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ex libris reviews

1 July 2003

Lord Emsworth could conceive of no way in which Freddie could be of value to a dog-biscuit firm, except possibly as a taster; but he refrained from damping the other's enthusiasm by saying so.
P.G. Wodehouse


In This Issue:
Busy, Busy, Busy

I don't have much to say this month, as I'm dashing this off at the last minutes...I got busy.

Anyway, there are reviews from me, Deb English, and Craig Clarke; Felicity McCarthy is (alas) still absent, though I have hopes for next month.

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Lt. Leary Commanding
By David Drake

When I reviewed With the Lightning, I nearly accused Drake of channeling David Weber, and suggested that Honor Harrington fans would love it. Somewhat surprisingly, my wife Jane is a big Honor Harrington fan; she latched on to Weber's books shortly after I brought them home, and now has read them several more times than I have. She's not reading much fiction these days--no time--but when a new Harrington book comes in, everything stops until she's done with it. I told her a bit about With the Lightning, and she picked it up, and everything stopped for a couple of days until she finished this one, too. So I seem to have hit that nail on the head.

But in another way, I was mistaken. The obligatory Hornblower comparisons on the back cover notwithstanding, Drake is channeling neither C.S. Forester nor David Weber. Instead, he's channeling Patrick O'Brian. The parallels are so blindingly obvious that I should have noticed them immediately. Here are a few:

Jack Aubrey succeds on luck, determination, and pure good seamanship. Lt. Leary succeeds on luck, determination, and pure good spacemanship.

Stephen Maturin is suspected of disloyalty because he was tangentially involved in an uprising in Ireland. Adele Mundy is suspected of disloyalty due to a conspiracy for which her parents were executed.

Jack Aubrey is a womanizer. Lt. Leary is a womanizer.

Aubrey and Maturin's first meeting is marked by a serious disagreement out of which friendship is ultimately born. Leary and Mundy's first meeting is marked by a serious disagreement, out of which friendship is ultimately born.

Surprisingly, for a physician, Maturin is a skilled duellist and a first class shot (and also a dab hand with a sword). Surprisingly, for a librarian, Mundy is a skilled duellist and a first class shot.

When Maturin goes to sea he is much beloved by all the crew for his undoubted skills, despite being clumsy and no seaman at all. When Mundy goes to space, she is much beloved by all the crew for her undoubted skills, despite being clumsy and and so spaceman at all.

Jack Aubrey makes his name when his sloop Sophy captures the much larger frigate Cacafuego. Lt. Leary makes his name when his corvette....

Well, you get the idea. There are more parallels, but I won't get into that.

It's not a perfect match, by any means; except for a few minor elements, the plots are entirely different. And in some other ways it doesn't quite work. Aubrey and Maturin are tied together by a great love of music; there is no such shared interest between Leary and Mundy. There is cause for mutual respect, but no real cause for great friendship of the kind we see developing.

But all of these comments are really beside the point, which is that, like its predecessor, it's a ripping good yarn and a lot of fun.

Mac OS X Hacks
By Rael Dornfest and Kevin Hemenway

This book makes an interesting companion to Mac OS X: The Missing Manual. Rather than trying to cover the entire operating system and desktop environment, the book focusses on 100 "hacks" -- which is to say, 100 advanced topics. It's really a cookbook full of recipes for doing interesting things with your Mac, and throws light in a number of dark corners. I'm glad I bought it, and I expect that I'll refer to it regularly.

That said, the book suffers from being...well, from being a book. The Mac OS X scene is evolving rapidly, and many of the hacks are to some extent out of date. As just one example, there's a section on how to install a MySQL database server; it appears to be a terribly involved process. And yet, even though the book was just published in March it's already out-of-date; there's now a version of MySQL for the Mac that can be installed as easily as any shrink-wrapped software. More easily, in some cases.

Kiki's Delivery Service
By Miyazaki Hayao

The Miyazaki film festival continued with Kiki's Delivery Service. I was both impressed and disappointed. But first, a word about the story.

Kiki is a thirteen-year-old girl whose mother is a witch (a word which should probably be translated as "village healer who happens to be able to fly on a broom"). She's been raised to be a witch herself, and has just embarked on her training. Quite literally--a witch begins her training by flying off on her broom, by herself, and finding a witch-less village or town, where she must survive on her own for a full year. It's clear from the beginning that Kiki's going to have some trouble; she likes the idea of being a witch but hasn't paid much attention to the skills needed. She can fly on a broom, but that's about it. Being as spunky and resourceful as all Miyazaki heroines, she starts an airborne delivery service to make ends meet. She also meets a variety of people, some she gets on with, and some she doesn't, and does a mess of growing.

I was impressed, as always, by the quality of the artwork and animation. The town Kiki settles in is a beautiful place, and the flying sequences are breathtaking and hilarious by turns--Kiki has a way of ricocheting from trees and buildings as she gets started. He does rain remarkably well, too.

I'm equally impressed by Miyazaki's storytelling skills and his pacing. It's a heartwarming story, well-told, and I enjoyed watching it.

So why am I disappointed?

For a movie about flying on a broomstick it was a little...pedestrian. It has none of the action or gee-whiz moments of Castle in the Sky; despite being about a witch, it has none of the magic of Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro. Not once did I feel transported somewhere else, as I did with the others.

To be fair, I had fairly exalted expectations when I put the DVD in the player. And I really can't fault the movie, either; it's exactly what it's supposed to be, and what it's supposed to be is simply different than the other ones. It's not about a human being in Faerie; rather (to the extent that childhood is a different country than adulthood, and a large town a different country than a small village) it's about a resident of Faerie having to make her way in the Mortal Lands. It's not Kiki's fault that I'm used to living there all of the time.

Archform: Beauty
By L.E. Modesitt, Jr

Modesitt writes two kinds of novels: those that follow his normal formula, and experiments. I usually like the former, though I confess the formula's beginning to get old; I usually like the latter as well, but, alas, not in this case.

Archform: Beauty is set a couple of centuries in the future. Most consumer goods, and even most food, is assembled by nanomachine. The big thing is "resonance": the use of sound engineered to produces specific responses. "Rez" is used in pop music and in advertising; non-rez music is a dying art.

The book is something of a mystery novel, mostly involving a power grab by an organized crime family. The family is mostly organized as a bunch of corporations, and almost everything the family does is above board. The rest is the kicker.

I've got a number of complaints about this book. To begin with, it's got too many viewpoint characters: a music teacher, a reporter, a senator, a crime boss, and a detective, and maybe a couple of others I'm not thinking of at the moment. Each character has his or her own distinct voice and concerns, none of which really overlap in any obvious way as the book begins. Consequently, you have to get quite a ways into the book before you find out what it's all about.

And that's my next complaint. The book doesn't know what it's about. It ought to be about "rez", and the tension between the "rez" and real music; it's clearly supposed to be about the importance of beauty. And these things are discussed to some extent, but the plot doesn't hinge on them. You could pull "rez" and the music teacher out the book with little effect on the story.

On the whole, I was disappointed. Usually, a Modesitt novel grabs me and won't let go until I'm done. This one I had to push to get through.

Artemis Fowl
By Eoin Colfer

The bookstores around here have been pushing Colfer's "Artemis Fowl" juveniles pretty heavily recently; I keep seeing those little cardboard displays with a compartment for each book in the series. From the blurb they looked like they might be amusing, and so I picked up the first one so that I could read it, and see if it might be something Dave would like to have me read to him.

Having finished, I can say "Absolutely not." Or rather, he might like me to, but I'm not gonna.

It's about a twelve-year-old super-genius and master criminal named Artemis Fowl. He's the heir of a long line of super-genius master-criminals. And he's hit on a scheme. In addition to the legendary pot of gold, every leprechaun (he's Irish) has a Book that they carry always that contains all of the rules and regulations that govern life as a fairy. He manages to get access to a copy and translate it; he then plans a caper to piles of fairy gold.

It had its moments, but I didn't like it much.

To begin with, it's only so-so as a book. The whole time I was reading it (and I was predisposed to enjoy it), a little voice in the back of my head kept saying, "Well, there's another stupid thing I'd better not think about too much." For example, there's a scene in Fowl's computer room that was ludicrous. Authors should either get technical details correct, or leave them out altogether. Vagueness isn't the key to timelessness, but it helps. Obsolete products in a supposedly up-to-date computer lab (as of the publication date) are just silly.

Second, many of the characters in the book are Fairies, and yet the nature of Faerie seems to be completely opaque to the author. This is a fantasy, but it's written in a science fictional manner.

Third, most of the characters (fairy or otherwise) are rude, obnoxious, cynical, double-dealing, corner-cutting, and they'd probably be foul-mouthed and oversexed if Colfer could get it past his editor.

Let's face it, my kids are too young for hardboiled detective novels.

Blandings Castle
By P.G. Wodehouse

This is Wodehouse, so you already know I think it's the most wonderful thing since sliced bread. The book includes a number of short stories set at Blandings Castle, including the first appearance of that majestic pig, the Empress of Blandings (I especially like "Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend"); a Bobbie Wickham story I'm not sure I'd read before; and Mr. Mulliner's Hollywood stories.

Every so often I try to explain why Wodehouse is so good, and what makes him so funny; I don't believe I've ever done him justice. So I've decided to let him speak in his own words, with a few short extracts from this set of stories:

Lord Emsworth could conceive of no way in which Freddie could be of value to a dog-biscuit firm, except possibly as a taster; but he refrained from damping the other's enthusiasm by saying so.

* * * * *

It sounded to Lord Emsworth exactly like a snarl. It was a snarl. Chancing to glance floorwards, he became immediately aware, in close juxtaposition to his ankles, of what appeared to be at first sight to be a lady's muff. But, this being one of his bright afternoons, he realized in the next instant that it was no muff, but a dog of the kind which women are only too prone to leave lying about their sitting-rooms.

* * * * *

His recovery was hastened by...the spectacle of his son Frederick clasping in his arms a wife who, his lordship had never forgotten, was the daughter of probably the only millionaire in existence who had that delightful willingness to take Freddie off his hands which was, in Lord Emsworth's eyes, the noblest quality a millionaire could possess.

* * * * *

Now it has been well said that with nervous, highly-strung men like Montrose Mulliner, a sudden call upon their manhood is often enough to revolutionize their whole character. Psychologists have frequently commented on this. We are too ready, they say, to dismiss as cowards those who merely require the stimulus of the desparate emergency to bring out all their latent heroism. The crisis comes, and the craven turns magically into the paladin.

With Montrose, however, this was not the case. Ninety-nine out of a hundred of those who knew him would have scoffed at the idea of him interfering with an escaped gorilla to save the life of a child, and they would have been right.

Ranks of Bronze
By David Drake

This book is the predecessor of David Weber's The Excalibur alternative, which I reviewed some months ago. In brief, in Roman times the galaxy is already populated by many advanced civilizations. A galactic law prohibits the used of advanced weapons on primitive populations--and the advanced races have little experience of primitive weapons and aren't particular interested in acquiring any. One trading cartel gets a bright idea: they go to Earth, and steal the best army they can find: a legion of Roman soldiers. And then they deploy them to fight battles on planet after planet. They are given advanced medical treatment, so that they don't age; after battles, any injury (up to and including death) that doesn't involve irreparable damage to the spine or brain is treatable. After a battle they are allowed to rest and carouse on board ship until everyone's healed up, and then they are put to sleep until they reach the next planet. It's a hell of a life.

It's interesting to compare this book with Weber's, and the different reactions of the ancient Romans and the medieval Britons. The Romans are, frankly, not at all equipped to know what's going on. In particular, they have no notion of planets in the modern sense, of different "earths", or of space travel. They have no idea how any of the things on board the ship work; they simply learn to take them for granted.

The Britons, on the other hand, are in some degree better educated. Their leader grasps fairly quickly that they've travelled to other planets; and they are much better at making sense of what they find. And I'm wondering, now...is this realistic?

It might be. I've read that Western science arose from the notion of certain Christians that God plays fair...that the phenomenal world will follow rules, and that those rules are understandable by the human intellect. This is not a Greek point of view; the Greeks thought that the noumenal or ideal world was the true reality, and that the phenomenal world was but a semblance. (Archimedes was, obviously, an exception.) And the Romans who followed inherited much of the Greek world view.

So...would the medieval Brits really be better equipped, by means of their world view, to cope with such an outlandish situation? Or is Weber just blowing smoke?

But getting back to Drake's book...it's got a lot of gritty, hard-hitting scenes of warfare, death, and destruction, very little humor, and not much to recommend it unless you really like military fiction. Drake's done much better. Of course, it is one of his older books...

Carry On, Jeeves
By P.G. Wodehouse

This is yet another book of Jeeves and Wooster stories, old favorites all of them. It's notable for having two unusual stories: the tale of how Jeeves first came to be Bertie Wooster's valet, and a tale (the only one, so far as I know) told from Jeeves' own point of view. I remember when I first read that one--it's funny, but it's also a bit of a shocker. You get to find out what Jeeves really thinks about his employer, and the lengths to which he's willing to go to maintain the status quo. He really doesn't have Bertie's best interests at heart.

The Runelords
By David Farland

This is the first book in a series, and I'm following the usual pattern--each time a new volume comes out, I end up re-reading the whole set. By the time I read the Nth book, I've read the 1st book N times. This was the third time for this particular book, and rather surprisingly I was pleasantly surprised. I liked it the first time I read it; was rather unimpressed the second time; and this time I rather liked it again. I think it's partially because the second time I was rushing through it; this time I took it easy.

The world of The Runelords is based on elemental magic. The world is out of balance; Fire is becoming too powerful, and as a result the insectoid "reavers" are pouring out of the earth and slaying humans right and left. Prince Gaborn val Orden is chosen by the Earth to be the "Earth King"; it's his job to try to preserve a remnant of mankind from the reavers. His success is by no means guaranteed (except by narrative causality...); in similar circumstances, older races have perished.

There's a hitch, of course. Raj Ahten, a king from the lands to the south, is trying to conquer the entire continent. His stated goal is to unite the continent under his rule, to better handle the threat from the reavers. But in fact, he's fallen in love with the destruction and humilation he's causing everywhere he goes; the reavers are secondary. Gaborn must somehow save himself and those he loves from Raj Ahten, while not neglecting the reavers.

That's the overall conflict, but it's obscured by the most unusual characteristic of the world Farland has created. Given a magical branding iron called a forcible and someone who knows how to use it, one can "take an endowment" from another person. That is, one can borrow the other person's wit, or their brawn, or their hearing, or any of a dozen other qualities. It's a permanent loan, lasting until the death of either party. And, naturally, the person who gave the endowment no longer has the use of it. Those who give brawn are to weak to move; those who give metabolism sleep as if drugged; those who give wit become stupid; those who give glamour become ugly.

Farland's taken this simple idea, and worked out all the logical consequences. The noble class--the Runelords--take endowments as a matter of course. It's not uncommon for a King to be more powerful than any of his knights, simply because he's taken more endowments. But every king has counsellors, knights, soldiers, scouts, and so forth who have taken endowments as well. Thus, the central keep in any castle is the Dedicates' Keep, where those who have given endowments live and are cared for. Kill a King's dedicates, and you've hamstrung him.

On first reading, this was the bit that I focussed on. It wasn't until this time around that I realized that although endowments are a central fact in this world, they aren't the point of the story.

This isn't a truly classic high fantasy series, but it's good fun. I'm looking forward to the next book.

Brotherhood of the Wolf
By David Farland

This is the sequel to The Runelords, which I've just read for the second time. It continues the tale of King Gaborn's dual fight against Raj Ahten on the one hand, and the reavers on the other, though the reavers play a much larger roll. I've not much else to say about it, except that I enjoyed it more than I did the first time; perhaps I was in a bad mood. It's a middle book in an epic fantasy series, and it does an adequate job of continuing the story. I'll be getting around to the third book, Wizardborn, in the next week or so.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
By J.K. Rowling

As all the world knows, June 21st was Harry Potter day throughout the English-speaking world. I've not yet managed to get a copy of the latest tome, but in preparation I re-read Harry Potter and Goblet of Fire, which I'd only read once before, when it in turn was brand new.

I liked it better this time. I'm in a lazier mood, maybe, but recently I've been tending to read books at their own pace, slowly, rather than rushing through them as fast as I can. Read slowly, I found it more entertaining, especially the scenes toward the end. It's a good yarn.

The character development is a little lacking, except for the major players. Harry spends a good bit of the book, we are told, fascinated by Cho Chang, who plays on the Ravensclaw quidditch team. We aren't told much about why he finds Cho attractive, just that he does. (Of course, looking back on my years as teenage boy, perhaps that's realistic.)

Anyway, I'm looking forward to the next one...when I can find a copy.

By David Farland

This is the third and most recent in Farland's Runelords series; there's has to be at least one more to finish the story. It follows directly after Brotherhood of the Wolf, which ended on a really down note, and mostly continues the bleak mood.

Not a lot happens that's conclusive: King Gaborn and his crew continue to harry the reaver army they defeated at the climax of the previous novel; Averan, a young girl introduced in the previous book, becomes the apprentice of Binnesman the Earth Warden, to no one's surprise; Gaborn sends agents to various other kingdoms; Raj Ahten returns home to Indhopal, where he's faced with a number of threats to his rule, including a bigger, nastier reaver army; Binnesman's "wylde" continues to grow in power and intelligence; the Darkling Glory summoned by Raj Ahten in that last book is (possibly) revealed as something much nastier still; in the end, nothing at all is settled.

In short, Wizardborn carries the saga along adequately well (I enjoyed reading it) but doesn't have much of an ending and provides no real sense of closure. It does, however, set a number of interesting trains in motion; I'll be curious to see them all collide in the next episode.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
By J.K. Rowling

WARNING: Possible Spoilers Ahead! Proceed at your own risk.

OK, I stayed up until after midnight last night to finish this, and I went away well-satisfied. It was great--the best Potter yet. Jane's reading it now, and it's taking her far longer to get up than usual. The kids are too young to care, and of course are completely oblivious to the whole thing.

For once I have to disagree with Ian Hamet, In my review of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, I said that I was dissatisfied with the character development in book; in his comment on that review, he said I'd probably be similarly dissatisfied with this one. Not so! All of the major characters do a certain amount of growing, there are many more minor characters, and we get a much better sense of them. I was especially impressed with yinny Weasely and Neville Longbottom. As Deb said, the kids are finally beginning to act like teenagers, as we see with Harry and Cho Chang. But not only are the hormones raging, they are also beginning to take responsibility--the establishment of Dumbledore's Army is a case in point, and a juicy one.

And then there's Professor Umbridge--what a delightfully evil creation she is. Not for her the deed grandiose; instead, she's a master of bureaucratic evil, of the death of a thousand cuts. Rowling understands that evil can be most effective when it is small, stupid, and just plain mean, especially when it is cloaked with righteousness and respectability. I'm thinking of Professor Umbridge's detention punishment: writing sentences with a pen that painfully draws blood from the back of your hand.

But Umbridge is not only arrogant, she's also stupid. By alienating the faculty as well as the student body she assures her downfall. And wasn't it delightful to watch Professor McGonagle give Peeves hints on the proper way to unscrew a crystal chandelier from the ceiling?

Indeed, there were so many wonderful moments that I hesitate to list them all: the organizational meeting for Dumbledore's Army; the moment when Dumbledore announces that he's found a new Divination instructor; the way the students and faculty of Hogwarts join forces against Professor Umbridge; the battle at the Ministry of Magic; Malfoy's final comeuppance on the Hogwarts Express.

The one thing I disliked was the lack of any kind of redemption or forgiveness for anybody. For example, Harry's supposed to be great-hearted; but he isn't great-hearted enough to forgive Snape, even after learning the root of Snape's dislike. He's unhappy at having his image of his father darkened, but he has no sympathy for his father's victim. It's likely that Snape would have rejected any advances of friendship or reconciliation that Harry might have made...but I do think Harry should have tried.

Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

By A. S. Byatt

During my last knitting group get together, we were chatting about books. It's a common topic since most knitters I know are also readers. Mysteries seem to be the most popular genre with Miss Marple, Brother Cadfael and the Judge Dee books the most popular. Why this is so, I have no clue, though we have had chats about the precise techniques for knitting while reading. Perhaps it's some primal need to multitask that I never inherited. I do know I have never gotten the hang of it, the book keeps flopping closed or I drop a stitch or I forget to knit and just read or whatever. So I must divide my time.

Anyway, Byatt as an author came up and I mentioned that I had tried 3 times to read Possession without success and had given it up as too obtuse or modern for my sensibilities. Another member of the group suggested I give it another go, staying with it for the 1st hundred pages or so before tossing it into the trade in box for the used bookstore. And of course, she was right. The story kicked in somewhere around page 70 or so and I was hooked for a week.

I mean, really hooked. I read it at work on breaks, while cooking, before bed, waiting for my dinosaur computer to boot, etc., etc. I even delayed knitting on a sweater I've been dying to work on to finish it. I got a little anxious when I realized that I only had about 20 more pages and the book would be over. Sort of anticipatory separation anxiety. This happens rarely.

The plot is more complex than this but essentially it's a mystery. A young, unemployed researcher of an obscure British poet runs across a draft of a letter by the poet to a woman. There is no known documentation that the two had ever met except for a brief reference to the woman at a dinner party he attended. She, however, had written an epic romance that the feminist camp had rediscovered recently so he takes himself over to the leading scholar of the woman's work to see what he can find out. She, of course, is brainy, beautiful and interested...in the relationship between the two poets. From there, it is the bit by bit unraveling of the poets' story thru letters, journals and literary detective work and the building of the relationship between the two modern researchers. It was entrancing. Byatt writes with a command of the language that is breathtaking. Some of her descriptions I read two and three times just to enjoy them again. Her use of color was so interesting I was noting them on post it notes to see if I could find the pattern. There is one, but I will leave it up to you to discover. A rare, fine read. And she has other books she's written to be discovered and read.

Light Thickens
By Ngaio Marsh

I have tried to read other books by Marsh with little success. I was browsing the bookshelf culling the unwanteds for space and put most of them in the sell back box but this one I hung onto. And it caught me.

Peregrine Jay is directing "MacBeth" at the Dolphin theater in London, hoping for a smashing success and a long run. The first half of the book is the telling of his casting of the characters, the initial rehearsals with blocking and choreographing the swordfight. Everything is perfect, right down to the reproduction swords and claymore used on stage. Unfortunately, someone has taken the curse of MacBeth seriously and fake MacBeth heads made as props for the end scene keep turning up in the wrong places. And on opening night, the real MacBeth's head ends up dripping from the pike as the curtain falls, stunning the cast.

Thank heavens, Inspector Alleyn was in the front row. And thank heavens the killer confesses since Alleyn is nowhere close to solving the mystery as the book closes. In fact, I don't think he had a clue. Which was exactly my problem with the rest of the novels; they just sort of wander around. This one just happened to have the wonderful lead up of the play to catch and hold my attention. And the use of a Maori guy as one of the witches. But I won't be buying anymore. Sigh.

Craig's Recent Reading

by Craig Clarke

Mystic River
By Dennis Lehane

Jimmy Marcus, Sean Devine, and Dave Boyle are all childhood friends growing up in the Boston area until a traumatic event causes them to drift apart. Twenty-five years later, another traumatic event brings them back together: Trooper Devine investigates the death of Marcus' teenage daughter and finds that the evidence uncannily points to...Boyle.

Mystic River is not a continuation of his popular Kenzie/Gennaro sleuthing series. Luckily, however, for his fans, it is even better than that series, which I raved about in these pages. Lehane, with each successive book, just keep improving and Mystic River is his best yet.

As far as his storytelling skills go, Lehane is right up there with Stephen King at setting up mood and backstory, as well as at creating believable characters--characters that are so real that their foibles and idiosyncracies made me personally uncomfortable, like I knew them.

Mystic River is the best book I've read so far this year. Lehane starts off with a level of discomfort that sustains until the shocking finish. Along the way, I learned some things about the nature of friendship and family that, perhaps, were best left unlearned. But for a book like this, that's a compliment. Lehane is definitely one of the best crime novelists working today, and certainly the best of his generation. I can't wait to get my hands on his next book, Shutter Island.

Squandering Aimlessly
By David Brancaccio

David Brancaccio, as you may know, is the host and senior editor of NPR's Marketplace business program. In his first book, he researches the answer to the frequent question "What do I do with an unexpected windfall?" (i.e., a surprise extra pile of moolah). As Brancaccio sees it, there are ten choices including spending, saving, investing, giving it away, doing good with it, etc. So, he goes off on a research jaunt (underwritten by his publisher) to look into all of these options and find which one is best for him.

I found this book for a dollar and, since I recognized the author's name (although I don't think I've ever listened to the show), thought I would give it a try. I wasn't expecting much--mainly dry prose on investments and savings ad infinitum, but I was pleasantly surprised. Brancaccio has a disarmingly friendly, personable style. I felt as if I were reading a regular person's-eye view of things rather than a renowned expert's opinions.

And what makes Squandering Aimlessly particularly enjoyable is that he doesn't head off with any preconceptions. He doesn't feel he knows any more about money than we do. After all, if he knew the answer to the question, he wouldn't have to go out looking for it all over the country.

The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart
In the Midst of Death
A Stab in the Dark
By Lawrence Block

Occasionally, I get on a Lawrence Block kick. Never enough to finish a series, but enough to get through a book or three. I never buy new, so my series reading is sporadic at best and never in order.

First was The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart, which, while certainly not the best book in the Bernie Rhodenbarr series, is still entertaining in the way I expect from Block. Bernie Rhodenbarr is back with his wisecracking and his lockpicking, this time with a convoluted plot involving Humphrey Bogart movies and an attempted country called Anatruria. It's all really unimportant, and the main clue, the word "caphob," turns out to be the key to the solution, but in a really obscure way.

It's really too complicated for its own good, and Block has definitely done better, but I read the Burglar books for the reason anyone reads a series novel, for the main character and the regular supporting cast: Carolyn, the lesbian dog groomer; and Ray, the ubiquitous policeman. Oh, yes, and Raffles, hard-working, toilet-using feline about town.

The Bogart references are fun, too, especially for a film fan.

Next, I delved into the Matt Scudder series with two early books: In the Midst of Death and A Stab in the Dark. It's very interesting to read about Scudder's life in this non-linear way, because I already have insight into his future actions. In the later ones, Matt is a recovering alcoholic; in Eight Million Ways to Die, he begins his treatment after deciding to do something about it. However, in In The Midst Of Death, he doesn't yet seem to be aware that he even has a problem. Although he's never far from his next drink, when someone mentions the word "alcoholic," he rationalizes it away.

Here, Scudder investigates the murder of a prostitute. The act has been pinned on a cop who was out to expose corruption. He betrayed his brothers so they're going to let him go up for the killing. In between, Scudder philosophizes and drinks a lot. In fact, it's not until A Stab in the Dark that he begins to realize he may have a problem when one of the suspects he questions looks straight at him and says, "You're a drunk, aren't you?"

A Stab in the Dark focuses on the investigation of a woman's murder--presumably by the Icepick Killer, who denies it. Scudder is hired by the woman's father, then during the investigation, the father tries to pay him off to stop. This, of course, only makes Scudder more curious.

Block is always good for a fine yarn. He's a quick read, terrific at characterization and dialogue, and a master plotter. These two series are his finest work and you couldn't go wrong with any entry in the lot.

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