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ex libris reviews

1 February 2003

Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.
P.G. Wodehouse


In This Issue:
Shuttle Down

The space shuttle Columbia broke up three minutes prior to landing this morning; seven lives were lost.

Under the circumstances, I don't have anything clever to say.

-- Will Duquette

Books to Read Aloud

by Will Duquette

The Paths of the Dead
By Steven Brust

Some years ago, Brust wrote a book called The Phoenix Guards. It is set in the same world as his Vlad Taltos novels, though nearly a thousand years earlier; it is also recognizably inspired by Alexander Dumas's books The Three Musketeers. Some time later he wrote a sequel with the odd title Five Hundred Years After; the sequel to The Three Musketeers is called Twenty Years After. So it was no surprise to the Dumas fans in the audience when he announced that the next book would be called The Viscount of Adhrilankha (click on Dumas' name, above, to see why). Nor was it a surprise when it was revealed that The Viscount of Adhrilankha would be published in three volumes. And, after far too long a time, here is the first of them.

I'm almost at a loss to know how to describe this book. First of all, it's a rollicking adventure, like The Three Musketeers. Historically, it takes place during the Interregnum that followed Adron's Disaster, and involves several efforts to reestablish the empire. The hero is a young Tiassa named Piro, the son of our old friend Khaavren. And finally, it's written by Sir Paarfi of Roundwood.

The thing you need to know about Steven Brust is that he almost never writes without a narrator (the Vlad Taltos books, for example, are narrated by Vlad himself). And so, just as The Three Musketeers is an historical novel written by Alexander Dumas, The Paths of the Dead is not a fantasy, but rather a Dragaeran historical novel written by an historian named Sir Paarfi of Roundwood. And Sir Paarfi is a prolix soul (Jane kept asking me if Paarfi was paid the word) who wants to be sure we understand completely everything we need to about his tale--and a good many things we don't really need to know at all. A lot of the charm of the book comes from Paarfi's storytelling....and a lot of the humor is at Paarfi's expense.

An example: the Paths of the Dead are a very odd feature of the Dragaeran landscape. Dead Dragaerans somehow end up there; and if they can traverse the Paths of the Dead they end up in the Halls of Judgement, where they stand some chance of reincarnation. The Paths of the Dead clearly lie along the Blood River at the base of Deathgate Falls, and yet they aren't really on earth. Time behaves strangely in the Paths of the Dead. And Sir Paarfi spends about half a page reminding us about this peculiarity, in great detail, just so that he can then say that in fact it has no effect on our tale.

Brust is one of our regular read-aloud authors, and so I read this aloud to Jane; and I must say that while I enjoyed it, it was heavy going. Paarfi's prose is always perfectly clear, and grammatically correct, but he likes convoluted sentences and long idiomatic constructions, and never uses one word when five will do, so he's a tiring author to read aloud. It was worth it, though.

One caveat: although it ends with a reasonable climax, this book isn't really complete in itself; like The Fellowship of the Ring, it's simply the first third of a single novel. There are lots of threads left dangling in odd places; if you're easily troubled, you might want to wait until the full work is available.

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Young Men in Spats
By P.G. Wodehouse

The young men of the title are all members of the aptly named Drones Club, that refuge for the exquisitely well-dressed young man with nothing on his mind but the perfect top hat (from Bodmin's, of course). There's nothing serious here, but quite a bit to laugh at: this book is the proper home of my favorite Wodehouse story, "Uncle Fred Flits By", as well as of the fiendishly plotted "Goodbye to All Cats", along with nine other gems. Buy it, read it, chortle.

Holidays in Hell
By P.J. O'Rourke

I've read a number of P.J.'s books now, and generally enjoyed them. He has an acerbic wit, and he's a good observer; the combination makes him interesting, and I often learn something. This, alas, is one of his earlier books, back before he'd settled fully into his groove; there's too much sex, drugs, and inanities, and too little point for it to really worth reading, especially given how dated most of the material is. Oh, well.

Charlotte's Web
By E.B. White

In case you've been in a hole for the last fifty years, this is E.B. White's classic story of Charlotte the grey spider and how she saved a pig named Wilbur from being turned into bacon. I read it several times when I was a kid, and loved it. I read it to Dave over the last twenty or so nights, and he loved it too. I'm going to have to look for Stuart Little, which I somehow never got to, and The Trumpet of the Swan, which I may have read more times as a kid than Charlotte's Web.

There are several editions of this book in print; the one I got has the same illustrations I remember, except that these have been "colorized". The result is surprisingly attractive, and if I were going to give somebody a copy of this book I'd definitely look for the "Full Color Edition".

City of the Beasts
By Isabel Allende

Fifteen-year-old Alexander Cold's mother has cancer and is going to a special clinic with Alexander's father; he and his sisters get dispatched to live with aunts for duration. In Alexander's case, it means that he accompanies his eccentric, acerbic Aunt Kate on an expedition to the farthest reaches of the Amazon River, in search of a murderous sasquatch-like creature called "The Beast". Ultimately the expedition encounters an Indian tribe, the People of the Mist, who have always eschewed contact with outsiders--and also with "The Beasts", a race of creatures the People of the Mist worship as gods.

There's a lot to like in this book; once Allende gets past the first couple of chapters, which are completely atrocious (I nearly stopped reading, and only continued because my sister gave me the book for Christmas and I wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt) she's quite a good storyteller. I'm at a bit of a disadvantage, reviewing this book; I've never read anything else by Allende, and according to the dust jacket this is her first book for young readers. Thus, I don't know whether the awful beginning is typical, or whether she forgot to write "down" after she'd gotten a couple of chapters into it.

But be that as it may, there's a lot to dislike, too. I'll start with the character Ludovic Leblanc, egotistical anthropologist and blithering idiot. He's the only scientist in the party, and he's an imbecile, less interested in what's before his eyes than what's in his books. He's not at all suited for life in the jungle, and he seems to know nothing about it--and yet, he was chosen to lead this expedition because of his vast experience in the field. He's as two-dimensional as a playing card.

Okay, he's a badly written character. But it's the attitude that bugs me--as I say, he's the only scientist. All through the book, the message is "think with your heart, not your head." I'm not one to downplay the importance of feelings and intuition, but not using your head is just stupid.

And then there are the People of the Mist, who are portrayed as living a sylvan, idyllic life without modern goods, without modern thoughts, without modern technology. Really, we're asked, why should they change? Their system has worked for them for thousands of years. They are happy, says Allende. Again, we have the pluralistic, post-modern message: our way is no better than theirs.

In a word: hogwash.

I have three children. Just minutes before my second son was born, the heart rate on the fetal monitor dropped to nearly zero--the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck. The nurse immediately got Jane to stop pushing, and got her breathing oxygen. Meanwhile, she did what she could to get the baby to shift position. It worked--she got him untangled, and he was born safely. Had there been no fetal monitor, likely he would have been stillborn--a little baby boy, perfectly developed and ready to be born, dead of a stupid accident minutes before birth.

I'll take modern technology, thank you. I'll take Western Civilization, with all of its Dead White Males, against whatever pap the multi-culti crowd are pushing these days. It works, better than anything else we've come up with. And I'll tell you, sitting here in my warm study, in a comfortable chair, with my little girl gurgling in her playpen, is much more pleasant than living in the jungle, "in harmony with nature", worshipping the spirits in every plant and animal and worshipping giant ground sloths as gods.

Sorry, Isabel. No, thank you.

Time Machines
By Paul Nahin

I was given this many years ago, and found it while working through the bookshelves. It's a somewhat scholarly treatment of the subject of time machines from the physical, philosophical, theological, and science fictional points of view, and includes a vast bibliography. It's somewhat slightly interesting, and if the subject of time machines fascinates you more than it does me you might want to see if you can scare up a copy.

But if not, not.

The Luck of the Bodkins
By P.G. Wodehouse

When we last saw Monty Bodkin he had just left the employ of the Earl of Emsworth for that of one Percy Pilbeam, private investigator, despite being wealthy in his own right. The circumstances were entirely due to his wish to marry Gertrude Butterwick, whose father had stipulated that no damned drone would marry his daughter and required her intended to have held down a paying job for at least a year before the nuptials. Having been fired from his previous two jobs, Monty had taken the precaution of paying Pilbeam a thousand pounds to give him the post. And so everything looked rosy at the end of Heavy Weather.

Alas, and alack, the course of true love ne'er ran smooth, and especially not at sea, as Monty discovers in the course of a trans-Atlantic cruise. Gertude has broken the engagement, he knows not why, and embarked on a cruise to the United States to forget him. Monty, of course, comes along; faint heart and fair maid, and all that. Also on the trip is Reggie Tennyson, a friend of Monty's from the Drone's club; Reggie's brother Ambrose, the writer and employee of the Admiralty; the well-known starlet Lotus Blossom, once the beloved of Reggie but now the fiance of Ambrose; Ivor Llewellyn, the movie mogul; and his sister-in-law Mabel. Also starring in the action are one stuffed Mickey Mouse doll, a diamond necklace, and an over-familiar cabin steward named Peasemarch, and a plethora of wheels within wheels.

I could wax rhapsodic about how good Wodehouse is, but you've heard that before; take it as given. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

The Wood Beyond
By Reginald Hill

Hill remains true to form in yet another Dalziel/Pascoe mystery. (Incidentally, I've just discovered that the correct pronunciation of the name Dalziel is "Dee-ell".)

The novel begins with the funeral of Pascoe's grandmother Ada, who left a most unusual request in her will--Pascoe is to take her ashes and scatter them about the camp of the West Yorkshire Fusiliers (the "Wyfies"), the regiment in which both her husband and her father fought and died. The request leads Pascoe to a great many unpleasant discoveries about his family history; and for us to the odd, nightmare world of the trenches of the Great War. Hill deftly weaves together the past and present through Pascoe and his forebear--and also through the forebears of the people Dalziel and Pascoe meet in the course of their current investigation. For in World War I it was common in the British Army's county regiments to put folk in squads and companies with their neighbors and (in some cases) brothers and cousins. (Entire families and townships were nearly wiped out by this practice, which has since been abolished.)

By comparison, the present day investigation isn't much, but I have to say I didn't feel short changed. This is yet another outstanding book from Mr. Hill.

Asking for the Moon
By Reginald Hill

This unusual book is a quartet of short novels spanning the careers of Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe from their first meeting to their last case together (on the Moon, of all silly things). The final tale is rather lightweight (if fun, for all that); the rest are quite good. I liked it.

Jeeves in the Offing
By P.G. Wodehouse

This is yet another Bertie Wooster and Jeeves novel, featuring (once again) Bertie's beloved Aunt Dahlia the battleaxe. It's the same old story, naturally--the course of true love doth ne'er run smoothly. What distinguishes this one from the others is the presence of Roberta "Bobbie" Wickham. Wodehouse heroines are infamous for leading their men into danger, but Bobbie Wickham is on a whole 'nother plane. She is an active force for chaos. Falling in love with Bobbie Wickham is likely to lose you your job, your pride, your sanity, and your top hat. I'd not previously seen Bobbie in a full-length novel, and I was glad to renew the acquaintance.

The Holy Thief
By Ellis Peters

As with the last Brother Cadfael I read, I found this one slow to get started but ultimately satisfying. I note that they are both from her later period; perhaps it's typical. If you're starting to read this series, take note: this book should be read after A Morbid Taste For Bones.

By Ed McBain

I suppose I first heard of Ed McBain and the 87th Precinct series fifteen or twenty years ago, but (surprising though it may be) this is the first of McBain's books I've ever read. I don't even know where it came from; I'm sure we didn't buy it. It's pretty well beaten up, which argues that somebody left it here, or it might have been in a bag of books my Dad was getting rid of. Anyway, I found it on our shelves during the Great Purge (which is stalled at about the midway point, by the way) and decided to give it a try.

I've not read anything quite like it. More than anything else, it reminded me of an episode of Law and Order, with one difference--as the camera follows the detectives around the city, asking their questions, McBain lets us know what they are thinking. Not in large measure; there are no internal monologues. But we hear the little comments they make to themselves in response to the things going on around them. We do hear a little bit about the personal lives of the detectives, but we aren't necessarily meant to like them, or identify with them, and I wouldn't be surprised if there were a different set of detectives in each book.

It's a gritty book. An aging pianist is murdered in her apartment; a streetwalker is murdered and left in an alley; a trio of frat boys go on a drunken killing spree. Many of the details are things that I didn't especially need to have in my head. But what I'm left with at the end isn't so much the grit as the air of clinical detachment with which McBain relates the story, and the skill with which he weaves diverse elements into a complete, coherent story.

I don't know whether I'll seek out more of McBain's work, but I definitely respect his skill.

The Deep Blue Good-By
By John D. MacDonald

Travis McGee is one of those characters you hear about from time to time, usually with superlatives attached; and the same can be said about his creator, John D. MacDonald. And so, when the Travis McGee books came back in print some years ago I acquired and read the first six or eight of them, and then stopped. Part of the reason was that they were grittier than I liked, and part was that I'd simply lost interest. I kept them, though, and after reading Ed McBain's Nocturne I decided to give him another try.

For those who aren't familiar, Travis McGee is a beach bum. He lives on a houseboat in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. And sometimes people who have had some object or other taken from them come to him and ask him to get it back. If he succeeds, he gets 50% of whatever he retrieves--and then he lives the good life on his houseboat until the money runs out and he needs to take a new client. McGee is frequently described as a knight errant--a fundamentally decent guy who can't help aiding the weak and oppressed.

In this particular book a young woman comes to him. Her father had been in the Air Transport Command as a freighthandler, and apparently had managed to make quite a bit of money on the side smuggling. On returning to the States he'd killed an officer and been sentenced to life in prison. A cellmate of his, on release, comes to see the young woman, and insinuates his way into every part of her life, until he finds out where the money was stashed, and then he disappears. The woman wants the money back.

I'm afraid I didn't like it much, this time through. I even found it, and Travis McGee himself, to be a bit tedious. I've spent a couple of days pondering that, on and off, and I think I've figured out way.

What people seem to like about Travis McGee, other than his knightly character, is that he philosophizes. As the book goes on he tosses off little gems of wisdom about this or that or the people he meets. And that, it turns out, is a big part of what I dislike, because a lot of it is pretty damned depressing. There's no joy and no humor to speak of in this book.

And then there's McGee's vaunted moral code. He's a real nice guy; one of his rules is that he won't engage in casual sex with people he really cares about. Instead, he only engages in casual sex with brainless idiots who aren't looking for anything else. And while you expect the hero in a book like this to treat the bad guys violently, he treats other folks badly as well if it gets him the information he wants.

And then, finally, there's a whole pornography of violence thing going on that I find repulsive. It's one thing to kill somebody in a novel; it's another thing to describe the process and the results in detail. I was repulsed by them in Nocturne as well, but I didn't have the sense that the book was about the violence; rather, it was about finding the perpetrators.

I might re-read one or more of the remaining Travis McGee's in my collection, just to see if my generalizations hold true...but if they do, I think that Good Ol' Travis is going to get purged.

The Sins of the Fathers
By Lawrence Block

After re-reading the first book in John D. MacDonald's much touted Travis McGee series and finding the sex and violence there-in seriously uncongenial, I found myself wondering why I enjoy Lawrence Block's equally gritty Matthew Scudder series. And so I took the first book in the series from the shelf, and re-read it. It's by no means the best in the series--in fact, I'd put it near the bottom--and yet I still liked it better than The Deep Blue Good-By.

This is surprising, as the two series have a lot in common. Scudder, like McGee, works as little as possible. He's not a licensed detective; but sometimes "friends" ask him to find something out, and sometimes they give him "presents" of money in return. Scudder, unlike McGee, doesn't think of himself as any kind of knight errant; in fact, he's an ex-cop, an alcoholic, and not a very nice guy. He's not above being violent when it suits him, and when he was a cop it suited him to take money when it was handed to him.

So why do I like Scudder better than McGee? Upon reflection, I think that there are several reasons. First of all, McGee judges everybody he meets, and often unfavorably. You sense that he feels superior to almost all of them, even when he's using them. Scudder judges very few people, and doesn't feel superior to many; in fact, he rarely speaks of himself. It makes Scudder easier company. Second, Scudder engages in straightforward investigation; McGee is always about recovering property. That could be extremely interesting--every novel a scam novel, and I do enjoy a good scam. But instead of retrieving the loot with cleverness and skill and vanishing into the night, it always seems to come down to a violent confrontation. Sometimes the Scudder novels end that way, but not necessarily.

And finally, I guess, Scudder grows during the series. He starts out as an alcoholic on the edge of losing it completely, and as the books go on he gets sober, he gets married, and eventually (if I recall correctly) he even gets a real P.I.'s license.

And maybe Block is simply a better storyteller than MacDonald. I dunno.

Time to Murder and Create
By Lawrence Block

I've read this book three or four times now, and I still like it, and I still have no idea what the title means. Matthew Scudder is still a morally ambiguous character, but he's still compelling, and the tale is not only a darn good one, well told, but in fact it's considerably better than its predecessor, The Sins of the Fathers. Block keeps us guessing, and while it's still gritty the sex and violence aren't the point.

The premise is nifty. An acquaintance of Scudder's named Spinner gives him an envelope to hold. So long as Scudder hears from Spinner once a week, he's to leave the envelope alone. If Spinner gets murdered, Scudder is to open the envelope and do what he thinks best. So happens, Spinner is murdered (no surprise), and when Scudder opens the envelope he discovers that the guy has been blackmailing three different people. It's almost certain that one of them had him killed. Which one? Spinner wants the guilty one taken care of, but the other two should go free.

I like it. It works.

Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

Real-Life Homeschooling
By Rhonda Barfield

I have two "special needs" children. My son, Will, is 15. When he was 10 we took him to a doctor to see if what we saw as profound driftiness was something like ADD. The teachers at school blew us off when we mentioned it. One memorable teacher told me he had to "learn to be more responsible." He failed the TOVA (Test of Variable Attention)…. miserably. Medication and therapy followed and for a time he did better in school, better at home and found some friends. I acted as his executive secretary. This year he decided that the meds make him too "gorked" out, to use his words and he wanted to try school without them. And we, as parents, decided to let him give it a try. He is failing all his core classes.

My daughter, Abby is 12. When she was in 1st grade she didn’t learn to read. She learned how to memorize books that were read to her and recognize words in those books. Abby is a smart cookie. The teacher, bless her, thought she was reading. So after some long chats with the teacher we got her tested by the school. They decided she had language deficits warranting special interventions and Abby was moved for language and reading from the mainstream classroom and its Whole Language method of teaching reading and writing to a Direct Instruction special ed room. Within weeks she was reading and within months she was reading for pleasure. I love Direct Instruction and phonics. We did all the usual work with her. I got her a Franklin Speller. We sounded out words. We practiced using phonics rules. We used the dictionary. We wrote and rewrote and rewrote assignments. I rewrote math problems vertically so she could read them. We used graph paper rather than lined paper--the squares are easier to work with when you can't see a letter or number amidst all the "clutter" on a page. We did math drills and more math drills. We never watch TV on school nights, which isn't that big a sacrifice. She got by but was isolated. Kids in special ed are "stupid," "dumb," etc. Her self esteem suffered. She is belligerent with and resentful of her peers. She can't be in sports because she needs the time to do her schoolwork. The teachers tell me she is always alone. And this year she is failing all her core classes.

I tend not to completely trust experts. I tend not to trust rules. Some are good and there for my safety. I always stop at a red light, even in the dead of night when I am the only one on the road and could scootchy on thru with no one knowing but myself. But when my kid is failing in an institution set up to get them ready for "life" and no one knows how to fix it and I have been working for years to help them make it in the setting they are in, I am willing to look at alternatives. Outside the box alternatives. So I picked up this book and read it.

This book is about parents who have chosen to homeschool their kids. There are 21 stories of how and why and what they did to get their kids ready for life. Some were more interesting than others. Some were more helpful than others. Some were so far outside the box that I just didn’t buy it. What the book did was show me that there are alternatives. I am not sure I will homeschool my kids or even if that would help them. But after reading this book I know I can do it. It is not beyond my abilities. And that gives me a little more energy to deal with the situation at home and at school.

The Lord of the Rings
By J.R.R. Tolkien

Last summer when we were driving to the cabin we vacation in, a car passed us with a bumper sticker that said "Not all those who wander are lost." My husband commented on it and Abby, my twelve year old, then recited the Riddle of Strider for him. She likes the book for its poetry and memorizes the poems.

Our house has 5 complete copies of this book, one for each of the two kids and my three. One of my copies is the edition I bought in the 70's when I first discovered it and that sits in a place of honor on my bookshelf. One set is my working copy that I take down to read when the need strikes. And the third is the trilogy published as one hardbound book, as Tolkien originally intended. That is the one I am reading now. I am about a third of the way into the last section, war is gathering, night has permanently fallen and Aragorn has gone thru the Paths of the Dead.

What brought me back to the book is the movie, of course. I haven't seen the second installment yet but for Christmas I got a copy of the extended 4 DVD set of the first movie. We watched it as a family after all the Christmas hullabaloo was over and even my husband, who has steadfastly looked down his cute upturned nose at the movie, enjoyed it immensely. Then my kids and I watched the "making of the movie' stuff that they fill out the DVD set with. Some was interesting, particularly the costuming section. Some was filler and as my daughter says, "Like, hello. I don’t care."

So I went back to the book. And it is so much better. Even with the added scenes in the DVD, the book outshines the movie. What I find with every rereading of the book is that I hear or notice something different every time. This time it's the almost Biblical language Tolkien used to describe events and people. And all the Biblical parallels which for some reason I totally missed before.

Except for perhaps Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, I cannot think of another author's books that I know so well, have read so many times and enjoy so much each time I come back to it.

Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years
By Elizabeth Wayland Barber

I originally bought this book when it was first published in paper in 1995. It bored me to tears at the time and went the way of some books--to the used bookstore for resale. However, sensibilities and interests change. Recently, I was browsing the books at the local yarn shop, picked this back up, read a few pages and plopped my money down. Then I took it home and read it cover to cover in nearly one sitting.

Barber attempts to show the development of cloth and clothing and how it relates to women and society in general from the Paleolithic up to the late Iron age. Her first postulation is that clothing and cloth manufacture have always traditionally been done by women because of the need for flexible work that can be picked up or put down as the demands of nursing an infant and toddler require. She then traces the development of cloth from the simple string skirt of fertility rights to the more elaborate clothing and tapestries of the Hellenic cultures. However, since very few fragments of cloth are still extant, she relies quite heavily on the remaining tools and artwork left behind when the cultures finally failed. The most interesting discussion in the book concerns the parallel development of vertical warp weighted looms versus horizontal peg looms and how they created different weaving techniques and ultimately different uses for the cloth.

The book isn't for everyone. I am particularly fond of anything that relates to fiber and textile development and for that I found it fascinating. She uses myth as evidence a bit too much for me to buy all her arguments. I also have a hard time completely accepting that women did the spinning, weaving and sewing because they were tied to their nursing children and the men went out to hunt and later to farm because they were not. It seems too clean and simple.

Blandings Castle
By P.G. Wodehouse

This is a collection of short stories mainly about Blandings Castle and Lord Emsworth. There are more to the volume, but I confess, I only read the Blandings ones. I love the Blanding stories! Lord Emsworth amuses me no end and his brother, Sir Galahad Threepwood is a hoot. Like Bertie's Aunts, Lord Emsworth has Sisters and worse, Nephews. But the bane of his life is his younger son, Freddie. Fortunately, Freddie marries an American heiress to a dog bone manufacturer and goes off the the States to work in her father's vicinity. This collection includes the, I think, first Blanding story "The Custody of the Pumpkin" which has Lord Emsworth adoring his prize pumpkin prior to the advent of the Empress of Blandings into his life. It also includes the classic "Pig-Hoo-O-O-O-Ey" where Lord Emsworth really learns how to call a pig. As usual with everything by Wodehouse, these stories are a delight.

The Mating Season
By P.G. Wodehouse

Recently, my kids and I were having a "reading supper." In our house, we don’t read and eat unless the Father personage is gone. He frowns on the lack of conversation when the rest of us have our noses in a book. But he's taking night classes this semester and the kids and I are free to read while we eat. Anyway, I was reading The Mating Season and enduring the snotty remarks from my teenagers about the title. I read them some of it to show them that no, Mom is not reading something inappropriate for public consumption and ended up reading to them the whole meal. It's hard to read aloud and eat at the same time.

Bertie is whangdoodled into going down to Deverill Hall pretending to be Gussie Fink-Nottle after Gussie lands himself in the jug by searching for newts in the fountain of Trafalgar Square. He cant take Jeeves since Jeeves' uncle is the Butler of that establishment. And Deverill Hall is full of Aunts that make Aunt Agatha seems like a toy poodle. Then Corky Pirbright shows up with a Dog who somehow ticks off the local rozzer, Constable Dobbs. Jeeves finally shows up to save the day when Gussie comes to the Hall pretending to be, yes, Bertie Wooster. There are also a couple of love plots and an absolutely wonderful scene of religious conversion by Constable Dobbs. Not to mention Bertie on a chair singing a hunting song.

I find the plots of Wodehouse novels difficult to explain. They are so convoluted they nearly defy explanation. You may as well just read the book. But the wonderful part of this novel, as with all his other work, is the description of events and the play with words. And Bertie's almost pathological aversion to marriage while seeming to surround himself with marriageable young women. And the Aunts.

Galahad at Blandings
By P.G. Wodehouse

Lord Emsworth has gone to New York to see his sister, Constance, married. Unfortunately, in his absence another sister, Hermione, installs herself at Blandings Castle. And she hires a secretary for him. The secretary, Sandy, has sent her fiancé packing and asks Sir Galahad Threepwood to mail the package containing his letters. Galahad decides to reunite the two and the whole complex mess that happens goes from there. There is at least one more messy love plot plus a Nephew who tries to let loose the pig. I like the Blandings books the best, I think. Lord Emsworth somehow reminds me of my father, who walked around humming to himself all day. He did not care for pigs, however. The whole business with the pig amuses me no end, for some reason.

As with all Wodehouse books, read and enjoy.

Craig's Recent Reading

by Craig Clarke

The Secret of Annexe 3
By Colin Dexter

The Secret of Annexe 3 is another fine Inspector Morse mystery, the seventh in the series. A man dressed as a Rastafarian for a New Year's Eve costume party is murdered and it's up to Morse and Sergeant Lewis to solve the crime with little or no help from the attendees of the party. In fact, it seems their only assistance is to be from the desk clerk, one Sarah Johnstone, to whom Morse may be taking a liking...

This isn't one of the best from Dexter, but a Morse mystery is always welcome in my home. The relationship between Morse and Lewis is worth the price alone. Dexter does excellent characterizations and his juggling of several characters in The Secret of Annexe 3 is spectacular, each attendee retaining a distinct personality.

Who Moved My Cheese?
By Spencer Johnson, M.D.

I finally read this, after avoiding it for so long. It was passed around my office (among the upper management), so I wanted to read it to see what the big deal was.

It's a simple story of two mice and two little people and their different responses to finding that their normal stores of cheese have been depleted. It's supposed to be a metaphor for any change that happens in life. I suppose it is useful in its own way, but I found it too simplistic for my taste.

I suppose for a busy manager with not much time on his/her hands, the 98-page, large-print text is useful as a quick read. I read it in thirty minutes, and I'm not a quick reader. And Johnson does certainly get the point across quickly. (Things change. Don't ask why things have to change. Just deal with it.) This is not to say that it's a bad book, I'm just not its proper audience.

Killer's Choice
By Ed McBain

No, it's not a new type of coffee, it's another 87th Precinct novel from the king of the police procedural, Ed McBain. In Killer's Choice, Bert Kling is looking for the killer of a single mother who worked in a liquor store. Meanwhile, new transfer, from the 30th precinct, Cotton Hawes searches for the robber who killed fellow officer Roger Havilland.

Of course, this is a great mystery with terrific characters but it's the little touches that make McBain's books such fun reads, like the elevator operator that complains about never seeing the sun but has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot. And that people in this book refer to events in a previous book, The Pusher, that I had read and reviewed already. This merely added to the feeling of realism from the already-skillful characterizations. I'll definitely be reading more McBain.

A Drink Before the War
Darkness, Take My Hand
By Dennis Lehane

A Drink Before the War is the first of Dennis Lehane's Boston-based detective series starring Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro. From their office in the bell tower of a local church, they are hired by important local politicians to retrieve some sensitive documents they believe were stolen by Jenna Angeline, an employee of the state.

Kenzie and Gennaro's search for these documents takes them into the other world of Boston: the world of guns, drugs, and lost hope. Along the way they meet important players including Angeline's husband and son, who both figure prominently in the story. Child abuse and domestic violence also play a vital role in this novel.

Interestingly, Lehane makes Patrick into a truly human character, flawed to the point of almost being unsympathetic. But his relationship with Angie is the foundation of the novel and is quite moving in its own right, especially in the difficulty of keeping it from getting too complicated.

This is one of the best detective novels I've read in a very long time and--since Lehane had been recommended to me long ago--I regret it has taken me this long to discover it.

And as good as A Drink Before the War is, Darkness, Take My Hand is even better. Lehane's characters feel (if this is possible) even more like real people. There is a character-related surprise at the end that floored me.

One thing, though, you must read A Drink Before the War before Darkness, Take My Hand or you will not understand most of what is going on between Kenzie and Gennaro. This one layers onto the first one's foundation. And Lehane writes dreams like nobody's business.

I am going to end here and go read more of these terrific mystery novels.

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