said to have an understanding), and the great day is approaching. But there are troublesome currents among the young girls of Lancre. They are wearing black clothing and white makeup, choosing new names like Diamanda and Perdita (yes, that's right--they're Goths), and taking up the study of magic, much to Granny Weatherwax's disgust.

And to Granny Weatherwax's dismay as well, as it soon becomes clear that only Perdita Nitt (nee Agnes) has any talent in that direction at all. But the leader of the girls has been spending time near the Dancers, a ring of stones on a high meadow. The Dancers guard one of the entrances to Faerie, and Diamanda has been getting her power from the Faerie Queen.

This is not a good thing, for reasons that unfold during the tale. But the important thing to remember is that before J.R.R. Tolkien came along and redefined elvishness for ever, elves were called "the Fair Folks" and "the Lords and Ladies" and such like names for one simple reason--it simply didn't do to make them mad. Or to attract their attention, for that matter.

Along with all of this, you also get choice information about the Stick and Bucket Dance, Ancient Lancre History, what it takes to be the greatest blacksmith in the world, and the farrier's word--that secret word that allows the blacksmith to shoe any horse, no matter how spirited.

On the whole, I'd not say that this one's quite as good as its two predecessors....but I enjoyed it all the same.

By Terry Pratchett

This tale of Discworld follows shortly after Lords and Ladies and takes Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg to Anhk-Morpork (Magrat Garlick is now a Queen rather than a Witch, and is therefore otherwise occupied). They are in pursuit of two things: Agnes (Perdita) Nitt, who might just succeed Magrat as one of the local witches; and the publisher of Nanny's cookbook (a collection of dishes with aphrodisiac properties) which has sold thousands of copies with virtually no recompense to Nanny. But that's only what the book's about; it's not what the book is.

And what the book is, is a parody of that great Broadway Smash of the 1990's, Andrew Lloyd Weber's most overblown production, Phantom of the Opera, a show which I have seen and which I personally cannot abide. (I might perhaps expand on that at a later time). Few of Pratchett's books are so narrowly targetted as this one, but it's very well done, with lots of excellent bits and wonderful lines; plus there are some walk-ons from some of the usual Ankh-Morpork suspects. The opera will never be the same.

Brother Cadfael's Penance
By Ellis Peters

Oddly, this isn't so much a mystery as it is a historical novel pure and simple. Sure, there's a murder...but what there really is, is a complicated political setup involving a civil war, some poignant family connections across the battle lines, and some of Cadfael's own past history. It turns out to be quite a good book, but the initial set up is brutally long, about fifty or so pages, before you can even understand who the players are. I suppose more of them would have been familiar if I'd been reading the series in sequence. Anyway, recommended--but don't think it's a typical Brother Cadfael mystery.

Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

The Strange Files of Fremont Jones
Fire and Fog
By Dianne Day

After reading The Bohemian Murders, which was ok but not great, I went back to the beginning of the series to see if she started out any better. Not really. Day uses the conceit of the liberated, spirited young woman defying conventions alone against the world but it's been done before and done better as well. I just wasn't all that interested in Fremont or her typing service. And she isn't even a very good sleuth. She stumbles onto the solution to her little mystery rather than doing any good detecting. Fire and Fog had the San Francisco earthquake as its background and that was kind of interesting. Both these books would have been much better if she had skipped the mystery stuff and just kept it on the level of a romance. Her love interest, Michael, has many more possibilities for development than Day gives him. Unfortunately, I don't think I will read any more in the series.

Everyday Knitting: Treasures from the rag pile
By Annemor Sundbo

Knitting as a popular pastime seems to be making a comeback in the last year or two. By that I mean that other people besides the die-hard fiber enthusiasts are taking it up and the publishing industry is responding with really expensive books geared to the new knitter making faddish sweaters with ultra expensive yarns. Normally, I page thru the books, find every glaringly stupid design flaw they have included, sniff and spend my money on yarn. Badly designed sweaters on twig thin models aren't going to look good on the average lumpy body no matter how expensive that glitzy yarn is. I prefer to spend my book money on books about knitting history, fiber production and design techniques that work with more than a $35 dollar an ounce yarn. It really ticks me off when I see a new knitter struggling with difficult yarn and a badly written pattern that some shop owner sold her. Anyway, I found this book after hearing about it at my knitting group and quickly snapped it up.

Annemor Sundbo bought a shoddy factory in a out of the way corner of Norway as a way to finance her own fiber habit. "Shoddy", in the textile industry, is the word for recycled wool. It's drifted into the common language to mean "of poor quality" since the recycled wool is no longer fit to spin for knitted clothing. It's used, rather, as filler for quilts, for carpets and for weaving tweed fabrics which are rough and usually lined in the construction of garments. The factory Sundbo bought took castoff old woolen garments, and picked and ripped them into shoddy wool for Torridal Tweeds. However, as she was going thru the warehouse of old garments she found thousands of garments handknit in folk patterns dating back at least to the turn of the century. Some were earlier. Truly a treasure trove for a knitter and a lover of folk knitting. But the interesting part of the book is when she organizes the garments and then does historical research using old pattern leaflets, old paintings and photos and yarn company flyers to date and find the location of where they came from. She traces patterns to England, Iceland, Sweden, Latvia, and even Holland in her research. Some of the color designs have roots in Persian carpet elements. Norway had a healthy sea trade and all those sailors brought home gifts which were translated into design elements for sweaters, mittens, and stockings.

The book does have problems. It is badly written and even more badly translated. There were a couple of times I wondered what she was actually trying to say and did the translator really know English? Plus, she bounces all over the place in her organization of the book, making it difficult to follow the text and giving me a real appreciation of what a good editor can do for a book. All of that is completely and totally offset by the fabulous color plates of the sweaters, often placed next to the painting or leaflet she used to date them with. They were astonishing. Breathtaking. Inspiring. The pictures are worth the price of the book alone.

Craig's Recent Reading

by Craig Clarke

Bloch and Bradbury
By Robert Bloch and Ray Bradbury

This is a collection of six stories from Robert Bloch and four from Ray Bradbury. They are all good but some are truly great. Fans of H.P. Lovecraft will enjoy "The Shadow from the Steeple," Bloch's sequel to Lovecraft's "The Haunter of the Dark." Bloch also gives us a Poe pastiche in the form of "The Grinning Ghoul." Along the way, we also get a witch tale ("A Question of Etiquette"), a werewolf story ("The Man Who Cried 'Wolf!'"), a Frankenstein-with-clay presentation ("Mannikins of Horror"), and the centerpiece, a tale of underworld terror in Celtic country, "The Druidic Doom."

Bradbury offers up "The Watchers," about a man who thinks insects are listening to his every thought; "Fever Dream," a boy's hallucinations during sickness; "The Dead Man," a love story of two odd folk; and "The Handler," a wickedly funny tale of a vengeful undertaker.

All in all, Bloch is better represented here, with Bradbury's pieces coming up short (especially since, as a fan, I am familiar with his best work). But all the work is good. My favorites were the "Mannikins of Horror" (Bloch) and "The Handler" (Bradbury).

The Clothes They Stood Up In
By Alan Bennett

This is an odd little book. 156 pages in a small hardback, it should have been a very quick read. But the text is so dense that it took me two days to finish.

During a night out at a performance of Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte, the Ransomes are burgled. And brother are they burgled! The thieves take absolutely everything, down to the toilet paper and the roll, leaving nothing behind. This causes the Ransomes to rethink their materialistic lives...until they make a discovery.

This was playwright Bennett's first novel. He appears to have set his tale in the modern day, but uses characters more at home in a Victorian age. They are secretive, even about knowing the other's secrets. And once they make their discovery--which is not explained fully--everything goes downhill, up to and including an unnecessarily depressing ending (that Bennett tries to turn into a happy ending, to no avail).

The ad copy on the flap speaks as if this were all about the materialism, but, apart from a simple mention, the Ransomes are as materialistic afterwards as they were before. It just doesn't make sense. It can't say I liked it, but that's now. While I was reading it, I couldn't get enough. I suppose it just disappointed me.

The Mugger
By Ed McBain

The main thing I've noticed about McBain's 87th Precinct series is how timeless they seem. I'll be going through thinking it's a modern-day story until McBain mentions that the cops make $5,000 a year and I'll be jarred out of the story, thinking "Oh, yeah, it was written in 1957."

Apart from these minor gaffes, however, the series is a fine piece of work. The Mugger is the second in the series (I've also read #3, #4, #26, and #38) and goes right along with the rest. This is a series you can pick up at any point and catch up with everything right away.

A mugger named Clifford is terrorizing women in Isola, New York (where the 87th precinct is located), and the boys are on the trail. His only calling card is that he ends with a bow, saying, "Clifford thanks you, madam," before running off.

Also involved is a young girl name Jeannie Paige, the sister-in-law of a friend of patrolman Bert Kling. Jeannie is found dead, Clifford is the main suspect and McBain writes another bang-up police procedural. McBain is the master.

Death is a Lonely Business
By Ray Bradbury

Death is a Lonely Business is Ray Bradbury's first entry into the crime novel genre. And it's really good. The protagonist is an unnamed writer (patterned after Bradbury) who teams up with police detective Elmo Crumley to solve a string of murders in the town of Venice, California.

Bradbury keeps the pace moving and his characters are true individuals. Often, odd for crime novels, I was moved by hearing of the murder of some characters, particularly one who was close to our hero. And the hints to the identity of the hero are especially fun. This may be the closest thing to an autobiography we receive from the now 82-year-old writer, who recently received the National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

But Death is a Lonely Business is a fine homage to a genre generally believed to be dominated by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, and James M. Cain. This just proves what I have always said: Bradbury can do anything.

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 January 2003
Copyright © 2003, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
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