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ex libris reviews

1 September 2003

The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words, "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." There is always something they prefer to joy....
C.S. Lewis


In This Issue:
Labor Day

I used to use this part of the page to ruminate on whatever topic was exercising me at the moment. These days I have a web log for that purpose, and it's becoming harder and harder to think of useful things to say. So I'll just say that if you've not taken a look at our web log, you should.

In the meantime, there are reviews from me, Deb English, and Craig Clarke for you to read. I've (alas!) not heard anything from Felicity McCarthy in a couple of months, and she's not updated her blog in ages.

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Ricky Ricotta and his Mighty Robot
By Dav Pilkey

This is the first book in another series by Pilkey, who's also the author of the "Captain Underpants" series. While that series undeniably exploits underpants, diapers, and related matters for cheap laughs, it's also undeniably clever. The books aren't deep, but I didn't mind reading them to David.

This book is something else again. All it shares with the "Captain Underpants" is the cheap paper on which it's printed and the ridiculous Flip-O-Rama action pages. Each Flip-O-Rama chapter consists of four or five pairs of pages; each pair is supposed to be a cheesy kind of flipbook. That's right--a flip book which contains just two pages.

Here's the complete plot: Ricky Ricotta gets picked on by bullies. A mad scientist creates a giant robot, and sends it to destroy Mouseville. The robot balks, and runs away. Ricky meets the robot, which follows him home. His parents agree that the robot can stay, after the robot does some chores around the house. The next morning, the robot goes to school with Ricky, and scares the bullies into subservience. The mad scientist tries again to destroy the robot, but the robot wins. The end.

No doubt I'll be asked to read the further adventures of Ricky Ricotta, but I'm not looking forward to it. This book lacks the humor and cleverness I've come to expect from Pilkey, and the book seems to be written for a much lower reading level than the "Captain Underpants" books.

Artists in Crime
By Ngaio Marsh

Over the last few months I've been reading Marsh's books in order of publication. In our last outing, the excellent Vintage Murder, we found Inspector Alleyn on vacation in New Zealand. The current book finds him on shipboard on his way home to England, where he makes the acquaintance of rising artist Agatha Troy, his future wife. There first meeting is somewhat fraught, and though Alleyn agrees to sit for a portrait before the voyage is done, he comes away from it persuaded that Troy dislikes him.

At journey's end, Alleyn toddles off to spend a couple of weeks with his old mother before returning to Scotland Yard, while Troy returns to her home, where a number of artists are paying to study with her. They do not encounter each other again until one of the students is murdered, and Alleyn is called in to investigate.

What follows is both an interesting mystery and a most unconventional romance. Professionalism dictates that Alleyn must treat Troy no differently than any of the other suspects, and this, while clear to both of them, adds a certain regrettable constraint to their interactions. In addition, neither of them really understands each other at first. Alleyn is naturally reserved, both personally and professionally, while Troy, angry with herself for how she behaved at their first meeting, is by turns cold, prickly, and defensive.

Ultimately, of course, Alleyn can no longer deny his feelings, and tells Troy how he feels...but there are no wedding bells at the end of this book, and no mad, passionate embrace. A person has just been murdered; it has been a week of horror and pain; it's no time for falling joyously in love. And yet the passion is there, just below the surface, and at the end Alleyn is given, if not encouragement, then hope for the future.

It's a remarkable accomplishment: although writing genre fiction, Marsh seems determined to avoid all but the most necessary bits of formula. Very, very nice.

By Eric Flint

I first read this last year, and thoroughly enjoyed it. My previous review explains the book tolerably well, so I won't go into all that here. The short version is this: for a thoroughly and comprehensively and artistically absurd reason, the town of Grantville and its environs are transported from modern day West Virginia to the Germany of 1632. The 30 Years War, a truly nasty conflict, has been on-going for about fifteen years; mercenary troops loot, pillage, and rape freely. The citizens of Grantville conclude almost unanimously that This Has Got To Stop, and proceed to open the biggest can of whup-ass that Thuringia has ever seen.

The whole thing is unlikely, of course; still, it's a delight to read a book that celebrates American values and recognizes that there are ideals worth laying down our lives for.

By Eric Flint and David Weber

This is the immediate sequel to 1632, and picks up, unsurprisingly, the next year. It has a rather different feel. 1632 had a wild energy and an outrageousness that kept me turning pages far into the night. This one lacks some of that energy, and consequently wasn't so compelling--but in many ways it's a deeper, more involved story.

1632 focussed strongly on the town of Grantville and the obstacles its people had to overcome to survive their sudden transposition to an earlier more violent time. In 1633, by contrast, the rulers of Europe have begun to adjust to the presence of the Americans; further, many have acquired copies of portions of the history books brought back from the 21st century, and have altered their policies and plans accordingly. Charles I of England, for example, arranges to have Thomas Cromwell imprisoned. This, of course, completely demolishes the value of those history books for short term planning. Thus, this book has less of the gonzo battle scenes and more politics and intrigue.

I found it to move somewhat ponderously; I wasn't turning pages compulsively until nearly the end. Fair disclosure, though--I read this while attending a conference, and thanks to social activities, an extremely hard bed, and a room that overlooked the hotel's lobby and main desk I didn't get much sleep. I was consequently both exhausted and easily distracted, and as my room lacked a comfortable reading chair, I'd have had trouble falling deeply into any book of any description.

The One Kingdom
By Sean Russell

This is the first book in Russell's series "The Swans' War"; I first read and reviewed it last year, and liked it very much. It's an epic fantasy, but it has a more intimate feel than the other epic fantasies I've been reading recently.

Three young men from the remote Vale of Lakes travel south along the River Wynnd. They want to see a little of the world, and perhaps find a little fortune, before settling down again at home. Their plans take an abrupt left turn when they share their fire with another wanderer and are attacked by a force of men-at-arms in compensation for their generousity. At first, the attack seems to be part of an generations-old conflict between the once great Wills and Renne families--but as the story proceeds, we and they learn that their troubles have their roots much longer ago than that.

There's very little humor in this book, but beyond that I like it.

The Isle of Battle
By Sean Russell

This is the second volume of "The Swans' War", and a sequel to Russell's The One Kingdom. I wish I could say that I enjoyed it as much as its predecessor, but I didn't. It was extremely slow-paced, and the big climax was so long in arriving that I was rather indifferent to it when it finally straggled in.

However, in the interests of fairness, I should point out that I read most of this while sitting and waiting for my flight, and then waiting for my flight to be cancelled, and then waiting for my hotel voucher and rebooked flight. And all this while not having had a good night's sleep in almost a week.

So, all things considered, I'm going to give Russell the benefit of the doubt, and buy the next volume when it comes out in paperback. The Isle of Battle is quite possibly better than it seemed, and then again it might simply be suffering from middle-book-syndrome. We'll see when the time comes.

Meanwhile Back On The Ranch
By Kinky Friedman

Every so often I'll be at a bookstore, and I'll see something by Kinky Friedman. And I'll take it home, and read it, and then I'll remember why I only read Kinky Friedman every so often.

Supposedly, these are mysteries--and, yes, I suppose they can be categorized in that way. But although Kinky's supposed to be a private eye pursuing an investigation, that's not really the way it works. Really what happens is Kinky wanders about, talking to various old chums, and himself, more or less interchangeably, and eventually, amid piles of bad jokes and peculiar circumlocutions and weird slang, the case gets solved. And it's kind of fun, in an outrageous, profane, sophomoric kind of way.

But it's not for every day.

By Stephen King

This is another book I picked up at Detroit Metro Airport so as to be sure I wouldn't run out of reading material on the flight home. I did in fact start it on the plane, but finished it at home...not surprising, as it's huge.

I used to read King's books in hardcover, as soon as they came out; more than once I bought the latest at the airport while picking up a friend. But then Insomnia came out, and the plot was so remarkably asinine that I quit. I've picked up all (I think) of his short story collections since then, and I've got a copy of Bag of Bones that someone gave me, and that's been it. But there I was at the airport, in need of a book, and I saw this one, and I said, "What the heck."

Being a horror novel, it was, of course, gory, profane, and obscene by turns. But it was also a masterful piece of storytelling. I recently read something that described King as the 20th Century Charles Dickens, and while that's a bit of stretch, it's only a bit. King is damn good at creating multi-dimensioned, believable characters and settings, and he's always in firm control of his plots. I don't care for his pure fantasy work (e.g., "The Dark Tower" series) as much, because he's at his best when rooted in the every day world.

Anyway, this one's about a small Nevada town, on desolate and sparsely travelled Highway 50. It's a mining town, and the miners have dug too deeply, awakening a terribly evil thing. Mass bloodshed ensues--and then the thing starts waylaying travellers.

Anyway, I liked it. It's billed as being a companion novel to King's The Regulators, which was published at the same time under the name "Richard Bachman"; I've just picked up a copy. More on that next month.

What can I say? Sometimes I have low tastes. It's good to see that King is back in his old form.

The Great Divorce
By C.S. Lewis

This is a difficult book for me to review. I've read it at least a dozen times, and as it's a short book I've internalized almost all of it. It's also a classic of Christian literature, and one that I've found both educational and inspirational over the years, which means that it's difficult for me to talk about it in any detail without talking non-trivially about my Christian faith as well. I usually avoid that, as I figure people come here to read about books, not about religion.

That said, I love this book. Lewis has long been one of my favorite writers; there are few I know of who can discuss complicated matters so simply and clearly. I've found, recently, that this is true not only of his fiction and his Christian apologetics, but also of his scholarly work, which was in the field of literary criticism. It's true, Lewis' brand of criticism is completely out of style, driven out by the postmoderns and the deconstructionists--but the one thing I understand about deconstructionism is that deconstructionist writings are by definition impossible to understand. I have faith that some day clear speaking will once again be valued in academia, and perhaps then Lewis will once more be highly regarded.

But all that is to the side. The Great Divorce is a book about Heaven and Hell. The narrator (Lewis himself) finds himself in a dreary town. The only place he sees any sign of life is at a bus stop, and for lack of any better idea, he attaches himself to the queue--a queue filled with argumentative, obnoxious people. On the bus, he discovers that the dreary town is Hell; the bus is taken damned souls to Heaven, where they can stay if they choose. Each of the damned souls is met by someone they knew (or knew of) in life, whose job is to persuade them to stay in Heaven. Some do; by far the most do not.

If this review were printed on paper, I'd suggest that you underline that word "choose", for choice is the essence of this book. Lewis himself meets the soul of George MacDonald, a writer whose book Phantastes initiated Lewis' own journey of faith. I will quote two of the things Lewis-the-author has MacDonald say:

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.' All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.

and also,

The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words, "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." There is always something they prefer to joy....

The question in every case is, what is it the soul prefers not to give up? And how does this effect the choices they made in life? That should be emphasized as well--this book is by no means intended to present any kind of factual picture of Heaven or Hell. It's about the choices we make in life, and how they tend to lead us to reign in Hell or to serve in Heaven. And its done through a series of character sketches that are appallingly similar to people I've known--and, most likely, people I've been.

One more thing, and I'm done.

Somebody out there is sure to ask themselves, "Does he really believe this? Does he really believe that some people go to Heaven, and some to Hell?" And the answer is, "Yes, I do." And given that, some might accuse me of damning people to hell simply because they do not agree with me. This is a point of view I find puzzling. It doesn't matter whether people agree with me or not; I don't set the standards. I'm sure I find those standards as irritating and inconvenient as anyone else, and if God were to reveal to me that he was only kidding I'd be more than pleased.

But morality is, to some extent, beside the point. God isn't Santa Claus, bringing the nice people to Heaven and sending the naughty ones to Hell. None of us are nice people by God's standards. But through Christ's sacrifice on the cross he's enabled all of us to reach Heaven--if, and only if, we will accept Christ's help and lordship. It's all about who I will have as my master--Christ, or myself.

It's as though I'm on the roof of a house in a flood, and Christ is overhead in a helicopter, dangling a rope ladder in front of me. I am free to take hold of it, or not. But I am not free to both take hold of it and remain on the rooftop. And once I take hold of it, I must hold on tightly.

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.

Forward the Mage
By Eric Flint and Richard Roach

This is the second book in Flint's "Joe's World" saga; it's a fun ride, though it intersects oddly with The Philosophical Strangler, the first book in the series, and though very little seems to actually be resolved at the end of it.

In fact, "odd" describes the whole book remarkably well. For example, the bulk of it is narrated by a family that witnessed the whole thing: a tribe of body lice that live on one of the main characters. Then there's the section that consists entirely of very long chapter headings. And the world in which the action takes place resembles your typical fantasy world, but only slightly. In fact, the whole place seems to have been created, long ago, by this guy named Joe, though it seems to have gotten away from him. I have a vision of a Dungeons and Dragons world, worked out in great detail by some teenaged gaming nerd, that has been steadily developing on its own since he got to college and discovered girls.

One of the blurbs compares Flint with Terry Pratchett, and while that's wishful thinking on somebody's part, the book is genuinely funny, if a bit purple and crude by turns.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
By Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill

I don't read comics much. Back when I was in grad school I picked up most of the episodes of Cerebus the Aardvark, which was mostly good fun; I still have them around somewhere, though the paper was lousy and they are probably ready to fall apart. A few years ago (as long-time readers will remember) I picked up the full set of Neil Gaiman's "Sandman", which I enjoyed thoroughly though it had what seemed like quite a ridiculous amount of sex and violence (especially violence). Cerebus was quite remarkably tame by comparison. Sex and violence-wise, the Gentlemen are pretty much on a par with the Sandman.

The plot is straightforward. At the behest of a rather unctuous fellow named Campion Bond, Mina Harker gathers together Captain Nemo, Allan Quatermain, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the Invisible Man to carry out a mission for Bond's boss, the mysterious Mr. M. Things are not as they seem, of course, and a rollicking tale ensues.

Did I like it? Well, it was OK. It wasn't the Sandman. Frankly, the Extraordinary Gentleman seemed insufficiently extraordinary; and although the premise is good fun, I came away thinking that Mr. M could have accomplished his ends much more simply with a few stout young men and a few months of training.

The artwork was pretty darned cool, though, especially the pictures of the Nautilus.

The book ends with a novella (really, a genuine words on a page story) about Allan Quatermain, in which (through the medium of a prose so purple it was almost opaque) Alan Moore has the audacity to bring together Allan Quatermain, John Carter of Mars, Randolph Carter, and H.G. Wells' time traveller in one big H.P. Lovecraft pastiche. I nearly choked when told that Randolph Carter was John Carter's great nephew.

So, all in all, a pleasant afternoon's entertainment...but nothing life-changing.

James and the Giant Peach
By Roald Dahl


I finished reading this aloud to David the other night. While it wasn't precisely a favorite of mine as a kid, I happily checked it out of the library on any number of occasions, and so several months ago I bought in eager anticipation of a magical, joyful romp.


I remembered James as brave, inventive, persevering. I remembered Old Green Grasshopper as kindly and wise. I have all kinds of memories of this book which, alas, don't seem to match the reality.

In a book of essays I'll be reviewing some time in the next few days, C.S. Lewis talks about reading more in a book than is really there--about filling in the gaps with one's imagination and bringing an otherwise dull book to life, generally without noticing that you're doing it. That seems an apt description of what I must have done as a child.

To be fair, a good reader of fiction will always do this; it's his job, after all. But some books lend themselves to it more than others, and some in their richness bring forth a corresponding richness from the reader's mind--a richness that sometimes goes on and on long after one has finished the book. (I saw a web site the other day that describes the various fonts available for typesetting Tolkien's Elvish languages.)

But sometimes a young and enthusiastic and imaginative reader can bring forth wonders from a book that's really rather ordinary and prosaic. And while James and the Giant Peach isn't that bad, it certainly lacks the charm I remember. For example, James certainly manages to come up with a solution for every problem the Peach and its passengers encounter, but he hasn't much personality. Old Green Grasshopper plays a mean fiddle, and he's certainly a nice enough giant bug, but he fails to do anything that strikes me as wise or particularly kindly. I think I must have endowed him with my grandfather's virtues simply because he was old.

In fact, the only bit that still worked for me was near the very beginning, when the strange little man gives James the brown bag of magic thingies.

Having just turned forty, I have to ask myself, "Is it my fault? Have I turned into an old fuddy-duddy? Have I become incapable of appreciating good children's books?" And I don't think that's the case, given that I've really enjoyed most of the books I've read to David over the last couple of years.

An interesting sidelight--Jane asked David today which of the many chapter books I've read him over the last year did he like best. I was surprised (and pleased) to find that it was the very first one-- The Hobbit.

Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

Dead Angler
Dead Creek
Dead Water
By Victoria Houston

Except for the annoying titles, these books are actually a lot of fun. They take place in Loon Lake, Wisconsin--somewhere up there north of Wausau and in the vicinity of a bunch of tourist towns catering to fishing and hunting each in its own season. After spending a week a summer for nearly all of my 45 years in the northern part of either Wisconsin or Minnesota, I have come to the conclusion that folks who name lakes have a limited vocabulary. The list goes like this: Sand Lake, Stone Lake, Loon Lake, Deer Lake, Moose Lake, Wolf Lake, Timber Lake, Pine Lake, Goose Lake etc etc etc. Sometimes, they got fancy and tossed a Native American name in there which you have to be a local to pronounce. Try Chequamaghon on the tongue. It's pronounced, stay with me here, sha-KWA-ma-gun. Actually, I cheated. That's a National Forest. Sissibagama is the lake we stay on when we go. We call it Big Siss so as not to confuse it with it's neighbor, Little Sissibagama, known as Little Siss.

Anyway, the books were lots of fun, especially when read on a lake with loons calling on the water. The local retired dentist, Paul Osborne, meets the Chief of Police, Lew Ferris when the local bait shop owner sets up fly fishing lessons for him. Lew is a healthy, attractive and very opinionated woman who can outfish him in a heartbeat and who uses fishing as relaxation from the rigors and stresses of running a police department on a short budget amidst a well-entrenched good-ole-boys network. Osborne's wife died a couple years back and he's looking for a hobby. Fly fishing fits the bill. So when he discovers a body during their first lesson, she instantly deputizes him to do a forensic dental exam on the victim. Thankfully, he did forensic dental work in Korea. And apparently, nothing grosses him out since he's digging his ungloved hands into a mouth that's been dead and in the water for a couple days. Plus, he's a marvel because he recognizes the teeth even though all the gold has been drilled out after death. That happened a couple times thru the series and I kept wondering if MY dentist would know my teeth just by looking at them without the chart and face to match.

The whole series goes from there. Osborne has a neighbor who is apparently good looking, intelligent, full of heart and who refuses to work at legal occupations but is a dynamite poacher and tracker/field guide. Oh, and he leaves messes of panfish at the local convent in return for excellent fried chicken and potato salad so he's gotta be ok if the nuns like him. He wears a trademark hat with a stuffed trout sitting crosswise on it. And we find out more and more about what a crummy marriage Osborne had with his dead wife as he starts falling in love with the Chief of Police who is a good ten years younger than he is and causes him no end of angst about whether he is worthy.

The series is totally entertaining in a mindless way, especially if you enjoy the silly stuff she writes about. I especially enjoyed it since she fills it full of local Wisconsin color that is instantly recognizable if you live in the state. Somehow, the light hearted tone and the small town eccentrics reminded me a little of Mitford. She even tosses in a Dooley-like character in the third book. There is a fourth out that I googled for after coming back home to the computer and that I plan on having my local bookstore owner order for me when I go to town today for groceries.

Death at the Bar
Colour Scheme
Death of a Fool
Black as He's Painted
By Ngaio Marsh

My husband, kids, and I recently returned from a week up near Hayward, WI. We rent a log cabin on a lake, stock the fridge with easily prepared food and relax without phone, TV, computers or local/state/national news. We spend the evenings playing cards and eating popcorn, the mornings and late afternoons either fishing or napping and generally ignore the rest of the world for a week. It is heavenly, especially now that the kids are old enough to take care of themselves without supervision.

I pack a bag of books that would stock a small library and spend my time either on the couch or in the deck chair reading myself half blind. Series books are great because you can chew them up at a fantastic rate. Light murder mysteries have been my book of choice the last few years when up north, so when I discovered Ngaio Marsh I tossed an armful of hers into my book bag. I had packed a half dozen or so of Wodehouse also but we went to town and I found another series I hadn't seen before. But that's a different review.

What's so fun about Ngaio Marsh is that she takes her general formula and varies the locale so completely that each book is both familiar and unique. Death at the Bar takes place in a small fishing village where a famous lawyer has been poisoned when playing darts. The pub owner pleads with Inspector Alleyn to come down and solve the mystery when his pub's honor is besmirched by the unsolved murder.

Colour Scheme takes place in New Zealand at a hot springs spa similar to Rotorua though not quite so popular. The War is in progress and a ship has been torpedoed just off the coast from the spa. Strange lights and signals have been seen. And one of the spa's residents has found his way in the dark into a hot mud pool under suspicious circumstances. Marsh throws a twist into this one that amused me no end though it was fairly apparent at the outset what she was doing.

Death of a Fool is back in England. In a small village the Winter Solstice is celebrated with a local variation of the Morris Dances using real swords and ancient stones. The local aristocracy has always hosted the village event and the local blacksmith's family has always performed the dance. Publicity is avoided at all cost so when a folklore specialist, who happens to be a Nazi refugee and completely annoying to boot, discovers it, everyone is put out. And then, in the middle of the dance, the blacksmith is discovered decapitated behind the stone alter, in full view of the village. And no one knows how it was done.

Black as He's Painted is the most recent of the four in this review. The dictator of an emerging African nation, former colony, is insisting on coming to London. He's had several assassination attempts on his life before and the police are nervous. Fortunately, he's a school chum of Detective Alleyn's. And he commissions Troy, the detective's wife to do a state portrait of him. When his Ambassador to London is discovered pinned to the floor by the ceremonial spear his body guard is carrying during a gala celebration, Alleyn just naturally has to investigate.

Of the four, I disliked the last one. Marsh is much better with the local village or the New Zealand setting than emerging African nations. This one bordered on silly, something her books to date haven't done. However, on the whole, I am again amazed at how well she takes her basic plot and uses settings and characters flesh it out and make it unique. They haven't gotten repetitive at all, so far. I plan on reading the rest of her stuff, so we'll see.

By John Buchan

I read this while spending the week in a cabin in the northern woods of Wisconsin. Just before leaving I finished the first book in the series (The Thirty Nine Steps) and, luckily, had the foresight to buzz over to the bookstore to pick this one up. It was all they had by Buchan so I consider myself lucky, I guess.

This is a spy thriller published in 1916. Richard Hannay is recovering from wounds he received in action on the front when he gets a telegram from a high placed person in the Foreign Office. A spy sent into the Mid East has returned bullet-ridden and on the verge of death. Three mysterious words are scribbled on a sheet of paper he holds and are thought to hold the key to the German plan to dominate the area. A revival of Islam in its fundamentalist form is also brewing in the area and could possibly unite the area against the Allied forces. Richard Hannay is asked to go into the area and find out what the words mean. He's given a couple of fellow spies to work with as well. Blenkiron is an American with an uncanny ability to toady up to anyone and, being American and officially neutral at this point in the war, can get into the Germans good graces. Sandy, a young aristocrat who had spent time before the war wandering the area and learning all the languages, making friends and generally gaining a pile of useful contacts will help with the locals. They meet and decide to split up until they can meet on the appointed day in Constantinople. And that's when all the real action begins.

From the perspective of 2003 the book has some problems. The unqualified racism is a little appalling. Normally, I can shunt aside my modern sensibilities and get on with the story but it was just a tad more than I am comfortable with, even when reading a story written nearly 100 years ago. And then, it was written so long ago so when compared to the modern thriller with its over-dependence on guns and gizmos it moved just a little slowly at times.

However, with that said, I enjoyed it. There were a couple scenes that had me mentally on the edge of my seat and the end was pretty dramatic in the telling. The bad guys were really, really bad and the Hannay just escapes by his wits and a little luck. I enjoyed it enough to hunt for the rest of the books in the series Buchan wrote about Hannay.

Gaudy Night
By Dorothy L. Sayers

I picked this book up in a used bookstore in Washburn, WI, a very small town on the shore of Lake Superior just south of Bayfield. The year-round population can't be more than 500 but when we drove by and I spotted it, the store looked so interesting we had to stop. And it was nearly the best used bookstore I have been in for ages. They had everything from lit crit to Roman history to regional stuff to a dynamite sci-fi section that my son mined with glee. And they had a coffee shop attached so I could sip an iced French roast coffee while browsing. What more could a girl ask for?

Anyway, I read the entire Lord Peter Wimsey series some years ago before the kids went to school and I had two hours of naptime every single afternoon to do with as I pleased. This one stuck with me as the best of the lot and, as I recall, seemed to me more a feminist tract than a serious murder mystery. When I saw it on the shelf I wondered whether my perception of it had changed with the passing of time and my ever changing taste in books.

Essentially, it still strikes me as feminist in tone, though having recently read Sayers' essay on education and having read more about her classical studies and work, I can see the emphasis on education and serious scholarly work for women that she puts into the book. Originally I thought it just a vehicle for her ideas about women and work. Now I see the emphasis on higher education for women and allowing women the same respect for academic achievement that is afforded to men. All of this is very dated, of course. She was writing preWWII when college and work for women was a choice of the upper class only and not taken more seriously than a way to bag a well educated husband. It's the same argument that Virginia Woolf makes in A Room of One's Own, another book I read about the same time.

The plot is quite simple on the surface. Harriet Vane has gone down to Oxford for a reunion of graduates called a "Gaudy Night." She has just returned from a tour of the continent designed to give her some breathing space from Wimsey's attentions and allow her to come to some decisions. There she meets old classmates, some who have married and given up intellectual life and some who have gone on in their studies and missed marriage and kids. On her way out, she finds a piece of hate mail tucked into her gown sleeve and, thinking it the work of some belligerent undergrad, burns it and travels back to London--only to be called back to Oxford when the notes continue with other members of the college along with obscene graffiti on the bathroom walls and burning gowns in the commons. The head of the college wants it stopped with a minimum of fuss and, more importantly, publicity so she calls on Harriet as a detective fiction writer to help them out. She comes to Oxford under the pretense of doing research on Sheridan Le Fanu and quietly tries to figure out who is doing it.

To a point, I really enjoyed the book. The mystery aspects of it were well done. Although half way thru the book, I suddenly remembered the ending, I still could follow the laying out of clues and the setting up of the plot with enjoyment. The Oxford setting was interesting also since I now have a dear friend who attended Oxford in the 50's and has told me stories about women in the academic setting there. What bugged me this time is that having set the book up as feminist in tone, she cops out at the end and brings Wimsey in to save the day. Ok, he IS the detective in the series and I have to admit, I found him a compelling suitor for Harriet. I kept wanting to tell her to quit thinking so much and just give him a kiss, you twit. On the other hand, to be consistent, Wimsey shouldn't have come into it until Harriet had the whole thing figured out. After I finished it and thought about it a bit, I was disappointed in Sayers for doing that.

However, I wasn't disappointed enough to bypass the bookstore on the way home rather than stopping and picking up some more in the series. I have to find out if she marries him or not.

Craig's Recent Reading

by Craig Clarke

Over My Dead Body
By Rex Stout

After a few misfires last month, I again found a Nero Wolfe novel worth my time. Over My Dead Body is also special because it tells us more about the essentially secretive detective. In The Black Mountain, we learned that he is of Serbo-Croatian descent, and here we learn that he has...a daughter?

Wolfe's daughter has been in America for a year, but only called upon her famous father because she became a suspect in a murder. So it's Wolfe and Archie Goodwin's job to clear her name. This relationship gives us a chance to see a side of Wolfe previously unknown. At one point, he even acknowledges a possible reason for his great size.

"I carry this fat to insulate my feelings. They got too strong for me once or twice and I had that idea. If I had stayed lean and kept moving around I would have been dead long ago."

So this time Stout not only delivers the goods in terms of a cracking mystery to solve but also delivers insight into the mind (and heart) of America's greatest detective.

Navy SEALs: Insurrection Red
By Mike Murray

I'm not normally the type to read so-called "men's adventure novels." You know, those books with the luridly violent covers rife with guns and explosions. But, at the same time, it's difficult to find a book on tape that I can listen to while I'm mowing the yard. I need something that won't take up too much of my mind so I can focus on what I'm doing--something fast-paced with maybe a little character development. Taking a risk, I picked this up. It seemed to fit the bill. Only two cassettes (so I could finish most of it during the chore) and plot-oriented. I was pleasantly surprised at how good it was. I'm not saying that if you don't like this type of book that you'll like the Navy SEALs series anyway, just that if you have an open mind, you might give it a try.

Insurrection Red, like the others, involves Lt. Robert Getts and his crew of SEALs sent on a mission--this one to kidnap a powerful foreign general. During the mission, one of the men follows other, secret orders and kills him. Getts has to take the heat, and he will not back down from the responsibility (nobility is a big theme here), much to the consternation of his team, who will be court-martialled along with him. Thus, some of them decide to hunt him down and kill him.

And that just the first side of tape one. So much happens, it would take pages to describe it all. Suffice to say, it held my attention enough for me to recommend it. I'll be picking up the second book, Blacklight when I get a chance.

The Living Shadow
By Maxwell Grant (Walter Gibson)

I am a big fan of old-time radio shows (or OTR to the "in-crowd"). One of my favorite programs is The Shadow, particularly those starring a young Orson Welles, but I love them all. At the end of each program, there is an advertisement to buy a publication called "The Shadow Magazine" but I had never seen one.

One day, while surfing the Web for free books online, I came across a Web site that purported to have all of the Shadow stories published in The Shadow Magazine. I thought I had found the Holy Grail. Over three hundred novels from the 1930s and up that are all but lost in their original format, have been scanned, edited, and uploaded. This site was going to give me the chance to read these stories I had heard so much about. I quickly dove in to the first one.

One thing is immediately different about The Living Shadow from the radio show. The Shadow is not instantly shown as a force of good. It becomes apparent that he's not all bad, but he's mainly so mysterious that it's impossible to tell. Also, there's not yet a Lamont Cranston or Margo Lane. They will appear later in the stories, but the main character in this book is Harry Vincent.

Vincent is about to do himself in when a hand touches his shoulder and makes him an offer. Vincent thinks his life is useless but this stranger offers to make it useful again. But it will also be risked. And he must obey every order. Vincent isn't sure what he's getting himself into, but he accepts. He is sent to a hotel and receives his first message. He becomes an agent for the Shadow. The Living Shadow's plot is too involved for a description but it is very much in the action-oriented pulp fiction mode. Lots of intrigue, mystery, secret codes, stolen diamonds, Chinamen in tea shops that don't seem to sell any tea, disguises, strange people standing in front of buildings, and all through it is the Shadow, lurking nearby, waiting to hear some tidbit of information.

Maxwell Grant was a pseudonym used for the entire series. Walter Gibson wrote this one and most of the rest. Gibson is never going to be nominated for the Nobel Prize, but he is a solid craftsman. He writes smoothly and quickly, constantly keeping the story in motion. His use of exclamation points is somewhat excessive, but if you can stomach the heavy "drama" that old radio sometimes exhibits, you can easily look over it.

I was enthralled. It's been a long time that reading a book has been so much fun. I'm going to go download the second one now.

Shrink Rap
By Robert B. Parker

Sunny Randall, Parker's new series heroine, is hired to be bodyguard to Melanie Joan, a self-described author of "bodice-rippers" who is being stalked by her ex-husband, psychiatrist John Melvin, on a book tour. From the beginning, I had a hard time getting through this book. It read like a romance mystery with none of the hard-boiled charm that pervades the Spenser series.

But I pressed on, and found myself engrossed. Once I let go of my preconceptions and took the story on its own terms, I was able to enjoy it far more. Melanie Joan is a very irritating character, but that's easy to ignore as she is really minor, only being spoken of for the bulk of the book. Sunny is the real star here and when she puts her own dignity and safety on the line to entrap Melvin, I found a whole new respect for her. Another bonus is that it is relatively short, quickly-paced, and easy to get through. Pure fluff, but entertaining.

After the First Death
By Robert Cormier

Some readers may remember that I am slowly working my way through the "young adult" works of Robert Cormier, who wrote The Chocolate War among others, and whom I did not read when I was the age of the target audience. What I am finding is that these novels are rather complex and moving and that I likely would not have appreciated them at that age. I recommend his work to mature teens (and up) as there are many images that are disturbing and not for younger kids. Cormier does not shy away from the way people (and kids) act when they think no one is watching.

Not in its subject matter, but in its delivery, After the First Death is a complex departure from Cormier. Marketed as a suspense novel, it is more a psychological portrait of three characters involved in a harrowing situation. First up is Ben, who is typing out the story of his relationship with his father and how a particular event affected it and him. Then we meet Miro, a teenage terrorist who is involved in the hostage-taking of a school bus full of children. Driving the bus is Kate, a 16-year-old replacement of the usual driver who is thrust into the midst of this unwittingly. Cormier develops the story through each person's point-of-view narrative. Small things are revealed as the plot continues, including how all three of their lives intertwine and a secret about Ben that turns the book on its head. After the First Death is a solid entry from Cormier--one of his lesser-known titles that is nevertheless worth a look.

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