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ex libris reviews

1 August 2003


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Contents


In This Issue:
Halfway Through Zymurgia

Last Saturday I posted the middle two chapters of my novel Through Darkest Zymurgia! I'd like to share with you all of the positive commentary I've gotten about it so far, but it appears that those intrepid souls who have dared to read it, other than our own Deb English, are waiting until it's complete before making their views known. If you've not yet joined their ranks, you can go to Tales and start living dangerously.

In the meantime, there are reviews from me, Deb English, and Craig Clarke for you to read.

-- Will Duquette


Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Don't Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight
By Alexandra Fuller

This is a book I picked up on a whim while at Tower Books in Sacramento. The title caught my eye, as did the cover picture, of a little mop-haired girl roaring like a lion; the words "National Bestseller" (Oh, really? I'd never seen it before.) and "Reading Group Guide" did not.

It's the author's memoir of her own childhood in Africa--first in Rhodesia, and later in Malawi and Zambia. Her parents were farmers; tobacco, mostly, but also cattle. They were members of the white upper class in Rhodesia, before it became Zimbabwe; later they were simply members of the white minority wherever they lived.

It was a hard life, both before and after Zimbabwe came to be; I don't suppose the life of a farmer is easy in any country, and it was worsened by circumstances; Fuller's mother gave birth to five children, of whom only two lived to adulthood. The second child, a boy, died of meningitis at an early age; the fourth, a girl, drowned in a duckpond when she was two years old (and that was a hard section to read, let me tell you); the fifth was stillborn.

It was a hard life, and as the Fullers had little money and were white besides, they could only farm the worst land. They stayed, despite the death of their children, despite tedium, despite alcoholism, because they loved Africa. Alexandra has married an American and moved to the United States, but her parents are there still.

This is a poignant book, and is filled with all kinds of fascinating details about life in Africa; Fuller neither preaches nor moralizes, trusting that her story will speak for itself, which it does. I didn't enjoy it that much, however, for I didn't like her family all that much, and it's not a happy story. Also, it was marred by a self-consciously literary tone (at one point, the African morning clutters into the room, which is jarring, though perhaps), and by a too-narrow focus on the author's own life. More background on the recent history of Africa and the countries in which she lived would have been helpful, even if it was information she didn't have growing up.

Still, I'm not sorry I read it; it forms an interesting contrast to several other books I'll be reviewing in the next couple of days.

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
By Alexander McCall Smith

Deb English reviewed this some while back, and I was sufficiently intrigued that I bought when I came across it in a bookstore in Pacific Grove.

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is located in a small storefront at the foot of Kgale Hill in Gabarone, the capitol of Botswana. It is owned by Mma Ramotswe; she has precisely one employee, her secretary Mma Makutsi, who got a grade of 97 out of 100 at secretarial school but had trouble getting a job because she's not slim and pretty.

This is not a typical murder mystery; it's more the story of Mma Ramotswe's first cases, and how she came to be a detective to begin with. Along the way we learn quite a bit about her childhood, and also about her father's life in the mines in South Africa. It's got a dreamy, detached feeling about it, as if to emphasize the distance between the reader and Botswana. And for some odd reason, it keeps reminding me of Jan Karon's Mitford books.

Anyway, I liked it; it was charming, and I've already picked up the next couple of books in the series.

Summer Moonshine
By P.G. Wodehouse

As long-time readers know, Overlook Press (Everyman's Library, in Great Britain) is publishing a complete uniform hardcover edition of Wodehouse, which is a great and glorious thing. Every so often four new books come out, and I get them, and I read them with delight.

I've been a Wodehouse fan for years, and naturally I've read many of them before. But once in a while they come up with something I've never seen. Usually it's a novel that doesn't involve any of his regular characters. And then I know I'm in for a treat.

Summer Moonshine is no exception. It takes place at stately Walsingford Hall, where cash-strapped Baronet Sir Buckstone Abbott has been reduced to taking in boarders--excuse me, "paying guests"--and has therefore devoted his life to two things: avoiding his guests, and attempting to sell the Hall.

Ironically, the same event that consumed the Abbott fortune also prevents him from selling the Hall. It seems that the old family home burned down in Victorian times, and was rebuilt at great expense by Sir Buckstone's progenitor, who exercised all of his ingenuity and eccentricity. The resulting pile is perhaps one of the ugliest homes in England, and to date only one person has expressed interest. The wealthy, many-times-married American woman, the Princess von und zu Dwornitzchek. The princess' step-son Tubby is one of the paying guests at the Hall, where he has conceived a passion for Prudence Whittaker, Sir Buckstone's secretary. Meanwhile, Sir Buckstone's daughter Jane is engaged to gold-digger Adrian Peake (can you have a male gold-digger?) who is also engaged to the princess. And then the princess' estranged step-son, Tubby's older brother Joe the playwright meets and falls for Jane. Stir in Lady Buckstone's brother Sam from America, and things get predictably silly.

You get the idea. It's one of those books where I kept having to stop and read passages to Jane.

Tears of the Giraffe
By Alexander McCall Smith

This is the second book in the "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series", and it feels very much like a continuation of the first book. As before, the book concerns several investigations, some consecutive, some simultaneous, and as before Mma Ramotswe goes beyond investigating to meddling (for the client's own good, of course). Her secretary, Mma Makutsi, is promoted to Assistant Detective and given a case of her own; this prompts several discussions of the moral issues involved in detective work.

But the real focus is on Mma Ramotswe's fiance, Mr. J.L.B. Maketoni, proprietor of Tlakweng Road Speedy Motors--a man who is hard-working, dignified, kind-hearted, generous to a fault, and not always particularly observant. His kind nature leads him into several predicaments during the book, including one particular case where he doesn't know how to tell Mma Ramotswe what he's done but every hour he delays will make the revelation more painful. I must award laurels to Smith here--some authors would have stretched out the pain for most of the book, requiring Mr. J.L.B. Maketoni to do progressively more idiotic things to keep Mma Ramotswe in the dark. (I hate this.) (Except in P.G. Wodehouse, but that's farce, so it's OK.) Instead, it's resolved fairly quickly.

The Mitfordesque tone continues--indeed, strengthens. That said, I don't know whether Mitford fans will like these books. Being detective novels, they must occasionally deal with the sordid...and Mma Ramotswe, for all her goodness, frequently makes moral decisions that would raise even Fr. Tim's eyebrows. Mitford fans--if the Christian content is the primary thing that draws you to Jan Karon's books, you might not want to go here.

Anyway, I liked this one too.

The Wee Free Men
By Terry Pratchett

Like The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, which I reviewed some time back, The Wee Free Men is a Discworld novel slanted towards younger readers. It concerns a very young, very determined dairy maid in oversized boots who's the only one up to handling a bad case of the Elves. Experienced Discworlders will know what that means, and what kind of person it takes to handle it (and indeed, Granny Weatherwax has brief cameo).

Terry Pratchett knows what it means to write for young readers. The Wee Free Men is toned down a bit from his regular Discworld books, but it isn't dumbed down, and it doesn't talk down. I enjoyed it thoroughly. And in fact, it might be a remarkably good place for you to start, if you've not encountered the Discworld before.

The Best of John Bellairs
By John Bellairs

Years ago, I read a delightful little fantasy novel called The Face in the Frost. It was quirky, whimsical, and scary all at once, and it worked. It was by a man named John Bellairs. I never saw anything else by him until eventually I discovered that he'd taken to writing young adult novels. Hmm, I thought, and passed on.

One of our local bookstores has a table of books for people who have finished reading about Harry Potter. I was glancing at the other day, and observed a volume called The Best of John Bellairs. It contained three juvenile novels, all of them tales of gothic horror: The House with a Clock in its Walls, The Figure in the Shadows, and The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring. The three novels form a series; whether there are other books that follow the third one, I don't know.

But having recently been told by numerous literary snobs that liking Harry Potter is childish and a sign of cultural infantilism, I was caught by a fit of rebelliousness and bought it.

Orphaned Lewis Barnavelt goes to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathon, who happens to be a mildly-skilled wizard of the white variety. His Uncle's next door neighbor and best friend, Mrs. Zimmerman, is a skilled witch. Lewis likes them both very much, and together with his friend Rose Rita they deal with mysterious noises, long dead wizards, plots to bring about the end of the world, angry witches, and how to cope with always being picked last for baseball.

Bellairs has a flair for baroque description and gothic horror, but The House with the Clock in its Walls was his first book for young readers, and it shows. He talks down to the reader (something J.K. Rowling never does), and the dialogue is frequently made me cringe. Ironically, though, this first book was also the best and most interesting of the three. He's resolved many of his technical difficulties in the other two books, but they aren't as much fun. I'd consider re-reading the first one day, but most likely not the other two.

The illustrations, though, were fascinating. Each of the three tales were illustrated, and by three different artists. The first book, the best of the three, and the most horrific, is illustrated by Edward Gorey. They brought in the first string for this one. The second book is illustrated by Mercer Mayer. Now, I have great respect for Mayer; but he always draws the same little mop-haired round-faced kid, and his work has a warmth and joy that is simply out of place in what's supposed to be a scary story. And then for the third book they brought in somebody I've never heard of named Richard Egielski. His drawings are suitably dark, but they are also lumpy and ugly, and none of the characters look like quite the same people from one picture to the next. It's funny how the quality of the artwork parallels the quality of the tale.

Bottomline...I really like The Face in the Frost.

P.G. Wodehouse In His Own Words
By Barry Day and Tony Ring

This is by way of being a sort-of kind-of biography of P.G. Wodehouse, relying mostly on Wodehouse' letters and (woefully few) writings about himself, as well as his attitudes as expressed in his novels and short stories. Quoting Wodehouse as much as it does, it is indeed a funny and easily-read book. As a biography, it's only so-so, especially as (as the book itself points out) you can't necessarily trust what Wodehouse says about himself.

I did learn a few interesting things, though. For most of Wodehouse' childhood, his mother and father were living in the Far East, while he himself was shuttled from, significantly, Aunt to Aunt. He had almost no contact with his mother from the time he was about two years old until he was in his teens. (They were not close.)

And then, after he left school he spent two years working at the London branch of the Hong Kong and Shanghae Bank. (The book spells it "Shanghai", but this is an error.) (Yes, I know, the City of Shanghai is usually spelled "Shanghai". In the name of the bank, it's "Shanghae".) He claims never to have understood what he was supposed to be doing there, and was finally sacked for writing the beginnings of a story in a brand new ledger. This was Defacing A Ledger, and was very bad.

After that, he became a full-time writer, and eventually moved permanently to the United States, where with Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern he helped to invent the modern musical comedy. Before Wodehouse, the songs in musical comedy frequently had little to do with the story being told, but were selected for their perceived chance to become a hit. After Wodehouse, it was expected that the songs served the story. His efforts as a lyricist are virtually forgotten these days, but among many other songs he wrote the lyrics for "Bill" from Showboat. He also wrote a number of plays, which so far as I can tell are entirely forgotten.

Wodehouse spent a total of eighteen months working in Hollywood as a writer. His first stint consisted of two consecutive six month contracts for Warner Brothers. He got paid a ridiculous amount--$2000 a week in 1929 dollars--for doing virtually nothing. The studio hired well-known writers, but didn't ask them to write anything. Weird. He spent another six months in Hollywood some few years later, with similar results.

And while all this was going on, he was writing, constantly. For which I'm heartily grateful.

A Game of Thrones
By George R.R. Martin

This is a novel of things going from bad to very, very much worse. It's a novel of politics, and battles and intrigue, of honor and dishonor, of heroes and of truly nasty people. It's an epic fantasy, and it makes David Farland's The Runelords look like a cheap comic book.

To tell the truth, I don't entirely like this book; reading it is rather like watching a car crash in slow motion. I knew that before I started, though, as this was my third time through it. Why did I read it again, if I dislike it so much? Because it's the first book in a series, and I want to see how the story ends. Because the writing is clear, the plotting is detailed, complex, and flawless, the conception is vast but not sketchy, and the characters are well-drawn and fascinating. I dislike it not because the writing is bad, for it is not, nor because I dislike that characters, for I do not, nor because it is a bad story, because it is not, but simply because awful things happen to characters I like, and it's clear that things are going to continue to get worse before they get better.

I should add that the pain isn't gratuitous. Some authors (notably Katherine Kurtz in her later books) seem to take a sadistic pleasure in denying their characters happy endings. Horrible things happen simply because they can. Nothing ever goes right; everything always goes wrong, in the worst possible way. Here, all the troubles--the divisions, the intrigues, the betrayals, the deaths--make sense and follow logically from the backstory. It's a bad situation; I didn't feel like Martin was making them worse than he had too.

The political set up is complex. Three hundred years before the tale begins, the land in which it takes place was divided into seven kingdoms. Then came Aegon Tragaryen and his men from across the sea. Aegon was called the "dragonknight", and with good reason; he brought with him three large, ferocious, and fire-breathing dragons. There was some kind of unique bond between the Tragaryen line and the dragons, for the dragons would do Aegon's bidding. After a fair amount of fighting, Aegon was crowned King over all of the seven kingdoms.

Aegon's line ruled for almost three-hundred years. The dragons and their young were held in honor, but at last, some hundred years before the story begins, the last dragon died. The Tragaryen line wasn't doing well either, for all of this time the kings had been marrying their sisters to keep the royal blood pure. The last Tragaryen king, Aerys II, was a bloodthirsty madman, and half the realm rose against him.

The rebels were led by Robert Baratheon, and his foster-brother Eddard Stark, heir to Winterfell. In past times, before the coming of the Tragaryens, Winterfell had been the seat of the Kings of the North, and Eddard was the heir of that line. The rebels were victorious, Aerys II was killed, and Robert Baratheon took the throne. Robert had been engaged to Eddard Stark's sister Lyanna, but Lyanna had been raped by the son of King Aerys; this was casus belli. Lyanna died of her wounds. The King must needs marry, and he married Cersei Lannister, daughter of Lord Tywin Lannister of Casterly Rock. Like Eddard Stark, Tywin was the heir of one of the original seven kingdoms. The Lannisters had played it cool during the civil war, coming to the support of Robert Baratheon only when it was clear that he was going to win; indeed, there were signs that Tywin's son Jaime Lannister would have taken the throne for himself if things had gone just a little differently. Instead, Robert settled in to reign in King's Landing in the south, and Eddard Stark returned to Winterfell in the north.

Fifteen years have passed, and the realm is (though none realize it) deeply troubled. Robert is an impatient man, and a bad king. He prefers tournaments and boar hunts to ruling, and the Lannisters have taken advantage of this to take over as many of the royal offices as they can.

So the situation stands when Robert comes north to ask Eddard to be his Hand, that is, his chancellor, the one who speaks with the king's voice. Eddard agrees only because the previous Hand, his foster-father Jon Lord of Arryn, was likely murdered by the Lannisters. He goes to find out what happened, and to bring the murderer to justice.

That's the short version of the back story. It's the characters who keep me reading:

First, there's Eddard Stark himself. He's an honorable man, a skillful commander, a wise ruler, but he is lord of a rural domain far from the intrigues of the capitol. He is insufficiently sneaky for the task that is thrust upon him.

Eddard's oldest son Robb is but fifteen years of age, and much like his father. He must rule over Winterfell in his father's absence, and rise up to the challenges that will seek him out.

Eddard's older daughter Sansa is a perfect lady, a romantic, and a fool. Fools learn from experience, and she gets plenty. Will she learn from it?

Eddard's younger daughter Arya is a tomboy, and well acquainted with all of the folk of her father's castle, high and low. She's tough, courageous, and no fool, and it's a darned good thing.

Eddard's son Bran is injured in a fall, and loses the use of his legs. My suspicion is that he'll turn out to be the bravest of all the Starks.

Eddard also has a bastard son named Jon Snow, who is about the same age as Robb. Jon was raised with the others, but cannot inherit. No one knows who his mother is; Eddard stifles all rumors with anger and finality. As the realm begins to crumble, Jon is sent north to join the Brothers of the Night's Watch at the Wall of ice that separates the lands of men from the frozen north. And it becomes clear long before the end of the book that battles over the throne are mere squabbles, and that the real conflict will be here at the Wall. Here, and only here, is there any hint so far of supernatural evil.

Tyrion Lannister is the second son of Tywin of Casterly Rock. Further, he's a foul-mouthed, cynical, sarcastic dwarf. He's also become my favorite character in the whole book. He's not a nice guy (he's a Lannister, after all) but his choices are limited. Unlike his father, he is capable of kindness, if of a piercing, sarcastic variety. He's smart, and capable of taking care of hiimself. He's good at making the best of a bad lot. My suspicion is that he's going to be the next Lord of Casterly Rock, and that the Starks are going to have to make peace with him if anyone is going to survive in the long run.

And then there are the two jokers in the deck. Stannis Baratheon is King Robert's younger brother. Throughout this book he is notable in his absence; he hovers, never present, but looming dimly just over the horizon. And there is Daenerys Tragaryen, daughter of Mad King Aerys, who barely escaped death at the hands of Robert and his men and has been living a wandering, threadbare life with her brother Viserys in a land over the seas from her father's realm. Will the dragons fly again?

This should say something about the book--it's taken me pages just to give the smallest idea of what it's about. There are, at present, two sequels, one of which I've read previously, and one of which I haven't; I'll be getting to this over the next few weeks.

But not immediately.

Morality For Beautiful Girls
By Alexander McCall Smith

This is the third of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, and if it seemed just a tad lighter weight than its predecessors, and perhaps just a smidgen more calculating, well, it was still a pleasant evening's read. I'll buy the fourth book when it comes out in paperback.

Hot Water
By P.G. Wodehouse

This is yet another Wodehouse whose acquaintance I'd not yet had the pleasure of making. It is, of course, a complete hoot. It's a variation of the Wodehouse staple "imposter at the country house" theme, but in this book he takes it higher, wider, and more plentiful than I believe I've ever seen him do before. Almost everybody in the book is somebody else; at one point, I think there are three or four distinct but overlapping sets of people, all of whom know about three or four distinct sets of imposters. I'm not sure I counted that quite right, mind you; it's all rather dizzying.

Anyway, you should read it.

Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone
By J.K. Rowling

I've been reading this to David at bedtime over the last month or so, and we finally finished. David's familiar with the story, having seen the movie any number of times, though there were still a few surprises.

There's no point in my reviewing this book in the usual way, as pretty much everyone has already formed an opinion about it. I do have a couple of comments.

The first is, the book reads aloud tolerably well. It's not outstanding as a read-aloud--the prose doesn't flow trippingly and effortlessly from the tongue--but it flows pretty well, nevertheless, with only the occasional clunky bit. I've read books that are much, much harder to read aloud. (Some of them, ironically, are intended for kids who are learning to read. There's something wrong with that.)

But there's something I noticed this time around. (This is a spoiler, for anyone who doesn't know how it ends. Uh huh.)

Dumbledore has hidden the Sorceror's Stone using the Mirror of Erised in such a way that only someone who wants the Stone but does not want to use can get it. Thus, Quirrel/Voldemort sees himself using the stone, but cannot get it. Harry, on the other hand, has no problem.

So...that means that the Stone would have been perfectly safe if Harry had simply left well enough alone and gone to bed instead of braving Fluffy and the other horrors in an attempt to save it from Voldemort's hands. Dumbledore was already on his way back to Hogwarts at the time Harry faced down Quirrel; if Harry hadn't been there, Dumbledore likely would have caught Quirrel in the act and would have dealt with Voldemort, perhaps permanently.

In fact, Harry's presence made it more likely, rather than less, that Voldemort would succeed.

I'll grant you that getting past all of the obstacles took great courage and skill. Not everyone at Hogwarts could have done it. But just how was it anything but colossally stupid?

Legacies
By L.E. Modesitt, Jr

This is the first book in a new series, "The Corean Chronicles". It's about a young man with extraordinary powers he slow learns to use. Once he does, he finds himself in a position to destroy a serious evil; moreover, no one else is likely to be able to do it. In the meantime he grows up and becomes quite remarkably talented at the trade which is thrust upon him.

Oh, and he falls in love too.

Put that way, this sounds rather like The Magic of Recluce, doesn't it? The magical underpinnings and history of our hero's world are entirely different (which is refreshing), as is our hero's trade; instead of being a woodworker, he's a sheep herder (which is trickier than it sounds) and an amazingly lethal soldier.

In fact, the bulk of this book is really just military fiction. If you like reading about advances and retreats and strategy and tactics at the level of a cavalry trooper, it's not bad. But it's a long slow book, and things really only pick up toward the end.

I dunno. The book's well-crafted, certainly; it was long and slow, but it wasn't--quite--tedious. But it's maybe a chest of drawers where I was looking for something more like a grand piano.

I'll most likely read the next book in the series.


Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

Traditional Knitting
By Michael Pearson

Recently a knitting friend of mine died after a mercifully short bout of cancer, naming me in her will to inherit her spinning wheels and anything of her books and yarn stash that I wanted. What a gruesome task. I'd known her for years from our monthly knitting group meetings, workshops and conferences we attended together. I still can't believe she's gone.

However, she left me this stuff to enjoy, read and use, not to pine over or treasure as a relic so after a week or two of avoiding the pile in my fiber room, I dug in. This was one of the few books she had that I hadn't managed to collect myself and I gobbled it right up in a couple sittings.

It's not a pattern book exactly though it has some patterns in it. It's essentially a compilation of oral histories about the knitting tradition in the fishing communities of the eastern coast of Britain. Sweaters called "ganseys" were knit by the women of the communities for their menfolk in the fishing industry and to sell on commission for a pittance to dealers as a means of getting some income to stretch out the little money they had to live on. The sweaters were traditionally made of a 5 ply fine wool in dark, navy blue with knit/purl patterning on them, usually only from the chest up since the stomach area was covered by heavy overalls worn to keep the seawater out. They were often knit with three quarter length sleeves to prevent the saltwater and wool from irritating and infecting the wrists. And each knitter had a distinctive pattern she knit or each community had its own set of patterns that defined it.

There are several books on this subject that talk of much the same thing in Cornwall. What makes Pearson's book so special is that he went into the archives of the historical societies of the small towns and got photos of the fishermen, the women on the quay knitting and the children knitting on the sleeves or plain bottoms to help with the family income. There are old photos of women gutting and packing herring after the boats have come in and the same women sitting on the empty barrels waiting for the catch, knitting. Pearson sought out the old people in the towns and villages to see if they had specimens left from those knitters and then copiously copied the patterns and took pictures of them. And he points out that these women were not engaged in some charming folk activity but were pushing starvation back from the hearth. The kids in the pictures often have a pinched, hungry look about them.

It's an interesting book filled with marvelous pictures and inspiring stories.

Homer Price
By Robert McCloskey

I am feeling sort of sad today after hearing the recent news the Robert McCloskey died over the weekend. I read and reread Homer Price as a child so many times I practically wore out the library copy. And then they got a copy of Centerburg Tales and I read and reread that one.

When my son was born one of the first books I bought him was Blueberries for Sal. He was probably a year old. We would ponder the pictures and shiver with anticipation when the Sal wanders off with the mother bear. We would scream "Kerplink, Kerplank, Kerplunk" when Sal dropped her three berries into the tin bucket and pretend we were eating her berries when we had blueberry yogurt for lunch.

When he got a little older one of his favorite pretend games was called "Buck's Harbor." We would build a small store out of blocks and legos, use his plastic boat on a towel as the ocean to drive over to get supplies and then have a pretend ice cream cone with Sal and Jane.

Of course, every spring when the ducks flew over we'd yell at the sky "Make way for Ducklings!!"

My son remembers very little of this, of course. He was so young when I spent my days with him and his little sister. The big yellow bus came and took him away one day and somehow all that time disappeared. But I remember the little boy who would snuggle next to me and listen intently and peer at the pictures when I read him Robert McCloskey books. I miss him, too. Both of them are gone now. I still have the books, tho.

The Moonstone
By Wilkie Collins

I think I first read this book when I was 12 or 13. I know I wasn't in high school yet because I had to borrow my father's library card and check it out. The library where I grew up had a rule that children were not allowed to take out "adult" books and Dad got a card just to get around that rule. It was the same summer I read Jane Eyre, Rebecca by DuMaurier and Oliver Twist. Oh, and The Robe by Thomas Costain. The plots of all those novels stuck in my head until adulthood but, strangely, I could remember nothing about this one except that it fascinated me and I devoured almost in one sitting.

The story revolves around a huge yellow diamond, the Moonstone, that was looted sometime in the past from a Hindu shrine during a British campaign. The Brahmin protectors of the shrine vow to recover it and thru time have watched over the owners of the stone waiting for their chance to steal it back.

That is all background. The stone has now been left as an inheritance to a young woman, Rachel Verinder, for her 18th birthday by her weird old uncle and the suggestion is that it is more of a curse than a gift. It's brought to her country manor home by Franklin Blake, the young man that she is falling in love with. "Hindoo" jugglers are in the neighborhood, coincidentally, and perform for her party. That very night the stone is stolen from her bedchamber, and Rachel rejects the attentions of Franklin Blake and leaves in an emotional tizzy for London, refusing to allow the police to question her or search her possessions. No one can figure out how the stone is stolen since no one was in her room. The Hindoo jugglers are taken into custody but no stone is found. Hmmmm.....Oh, yes, the young housemaid, who also happens to be in love with Franklin Blake, acts suspiciously and then commits suicide by throwing herself into quicksand.

As a plot goes, it's ok. There were several times I found myself wishing that Collins would move it along just a little faster than he does. And from a modern perspective he's slightly racist when describing the Indians. But the way he tells the story is the juiciest part. He fragments the Narrator into several people by setting the book up as a memoir of the mystery told by those involved. The first narrator is Betteredge, the house head servant whose voice is the perfect rendition of what you might expect a butler to use. He uses a distant cousin, Miss Clack, to tell part of the story. She's an ardent lover of religious tracts and her single minded desire to convert the damned is so humorously portrayed I snickered almost against my will thru the whole thing. Sergeant Cuff is wonderful as the objective observer policeman and he comes closest to figuring out the crime. He's abrupt and to the point and reminded me a bit of Columbo in a 19th century portrayal.

The end and solution, which I won't tell because it IS a mystery, is a little outrageous. He could have done something more creative with it. But it does introduce the character of Ezra Jennings, the solitary doctor addicted to laudanum for some unspecified disease who finally figures it all out and cracks the mystery.

I like 19c novels. I can usually overlook their flaws just because I enjoy the writing so much. This one was no different. But it also could hold its own with a modern British detective mystery.

Virginia Woolf A Biography
By Quentin Bell

Even if you can't stand her writing, I would still recommend reading Bell's biography of Virginia Woolf. She's such an eccentric, such an interesting character that her story is fascinating.

First, there's the whole madness issue. She committed suicide in 1941 after years of periodic psychotic episodes. And the treatment then was so primitive, almost nonexistent, that it almost seemed to make her problems worse. She probably had some form of bipolar disorder and Bell gives some time to tracing the mental health issues of her forbear back a few generations. I've often wondered if she were alive now, with all the therapeutic drugs available, would she have been able to write as imaginatively as she did?. Or would the drugs have stabilized her mind and destroyed her creative spark?.

Then, there is the whole Bohemian, Bloomsbury, lesbian thing. After reading the book, I can't think of anyone I know who led a more staid, happily married lifestyle than she did. She was married for years to Leonard Woolf and, yes, had passionate friendships with lesbians but Bell, who happens to be her nephew and actually knew her, is highly skeptical that any physical reaction was reciprocated by Virginia. She did have flamboyant, creative friends. Lytton Strachey, Desmond McCarthy and Roger Fry were just a small part of the circle she was involved in. She knew Henry James and H.G. Wells. And later in life, she befriended Katherine Mansfield and Elizabeth Bowen. Her sister, Vanessa Bell, was a leader in Post Modernist painting in Britain and famous in her own right. But Virginia's major wild fling seems to be that she shared a house as a cooperative with unmarried men prior to marriage.

What mostly comes thru is a highly gifted woman plagued with shyness and insecurity and threatened by permanent madness who writes because she's passionate about language and words and thoughts. She isn't highly educated; in fact, Bell points out that neither she nor her sister were allowed to attend school and were educated, badly, at home by their impatient and overbearing father. She loved London and England. The war with its bombings and threats of invasion lead indirectly to her final slow slide into another episode of madness which she forestalls by putting rocks into her pocket and walking into the river Ouse.

Death of a Peer
By Ngaio Marsh

If I were going to give this review a title it would be "Eating Crow and Liking It!" I have previously given a Ngaio Marsh mystery a pretty tepid review and was gently chided by Will. Since I have been reading Will's reviews for a couple years and comparing notes on the books we both have read, I have found him normally spot on when it comes to matching my taste. There's been a few glitches. I'm not too keen on the Aubrey/Maturin series and some of the sci-fi I don't find terribly compelling but mysteries he's pretty good at hitting right on the note. Now do I just quietly agree to disagree or do I go back and give Marsh another shot, perhaps finding a prolific writer I enjoy and then having to fess up? I'm not particularly proud. I can fess up.

I liked this one!

From what I can tell, Death of a Peer follows with Marsh's general technique of creating a cast of eccentric characters, tossing a murder in their midst and then bringing in Inspector Alleyn to figure who did what and when. There is always a reference or two or three to New Zealand and this one also had references to MacBeth as well. It's almost as if she's writing prose plays using a cast and one or two sets where most of the action takes place.

This novel concerns the Lamphreys, a family of gaily kooky aristocrats who are constantly short of money and never bothered by it. They have invited a young friend from New Zealand to spend a few weeks with them in their London flat. Business has gone bad for the father of the family, the money is running out and he asks his brother, the heir to the family wealth and a distinctly unlovable man, for a loan to tide them over. The brother comes and after a heated argument, leaves, only to be found in the lift with a meat skewer thru his eyeball. His wife is hysterical and also dabbling at witchcraft, the servants are fiercly loyal to their master and mistress and no one saw or heard anything. Inspector Alleyn must sort out who did what when, who saw what when and how many others besides the father of the family had motive to kill the icky old man.

What's interesting is that she gives you the whole scenario. You see all the action played out and then you get to watch Alleyn and his sidekick, Fox, replay it finding the important clues along the way ruling out suspects, finding multiple folks with motives and ultimately making the correct decision on who did it.

So, crow pie for me tonight after a first course of hasty pudding. Mmmmâ... tastes good, too.

Eleanor Of Aquitaine: A Life
By Alison Weir

When Katherine Hepburn died recently, I browsed the library stacks for the movie "A Lion In Winter." I hadn't seen it in years and the kids and husband had never seen it so it seemed a good choice for our traditional Sunday night movie and popcorn. Of course, all the way thru the movie they are asking me questions about who's who and why is she shut up in the castle etc etc. While I have a sketchy, at best, grasp of the history of the period, the whole thing piqued my curiosity to know more. Clearly if Hepburn's role was any indication, Eleanor was an interesting woman. And I just happened to have this book on my shelf from last Christmas so I got it out and started in.

Eleanor was indeed a very interesting woman, though Hepburn's role is romanticized and modernized to make her more palatable to the public. Henry II was too. What struck me most is how little is really known about her. Weir makes very clear what is known fact and what is supposition in her biography and where sources give no information about Eleanor, she fills in the gaps with what is known about Henry II. And Weir kindly includes a map contemporary to the times making some of the geography much clearer. France then was a small state surrounding Paris, powerful yes, but geographically miniscule compared to what Henry II and Eleanor ruled over jointly. And we must remember that no one was speaking English in England except the peasants. French and more specifically, a dialect of Provencal, was the language of court and the aristocracy.

The biography itself is easily read and understood. She gives the reader a general understanding of what life was like for a young woman of good birth, how girls were raised, what choices they had and didn't have and what levels of education they were given. She reminds us continually the role the Church plays in the ruling of nations and of the importance of alliances by marriage. And then she goes on to show how Eleanor breaks just about every rule there is. She is taught to read, though not to write since writing is the occupation of scribes. She marries Louis, King of France and takes up the Cross with him on a Crusade, scandalizing everyone. While there, she has a scandalous affair with her uncle and eventually annuls her marriage after her return on the grounds of consanguinity. She turns around and marries the King of England without consulting her former husband who is her guardian or the Church.. She gives him sons who eventually become Richard The Lion Hearted, and King John. Henry, unfortunately, is a bit of a bounder and they have a falling out. She sides with her sons against Henry in what is essentially a failed hostile takeover and he shuts her up in a castle for years. And that's the first two thirds of the book. Eventually, she enters a convent as a guest and dies at the age of 82.

She was an amazing woman. We have no representation of what she looked like aside form her effigy on her tomb and some dubious statuary and paintings. The only surviving artifact from her life is a crystal vase she gave Henry as a gift. Most of the castles she lived in are in ruins. And yet, she still inspires biographies, movies and novels. I was utterly enchanted by her.

Clutch of Constables
Died in the Wool
By Ngaio Marsh

I dug these two out of the "take to the used bookstore" box after discovering that, yes indeedy, I do enjoy her mysteries. That was before I trotted myself down to the Large Chain Bookstore, unfortunately placed just down the road from where I work, to buy 6 more. I'm sure they are all at the library but, gosh, we are going on vacation in a couple weeks and if I got them now and didn't read them right away there are those nasty, nasty fines and we don't want that, now do we? Much cheaper just to buy the books right up front.

Died in the Wool takes place first of these two. Detective Alleyn is in New Zealand during the war searching for spies or "fifth columnists" as they are called in the book. He is called in by the nephew of a deceased woman MP there to investigate her death. Seems she was smothered and then packed into a bale of raw wool at her wool ranch in the backwaters. They didn't find her til weeks later when someone noticed a wonky smell in the wool warehouse and makes the mistake of cutting open the bale to look for the dead rat they think is in it. It was the bale hook going in and coming out with goo on it that did me in. Eeuuw!

Now the house is in the possession of her nephew, her husband has since died of heart disease and the people who live there all agree to tell their side of the story. Oh, and the nephew and another nephew, both injured in the war, are working on a top secret magnetic fuse for missiles to use against the Germans. The secretary has stayed on as a gardener. Her ward is still there. The butler, who seems to be the top candidate since he was recommended before the war by a Japanese gentlemen, is still there. And it again wool shearing time so all the itinerant workmen are back on the ranch. Detective Alleyn must listen to all their stories, find the motive and figure it all out. And one of them is likely a spy.

A Clutch of Constables takes place while Alleyn is off in the States investigating an international art forgery ring. His wife, Troy, whimsically decides to take a riverboat cruise of a twisty turny river in England after a big show of her paintings. She hopes to do it anonymously. The passenger list is the usual assortment of odd eccentrics including a lepidopterist, a preacher from Australia, an American brother and sister with loads of camera equipment and an annoying nosey woman who had discovered journaling and writes down everything. Troy discovers that the passenger whose place she has filled was found murdered in his flat in London, there is some weird stuff happening on board and then, the annoying journal writer disappears. Fortunately, Detective Alleyn returns just in time to figure out the whole mess and save his wife.

Both of these were light and entertaining. What I like about Marsh's mysteries is that she gives all the clues plus a few extras to trip you up. They are wonderfully complicated without being difficult to read. I didn't figure out whodunnit in either of them until the end. And Detective Alleyn is growing on me--sort of the tall silent type.


Craig's Recent Reading

by Craig Clarke

All the Lonely People
Stakeout
By Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini

This was another dollar store discovery. It's a book-on-tape that contains two short stories by two leading mystery authors who also happen to be husband and wife. Marcia Muller writes the Sharon McCone series and authored the first story in the collection, about how McCone goes undercover in a dating service to find a burglar who has been terrorizing its clients. A solid story and a good introduction to the character.

Bill Pronzini's "Stakeout" stars his Nameless Detective (known only as "I") who gets more than he bargained for on a search for a "deadbeat dad." Said dad turns up dead. Pronzini's detective is also an attractive prospect for further reading, so this tape was certainly worth the dollar, especially as I could see myself listening to it again--although I'm not sure I would have paid the full cover price of $5 for it.

Idoru
By William Gibson

I found this audiotape at my local Dollar Tree. I always go in there to look at their book section while waiting for our weekly Chinese takeout. This was hidden among the myriad cookbooks, dictionaries, and bibles. Their audiobook section is sorely lacking but I'll occasionally find something I wouldn't mind spending $1 on.

I've always felt I should read William Gibson, but one thing keeps me away. I don't like hard science fiction--more gadget oriented that people focused. Idoru is a good example of why I will continue to stay away. After finishing the first tape (of two), I realized I had no idea what the storyline was. I knew it had something to do with the Japanese practice of computer-animated celebrities, and one rock star's pronouncement to marry one of them, but this seemed to be more a mention than an actual plotline. I figured it was time to give up and started reading something I would actually enjoy, like another Nero Wolfe novel...or two. I may try the second tape in the future.

The Second Confession
Fer-de-Lance
By Rex Stout

Unfortunately, the two Nero Wolfe novels I read this month did not particularly impress me. Initially, I read the first of the series, Fer-de-Lance, because I never had. However, the great thing about the Wolfe series is that you can start in the middle and not feel as if you've missed anything. Even in Fer-de-Lance there is no "meeting story." Wolfe and Goodwin are already in their respective patterns. "Past" cases are referred to and both characters are already fully developed.

The only difference in particular that I noticed is that Saul Panzer is called Paul and that this book--at nearly 300 pages--is almost twice as long as the majority of the series. I began noticing this somewhere around where the novel would usually end, around the 150 page point. It was then that I realized I was nowhere near completion, which made the rest of the read, while mostly enjoyable, a bit of a struggle.

The Second Confession I didn't like for another reason--that the villain's only trait is that he is a member of the Communist Party. I understand that this was written in 1949 and that was the mindset of the time, but in these more (hopefully) enlightened days, shouldn't a villain be a little more of a complete person than simply being an enemy of the US in the Cold War (now defunct)?

A man simply enters Wolfe's office, says "I want you to find this man. He's a Communist," and off we go. While Wolfe is his usual brilliant self in deducing the identity of the "commie," I was just not carried along by the story until very near the end, when I simply let the momentum of it take me to the solution.

These were certainly not the best of the series. But Wolfe is still Wolfe (even if he is spouting jingoistic patriotism), and Archie is still wisecracking and flirting, and I still enjoyed myself. And getting Wolfe out of the brownstone is always good for a bit of fun. After all, even mediocre Rex Stout is better than no Rex Stout.

Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth
By Chris Ware

This graphic novel is absolutely the most depressing thing I have ever read. With that title, one would think the subject would be some childhood fantasies, but what is unexpected is that these are the fantasies of a lonely, ineffectual wretch of a man. Chris Ware tells the story of three generations of neglectful fathers (each learning their lessons too late) and their effects on their children.

Jimmy's father (heretofore absent from his life) sends him a letter inviting that they get to know each other. The meeting that ensue are full of tragedy and I had to keep myself from reading for too long because I would become terribly morose from reading the story. Yet I was powerless to keep myself from returning to it yet again. That is a testament to the storytelling power of Chris Ware, who relates his sad tale through the format of illustrated frames like are found in comic books, but have since become known as "graphic novels" to avoid the "childish" connotations inherent in that moniker.

Ware's drawing style is phenomenal. He manages, with as few lines as possible to display each character's life right on his or her facial expressions. His design is marvelous as well--changing periods seems to come easy for him, giving each era a different look and feel, so that when the story changes (each boy character--all named "Jimmy"--looks the same in each one), you can tell instantly where you are.

Only near the end is there any relief from the weight of depression. When modern Jimmy finally breaks into tears, I felt as if his weight had been lifted from me. And the ending itself is a hopeful one, if only tangentially so. Jimmy Corrigan is a truly moving read and I'll be thinking about it for some time to come. If you yourself are lonely, depressed, or feel pressed upon by overbearing parents, you'd best stay away from this. I think only people whose lives are fairly together could withstand the absolute mess and discomfort contained in these pages. That's a warning. But all in all I think this is a story that is somewhat universal; it's just that some of us found a way out of it and Jimmy seems to wallow in it.

Mary, Mary
By Ed McBain

In addition to his lauded 87th Precinct series, Ed McBain also follows the career of attorney Matthew Hope in his nursery rhyme-themed books. With titles like There Was a Little Girl and The House that Jack Built, Hope's novels are instantly recognizable, like any series that wants to stand out from the pack must be. They're also exceedingly well-written, which in terms of marketing, is secondary. First buy the book, then notice how well it reads.

In Mary, Mary we meet Mary Barton, a school teacher who dotes on her garden. She has silver bells, uses cockle shells in decoration, and...well, you get the idea. One day, three pretty maids (all in a row) are found buried in her garden, thus setting her up for murder. The only witness is an antagonistic neighbor who swears she saw Mary putting the little girls in the dirt, although there are several character witnesses ready to vouch for Mary's impeccable standing.

It's a pretty simple story that leads up to a straightforward conclusion (using the title in a way I didn't expect) and Hope is a kind, caring lawyer who doesn't defend anyone he believes guilty (always a good characteristic for a hero). This one spent an inordinate amount of time in the courtroom and could have been trimmed by a third, but as a whole it was a quite enjoyable read.

This series is very different in tone from the 87th series, however, as it takes place on the Florida coast as opposed to the gritty center of McBain's New York clone, Isola. Fans of one may not take to the other, but I found that McBain's writing is fluid and familiar enough that rates at least taking a sample.

The Wavedancer Benefit
By John Grisham, Peter Straub, Stephen King, and Pat Conroy

About two years ago, audiobook reader Frank Muller--probably the closest thing to a superstar the audiobook industry has ever had, and a personal favorite of myself and these four authors--was in a terrible motorcycle accident, almost killing him. He has had a long recovery--and may never work again-and this tape was made to raise funds for Muller and other disabled readers through The Wavedancer Foundation.

Recorded live at New York's Town Hall, these authors gave a benefit reading from their own books as further fundraising. Two cassettes comprise the package, with each author taking up one side of a tape. Grisham starts off by reading a chapter from his novel The Summons. His slight Southern speech takes you right into the world of his novel, sounding like a kind uncle telling you a story. Next Peter Straub comes to the stage and reads a suspenseful piece from Black House, the second novel he has coauthored with King and the sequel to their The Talisman.

Next, Stephen King takes the microphone and reads a short story included in his novella "The Body," the title of which the family-oriented Duquettes would likely not appreciate me transcribing here. But any fans of the scatological humor of the Captain Underpants series would likely get a kick out a blueberry pie-eating contest that goes horribly awry. I've never liked King's readings of his own works. His throaty L's always take me right out of the story. Tongue behind the teeth, Stephen.

To end, Pat Conroy comes onstage and talks for a while about the practice of writing. All the authors are congenial, and surprisingly funny, and this concert was a treat, recommended particularly to those who enjoyed King's performance of "LT's Theory of Cats," as this has a similar feel.


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