Home : Ex Libris : 1 March 2003

ex libris reviews

1 March 2003

There's a satisfaction to hanging a wizard that I never got out of arguing tax policy...
David Drake


In This Issue:
Australia On My Mind

I was home with a cold a couple of times during February, so I got a lot of reading done--the usual mixture of old familiar stuff and new interesting stuff. And I've spent a lot of time thinking about Australia. I'm scheduled to go to Australia on business in a couple of weeks, which is a mixed blessing--two weeks of work (with occasional play) bracketed on each end by 14+ hours of coach class airplane hell. Almost purely out of curiousity I asked my secretary to find out how much I'd have to pay (out of my own pocket) to get an upgrade to business class. Are you ready for this? It was over $6000, roundtrip, more than coach. I think was I about willing to spend maybe $250.

I'm supposed to be home on the 29th or so, but what with jet lag and all that the April ex libris may be a day or two late.

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Have Space Suit--Will Travel
By Robert A. Heinlein

This is yet another Heinlein's juveniles, and yet another good time. It's classic SF at it's finest; it would have made a great B movie. You've got a courageous, resourceful young man; a plucky girl (literally-- she's ten years old); a gifted scientist (her father); bug-eyed monsters; super-science; and a wonderful lessons in how to save the world and deal with the town bully, respectively. I couldn't take it at all seriously, especially the technology, but gosh it was a fun thing to read while home sick with a cold.

The Excalibur Alternative
By David Weber

It's like this, see. You're a member of an advanced race, and the Prime Directive won't let you use advanced weaponry on the primitive inhabitants of the backward planets you want to exploit for raw materials. No, you have to bargain with the primitive little creatures. And then one of your competitors has a bright idea. They kidnap an army from a primitive planet--the creatures call themselves "Romans"--and they make these "Romans" fight their battles for them, using the primitive weapons they know best. It's been a couple of centuries, and your competitor is now top dog. What do you do?

If you're like the alien in this book you go back to the same planet, and see if you can find some Romans of your own. What you end up with is an army of English longbowmen on the way to Agincourt, and everything seems to go amazingly well--for awhile. But Englishmen have minds of their own, don't you know.

This is a fun book. It isn't Poul Anderson's delightful The High Crusade, but it's fun.

The Star Beast
By Robert A. Heinlein

John Thomas Stuart has a friend, and a problem. The friend, whose name is Lummox, is an alien creature with six legs that Stuart's great-grandfather brought back from a trip to the stars. Lummox is about the size of a pair of hippos, stronger than a dozen or so elephants, and will eat anything it can find. Anything. Steel girders, high explosives, rose bushes, you name it. Lummox can talk, but appears to be about as smart as, say, a three year old. Do you see the problem?

And then a space ship--a very large space ship--appears in the Solar System and announces that if they don't get Lummox back, they'll take steps. Informed sources assure the powers that be that those steps are liable to include complete planetary destruction.

What's a young man to do?

If you've been following ex libris for the last few months, you'll remember that I've been trying to find all of the early Heinlein novels I hadn't previously read. I'm not sure, but I think this is the last one. The interesting thing is, it's written during the period in which Heinlein wrote all his juveniles, and it does feature a young adult hero and heroine, but it doesn't have the same tone as his other juveniles. The politicking that goes on at the end has the tone of Stranger in a Strange Land or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress; I was actually rather surprised that it wasn't written about ten years later.

Pyramid Scheme
By Eric Flint and Dave Freer

This is completely silly book, as anyone who read the authors' earlier book Rats, Bats, and Vats would expect. It's also a much better book, without the rough edges that made Rats, Bats, and Vats a bit of a slog.

Pyramid Scheme is an alien invasion novel with a difference. As the book opens, a funny looking black pyramid crash lands in the middle of the University of Chicago. People who go too close to it tend to disappear. Not all of them; but a large fraction. Sometimes they come back; but if so it's because they are dead or dying. With each person swallowed, the pyramid gets bigger.

And what's inside the pyramid? The whole world of Greek myth. What's it doing there? Ah-ah! That would be telling.

But you can take it from me, Medea's been getting a bum rap all these years. And Odysseus isn't anyone you'd want to bring home to mother.

Nightmare in Pink
By John D. MacDonald

OK, so this one was better than The Deep Blue Good-By. There's less random violence, and perhaps marginally less cynicism. It's more of a straightforward investigation, rather than a treasure hunt. And some of the side characters are really quite amusing.

I'm still unimpressed by the god-like power of McGee's sexual healing, though.

Pictures of Perfection
By Reginald Hill

The constable of the little Yorkshire village of Enscombe has gone missing. He's been on bad terms with many of the locals, and has engaged in a fist fight with one of them. Still, his boss wants to know where he is if he's alive, and where the body is buried if he's dead. And that's really what the book is about--where all the bodies are buried in Enscombe.

Rarely has a mystery writer led me on such a tortuous and delightful wild goose chase as Hill does in this book, and seldom have I enjoyed it so much when I could see the pattern whole. At each stage I was sure I knew what was going on--and I never did, right up until the end.

I become more impressed with Reginald Hill with each book of his I read. I think this one is my favorite to date.

Bones and Silence
By Reginald Hill

Andrew Dalziel is looking out the back window of his house late one evening when he sees a murder committed in the house just behind. He dashes over and arrests the man with the gun, a local builder named Swain. His wife is dead, shot through the head; Swain claims that she was trying to commit suicide, and that he was trying to take the gun away when she shot herself. His story is corroborated by the other man present, a fellow named Waterson with whom Mrs. Swain has evidently been having an affair.

But Dalziel knows what he saw, and he's certain that it was murder. Others, notably the Chief Constable, are less sure--in fact, they think he's flat out wrong--and Dalziel had been drinking.

While Dalziel's doggedly pursuing a murder verdict nobody else believes in, Pascoe is dealing with a series of letters Dalziel's been sent, from a woman who aims to kill herself. Not immediately, but some time in the near future. The letters are anonymous, but we know she has to be someone we've met in the course of the book, so who is she?

I liked it. But if you've been following along for the last couple of months, you knew that. I must say, it's a pleasure to read somebody as consistently good as Hill.

Lord of the Isles
By David Drake

Every so often I take a shot at a hazard and find something unexpectedly wonderful, and that's definitely the case here. What's even more wonderful is that this is the first book in a series--and I've come to it late enough that I think that the entire thing has been written. I just need to go about and buy the subsequent books.

Lord of the Isles is the beginning of an epic fantasy with a number of interesting and original twists. The world in which it is set is divided into two oceans, the Outer Sea and the Inner Sea, by a roughly circular ring of islands. At one time the islands were united under a single king, but that last king, Carus of Haft, was brought down by a would-be usurper; the ensuing struggles ushered in a thousand years of chaos.

There are many wizards in the world of the Isles, and one interesting twist is that few of them know what they are doing. They've got kibbles and bits of learning, but few of them can perceive the forces they manipulate by rote. The results they get can be wildly at variance with their intentions. I like this because it turns one of my pet peeves on its head--the hero who has exceptionally strong magic powers, but has no idea how to harness them. Andre Norton wrote a good many of these, but she's not alone; Robert Jordan has turned the idea into a saga that stands at ten books and counting. And the thing that annoys me about it is the whole deus ex machina thing. Just when the hero has gotten into a fix and is facing certain death, he reaches down to the depths of his soul and in a triumph of nebulous, overwrought prose does the dirty to his enemies in a blaze of wild magic. Which he still won't know how to control when it's all over. I think Drake's take on it is much more amusing.

The problem is enhanced because there are magical tides of a sort. Wizards can draw on two sources of power, the "Sun", which is a good principle, or Malkar, which is an evil principle. Most drawn on a mixture of the two. But the sources are stronger at some times than at others, and just as happened a thousand years earlier when Carus was overthrown, Malkar is becoming ever more strong in the world. So these various wizards not only don't know what they are doing, not only can't they see where their power is coming from, but they are far stronger than they would have been a hundred years earlier. They are like children playing with molotov cocktails instead of matches.

On top of this interesting setting, Drake has created a set of intriguing characters.

There's Tenoctris, a wizard from an earlier age, cast forward in time by the magic cataclysm that killed King Carus. Unlike most of the wizards we run into, Tenoctris' powers are extremely weak. But unlike them she's a scholar; and on top of that she can see the forces they manipulate blindly.

There's Garric, a descendant of King Carus, with whom he has some kind of arcane link; he's clearly destined to be the next King of the Isles, though it's nothing he desires.

There's Cashel, shepherd, adept of the quarterstaff, and (though he doesn't think about it) a strong wizard in his own right. He doesn't draw circles and cast spells like the others; instead, he uses it instinctively. He's a man of character and integrity, and his magic is part of that (as Tenoctris says, he has good instincts). He's also, I gather, half sprite, which may explain things.

There's Sharina, Garric's sister. There are two factions trying to regain rule of all of the islands, and when she is discovered to be the long and well-lost daughter of the Duke of Haft, and thus heir to Carus, she becomes a pawn in their hands. But she's well able to take care of herself.

And there are as many others that I don't have time to write about. I like many of them. And they don't bicker incessantly like Robert Jordan's characters, which is just about worth the price of admission.

The bottom-line is, if you have any taste for epic fantasy, buy it. You'll like it.

Howliday Inn
By James Howe

This is the second book in the "Bunnicula" series, although Bunnicula the vampire bunny doesn't actually appear in it. The Monroe family is going off on a vacation, and leaving Chester the cat and Harold the dog at a kennel called Chateau Bow-Wow. As usual, Chester is determined to play Sherlock Holmes, and as usual Harold (the narrator) is just about capable of holding down Dr. Watson's spot on the roster.

Chester soon determines that the pair of wire-haired dachsunds (Heather and Howard) are in fact werewolves; and when a French poodle named Louise disappears, Chester is certain that she's been murdered by her boyfriend Max and his new friend Georgette. Or maybe by Lyle, the psycho-kitty. Or by Max's hanger-on, Taxi. And as more animals disappear, even Harold begins to think that Chester might be right.

I'll pay this book the compliment of saying that David enjoyed it very much, and is looking forward to more; I'll also say that I found it rather boring, and not much fun to read aloud. I'd probably have liked it more if I'd been able to read it silently (and therefore more quickly), but alas--I fear that this belongs to the set of kid's books that really are only for kids.

There are two or three more books in the series, and I've no doubt we'll get to them all in time.

Amazing Escapes
By Mary Packard

This is a "Ripley's Believe It or Not" book that Dave got at a book fair at his school. It's all about people and animals that escaped certain death in a variety of unlikely ways. There's the woman who bit a pit bull terrier in the neck to make it let go of her dog; the woman whose life was saved by her potbelly pig; various people picked up and carried improbable distances by tornadoes only to land safely; people rescued from volcanoes; et cetera, et al.

I got to read all of this aloud to Dave over the last five nights. It was less tedious than some things we've read, but it isn't going to win any literary awards either. I think this one will recede into blessed obscurity on David's shelf until the day when he can read it to himself.

On The Edge
By Peter Lovesey

This short novel by Peter Lovesey is a variant on the "Strangers on a Train" theme. It's set in England in the late 1940's, a few years after the end of World War II. Two woman, friends in the WAAF during the early part of the war, meet on the street after a parting of some six years. One had married a heroic RAF wing commander only to discover that heroism takes you only so far in civilian life; the other had married a wealthy engineer only to find that money wasn't everything. Both think maybe they'd be better off without their husbands.

But this isn't an account of how the police crack what could have been the perfect murder. It's the story of the two women, Rose and Antonia, and the steps they take to gain their ends.

As usual for Lovesey, the characters are clearly drawn, three-dimensional, and compelling; the plot is convoluted and surprises are many. Plus, his depiction of the post-war years has such detail and immediacy that Jane (who also read it) was quite shocked to find that it was published in 1989.

Though compelling, I wouldn't call this a delightful book; while not gruesome, it was nevertheless like watching Humpty Dumpty fall off of the wall in slow motion. You know he's scrambled for good, and yet you can't help watching.

In The Midst Of Death
By Lawrence Block

This is the third Matthew Scudder novel; it's better than the first one, The Sins of the Fathers, and Scudder's always interesting to read about, but otherwise it's nothing special.

Law for the Elephant
By John Philip Reid

This is a dry, dusty, obscure, scholarly book, and while I wouldn't call it a compelling read, I did manage to read the whole thing over the period of about a month, and I'm not sorry about it. What that says about me, I'm not sure, because This Is Not A Book For The Mass Market.

This is a book about the wave of emigration along the California and Oregon trails in the middle part of the 19th century, and in particular the understanding of law by the emigrants themselves, and in particular of law as it relates to private property (as, after all, most civil and criminal law does).

One gathers from a variety of snide (if exceedingly polite) comments that Reid makes in the text that there has been the tendency among historians to make one of two errors regarding the Overland Trail and the California mining camps. The first is to see them as "lawless", places where the usual societal norms didn't apply, and therefore places where every human impulse, no matter how base, is given free rein. This is (I paraphrase) utter hogwash. During the course of this long book, Reid builds a compelling case that the emigrants brought the law they had known in the east with them as they travelled west--despite knowing full well that they were travelling far beyond the bounds of any kind of coercive authority.

The Overland Trail was a place of great hardship. What with short water, short food, burning heat, bad water, disease, freezing cold, there was something bad for everyone. In such a desparate situation, we'd expect to see the have-nots stealing from the haves, and murdering if necessary to get the food and water and other supplies they needed. But Reid has surveyed the many diaries of the trip--and there were hundreds, at least, written by men and women from all classes and levels of education--and the picture is clear. Property rights were respected on the Overland Trail. There was remarkably little thievery. People bought what they needed, often at exorbitant prices, from other emigrants, or from the trading posts that sprang up. Basic honesty is taken to a surprising degree; emigrants finding a stray horse or ox or mule and taking it into their train would freely return it should the owner come and recognize it.

The Trail was a dangerous place, certainly, but the dangers did not include, for the most part, one's fellow man. And the emigrants recognized this: when the evitable need to lighten the load became extreme (everyone overpacked), one of the first things to go as being of no use were the guns.

Well, you might ask, what about murders for other reasons? Certainly there were some, though it seems to be have uncommon. Reid has written another book on that topic, Policing the Elephant, which I've not yet gotten to.

The other error historians have been prone to make is to see the Overland Trail as a place where the dictum, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need," would naturally hold sway. But there is no Marxist paradise, and in fact even those in the deepest degree of need expected to pay (in money or in kind or in labor) for what they needed.

The conclusion seems to me to be inescapable. The emigrants were decent, God-fearing folk (and they were, too) when they left the east; they remained decent God-fearing folk as they travelled west. They brought their moral compasses with them.

I don't know what it says of historians that they seem to think that, once away from the coercive power of state and society, the emigrants would turn into slavering beasts with all the morals of, well, modern academics. But they didn't.

A Stab in the Dark
By Lawrence Block

This is yet another early Matthew Scudder novel; it's interesting mostly in that this is the book where Scudder first begins to admit to himself that he has a drinking problem. He has a couple of blackouts, and does some seriously dangerous and stupid things, and almost--but not quite-- persuades himself to go to an AA meeting. The mystery itself serves mostly as background for Scudder's own story in this one.

California Gold Rush
By Peter and Connie Roop

This is a children's history of the California Gold Rush; it's published by Scholastic and is written for kids aged 7 and 8. It's meant to be simple enough for the kids to read to themselves. But David saw it at a book fair at his school, and since we'd recently read a book that takes place during the Gold Rush (By the Great Horn Spoon), he grabbed it and I read it aloud to him over four nights (one per chapter).

On the whole, I'm impressed by this little book. Though it's written for kids, it isn't dumbed down; in particular, it speaks in specifics rather than in vague generalities. The illustrations include many photographs and engravings from the Gold Rush era, including a couple of fascinating advertising broadsheets. All in all, it packs quite a bit of information into 48 pages in large type (there's even a glossary and an index).

I don't expect that many of my readers will ever be in a position to buy this book, let alone read it; but if you need such a thing you could do much worse.

Queen of Demons
By David Drake

During the course of Drake's Lord of the Isles we learned of two wizards each trying to find the throne of Malkar, an artifact that would either one nearly absolute power--for a while, until it destroyed them. Garric puts paid to one of them, the Hooded One, in that book; in this book the chief enemy is the Queen of the Isles, "wife" to the ineffectual King Valence of Ornifal whom she has nearly supplanted.

The more I ponder this series (and though I've only gotten around to reviewing this book today, I've already started the fourth book), the more impressed I am. The typical fantasy epic--Richard Jordan's "Wheel of Time", say--features some great Evil Overlord which our heroes must defeat against all odds. No matter how many volumes go into the series, the quest against the Evil Overlord is the unifying element. And that means that somehow our heroes must defeat the overlord again and again and again until we're almost past caring. That's the problem with the typical Big Story--you get the Skylark effect in spades.

The Lord of the Isles series is a Big Story, but it's anything but typical. The story isn't about the defeat of some Evil Overlord; rather, it's about a heroic attempt to maintain--and advance!--the civilization of the Isles in the face of a thousand-year peak in the tides of evil magic. There's no one Evil Overlord; instead, there might be dozens, all competing against our heroes, and against each other. And on top of that there are the basic human-level politics of the Isles.

Thus, whereas a normal fantasy series must escalate the threat and the response to it with each book, taking our suspension of disbelief to ever higher and more tenuous levels, the Lord of the Isles books each concern yet another problem that our heroes must overcome. The problem might or might not be more severe than that in the preceding book; but it's certainly different.

All in all, I'm finding the whole series most refreshing.

The Duke of Uranium
By John Barnes

This book takes place in the 36th century. Mankind has colonized the entire solar system; the vast bulk of humanity lives not on Earth, but in two massive orbital habitats, the Hive and the Aerie, which occupy the L4 and L5 positions 120 degrees before and after Earth in its orbit. Our hero, Jak Jannika, is a somewhat shallow, callow, and feckless youth who has just graduated from the equivalent of high school. When his girlfriend is kidnapped at a nightclub, he is sent by his Uncle the social engineer to go rescue her. Which all sounds somewhat romantic, but it isn't really.

It's hard to know what to make of this book. The cover touts it as a mixture of Robert A. Heinlein and Harry Harrison, with some justice; in some ways it also appears to be a spoof of Iain M. Banks' "Culture" series. The science is tolerably hard (or at least pretends to be), while the tone ranges from deadly seriousness to cartoon lunacy. The two extremes don't fit together very well.

But it was not a bad read, and more enjoyable than I feared it might be.

Servant of the Dragon
By David Drake

This is the third book in the Isles series, and Drake is still going strong. Garric, Sharina, Cashel, and Ilna, and various friends, continue trying to save civilization, while the threat this time is the culmination of a plot a thousand years in the making. I won't give away any details, save to say that our heroes aren't fighting by themselves; the bad guys have been making free with the mummy of a long dead wizard, and said long dead wizard isn't happy about it. The only problem is that he's, well, long dead.

A Princess of the Aerie
By John Barnes

This is the sequel to The Duke of Uranium, which I reviewed a couple of days ago. Jak Jannika travels with his buddies to the habitat of Greenwood in the Aerie, where his former girlfriend is a princess. He's going because she sent him a secret message asking him to come and "do something for her", and to fulfill the requirement for his Junior Project at the Public Service Academy. The action takes him as far as the mines of Mercury.

The book has much the same strengths and flaws as its predecessor, but there was more about it to dislike. In particular, parts of it combine some really ugly sexual domination with a really cynical take on relationships that I found unpleasant. It wasn't gratuitous, I'll give Barnes that--he was establishing that a particular character is a sociopathic bitch, and by the time he was done I believed him. But it was unpleasant, never the less, and I could have done without it.

There are clearly more books to come; I'll probably buy the next one. But unless there's a clear improvement I may not go any farther than that.

Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

The Man in The High Castle and A Scanner Darkly
By Philip K. Dick

One of the problems with slightly offcenter speculative fiction is that the reader has to understand the subculture or political situation or technology the author is talking about. Authors quite often ask the question "What if..." and then go on to tell a story or spin a tale that answers the question. What if...we could clone dinosaurs from fossil DNA? Jurassic Park. Not a particularly good book, way too gruesome for my taste, but an interesting question in light of the recent developments in cloning technology. Should we? How far do we go?

In The Man in the High Castle, Dick answers the question "What if the Allied Forces had lost WWII? What would the world be like?" The book is interesting not for his speculations but because his story reflects light from what really did happen after the war. Of course you have to know what happened after the war to appreciate the book. It was written in 1962. The Cold War. The division of Germany. The diplomacy of brinksmanship. The Stalinist state. Joseph McCarthy. Those things were all current, still fresh.

In the book, the Allies lost. Roosevelt was assassinated before America could enter the war. The US is divided roughly at the Rockies into a Nazi German state and a Japanese one. Americans are a repressed nation. The Four Freedoms and all the rest of the Bill of Rights have disappeared. The Nazis have carried out horrific genocidal experiments in Africa, thankfully not fully explained. The remaining Africans are slaves, as are the Chinese. And one man writes a book about what could have happened if the Allies had won the war. It's a revolutionary thought. And it isn't suppressed in the more liberal Japanese west. I found the whole premise very interesting.

Unfortunately, A Scanner Darkly didn't hold forth with the same quality. It was mushy in parts, hard to follow, long winded and not all that pertinent to anything in general. Most of the problems I had with it was that Dick was trying way too hard to find great meaning about society and individuality in the drug culture. I don't personally find much meaning there. But part of the problem, I have to admit, is that the used copy I picked up had obviously been used by a student reading it for a class. Marginalia in pink gel pen with hearts over the I's instead of dots distracted me. Especially since she, and I can only assume the writer was female, seemed to find it so deep. In fact I started reading the marginalia and then the text just to see what the previous owner had made of that paragraph or that sentence. And then I started to wonder the kid who had taken these notes and why was she was finding this so interesting. About that time, I realized I was pathetically bored and put it down.

Too many books, too little time.

The Burglar who Studied Spinoza
By Lawrence Block

Bernie Rhodenbarr books are always good for a couple hours of good, light fun. They follow a basic formula that every book about him I've read so far hasn't deviated from at all. Bernie burgles an apartment. Someone gets murdered. Bernie gets blamed. Bernie has to figure out who did the murder so he doesn't end up in prison. Bernie does and all is well. It's comforting. Block elaborates a little with Bernie's friend, Carolyn, the lesbian owner of a dog washing service just down the road from his bookstore. And there is the woman painter, Denise, and her genius son. And Bernie's "cop on the take", Ray, who's always there to make the final arrest after Bernie figures out who did it. This one is no different, really. Perhaps a little more thoughtful than the others when the fence, Abel Crowe, dies. What I haven't quite figured out is why I like Bernie so much. He's a thief, for goodness sake, albeit an ethical one. He could make a go of his bookstore if he wanted but he likes to steal. And I like reading about him doing it. I have more on the shelf waiting for when I need a good, light read.

Bleak House
By Charles Dickens

I like Dickens' books. Some call him long winded and tedious but I have never found him to be so. James Joyce's "Ulysses" is long winded and tedious. Dickens is just... extremely Victorian. His plots are complex, his descriptions are voluminous and his characters are cartoons rather than rounded people. Nevertheless, I almost always find something relevant in his books. He creates a world that I find immediately familiar, understandable and amusing.

The skeleton plot of "Bleak House" revolves around the story of two young litigants, Ada Clare and Richard Carstone, in a long and hugely involved Chancery suit called Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce. The case is hopelessly bogged down in legal mumbo jumbo, the lawyers are eating all the money up in court costs and the whole process of waiting for resolution has driven the people involved to madness or suicide. On the opposite side is John Jarndyce who, in an effort to repair the damage done by the suit, takes the pair under his wing as wards and provides them with financial support and a beautiful home called Bleak House. He also takes in a young woman, orphaned and raised by an aunt, to act as a companion to Ada. Esther Summerson, the young orphan, becomes his housekeeper.

Now, all of that is very nice, if a little dry. What makes the book so much fun to read is all the side characters Dickens throws in as well. Usually, it's his long winded descriptions that are so amusing. My personal favorite is Mrs. Jellyby, who uses all her time in philanthropy for the people of Boorioboola-Gha and completely ignores her household affairs. Her children are filthy and wild, her servants drink, the house is a pig sty and her husband comes home to say nothing and lean his head against the wall. However, she has a Mission and it's to raise money for the poor Africans, not tend to the minor facts of her home life. She is something right out a Monty Python sketch. She does illustrate well the thematic elements involving charity and philanthropy that runs thru the entire book. Mr. Tulkinghorn, the personification of the evil lawyer, is another well drawn character. He hears everything, sees everything, feels nothing, loves no one. Fortunately, Dickens kills, oops, sorry. Anyway, he lives up to every lawyer joke I have ever heard. And, of course, there is the poor little street sweeper, Jo, who has the audacity to be orphaned, ignorant, homeless, hungry and always being told to "move on" though he has nowhere to go, like the dust he sweeps from the sidewalks for the rich.

If you haven't read a Dickens novel, start with a shorter one like "Great Expectations." But if you are not new to the world he creates and you are willing to read slowly and digest, this book is certainly one of his more rewarding and amusing books.

The Eight
By Katherine Neville

Usually, I can read a mystery in much less than the week it took me to complete this one. They're light and don't normally require thoughtful reading to get the plot, etc. But this one was pleasantly different. Now on paper, the premise does sound fairly sappy. Sometime in antiquity, ancient people made a powerful chess set that holds the key to some mysterious formula. The set was owned by Charlemagne and then disappeared from sight but not from memory. Two narrators tell the story of its resurfacing and the measures taken to keep it out of the hands of those wanting to use it for personal advancement. Surrounding the mystique of the chess set is the number 8, which laid on its side is also the symbol for infinity.

The first narrator is a nun in the abbey that part of the chess set has been buried in for 200 years. The French Revolution is on and Marat has learned of its existence. The abbess shuts the abbey and sends the pieces individually away with trusted nuns, designating Mireille to be the locus of the network. She watches the Terror, meets just about everyone important in the whole mess and her story goes from there. Back in the future, Catherine Velis is narrating the strange story of her involvement with the chess set. She is a computer programmer/data analyst who dabbles in painting and mathematics. On New Years Eve, a fortune teller reads her hand and gives her a strange prophecy, which she, of course, promptly forgets. She also has a figure eight described in the fold lines of her hands. Strange things start happening, she meets a ton of interesting people and her story goes from there.

Before I read this I really didn’t know more than the basic moves in chess--nor did I wish to know more. But the book's descriptions of the mathematical properties of the game, the mathematics of music and acoustics, and the use of numbers in mystical beliefs was fascinating. Whether it's actually true or not I haven't a clue, but it made a darn good story. Even switching back and forth between narrators wasn't cumbersome because the mystery was so riveting. I am definitely going to seek out more of her fiction to see if it holds forth with the same quality.

The Passion of Artemisia
By Susan Vreeland

I thought about this book a lot. I am in awe of how the author created such a complete picture of a human being with such spare prose. It's not a very long book and yet it felt like I had read it for weeks instead of a couple days.

Artemisia is an actual historical person, Artemisia Gentileschi, who painted during the Baroque period of art in Italy. She was the first woman to be admitted to the Accademia dell' Arte in Florence, knew and corresponded with Galileo, had Cosimo De Medici II as her patron and supported herself and her children with her painting. She was also raped by her father's co-worker and tortured in court to verify her accusation. Apparently, if a woman didn’t recant her story while in extreme pain, she really was telling the truth.

What Vreeland does is take the bare bones of her story and turn it into a searching, thoughtful story about the struggle of a woman who must choose between her personal happiness and her God given gifts. Artemisia is passionate about painting but she suffers for her passion. The title is double entendre. I actually looked up the word "passion" to make sure I wasn’t imagining things. She cannot deny her ability to paint but as a woman it costs her the men she loves to continue with her art. Particularly touching was her struggle watching her daughter grow up to have conventional desires and aims in life, denying her mother's gifts.

I recommend this book highly. It is packaged like a "chick" book but the content is so much better than the impression the cover makes. By the time I was done, I knew Artemisia like a friend.

Craig's Recent Reading

by Craig Clarke

One More for the Road
By Ray Bradbury

Still on my Bradbury kick from previous issues, I picked up his latest collection as an unabridged audiobook read by Campbell Scott. One More for the Road finds the master still in fine form and rather matured since his heyday. The best stories in this book ("Tete-a-tete," "The Nineteenth," "The Dragon Danced at Midnight," "My Son, Max," "Heart Transplant") have no supernatural content whatsoever, being portraits of humans and their foibles.

The lesser ones ("Quid Pro Quo," "Beasts,") are those that rely entirely on those elements for their plots, an exception being "The Laurel and Hardy Alpha Centauri Tour" and "The F. Scott/Tolstoy/Ahab Accumulator" which are entirely science-fiction and entirely wonderful. The unevenness of the tales only make the great ones seem so much more so.

Reading these stories for audio, Campbell Scott gamely performs them, giving each character a distinctive voice. He does especially well with the Laurel and Hardy tale, capturing the essences of the duo without resorting to absolute mimicry.

Only a writer of Bradbury's caliber could release a collection of mostly never-before-published stories with this level of quality. Here's to hoping he continues to skip the magazines and go straight to book form. I look forward to his next collection. In the meantime, I think I'll go read The October Country again.

Cocktail Time
By P.G. Wodehouse

A P.G. Wodehouse novel is always a delight. Cocktail Time's plot is like that of a stage farce, so it's no surprise that it was recently adapted for the stage. The plot is rather convoluted, therefore, so I won't go into it here but it all begins when Raymond "Beefy" Bastable gets his hat knocked off by a flying walnut. He decides to write a book (the titular "Cocktail Time") about the sad state of today's youth and it goes from there.

Cocktail Time was a little long, as the plot could have wound up before it did, but when Wodehouse is doing the writing--with his gift for language--there is always room for more. I didn't enjoy this as much as, say, Piccadilly Jim, but I would definitely look for another book featuring these characters.

Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob
By Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill

Living and working in Massachusetts, the movements of James "Whitey" Bulger (resident of the FBI's Top Ten Most Wanted List) are bigger news here than outside of New England. So, when I found this in the library, I picked it up, thinking it would shed some light on the enigma that is Whitey Bulger.

Well, I didn't learn much. I learned that he hates to be called Whitey. And...well, I have to say that I don't remember much about the books because it was so dull. To be fair, I couldn't even finish the thing, so I suppose this is an incomplete review, but perhaps that says enough in itself.

Cakes and Ale
By W. Somerset Maugham

Somerset Maugham is one of the few authors of "classics" that I actually enjoy reading. His books The Razor's Edge and The Moon and Sixpence are wonderful portraits of characters who just don't fit in with society. Cakes and Ale is no different.

The narrator is an author who has been asked to write a biography of the eminent writer Edward Driffield. Finding himself not up to such an objective task, he proceeds to tell us the story surrounding that event. How he knew Driffield during his childhood. About his friend, Alroy Kear, another writer who is just aching to write the Driffield book. And especially about Driffield's first wife, Rosie, a typical Maugham heroine--sexually free with herself long before it was acceptable to be so.

But that's not all of Rosie. She is in fact one of the great female characters, well-rounded and fully flawed. Maugham's books are mostly character-based and this, so far, is the best one I have read. One must be able to identify with a narrator and I found that easy with the "I" in Cakes and Ale. Often, reading an author's work leads to disappointment. With Maugham, so far at least, each entry has exceeded the last.

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