Home : Ex Libris : 1 May 2003

ex libris reviews

1 May 2003


Gentle reader! What have I said! You are no more gentle than I am. I apologise for insulting you. You are as ferocious as anyone else. The notion that the reader is gentle is very bad for both readers and writers — and the latter do tend to encourage the former in this belief. We all believe ourselves to be, more or less, well intentioned, nice — goodies in fact, whether we're the greengrocer or the Shah of Shahs. But we can't possibly be, or how would the world have got into the state it's in? Who else but ourselves are doing this to ourselves? We simply don't know our own natures.
Fay Weldon


Contents


In This Issue:
Tale-Spinning

I've added a new section to our website: Once-Told Tales. Every so often, when appropriately bemused, I write a bit of fiction. I've looked at getting published via traditional channels, but frankly, what with having a full-time job, three kids, and a decent living it simply isn't worth the hassle. When I write stuff I write it for my own amusement, and for Jane's; getting paid for it would be nice, but it's non-essential. (Which is a good thing--in the many months since I first installed the Amazon Honor System box over there on the right, I've gotten precisely one tip that I'm aware of.)

At the same time, I'd like to share my stuff with a wider audience; hence the new page. The quality of self-published fiction is, of course, infamous; but I know that many of you have been following ex libris for years, and I flatter myself that perhaps you'll be willing to take a look.At present, I've posted only one short story; I intend to post new material over time, starting with my first novel, Through Darkest Zymurgia, which I'll present as a serial. I hope to get the first episode posted in a week or two; I'll say something about it here in next month's issue, or you can keep an eye on our weblog.

One other note: special congratulations go to Felicity McCarthy for contributing reviews this month--she's in the middle of moving.

-- Will Duquette


Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Rhapsody
By Elizabeth Haydon

My brother recommended this book to me, along with its two sequels, just before I left for Australia; he said that he and my sister-in-law had rather enjoyed it. I was out buying a new suitcase, and on a whim stopped at a bookstore to see if they were available. They were, and I bought them. I packed the second and third books (Prophecy and Destiny) in my checked luggage, and brought this first book along to read on the plane.

As with Everything's Eventual, this was a mistake. Not because it's a bad book--it isn't. It's the story of a young woman who calls herself Rhapsody. She's a Singer, on the verge of becoming a Namer; which is to say that she's a bard, in a world in which bardic songs have real power. She's brave, brash, and clever; she's also good looking, and is much sought after by a admirer, a military commander who call himself Michael the Wind of Death. Michael is a confirmed sadist, and Rhapsody sees no reason to have anything to do with him. And then Michael sends his troops after her, and she's forced to flee.

As it happens (this is an epic fantasy, after all), she runs into the arms of the only people who can help her--a mismatched pair of killers on the run from their demon master. The three of them flee from Michael's forces (leaving quite a few of them dead) in search of a secret and magical passage to the other side of the world.

And therein lies the problem. After a number of scenes to get the ball rolling, the first part of the book consists primarily of a long, torturous slog through the center of the earth. A lot of character development occurs, along with a few pertinent adventures, but most of that part is simply a painful endless ordeal of trudging, trudging, trudging through cramped, confined tunnels while fighting off nasty vermin. And whenever I looked up from the book during this phase, I found myself in my seat at the back of the plane--a plane in which the shades were drawn, the main lights were off, and most of the reading lights were off as well. I was cramped and confined, and while I was sitting instead of trudging the flight still seemed endless. And the cabin of a dark plane does look rather like a tunnel

Needless to say, this did not help my mood, which was not good to begin with.

But none of that is really the fault of the book or its author. It's a competently written epic fantasy, and considered dispassionately I enjoyed it. Especially the parts I read after I got off the plane. I'm looking forward to the subsequent volumes.

However, I do have a few complaints. First, this is a Big Story with a vengeance--the fate of the world depends on Rhapsody and her two friends. Second, the story depends greatly on ancient history, and on creatures and people who have survived from ancient times. J.R.R. Tolkien managed to pull that off, but he spent years on the historical background, purely for his own enjoyment, before he wrote the books that made his reputation. In the hands of other authors the result usually seems rather comic book.

But mainly, the book is too darned long. I'd estimate that the book could be trimmed quite a bit without affecting the plot or the character development in the slightest.

It's hard to know what to say about this book. It's not perfect; parts of it are too long, for one thing. A little more editing could have taken care of that. And it's a bit comic book, too; like so many fantasy writers these days, she's forgotten that in fantasy some things must remain mysterious and evocative. She's a systematizer, and it shows, and that's not entirely a good thing.

But anyway. It's a competently written epic fantasy, and is certainly worthy of your time if you like that sort of thing. I'm looking forward to the later books.

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents
By Terry Pratchett

Pratchett generally writes two sorts of books: Discworld novels and young adult novels. The Discworld novels are always written to be accessible to Americans; the young adult novels are intended for young adults in the UK, and make much or use of UK slang and terminology. They generally aren't as satirical, either, and they generally aren't available in the United States.

This present novel is an exception to the rule--it's both a Discworld novel (though it's not marketed as one) and a young adult novel. I nabbed it joyfully at a bookstore in Australia, and read it with glee.

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents is a sterling example of the Small Story. It takes place on the Discworld, but doesn't depend on any prior knowledge of the Disc; in fact, the only standard Discworld character to make an appearance is Death (no surprises there).

Maurice is an intelligent talking cat; his Educated Rodents are intelligent talking rats. Apparently the animals ate something that agreed with them from the trash heap of Unseen University, the Disc's premier college of wizardry. Once blessed with intelligence, Maurice found a stupid-looking kid playing the pennywhistle, and then enlisted the rats into a continuing Pied Piper scam--the kid, the cat, and the rats move into a town, the rats raise a ruckus, and (for a sizeable fee) the kid pipes them out of town.

The rats are starting to grumble that maybe this is unethical (being intelligent is giving them ideas) when the troupe arrives in the Uberwald village of Bad Blintz--a village on the verge of starvation due to a plague of rats, except that Maurice and his Educated Rodents can't find any rats there but themselves. What goes on?

This is a small book, shorter than the usual Discworld novel, but it was a lot of fun.

Justice Hall
By Laurie R. King

This is the latest of King's Mary Russell Holmes mysteries, just out in paperback; I bought it a couple of weeks before leaving for Australia, intending to read it on the plane, and would that I had. I'd have gotten more enjoyment out of it in that context than I would have out of either of the books I actually did read on the flight over. But I enjoyed it once I got to Australia anyway.

For those who aren't aware of this series, it postulates that there was a real Sherlock Holmes, similar to but rather younger than the familiar character. In the first book, The Beekeeper's Apprentice, he meets a young woman, Mary Russell, and takes her on as his apprentice. Later they marry, despite the age difference between them. (Yes, there's a bit of an Amelia Peabody feel to the whole thing, but only a bit.)

In an earlier book, O, Jerusalem, they become acquainted with two British intelligence officers in the Middle East. In the current book, one of them is in serious trouble and calls on the pair to help out. The action largely takes place at a stately country home called Justice Hall, the seat of the Dukes of Beaufort.

I try not to say too much about the plot of mystery novels; after all, plot is everything in a mystery, and I don't want to give it away. But I will say that the book involves (in part) a young soldier summarily executed at the front lines during World War I--and that Reginald Hill did a better job at it in The Wood Beyond. Also, I disliked the ending; although it tied up all of the loose ends satisfactorily, it wasn't very satisfying. It seemed rushed; and while the actual events were OK, I think they could have been motivated better.

But I'm being picky. Justice Hall is a worthy addition to the series, and a good read besides.

The Overloaded Ark
By Gerald Durrell

I found this book in a bookstore in the Kingston neighborhood of Canberra. I plucked it off of the shelf because of its title, and submitted it to the Page 100 test, a trick I learned from one of Donald Knuth's books. Having read the cover blurb and perhaps the table of contents, open the book to page 100, and read that page. This is far more effective than reading the first few pages; the author expected you to look at those pages first thing, and probably spent lots of time polishing them. But there's nothing to distinguish page 100 of the book from any other in the author's mind--indeed, when he submits his manuscript, he probably doesn't even know what's going to end up on that page--so it's a more representative sample of the quality of the book as a whole.

Now, The Overloaded Ark is a memoir of an animal collecting trip to the Cameroons (as they were called in the 1950's) by the owner of an English zoo. It's intended to be light and funny, though factual, and for the most part it succeeds. Page 100, for example, concerns the author's attempts to teach the village boys that he won't buy animals from them unless they are in good condition. He finally shames them into it by publically rewarding a little girl who brings him a bird she's handled gently and well, and then questioning their manhood. After that, he says, he has no more difficulty.

And that sample is indeed representative, but not in the way the author would have expected. Because what's most interesting in this book isn't the depiction of African flora and fauna (though these are presented by a loving and witty hand), or even the travails of collecting the animals and keeping them alive for the return trip to England. Rather, it's the relationship between the author and the natives. They are dark-skinned; he is the great white sahib. He calls them by name; they call him Masa. They have villages dances; sometimes he deigns to adorn their dances with his presence. He is erudite; they are ignorant, frequently knowing less about certain animals than he does. He is masterful; they are subservient.

And yet, he genuinely cares for his native employees, and takes care of them in many ways; and they, for their part, seem genuinely honored by his attention.

Quite frankly, it's a PC person's nightmare. And though I don't try to be politically correct, it nevertheless give me much food for thought.

So it was an interesting book to read, as well as being a useful source book should I ever wish to write anything about collecting animals. On the other hand, it wasn't quite the laugh riot I'd been hoping for.

Prophecy
By Elizabeth Haydon

This is the second book in the Rhapsody trilogy, and has the strengths and weaknesses of its predecessor. Which is to say, I liked it; but I think it could be trimmed quite a bit.

The Ascent of Rum Doodle
By W.E. Bowman

This is another book I found at the bookstore in the Kingston neighborhood of Canberra. As with The Overloaded Ark it was the title that caught my eye; and opening to page 100, I found this:

All this interfered with the rhythm that is so essential to climbing at high altitudes. I decided to forget everything else and concentrate on the rhythm. I devised a little rhyme to keep step with my feet:
Organ grinders, kings and queens,
Call for Binder's Butter Beans.
Three times daily, knave and noodle,
Eat them gaily on Rum Doodle.
This went round and round in my brain all day, and made such a nuisance of itself that it only added to my worries.

That certainly sounded promising; further, the blurb compared it to Three Men in a Boat, which is a delight. "A humorous account of a mountain climbing expedition," I thought. "Why not?" And so I bought it.

When I actually sat down to read it, I found that the comparison with Three Men in a Boat was a tad strained. Jerome K. Jerome's tale of boating on the Thames is indeed humorous, but in the vein of Mark Twain's non-fiction. The details are exaggerated, but the basic story appears plausible. The Ascent of Rum Doodle is anything but. Moreover, it's of that genre of humor in which the narrator pretends to be an idiot; much of the fun comes from the narrator's misinterpretation of actions and events which are quite clear to the reader.

This isn't a style of humor that lends itself to book length, but Bowman somehow manages to pull it off. It's not in Jerome's or Twain's league, but I enjoyed it, and I laughed out loud more than once.

The Cruise of the Talking Fish
By W.E. Bowman

This tale was included in the same volume as Bowman's The Ascent of Rum Doodle; and I'm glad to say that it's altogether more fun. Binder, the narrator of the first book, is invited to the home of a friend who has become convinced that all animals are as intelligent as people. Somehow he finds himself bankrolling an ocean raft expedition in search of a species of talking fish. With him go his friend, several other men, a frog named Darwin, and an oyster named Neptune.

As with the previous book, The Cruise of the Talking Fish isn't to be taken seriously, but to Bowman's credit it improves upon that book in two ways. First, the plot is considerably more screwball; second, the characters take everything with great seriousness. Good farce is like a souffle, and if those involved treat it lightly it falls.

The Ascent of Rum Doodle was a pleasant diversion during a business trip; but The Cruise of the Talking Fish is actually worth seeking out.

Dialogues of the Dead
By Reginald Hill

The Mid-Yorkshire Gazette is having a short-story contest, and the preliminary judges find an unusual entry: a so-called dialogue, though only one voice is represented, which describes a murder--a murder which happened before the entry was received, but was not discovered until afterward. And then the receive another such entry, and then another....

This is Hill's latest Dalziel/Pascoe novel; I picked it up in Australia (it's not available here in the States yet) and read it on the plane on the way home. It was a remarkably good choice, much better than the books I read on the flight out, and kept me thoroughly occupied for hours. It's as good anything else he's done.

Interestingly, this book covers some of the same thematic territory that Lawrence Block's most recent, but does so far more convincingly--and the ending is far more chilling. You'll have to read both to find out what I mean.

The Nursing Home Murder
By Ngaio Marsh

In all of Marsh's long career, she wrote only one novel with a collaborator, and this, her third novel, is it. This is a medical mystery, and appropriately enough her collaborator was a medical doctor named Henry Jellett (not that you'd know that from the edition of the book I have; I found it out on a web page some where, quite a long time ago now, when I was looking for a complete list of Marsh's books).

Full disclaimer: I actually read this before my trip to Australia, and neglected to write a review before I left. Usually I don't let quite such a long time go by before writing about a book, but, well, there were special circumstances.

The set up is simple: a prominent politician, the Home Secretary in fact, suffers an attack of appendicitis just as he's pushing for a new law that will allow the government to pursue revolutionaries with vigor. This was written in 1935, remember; the bomb-throwing anarchist was not forgotten, and the Bolshevik was a real presence in England. The Secretary collapses in the Halls of Parliament and is rushed to a hospital. The operation is a complete success--except that he receives an overdose and dies shortly after the operation. Who gave him the drug? It could have been the surgeon; the Secretary had recently had a sordid affair with the woman the surgeon loves. It could have been one of the nurses; one of them is the woman with whom the victim had the sordid affair, and another is a Bolshevik who laughed at his death. Was it thwarted love? Politics? Or something else....

It's not a bad book; none of Marsh's books disappoint. I enjoyed it. But it was a bit tedious, and if the excursions into Bolshevism aren't as absurd as the ones in A May Lay Dead, they still detract from the picture. There's better to come.

Destiny
By Elizabeth Haydon

This is the third volume in the trilogy that began with Rhapsody and continued with Prophecy, and it has a suitable title. The events of the book are more-or-less destined to occur, and they play out more-or-less as they are supposed to. The romance that buds in the first book and blossoms in the second comes to fruition after a suitable number of obstacles are overcome (most of them, it's only fair to say, are really rather novel); sundered kindreds are united, old feuds are put aside, and Rhapsody and her beau usher in a new era of gladness. Whew, I was worried for a moment that she might not make it.

All in all...pretty good for a new author, though not perfect. If you like epic fantasy, and you enjoy a little romance with it, you'll probably enjoy these. My major complaint is with Haydon's handling of history. More than anything else, this trilogy is about about healing the wounds of past conflicts. The history of her world, both recent and ancient, are key. And the problem is that real history is complicated. It doesn't flow naturally in ways that support the story you want to tell. When history is presented too simply, it looks comic book, as though it's painted in all primary colors, and I have trouble taking it seriously.

Maybe that's just me, though; we aren't all history buffs.

A Town Like Alice
By Nevil Shute

I first heard of Nevil Shute when I was in elementary school and tried (and failed) to read On The Beach under the mistaken impression that it was a science fiction novel. Whatever else it was, it was completely over my head.

I first heard of A Town Like Alice when they made a mini-series out of it on national TV, many, many years ago (the mid-1970's, maybe)? I didn't watch it, though my parents did, and I saw snippets. I knew it took place in Australia, and somehow I got the idea that it was about a convict, a woman who had been transported to Australia and was having to work as a housemaid. Possibly I'm conflating two different TV spectaculars, but that's how it stuck in my memory.

I didn't put the two names together, or contemplate reading A Town Like Alice, until Ian Hamet wrote me a note and suggested that as I was going to Australia I should give Nevil Shute a try. I'm a history buff, I thought to myself, and A Town Like Alice is a historical novel; and I'm going to Australia, and A Town Like Alice is about Australia; and most likely I'll find a copy of it there.

And in fact, though I looked for it in several of the bookstores I visited, I didn't see anything by Shute at all while I was in Australia. Go figure. But I found a copy shortly after I got back to the States, and opened it, and finally stayed up late to finish it, which was a really bad idea given my jet lag, but was satisfying none the less. And this, even though everything I knew about the book was wrong.

It's the story of an English woman named Jean Paget, and the action begins during the second world war. Jean's family has business interests in Malaya, and after going to school in England she's working as a secretary in the company office there when the Japanese invade. She's captured and marched off to a POW camp with a large group of other women and children--except that there is no camp to receive them. Eventually, after many hardships and forced marches over a good bit of Malaya, the surviving women, led by Jean, manage to settle down in a village and wait out the war. During their marches, they encounter an Australian POW named Joe Harman who's being made to drive a truck for the Japanese, and who helps the women out at the risk of his own life.

Years later, when the war is over, Jean receives a legacy from a distant relative, and becomes reasonably wealthy. She visits Malaya to say thank you to the villagers who took her in--and while there discovers that Joe Harman, a man she'd thought had been killed by the Japanese, is in fact still alive, and everything changes for her.

It says something about the book that the plot I've summarized so far is only part of the story; the best is yet to come, and I won't spoil it for you.

I've been trying to think what else to say about this book, other than "Go find a copy and read it." It's a little slow getting started (though not in a bad way), as the story is narrated by the solicitor who is the executor of Jean Paget's legacy and it takes him a while to locate her and longer still for her to begin to tell him her story. But once we've passed that, things take off. I'm still pondering why Shute felt that the solicitor was necessary to the story; he mostly serves to distance us from Jean Paget and Joe Harman. Perhaps Shute simply felt that the horrors of war were still too close to most people (the book was published in 1950), and that some distance was needed. I dunno.

But the book works, and where it especially works is not the broad sweep of the story but the little details along the way, especially the details of frontier life in mid-20th-century Australia. (Rather like the Wild West--and yet, very different.) I was especially taken with the explanation of why Joe Harman didn't die at the hands of the Japanese--and it's a great frustation to me, because if I tell you, I'll spoil it.

So.

Go find a copy and read it, or you'll never know what poddy dodging is all about.

Singing the Sadness
By Reginald Hill

This is another book I picked up in Australia, and it's rather different than anything else of his I've read. To begin with, it's not a Dalziel/Pascoe mystery; it's not even a police procedural. Instead, it concerns a machinist-turned-private-eye named Joe Sixsmith. He's black, and he's lives in the mean streets of Luton, which I gather might be a redundant statement. At least, Hill doesn't go out of his way to tell us that Sixsmith is black, which caused a number of events in the book to be rather perplexing until I finally clued in.

This is not the first Joe Sixsmith novel, but it's the only one I found while I was there. Joe's Aunt Mirabelle is a staunch member of the Boyling Corner Chapel, and a cornerstone of the chapel's choir. Joe, I gather, isn't much of a member of the chapel, but thanks to his singing voice and the wishes of his redoubtable aunt is also a member of the choir, which is on its way to a choral festival in Wales. They're big on this sort of thing in Wales, so I'm given to understand. And naturally once they get to Llanffugiol there are alarums and excursions and Joe is called upon to help the locals--several different groups of locals--with their investigations.

I haven't made up my mind about this book yet. It didn't hold my attention nearly was well as Hill's other books have, but I was suffering from jet lag at the time, so it might not be Hill's fault. And then, Luton, not Llanfugiol, is really Joe's place. It's hard to judge him without seeing him in his native surroundings.

I liked Joe Sixsmith and his aunt, though we didn't see much of her; I liked his girlfriend, but we didn't see much of her either; I didn't like his best friend particularly, and this book didn't give me much reason to. I might feel differently if I'd read the earlier books first, of course. The book clearly suffers from being in the middle of a series; Hill slacked off on the character development of the continuing characters.

So the book gets an extremely qualified thumbs up, in that I'd gladly read more of the series. But that's the most I can say.

Northworld Trilogy
By David Drake

The Northworld Trilogy is a really weird retelling of ancient Norse myth, mostly drawn from the Elder Eddas. Though I'm not familiar with the Elder Eddas myself--it sounds like something from the pages of H.P. Lovecraft--I'm savvy enough to recognize the most obvious elements (Chief God with one eye, Valhalla, Valkyries, and so on and so forth). And indeed, I spotted the Valkyries and a few other things. But I didn't really catch on that it was a retelling of Norse myth until I read the afterword at the end of the first of the three tales.

The trick is, the trilogy bills itself as science fiction rather than fantasy. The framing story is straightforward: Northworld is a potential colony world. A number of expeditions have been sent to explore it and tame it; all have disappeared. The last expedition reported that the planet itself had disappeared; and then that expedition disappeared. So the Powers That Be tapped one Nils Hansen, top cop and extremely successful troubleshooter, to go to where Northworld is supposed to be and found out what happened to it. The trilogy is ostensibly about his mission.

Except that it isn't, of course; it's about the various myths that Drake's trying to retell, and that's the problem. He's bent over backward to cloak the world of Norse myth with science-fictional garments, and while the result is interesting, it's predictably contorted.

It's an ambitious and valiant effort, but Drake doesn't quite bring it off.

The battle suits are cool, though. And I'd sure like to have Nils Hansen at my back during a fight.

Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets
By Dav Pilkey

This book, being "The Second Epic Novel" about Captain Underpants, arrived in my home, along with four or five others, whilst I was in Australia. I want this to be perfectly clear--my sister is responsible, not me. Jane read "The First Epic Novel", The Adventures of Captain Underpants, to David while I was gone; I got to read him the concluding chapters of the second volume on my return.

The series is really about two boys who can't sit still in class--the kind who are clever, easily bored, and always able to make their own fun. In the first book, so I gather, they write a comic book about a character named Captain Underpants--the first superhero to wear jockey shorts instead of longjohns. He has "wedgie power". Along the way, they hypnotize the school principle, Mr. Krupp, into thinking that he's Captain Underpants. When anyone snaps their fingers, Mr. Krupp will divest himself of his outer clothes and his hair piece, and rush off to fight evil wearing only his underpants and a cape.

In this volume, our heroes use an old copier revamped as a Science Fair exhibit to try to make copies of their latest comic book. To their dismay, the evil beings therein (the Talking Toilets) come to life and ravage the school, eating all of the students and faculty (including the delightfully named Miss Anthrope, Ms. Ribble, and Mr. Meaner). They save the day by feeding the toilets the food from the school cafeteria.

The book is clear aimed at the beginning reader. Above all, it's short. The book is short, the chapters are short, and the pages are short. The writing is breezy and fast-paced, and Dav Pilkey undeniably has a lock on what small boys find amusing, and he manages to (mildly) entertain the adult reader as well.

Which is just as well, as I've got several more of these in my future--both David and James were in stitches.

The Golden One
By Elizabeth Peters

This is the most recent Amelia Peabody mystery but one, just fresh out in paperback. Deb English gets them from the library in hardcover, so she reviewed this one quite some time ago, and I'm afraid I'm too lazy to look up what she said.

But anyway, I liked it. Parts of it were purely absurd (if very much in keeping with the traditions of the series), and over all I think it's the best of the most recent few episodes. All the familiar players are there, and there's considerable obfuscation, and the bad guys get what's coming to them, and so forth.

If you're not familiar with Amelia Peabody, this is not the book to start with; go to my Elizabeth Peters page and find out more.

Spirited Away
By Miyazaki Hayao

In his lesser known story Smith of Wooton Major, J.R.R. Tolkien has much to say about the land of Faerie, much that's been mostly forgotten by modern purveyors of fantasy. Faerie is, of course, the land of the Fair Folk, the Fairies, a dangerous breed about as unlike Tinkerbelle as it is possible to be. Faerie lies "beyond the fields we know" as Lord Dunsany said in The King of Elfland's Daughter; a man might wander all his days the wild world over and never enter its halls, or he might find it in the forest over the hill.

The essence of Faerie is that it is not for mortal men, though mortals might stray there. It is a perilous realm, where man or woman might meet their death, or find their heart's desire never to find it again. It has its rules, but they are not for mortals to know; and often they change capriciously from place to place and from person to person. It is a place where almost anything can happen and in which few things can be explained--a place of high fantasy.

Ironically, few fantasy authors have spent much time there. This is largely Tolkien's own fault; he was a painstaking systematizer, and The Lord of the Rings consequently has little of Faerie in it. (The Blessed Realm of Valinor, the land of the Valar, has a stronger flavor of Faerie, in that mortals are forbidden to enter it, but even Valinor is too well mapped and understood to be truly a part of the Perilous Realm.) Tolkien's followers have written many books ostensibly set in Faerie and featuring such luminaries as Oberon and Titania and the Puck, but even this is no guarantee of success. Faerie has best been captured, in my reading, by George MacDonald and Lord Dunsany. H.P. Lovecraft knew something of its darker corners, and Neil Gaiman might well be a changeling.

I've often written about my notions of the Big Story and the Small Story. It's the nature of Faerie that stories about that realm are necessarily Small Stories, concerned with the fate of individuals rather than the fate of worlds. And this is a good thing, for individuals are as varied as snowflakes, whereas systematized fantasy worlds are driven by the demands of narrative causality into a dreadful sameness.

Over at Banana Oil, Ian Hamet has recently begun a series of essays about his favorite film makers--the ones he considers to be absolutely top-tier. And the first essay in the series concerns Japanese animator Miyazaki Hayao (or Hayao Miyazaki, as he more usually called here in the West). Now, I know about as much about Japanese animation as you can fit in a thimble without removing your finger; I figure reading Ian's essay just about doubled my knowledge of the subject. But I was intrigued: here's a maker of cartoons, for goodness sake, and Ian ranks him as one of the greatest film makers in history. I can't even dismiss Ian as an anime bigot, because (IIRC) Miyazaki is the only animator on the list.

It so happens that Miyazaki's latest film, Spirited Away, just won an Academy Award over Lilo and Stitch (a movie I love); that Spirited Away was seen in this country largely due to the efforts of John Lasseter, the genius behind Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. and a man whom I greatly respect as a storyteller; and that Spirited Away has just been released on DVD.

As I say, I was intrigued; and so last week I went out and got a copy. And last night, after the kids were in bed, I slipped it into the DVD player, and pressed "play", and...stepped into Faerie.

It's a Japanese-flavored Faerie, mind you, with Japanese names and Japanese architecture, and Japanese spirits, but Faerie nonetheless. And it's a stunningly beautiful place.

The story is, in one sense, an old one. A young woman's beloved is captured by the Queen of Faerie; she steals him back at great risk to herself, defeating the Queen of Faerie in the process. In Miyazaki's vision this tale is transformed. The young woman becomes a spoiled, petulant young girl; the beloved becomes the girl's parents; and the Queen of Faerie is a witch who runs a bathhouse where the gods of Japan come to be refreshed. The girl enters Faerie in the usual way: by accident. She and her parents are driving to their new home--

I must digress for a moment. The movie is set in Japan. The food is Japanese; the signs are in Japanese; the cars drive on the left side of the road. How come the girl and her parents look caucasian? But anyway--

She and her parents are driving to their new home, and take a wrong turn down a dirt road. They come to a high wall pierced by a long dark tunnel; the tunnel entrance is guarded by a stone idol. Despite the girl's misgivings, they walk through the tunnel and into another place, and therein hangs the tale. I could go on, but it wouldn't avail me anything--much of the allure and the delight of the film lie in details that are wholly unexplained.

To say that I'm impressed by Spirited Away would be an understatement. Most animated features (including Pixar's excellent films) are children's stories; by comparison, Spirited Away has the stuff of a full-fledged novel; it's kid stuff only in that the main character is a young girl, and the movie contains no sex to speak of. Oh, and it's about courage, fortitude, love, and personal integrity, instead of the more "adult" themes of cynicism, disillusionment, and despair.

I really can't do this film justice. I'm no film buff, nor am I a student of Japanese animation; and any attempt I'd make to describe the beauty of the background paintings would be doomed to failure. You'd have to watch it for yourself.

So go find a copy and watch it. I'm looking forward to seeing it again, and I dearly wish I'd seen it in the theater. And I'll definitely be looking for other Miyazaki titles.


Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

Murder Being Once Done
By Ruth Rendell

This is the first book by Rendell I have read. I've seen her name on author's lists, usually coupled with P.D. James as great-British-women-detective-novel-writers. When you see a list of adjectives that long, certain, often unmet, expectations are created. And then, this is a novel right smack dab in the middle of a series, which isn't the best place to start if the series is a continuing one and knowledge of the previous installments are necessary for the understanding those following.

None of that seems to matter, though. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Inspector Wexford has had some sort of bleeding in his eye leading his doctor to prescribe rest, healthy food and no work as a cure. I gather he prefers to work hard, drink a bit and eat badly. The novel opens with him and his wife in London staying with his nephew, a detective for Scotland Yard. He is being coddled, pampered and generally bored out of his wits by his wife and niece while his nephew, lucky man, gets to go off to work everyday. On one of his prescribed and hated daily walks, he passes a cemetery where a murder investigation is taking place, decides to just pop in for a quick look and stumbles on his nephew heading up the investigation. His aid is enlisted, surreptitiously lest the women find out, and he begins to nose around. A very young woman has been strangled and left in a crypt. Investigators find her identity but have no luck tracing the girl using the name she is known by and no one steps forward to claim her as missing or lost. And sometime in the last year she has had a full term pregnancy. Hmmmmm....

As a detective novel, it was pretty good. I had the wrong person pegged as the killer most of the way thru the book. Actually there were about 4 candidates I came up with in the course of reading the book, none of which actually were the killer. And while Rendell deliberately was messing around with my mind and setting up false trails, she was also equally giving the same sort of clues for the correct candidate. Interesting. I want to hunt up more of her work to see if she does the same thing in other novels. I would also like to see Inspector Wexford in his home setting in rural England, working too hard, drinking a bit and eating badly.

I love it when I find a new author to follow. It's been lonely without Peter Diamond books.

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
Tears of the Giraffe
Morality for Beautiful Girls
By Alexander McCall Smith

These books have been on the tables at the Large Chain Bookstore I go to for quite some time. I've picked them up, browsed them, laid them down etc. several times before taking the plunge and buying them. The premise is so, well, different from most mysteries that are out there that I was a little skeptical about them.

Boy, was I wrong. They reminded me of Elizabeth Peters and Laurie R. King and, oddly, some of Jan Karon's books, without the Christian theme. I just felt happy when I read them. I like Mma Ramotswe. I'd love to sit down and have a cup of bush tea with her. And tell her my problems.

The bookstore categorizes these as Mysteries, a title that is deceiving and not particularly acute on their part. I suppose every book needs its place on some shelf or another. The books are about Mma Ramotswe, who sets up a detective service after the death of her father leaves her with a legacy. She is widowed, independent and wants to help people. She hires a secretary, because every detective agency must have one, and her friend, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, gives her a typewriter. She puts out a sign and she's set for business. And she sends away for a manual on running a private eye service which gives her much wise advice to supplement her wealth of common sense and knowledge of the ways of people. Plus she has read Agatha Christie.

The whole thing is tongue in cheek most of the time. Mma makes horribly sexist statements about men that, coming from anyone else would offend, but seem fairly reasonable flowing from her mouth. She has much to say about women as well so she balances out nicely. Botswana is a major character of the book; you can almost smell and feel it. National pride is there and the horrific problem of AIDS is lightly addressed while not made the theme of the book. The theme of the book is Mma Ramotswe and her wish to help. And her love of Botswana.

I haven't enjoyed a series so much since I discovered Laurie King. If you like light, wry detective stories go and get them. The next one comes out this spring.

Border Crossing
By Pat Barker

In my next lifetime, I am going to be independently wealthy. I will be able to skip the annoying requirement of going to work when what I really want to do is Finish My Book. This one almost, though not quite, caused me to take a personal day. Then, I also will be able to have a maid and cook to take care of the annoying chores I have to do when what I really want to do is Finish My Book. Life will be grand.

In reality, life would be pointless and reading would not be nearly as precious as when I carve out the time to do it.

This novel I carved time for. It totally captivated my imagination. I thought about it driving, doing dishes, cooking and waiting to fall asleep. I had a hard time putting it down. That NEVER happens anymore. The plot is fairly simple. A man and a woman are walking along a river, separately mulling over their marriage and divorce, when a young man attempts to drown himself. The man jumps in and drags the kid out, saving his life. The same man, a child psychologist, did an assessment 13 years before on a 10 year old boy who was alleged to have murdered an old woman. He finds that, in fact, the child understands death, the permanency of death, and right and wrong. The child is sent to prison, for life. The young man who attempted to drown himself is the child he had sent to prison.

Their meeting causes the psychologist to rethink his previous assessment, revisit the places the child has been kept and the people he has been with in the prison system and to finally make peace with himself that he made the correct judgment the first time around. It is an intense internal journey into himself and the mind of a very sick child, now a very sick adult. The writing is bare and crisp, the characters are fully developed and not overworked, and the settings are somehow fully dressed with a minimum of description. In my mind, I know exactly what these people look like, what the houses they live in look like and how they sound when they speak. Except for one memorable and hysterically funny scene, the novel is somber in tone but never mawkish or grim. Even near the end, when you have seen how twisted the young man has become, there is still hope for him. And I liked him, almost against my wishes. I want to dislike him as a twisted, manipulative killer, badly. But I don't.

Very interesting stuff. I had read Barker's "Regeneration" trilogy and remembered how completely involved with it I became. It's nice to know her skill continues. I look forward to reading more of her work.

The Way We Live Now
By Anthony Trollope

Somewhere, which I cannot for the life of me recall, I read that Tony Blair presented Bill Clinton with a copy of this book on a visit to the States. I hadn't read the book at the time and thought it a rather strange gift. Both men are highly intelligent although from what I recall, Bill wasn’t doing much recreational, um, reading in the White House. Anyway, I bought it on the strength of my past readings of Trollope and a faint, very faint, desire to know what it was that Mr. Blair had in mind.

What he had in mind was a warning to Bill about what happens when you build your house on shifting sands using wormy wood.

Augustus Melmotte is a wealthy man. Everyone says so, therefore it must be true. Everyone flocks to his presence though they are offended by his vulgar, coarse manner and his total lack of breeding, family, or class. His wife is an ugly, unfashionably dressed woman who lingers in the background of society, put up with by the wives of the gentlemen who need the Melmotte wealth. His daughter is chattel to be married off for the reflected consequence of the title her future husband can bring, in exchange, of course, for a substantial dowry and marriage settlement. He has no friends, only business partners. He has absolutely nothing of worth except what money can buy.

Lady Carbury is the widow of an abusive husband reduced to writing extremely bad romantic novels to support her daughter and horrid, dissipated son. Felix Carbury lives off his mother having wasted his inheritance on gambling, horses and drink, caring nothing for her or his sister except that they leave him alone and provide him with cash to gamble with. His haunt is a club called the Beargarden where he spends his time reveling the night away. However, he is persuaded by his mother to court Melmotte's daughter, Marie, for her money in the hopes that he can find his way clear of the crushing debts he has accrued. Lady Carbury cares nothing for his happiness except that he should have money enough to support himself.

Paul Montague, in love with Lady Carbury's daughter, Hetta, has invested unwisely in a land scheme in San Francisco. His uncle and partner sells his shares in the venture to a man named Fisker who comes up with the idea of creating a paper company supposedly to finance a railroad from Salt Lake City to Mexico City. Augustus Melmotte is named the London Director and is given control of the company and Paul, on the Board but having no shares to sell, is drawn into the whole fraudulent scheme, not knowing how to get out.

That is a brief outline of the novel's intersecting plots. Around this are other characters who gather around Melmotte, feeding his ego and losing their money in bad business decisions. I disliked just about everyone in the book, even the stodgy Roger Carbury who is supposed to represent the "good" gentlemen of England in the book. None of the women in the book were in the least sympathetic. They were either self- centered, egotistical predators or mindless, spineless victims.

Despite that, the book was fascinating. I think it was the sense that all this was going to come to a head, that it couldn’t go on. And the crash was going to be horrible. And knowing people were going to be hurt, I couldn’t look away.

Kind of like the same feeling I felt during the Bill and Monica thing. Disgusted, angry and fascinated at the same time.

Martian Time-Slip
By Philip K. Dick

I must be missing something. This guy's books have a huge cult following and I DON'T get it. This one was just plain bad. It's dated, the premise is stupid and the characters bored me to tears. I finished it, but only because it wasn't too long and I was too lazy to get up and get something else to read. A co-worker of mine loves Dick and tells me he's right out of the 60's drug culture which may explain it. My co-worker, from what I can tell, is still halfway back in the 60's drug culture which somehow is interesting face to face but doesn't really work very well on paper.

The story is that Mars has been colonized by Men. All of Earth's political and national divisions have been brought along to Mars. They are using the canals dug by the, get this, indigenous Martians to transport the precious little water they have up there. Everyone is paranoid about mutations that have shown up due to the gamma ray exposure during the long trip to Mars and autism and schizophrenia are seen as manifestations of a mutation rather than as a neurological condition. The native Martians are called Bleekmen and are sort of like the Australian Aborigines in appearance except really small and kind of dried up. They have a kind of mystical shamanist culture as well. And they are able to communicate on some other mental plain that's not really explained except that that is where the autistic children and the schizophrenic's minds are really at.

That is the setting. I won't go into the plot except to say that the 50's bored housewife messing around with the milkman comes into it, tediously, and that it tries to imitate the social climate of the post war years, badly.

Skip this one. Hated it. Hated it. Read something a little more developed or thought out.

Cyteen
40,000 in Gehenna
By C.J. Cherryh

I am selective about the sci-fi I read. It's not a genre I know my way around in and I've read some that struck me as, well, just silly. But lo, my son has now grown to the age where he is reading adult fiction and spends most of his free time with his nose stuck in sci-fi novels. Robert A. Heinlein is his current passion. Plus, summer is coming and he's too young to drive which means he'll be spending long hours out here at the farm. I need to have some authors lined up to throw his way when he gets bored and we're browsing the library shelves.

And then Will talks about how good Cherryh is. I usually concur with Will. Not always; it's highly unlikely that I will ever make it thru the entire Patrick O'Brian "Jack Aubrey" series though I did give the first one a go. But usually Will is spot on. So when I saw Cyteen on the shelf at the local Large Chain Bookstore, it was a sale, right then and there.

If you want a good plot summary, go to our C.J. Cherryh page and read Will's. He nails it well. I read it in a weekend and wanted more so I stopped and picked up a few more at the used bookstore on the way home. 40,000 in Gehenna was there and I opened it thinking it would be more of the same. Wrong. Nothing like it. Initially, I was disappointed but as the book progressed, it grew on me.

Gehenna is the name of the planet where 40,000 born-men and clones are left in an experiment in sociogenesis. The clones are programmed to reproduce and farm; the born-men are there to administer the society and fulfill the upper-level functions required. And it goes wrong when sentient life is discovered in the form of huge lizard-like critters that build mounds and tunnels in swirl patterns. The book is about the evolution of the society from one that is structured by off-world standards to one that has adapted to the environment and has become viable in its own right. And then the off-planet men come back to check up on how things are going. And things start going wrong. It's a theme that's been done before. What fascinated me were the lizards, called calibans. They create the patterns in the dirt and change the way people communicate. They provide the forms that shape the society. They create the power structure in the society. I wish she had made the novel longer and fleshed it out more. Cyteen detailed everything but we only get a taste in 40,000 in Gehenna. And that taste left me wanting more.

Maskerade
By Terry Pratchett

I like Pratchett's books. I especially like the Witch series he writes. They crack me up.

This one has Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax looking for a third witch to replace Magrat, now Queen of Lancre. It's the maiden-mother-crone requirement for having a coven. The most likely candidate for maiden, Agnes Nitt, who calls herself Perdita because it sounds so much better than Agnes, has gone to Ankh Morpokh to find herself. After a series of false starts, she finds herself in the chorus of the Opera. And of course the Opera house has a ghost with a white mask who unfortunately has taken to killing folks. And Agnes is extremely, well, large but sings like a diva, so Pratchett gets to get in all sorts of fat lady jokes. And then there is the fake Italian Opera Star who eats constantly. And Nanny Ogg has written a cookbook called "The Joy of Snacks" that has recipes guaranteed to make your blood boil and other parts heat up nicely. It's sold tons of copies with virtually no money coming back to Nanny Ogg so Granny Weatherwax takes the matter in hand and they go to see the publisher, in Ankh Morpokh, of course. And they take Nanny's cat Greebo along who in times of stress morphs into a man, unfortunately naked. And there is the delightful scene where Granny plays poker with Death to save the life of a child and cheats to win. And then does some chiropractic work on his arm bones that are tired from swinging the scythe. In order to get Agnes back to Ramtops they have to work out who the Ghost of the Opera is and why he is killing people. And it goes from there.

None of that is any kind of order from the book. Pratchett books are often hilarious vignettes tied together with a funny plot line. This one was good. Especially the ending. I really liked the ending.

The Children of the Storm
By Elizabeth Peters

A Disclaimer up front: This review is NOT going to include any kind of plot description. The book is in hardback and I have 3 co-workers who will hurt me if I give away the plot before they get the book.

This is the next installment of the Amelia Peabody series. It's great. If you have the cash and can't get it due to waiting lists in the library, go and get it. Otherwise, I guess you'll have to wait for paper.


Craig's Recent Reading

by Craig Clarke

Candyland
By Evan Hunter and Ed McBain

Candyland is a collaboration of two authors who are masters of their respective genres. Evan Hunter's (Criminal Conversation, Hitchcock's The Birds) forte is the dark psychological profile, while Ed McBain (the 87th Precinct and Matthew Hope series) excels at the police procedural. Now they've combined their forces in this new novel, one taking the first half, the other the second. This is easier in this case than in others, however, because Evan Hunter and Ed McBain are, in fact, the same person.

Hunter starts us off with in the mind of Benjamin Thorpe, a Los Angeles architect on a business trip in New York. But work isn't on Thorpe's mind, sex is--all the time. Married for twenty-odd years, he keeps a little black book with encoded entries and is constantly on the lookout for his next conquest, be she by phone or in person. A late-night visit to a local brothel ends in violence with an unlikely person putting Thorpe up for the night.

We wake up the next morning led by McBain. Three police officers, including Special Victims Unit detective Emma Boyle, are attempting to investigate the murder of one of the prostitutes in the above brothel, and Thorpe eventually becomes their main suspect. McBain's more action-oriented prose speeds us through this section to a surprising conclusion.

I ate Candyland up like peanut butter and jelly. As a new convert to the 87th Precinct family (as well as a fan of Conversation, I knew this "dual" author could write, but this has increased my opinion of him immensely. The subject matter is obviously for mature readers (neither Hunter nor McBain pull any punches) but for those willing to make the jump, a terrific ride awaits.

Prayers for Rain
By Dennis Lehane

This is the fifth (and at this writing, the final) installment of the Patrick Kenzie/Angela Gennaro detective mystery series. Because of events at the end of the last installment, Gone, Baby, Gone, Angie has moved out and Patrick begins this case on his own. A former client, Karen Nichols, is found dead of suicide. Kenzie feels guilty because she had called him for help just as he was going on vacation months ago, and he never called back, so he tries to find out what happened. "She'd been drowning, and I'd been busy," he says. Turns out she was descending into drugs and prostitution but why would this young woman change so quickly in such a short time?

Lehane delivers another wonderful novel. He's really hit his stride and the books just keep getting better. Kenzie gets himself embroiled into hassle after hassle with his friend Bubba Rogowski along for help with strong-arm tactics. Bubba has been in the previous books, but here he flowers into a fuller character. It was nice to see the different sides to what is essentially a violent, but loyal, man. I understand that Lehane is out stretching himself with novels about different, non-series, characters, but I hope he returns to Patrick, Angie, and Bubba soon so I can again experience the magic.

Call for the Dead
By John Le Carré

Call for the Dead was my first George Smiley spy novel (and in turn my first Le Carré) and it's likely it will be my last. Although, I liked the character, the story lagged. It was uninteresting, too complex, and--even at about 120 pages--much too long.

Perhaps the other novels are better (I'm particularly curious about the classic The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), but at this point I don't see myself delving into Smiley's world any time soon.

Oh, the Things I Know!
By Al Franken, PhD. (Hon.)

Humorist Al Franken (Saturday Night Live) tackles advice in his new book, Oh, the Things I Know. To be absolutely complete, he makes sure to mix in some bad advice with the good, but it's all simply meant to make you laugh.

With titles like "Oh, the Drugs You'll Take!" and "Oh, How You'll Hate Your First Job!" Franken attempts to cover every time period in the human life cycle (although since babies can't read, they are left out).

In the chapter, "Oh, Laughter is the Best Medicine!" he even recommends taking his book in small doses. Each day, read until you laugh, then stop reading, he says. For some of you, this book may last for years, and others may have to read and reread before the first laugh, but they're there. We only have to find them.

Making laughter a part of our daily lives? That's good advice no matter where it comes from. And Al Franken is the man to prescribe it.


Felicity's Recent Reading

by Felicity McCarthy

Sartor Resartus
By Thomas Carlyle

I finished Sartor Resartus a couple of weeks ago. I thought when I began it, mistakenly, that this would be a frivolous work, in a leisurely style, suitable for Victorian ladies. Suitable for Victorian ladies it may have been, but frivolous it is not.

Ostensibly, the premise is that of an editor presenting a treatise on clothing, by a desiccated, learned professor named Dr. Diogenes Teufelsdroeckh (!). The clothing is a disguise (no pun intended). The doctor is neither desiccated nor a doctor. He is a thinly disguised portrait of Thomas Carlyle himself. I got curious enough to read somewhat on Carlyle's life on line. He was the son of an impoverished Scottish laboring man. He was brilliant; by turns morose and compelling (much like his character Teufelsdroeckh). He married a vivacious, well-educated Scottish girl, daughter of a well-to-do doctor. Sartor Resartus ("The tailor patched" is sort of a translation of the title) was his first real hit.

I first read about the existence of this work in my teens, third hand, in the novel "Jane Eyre". At the charity school she is forced to attend, Jane sees another girl, Helen, reading. Helen, it turns out, is reading Sartor Resartus. That is the last we hear of the book, except that Jane is not interested in reading it herself, as it has no pictures. I thought nothing more about it, except the name, until I unearthed a copy of the self-same book while going through the culls of my mom and dad's library. I saw the title. "Oh", I said to myself, "that is the book Helen was reading, and now it is here before me." I opened it up, and found a faded inscription on the flyleaf, that it had belonged to Mabel Ellsworth Fitzgerald, a maternal great-grandmother of mine. The volume itself, she must have purchased or been given some time fairly soon after its publication. When that might be is mysterious, because this is one of those ancient little tomes that disdain printing details. "Sartor Resartus" was first published in 1834, so mine would have to have been after that.

I asked my mother, who said that before her marriage Mabel was an avid reader, and as well participated regularly in a book-club. I guess I come by my proclivities honestly!

Well, how do you like that. This started out as a review of the story, and has turned out to be more a review of the physical book itself. Fair enough. I get as much pleasure out of the physical presence of the book as I do out of the act itself. When I go to a bookstore to select a new book, I often find myself surreptitiously sniffing the inside pages. Something deliciously tasty about the smell of fresh-cut pages and printer's ink in a brand new book. Music, too. Even very old books have a marvelous musty smell of their own, like literary humus from the mental digestion of the ages. I started the aforementioned task of sorting through the culls on my parents' shelf vigorously. I fully intended to resist my usual habit of dipping into them. I was sure they would all be uninteresting stuff. After all, hadn't I been around their library for years?

Hah!

That was a month ago. Last weekend, I finally sorted out the books that are to be donated to the library. The rest I am trying to sell for my parents. But...first I had to read a couple. Then, as they were sitting in stacks all over my studio, I kept rearranging them. As I did that, another tasty morsel would rear its head. Not all of them were tasty. The Fast Mail, by Drysdale, Zoroaster, by Miriam Crawford, and even Luck and Pluck; John Oakley's Inheritance, by Horatio Alger (quite possibly a first edition!) were silly. But silly in a kind of cool, ancient way. Say, that was the television of their time! Kids didn't play video games, and watch "The Simpsons". They read Horatio Alger, and Drysdale, and others of their ilk. Oh, did I say? I had to read all the tasty little morsels that reared their heads...

Sartor Resartus is on a very different level. As I mentioned, it is not frivolous at all. It is not hard to read; I see why my great-grandmother would have enjoyed it. It is written for a very different style of reader and time. It must be read at a leisurely pace. Out loud would be good. The language Carlyle employs was the treat of the month for me. He uses the same vocabulary set that I do; and it is totally right! When he wrote it, such words and sentence structures were completely normal. I realize after reading it how anachronistic I am. Hurrah! It is very romantic, and unabashedly philosophical. There are wild, lurid scenes of traveling the world and unrequited love affairs, and bags full of scraps of paper that the editor must sift through to piece the protagonists life together. The clothing theme is an excuse. There are some tantalizing descriptions of costumes of the ages, but Carlyle is off on deliberate tangents as soon as he starts the ostensible theme.

This work is definitely not for everyone. For one thing, the style is quite in disuse now. We are so used to our entertainment moving at the speed of microseconds. Even novels cater to this, speeding up the action, throwing in plenty of gratuitous sex and violence, to keep our attention. When you become accustomed to the action on a television screen, which rarely stays still for more than a second or so, it is very difficult to stop and wade through some episode that takes an hour to get through. I liked it, a lot. I enjoyed the leisurelyness of it. Did I mention that I am an anachronism? I don't watch television. That makes me worse than an anachronism... If you like Dickens, especially if you like re-reading Dickens, Sartor Resartus will give pleasure, I think.

The Shrapnel Academy
By Fay Weldon

I finished The Shrapnel Academy last night. The L.A. Times described it as "...a comedy of manners, in which everyone's manners are most atrocious". Despite the fact that (or perhaps because) everyone gets blown up in the end, I was laughing, snorting, and generally chuckling evilly through most of the story. Fay Weldon is so tongue-in-cheek. Her dispassionate, dry descriptions of the tedious, selfish carryings-on of the administration and guests of the Academy are puncuated by factual and hysterically critical, not to mention historical, dissertations on the various military greats (after whom the various rooms in the academy are named). The names of her characters are witty and often apropos. "General Leo Makeshift" and his "secretary" Bella (a causus belli, indeed). "Mew" whose real name is Medusa, but her mom got it wrong, she meant to call her Medea (her father was Jason). Each of the characters in the book suffer from serious bouts of human frailty. The comedic part about the story, is that all the human frailties are thrown together by chance for a weekend, together, and the weekend suffers a classic bout of snowstorm.

There is serious social commentary going on, sotto voce, and not so sotto voce. Her stand on war, and other forms of aggression is understated, but quite pointed. Mostly, she points out that wars (and various other acts of military aggression) are mostly comprised of people killing other people. She does so in a manner calculated not to annoy (much).

Here is one of my favorite little bits:

Now, gentle reader, shall we return to the Blades, whom we last saw sailing in their Volvo past the unfortunate Mew from the Woman's Times.
Gentle reader! What have I said! You are no more gentle than I am. I apologise for insulting you. You are as ferocious as anyone else. The notion that the reader is gentle is very bad for both readers and writers — and the latter do tend to encourage the former in this belief. We all believe ourselves to be, more or less, well intentioned, nice — goodies in fact, whether we're the greengrocer or the Shah of Shahs. But we can't possibly be, or how would the world have got into the state it's in? Who else but ourselves are doing this to ourselves? We simply don't know our own natures.

It was hard to choose only one quote, as there are many very tasty little passages. In some previous recountings of books, I feel I have recited too much of the story. Perhaps that is not right. Each reader should choose their own tastiest passages.

There is also some droll commentary on class injustice, egotism, madness, and multitudinous other prevalent social ills. Weldon is the master of her craft. This is a veritably Swiftean parody.


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.


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