Home : Ex Libris : 1 November 2003

ex libris reviews

1 November 2003

It cost one penny to cross, or one hundred gold pieces if you had a billygoat.
Terry Pratchett


In This Issue:
The Day After Halloween

We've got a wide variety of stuff this month from me, Deb English, and Craig Clarke, and I find I haven't anything interesting to pontificate about. So enjoy the reviews.

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

High Society
By Dave Sim

High Society is the second volume of the saga of Cerebus the Aardvark, comprising issues 26 through 50 of the original comic book. And unlike the first volume, it's essentially one long 500-page story.

The overall plot is remarkably straightforward if you don't examine it too closely. Cerebus stomps into the city of Iest after a long slog through the marshes. He's tired, he's angry, and he's looking for a fight. He seeks out the best hotel in town mostly so he can get into a brawl with the hotel guards over whether he can get a room or not. And instead, everything goes suspiciously smoothly as soon as the desk clerk learns his name.

It turns out that it's all thanks to being the Supervisor of the Staff Kitchen for Lord Julius of Palnu, a post Cerebus held for a time in the previous volume. Lord Julius (who is played fetchingly by Groucho Marx--no, really!) funds his government by selling titles to the highest bidder, and as a result most titles in Palnu don't mean what you'd think they mean. Supervisor of the Staff Kitchen is in fact the title held by the head of Julius' personal bodyguard. As such, then, Cerebus is presumed to have considerable pull with Lord Julius, and has been elected by the people of Iest to be (I think--it's a little fuzzy) Palnu's diplomatic representative in Iest. Hence his popularity and inability to get into a fight.

This is just the first twenty pages, you understand. What follows is a wild tiger ride in which Cerebus is kidnapped, rescued, manipulated, outvoted, elected, and nearly becomes pope. (No, not that pope. A different pope altogether.) It's a tale of economics, politics, religion, interest rates, graft, teamsters, surly farmers, and a couple of whackos who talk like Yosemite Sam. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I suspect I missed about half of what was going on.

In one regard I prefer the earlier Swords of Cerebus collections (four issues per volume) to the new larger format--in the smaller collections, each issue is preceded by an introduction. Not all of them are timeless, but they not only provide interesting background to the story, they also chronicle Sim's growth as a writer and artist. For me, comics illiterate that I am, it was a fascinating glimpse at how comic books are created. I missed all that in the current volume.

Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable interlude, and one I intend to repeat in a few months, just to see what I missed the first time around.

Belles On Their Toes
By Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr., and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey

This is the sequel to Cheaper by the Dozen, which I reviewed some years ago. If you aren't familiar with that wonderful book, go read the review now. I'll wait.

Cheaper by the Dozen ends with the death of Frank Gilbreth, motion studies expert and patriarch of the large family. His wife Lillian, an equal partner in her husband's motion studies work, must decide whether to take the family to California, where the children can be parceled out to various relatives, or to stay in New Jersey and try to make her own way as a motion studies expert. She (with encouragement from her children) chooses the latter. And just as the prior novel is the story of Frank Gilbreth, Belles on their Toes is the story of Lillian Gilbreth.

It's as funny and heartwarming as its predecessor--I enjoyed it thoroughly--though possibly a bit lighter weight, especially toward the end. The two authors are the oldest boy and the next-to-oldest girl, and both went off to college within a few years of their father's death. Consequently we cover just a few years in the first half of the book, and a couple of decades in the second half.

Anyway, you should read it; it's a classic.

A Gentleman of Leisure
By P.G. Wodehouse

Published late in 1910, this is one of Wodehouse' earliest novels. Prior to this he had published seven books of school stories, to which I'll add an eighth, Psmith in the City, as it involves two characters from his school stories, a children's novel, a book of newspaper columns, a book about journalism, an Ukridge novel, and one other novel about which I know nothing. As such, it's in a transitional position between his school stories and his first Blandings novel, Something Fresh, published in 1915. By 1915, Wodehouse had gotten his comedic style down pat. There's little difference in tone or skill between Something Fresh and its 1929 sequel, Summer Lightning.

But A Gentleman of Leisure is something else again.

The plot leaves nothing to be desired; it's pure Wodehouse, with all the elements we've come to know and love. It's got thwarted lovers, upperclass twits, imposters, jewel thieves, private detectives, a country house, curmudgeonly aunts and uncles, and all the usual trappings.

What it doesn't have is the easy, effortless tone of Wodehouse's later work. Bertie, Jeeves, the Earl of Blandings, and all the rest seem to inhabit a timeless world of their own. This book, on the other hand, seems too firmly grounded in the real world. The characters are too real, and their reality demands that we take them seriously, despite all of the ludicrous events going on around them.

The results are often painful. One doesn't mind if Bertie Wooster is caught stealing a silver cow creamer; it's just the sort of thing that would happen to him, and we know he'll get out of it somehow. Bertie's world operates according to its own absurd rules--for example, if any woman of any age decides that she wants to marry Bertie, then Bertie is bound to go through with it unless she changes her mind. It doesn't matter whether he wants to marry her or not, or whether she's entirely mistaken about the nature of his regard for her. He's not allowed to tell her directly that he doesn't want to marry her; although the phrase seldom arises, this is the reduction to absurdity of the whole "breach of promise" thing so common in Victorian novels. Instead, he must work behind the scenes, with the help of Jeeves and his friends, to persuade her that she'd really rather marry someone else. And, as one of the other rules is that Bertie must remain a bachelor, he naturally and inevitably succeeds. We know this; the dramatic tension is all about how he'll get out of it this time, not whether he will or not.

But in this book, it's different. It seems mostly to follow the rules of the real world. Consider Lord Dreever, a young, improvident Lordling kept on a short leash by his wealthy capitalistic uncle. In a normal Wodehouse novel, we'd feel sorry for him, and applaud his attempts to squeeze a little money out of the old man. In Dreever's case, I tended to agree with the uncle. Dreever's an idiot and a wastrel who'd clearly run through any amount of money provided to him in a matter of months. He's not a scoundrel, there's no harm in him, but there's not much good either.

The love interest is young Molly McEachern. Molly's father wants his daughter to marry a title; Dreever's uncle wants his nephew to marry money. To these two old men it seems a match made in heaven. But it would clearly be a catastrophe for sweet young Molly to marry Lord Dreever. And because of Wodehouse' tone and the way the detail grounds it in the real world, it matters. And consequently, comic situations that I find hilarious in his latter books are positively painful in this one.


As a Wodehouse fan and would-be novelist, I found it fascinating--a wonderful example of how not to build a comic soufflé. As a reader, though, I wasn't as pleased.

Overture to Death
By Ngaio Marsh

This is Marsh's first use of a device that later becomes one of her trademarks--the novel in which she spends many chapters introducing her characters before the murder actually takes place. Alleyn is not called in until page 94, by which time Marsh has given us an excellent portrait of the village of Chipping and its denizens, including two poisonous old spinsters, a pair of young lovers, an aging squire, a handsome but timid vicar, a doctor with an invalid wife, and a Scarlet Woman. These folks gather together to put on an amateur play; it will be a local charity event, with the proceeds going toward a new piano for the parish hall. There are considerable undercurrents of tension among the group. The spinsters disapprove of the Scarlet Woman, though the squire and the doctor rather like her; the squire is against his son marrying his beloved, the vicar's daughter; both spinsters are in love with the vicar, who does his best to discourage them without losing charity. It's an interesting soup, and the two spinsters are especially well drawn.

Death at the Bar
By Ngaio Marsh

Like Overture to Death, this murder mystery is set in a small village--in this case, a seaside village in Devon. And also like Overture to Death, it has a very long lead-in before the murder is even committed. But instead of being about the tensions that naturally arise in a small village, it's about the tension between the locals and visitors: in this case, three friends--a barrister, an actor, and a painter--who have come to stay at the local inn for a few weeks for the second year in a row.

One of them is killed in the inn's common room, and Alleyn (helped, most unusually, solely by the stalwart Inspector Fox) must determine not only who killed him, but also how. It's rather like a locked-room mystery--we know he was poisoned, but except for the evidence of poison in his blood, it seems impossible that he could have been.

I didn't like this one much when I first read it--other than Alleyn and Fox I found few of the characters to be particularly sympathetic--but it began to grow on me this time.

Death of a Peer
By Ngaio Marsh

This is the book that turned Deb English back on to Ngaio Marsh after reading one or two that she didn't much care for. Unlike her previous two books it's set in London, but like them she spends a great deal of time developing the characters before the murder occurs. Usually she adopts a relatively omniscient point of view when she does this, but in this case she gives us a delightful viewpoint character, a young woman named Roberta Grey.

Roberta is a native of New Zealand. Her parents die, and as she's not quite old enough to live on her own she comes to England to live with a maiden aunt. First on the agenda, though, when she arrives is a blissful month with old friends, the Lampreys. The Lampreys are an amazing crowd of popinjays who bought a farm in New Zealand on a whim; Roberta became acquainted with them through Frid Lamprey with whom she was in school, and soon became close friends with the entire family. The Lampreys are eternally having money trouble--it flows through their fingers like sand-- and yet are equally unable to give up their ritzy life-style. Something always happens, and they are saved for another day.

I didn't warm up to the Lampreys quite as much as Debbie did--this is far from my favorite Marsh--but it's a good 'un none the less.

The Regulators
By Stephen King

When King is good, he's very good. This, on the other hand, is just 500 pages of blood, gore, violence, and rude words. I'm still not exactly sure what his good books add to that mix, but there must be something.

This is the companion to King's novel Desperation, which I read and reviewed some while back. I liked Desperation. It had blood, gore, violence, and rude words too, but it was good. It took place over a few hours in a small town in Nevada. This one takes place over a few hours in a small neighborhood in the Mid-West. Some of the same people are involved, sort of. It's got some interesting bits in it. But unlike Desperation, it failed to hold my attention.

I dunno. I guess you win some, you lose some.

(On the other hand, it's not Pet Sematary, either. So I suppose it isn't truly dire.)

The Curse of Chalion
By Lois McMaster Bujold

Bujold's latest book, Paladin of Souls, is a sequel to The Curse of Chalion which I read and reviewed almost exactly two years ago. As I hadn't reread it since, and as I like to have the story fresh in my mind, and because almost any excuse is sufficient to reread a Bujold book, I picked it up and devoured it for the second time.

In our library, Bujold stands alone as the only author whose new books I always read aloud to Jane. I'll sometimes read P.G. Wodehouse to her (not that he's really writing anything new), and I'll almost always read new Terry Pratchett and Steven Brust books to her--but not invariably. She likes Pratchett, she likes Brust, she likes Wodehouse, but (with three kids in the house) only Bujold will cause her to drop everything for a week until we've finished.

Anyway, I liked the book just as much this time as I did the first time. You can go read my earlier review to get a feel for what it's about; I rather doubt I can improve on it without giving away too much.

Paladin of Souls
By Lois McMaster Bujold

Capsule summary: We loved it.

I've been known to read a new Bujold novel to Jane in one weekend; my throat was sore for a week. This one took us eight evenings, because I read no more than four chapters a night to save my voice. (I did overdo it on the last day, so we could finish up.)

This is a sequel to The Curse of Chalion, though it can be read independently. It concerns Ista dy Chalion, the dowager royina (she's the mother of Royina Iselle, the reigning monarch). During the dark days of the curse which was the topic of the previous book, Ista was thought to be mad. In fact, she pretty well was mad, thanks to getting a really raw deal from the gods.

See, this is a fantasy series, but it's almost what you might call theological science fiction. That is to say, Bujold has invented a theology (a very interesting one, I might add) and a religion to go with it--and then, having set up the rules, she's seeing where they take her.

So Ista is now a youngish 40, she's no longer mad, and she's being stifled by idiot ladies-in-waiting who treat her like she's made of china and won't leave her alone for fear she'll throw herself off of a tower. She married Roya Ias as a young woman, was caught up in the curse, and has had little but hell since then. She finally has a chance to have a life of her own, if she can rid herself of her protectors. If only the gods will leave her alone...

...but they won't, of course.

Princess Mononoke
By Miyazaki Hayao

This is one strange film.

Long-time readers will remember that after buying Spirited Away on Ian Hamet's recommendation I was so impressed that I went out and got a number of other Miyazaki movies. This is the last of the set so far.

And it is one strange film.

First, some things that stand out. The animation is stunning; I'm not sure I've ever seen it equaled, even in Miyazaki's other movies. There are some shots that reminded my friend and I of Kurosawa's movies. Second, this movie is definitely not for kids. Some of this is simply the language, which is a little more colorful than usual; there's some (very mild) profanity, and frequent references to certain of the characters as being (reformed) brothel girls. On the one hand my kids have certainly heard worse; on the other hand, I'd rather not explain brothel girls to them.

But the language is more a reflection that the English adaptation wasn't done by Disney. The thing that really makes it kid-unfriendly is the blood and gore--as Ian Hamet described it to me some time ago, "The first decapitation surprised me." There's lots of blood, lots of arms lopped off (along with the occasional head), and some really horrific monsters, all exquisitely animated.

None of this makes it a bad movie, just a movie intended for grown-ups. And it isn't this that gives the movie its strangeness either--it's just out of character for Miyazaki.

No, what makes this movie strange is the plot and the characters.

At first, things seem to make sense--at least, if you think about it you can come up with explanations that make things fit. But ultimately, too much is unexplained. Why are samurais attacking Iron Town? And why does our hero care? Princess Mononoke was raised by wolves--but if she's a princess, who are her parents? What's she the princess of? And in fact the name "Princess Mononoke" is used only once--and how does the person who uses it know that that's the girl's name? It's not what she calls herself. What's with the brothel girls? How come lepers are so good at designing guns? (You might think that it's a comment on the sort of people who make guns, but it doesn't seem to be.)

A lot of the movie resonates with the kind of anti-technological spiritual-but-not-religious worship of nature that I associate with New Agers and Hollywood stars--but not quite. It's all very strange, and the characters' motivations become increasingly hard to understand as the movie progresses.

Perhaps it's just a Japanese thing that doesn't translate well; perhaps the movie depends on some Japanese legend that fills in the gaps. I don't know.

Bottom line: I loved the animation, which was easily enough to hold my attention. It was truly gorgeous. The story, such as it was, left me cold.

The Bear in the Attic
By Patrick F. McManus

This is yet another collection of tall tales of the outdoor life by humorist McManus, the second that I've read. Not bad--McManus doesn't hit my funnybone square on the way some authors do, but I nevertheless laughed out loud at regular intervals.

This isn't a book to sit down and read straight through; the individual pieces are quite short, rather like potato chips, and like potato chips a surfeit of them is an unpleasant meal. But it's great for dipping into every so often.

By Robert Barnard

This is a competently written novel, but I confess that though I usually like Robert Barnard I didn't like it much.

It's a police procedural. A quadruple murder occurs in a photo studio belonging to a skin magazine called Bodies. Superintendant Percy Trethowan must dig into the weird world of elite body building to find out whodunnit.

Didn't much like Percy, didn't much like the folks who helped him, didn't know any of the victims, didn't much care whodunnit.

Which is sad, because as I say it was technically speaking not a bad mystery. It just didn't appeal to me.

The Stainless Steel Rat Joins The Circus
By Harry Harrison

This is the latest (I think) in Harrison's long-running "Stainless Steel Rat" series, and I confess I have mixed feelings about it.

Slippery Jim diGriz is a thief, fraudster, and bank robber--a self-proclaimed rat living in the walls of modern society. And he's a stainless steel rat, because in his world "modern society" is high-tech indeed, spanning thousands or hundreds of thousands of worlds all across the galaxy. At times, diGriz has been an agent of the Special Corps, the galactic police force, following the old "set a thief to catch a thief" principle.

The series is written for laughs, and historically has included some of the best light comedy in science fiction. But the quality is spotty--a Stainless Steel Rat book is generally a good time, but it's the difference between a top-notch rollercoaster at a theme park and those rattly little things they sometimes have at neighborhood carnivals to scare the five-year-olds.

What's unusual about this particular volume is that the quality varies from neighborhood carnival to theme park just over the course of the book.

The first half or so has some amusing moments, but is mostly just dumb. Slippery Jim spends virtually all of it sitting around and imbibing alcoholic beverages while his wife and sons pull rabbits out of hats in the best deus ex machina fashion. I began to think that Harrison had completely lost it.

The last half picks up considerably. Every Stainless Steel Rat book has elements of the caper novel, and it's only in the last half that they show up, along with a sense of real danger, so that the characters are no longer just drifting about with drinks in their hands but are actually doing things.

I dunno. At the time I read it I was in the mood for something light and airy, and it kept me occupied for a few hours. But Harrison really is capable of better.

A Clash of Kings
By George R.R. Martin

This is the second volume of Martin's epic fantasy "A Song of Ice and Fire", the first being A Game of Thrones, which I've just re-read in preparation for reading the third volume, A Storm of Swords.

In this volume, the Seven Kingdoms, long united under the Targaryen and Baratheon dynasties, is beginning to splinter into its component pieces as different lords vie for kingship over the whole realm or just their own neighborhood. The effluent hit the fan in the previous book, and in this one we get to watch it spatter.

Enjoying this series, I've decided, requires that you carefully manage your expectations, and that you be patient. Each volume has something like eight or ten major viewpoint characters, with the corresponding number of simultaneous plot lines, which mingle and separate and entwine in the most intricate possible way. He's telling a big story, and a political story, and he wants to work in all of the details. And that means it takes forever for anything to actually get resolved. If you try to read it too quickly it becomes tedious and boring, and you'll begin to wonder why you're bothering.

This time through, though, I've made it a point to take it slow, and to read it at its own pace, and I'm enjoying it considerably. Yes, the broad sweep of the story takes far longer to progress than I'd like, but the incidents along the way, the roadside scenery as it were, easily holds my attention. And at the end of every chapter, I want more.

It's a lot like Anthony Trollope, really, only with sex and violence and walking corpses.

Monstrous Regiment
By Terry Pratchett

The little country of Borogravia has been at war for as long as anyone can remember, often with next-door neighbor Zlobenia, but generally with anyone who's handy. And the leading nations of the Discworld have paid little attention, for Borogravia and its neighbors are far-off, backwards, and dull. And then Nuggan, the god worshipped by the Borogravians, decrees that the line of semaphore towers built by Ankh-Morpork on the border between Borogravia and Zlobenia are an Abomination Unto Nuggan--and they are torn down.

Meanwhile, young Polly Perks, the daughter of a prosperous innkeeper, cuts off her hair, dresses as a man, and runs off to join the Borogravian army. As usual, she's following a man--her brother Paul. If Paul comes home from the wars, he'll inherit the inn, and Polly can go on running it as she has been for her father. But it's an Abomination Unto Nuggan for a woman to own property, so if Paul dies in battle the inn will pass to a distant cousin.

And so the next day we find Private Oliver "Ozzer" Perks marching off to war behind one of God's own noncoms, Sergeant Jackrum, with a squad of other raw recruits.

You might think you've heard this story. You might think you can guess what's going to happen. You're sorely mistaken, I feel sure.

This is vintage Pratchett, not his best but much better than his worst, and I spent a quite pleasant week of evenings reading it to Jane. Recommended.

Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

Ender's Game
By Orson Scott Card

During one of my regular weekly exchange of emails with my daughter's special ed teacher, she asked me to recommend books for boys who are reluctant readers. Specifically, one she could read aloud to them that was part of a series. She was thinking of Lemony Snickett and after gacking all over my keyboard--don't these teachers actually read kids books?-- I suggested this one as one that might interest boys who like video games or who feel different because of the way their brain works. I just read it on the strong recommendation of my son who, though he has never been reluctant to read anything, fits all the other criteria.

Essentially, the plot revolves around a 6 year old boy and intellectual prodigy named Andrew Wiggin, nicknamed Ender, who is taken from his parents and family and put into a military training academy in space for future commanders of warships. Earth had been invaded a generation ago by aliens resembling wasps or bees, nicknamed Buggers, and a global effort is on to find the best military minds early and train them from childhood to defend the planet from the expected upcoming invasion. The school curricula is completely dedicated to train them as military strategists and training in command is supplied by team sports in The Battle Room. Those who fail are sent back to Earth in disgrace; those who succeed are promoted up the militaristic school hierarchy. Ender is a perfect candidate because he displays both a ruthless determination to survive when confronted by danger and a real sense of empathy for those around him, enabling him to predict how others will think and act.

For the most part, I enjoyed the book. The writing is good and the character of Ender is well drawn and complete. The plot moves along fast enough that I had a hard time putting it down at times. There is plenty of cool techie stuff and world building going on to keep me interested. And The Battle Room and the games the kids play in it are fascinating, often the best part of the whole story. That could have been a book all by itself.

However, some things did bother me. One is that Ender is a 6 year old. He doesn't act or talk or think like any 6 year old I know. He's too emotionally mature even for a kid with a huge intellect. He is making decisions based on adult reasoning and experience which, as a 6 year old, he is too young to have.

And then the whole thing about using children in this way bugged me. I couldn't leave behind my own principles on how children should be treated while reading. I didn't like what they were doing to Ender and the rest of the kids at the school.

I didn't like how it ended either. I think Scott Card wimped out. It should have followed the harshness of the rest of the book and ended just as brutally. However, he is writing for young adults and children. I told my son that and he totally disagreed with me on that point. We actually had quite a good discussion about the book and why certain things happen as they do. As a device to get kids reading and actually thinking about what they are reading, I can see this book as an effective tool, especially if read aloud and talked about as you go. What I saw as problems with the book would make great topics to chat about with a young reader.

I Capture the Castle
By Dodie Smith

This book is such a treat. I read it the first time 4 or 5 years ago when they first republished it after recognizing the author's name as the author of the original novel "101 Dalmatians." And then hearing that it is being made into a movie, I pulled it back off the shelf to see if it was as much fun as I remembered.

It's the story of the Mortmain family as told by the youngest daughter in her diary. The father had years before written a breakthrough book that afforded them the luxury of taking up residence in an old castle somewhere in rural England. In the years since, the mother has died and been replaced by a stepmother, Topaz, who is not at all evil although a bit eccentric and embarrassing. Father has quit writing completely and spends his days reading detective novels and doing crosswords. The family has taken in the orphaned son, Stephen, of their deceased housekeeper. And the two daughters have grown from children to young women with all the angst adolescents go thru. They are struggling along admirably with their poverty when the owner of the castle dies and leaves it to his two American raised sons. And of course, young men in the neighborhood send the two girls into a romantic tizzy.

There is another book about young women looking for husbands that starts "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife." Smith keep making references to Jane Austen throughout the book and after the first couple I started paying attention to them. And there are a lot of them. She takes elements of many of Austen's characters and recreates them in the modern world with modern circumstances.

There's the father who shuts himself up in the study. There is a Vicar and a village spinster who are important parts of the story. There are the two young men, one of whom is destined for one sister and the other who may or may not be destined for the other. There are the two sisters, one who is flighty and emotional and the other who is rational and dependable. It's not a perfect synthesis and she certainly doesn't have the skill with words and humor that Austen has, but it makes for a very entertaining read.

All Quiet on the Western Front
By Erich Maria Remarque

For me, like many people of my generation, WWI took place back in the mists of history. I never heard stories of the war told at family gatherings. Movies don't really deal with it much anymore. And when I studied history in college, it was the aftermath with the League of Nations and the reparations payments that were more interesting than the actual war itself. WWII, Korea, Vietnam were the wars that were real to me as a young person. The horror of Auschwitz and the body bag counts on the nightly news were the realities of war. Later, it was terms like "surgical strikes" and "collateral damage."

Then, when my kids were small and I was a broke, stay home mommy shopping at Goodwill for clothes and books and everything else I could find cheap, I picked up a book called "Testament of Youth" by a woman named Vera Brittain. It cost a dime. I took it home and found a whole generation I had completely missed. It's a book about a nurse's experience before, during and after the war and it wasn't a pretty book to read. It made a huge impression.

Now I have read this book. It's well known and on the bookshelves at all the bookstores. It doesn't take long; it's short and the writing is easy and accessible. That is fortunate because the words tell a story more horrific than anything I have read in a long, long time. It hit me in the gut and made me sick. It made me cry and it made me angry. I could probably do a nifty analysis on the use of Nature as a backdrop to the works of Man or the development of the character but realistically, I don't want to. I don't even want to do a plot synopsis. I want to give this book to everyone I know and say "Read it. Read it now and think about it." I want to give it to national leaders and clergy and farmers and New York intellectuals and say "Read it!"

Read it.

Craig's Recent Reading

by Craig Clarke

Navy SEALs: Green Solitaire
Navy SEALs: Blacklight
By Mike Murray

These audiobooks perform their expected duty--keeping my mind occupied so I don't think about how tedious yardwork is. Unfortunately, I listened to them in the wrong order, which may have affected my opinion of them.

In Green Solitaire--third in the series--SEAL Peach teams up with a princess in order to infiltrate a terrorist organization. In the midst of their playing "couple," they begin to fall for each other, understandably given the high-stress circumstances. I was a little surprised by the romantic angle in this book, given that it was minimal in Insurrection Red. Of course, revenge was involved there, but the love interest seemed to only exist to be its catalyst.

As I listened to Blacklight--the second in the series--I realized that there was a good deal of character development and plot furthering that I missed, giving me a good idea why I was unable to understand a few of the things going on in Green Solitaire. But perhaps I have overloaded myself on this type of story because I found myself less and less able to get involved in the story and was barely able to finish it. Since there do not appear to be any others, it matters little though. I think the novelty quickly wore off and, after all, there's only so much one writer can do with these characters.

Skull Session
By Daniel Hecht

About a year ago, I read a wonderful noir pastiche with a hero who suffers from Tourette's syndrome, Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn. Skull Session has nothing to do with that book other than a similarly stricken hero, but I would not have picked it up had I not read the other. I'm really glad I did.

Paul Skoglund is divorced, unemployed, and on the verge of a custody hearing. When his estranged aunt calls him about repairing her ransacked house, he jumps at the chance. Even though it's below his abilities, it's a steady paycheck. Across town, officer Morgan "Mo" Ford is investigating the disappearance of eight teenagers who don't appear to be linked, until Mo realizes that several of them had been involved in the destruction of the aunt's house--and that they had disappeared in groups exactly 44 days apart.

All of which brings up the questions of what does the house have to do with it and why are Paul's cousin and Mo's fellow officer trying to get him away from it?

Hecht has written a real page-turner that, despite its 500-page girth, is a really quick read. His descriptions of the neurological disturbances Paul is undergoing are educational but don't bog down the story, a feat that would be applauded in any book. But add the intriguing storyline and fascinating characters and what you have is a book that wears the badge "highly recommended."

Pimsleur: French: The Short Course
Berlitz's French for Travellers
Fodor's Paris 2003

Frommer's Memorable Walks in Paris
by Haas Mroue

Wicked French (for the Traveller)
by Howard Tomb

When my wife and I went to Paris last month, we got a pile of books with which to do our planning. These four were the most useful, for various reasons. Fodor's guide appeared to be all-inclusive. If we had a question, we could find the answer to it in that book.

It also included various recommendations of walks to take around the city which we compared to the Frommer's specialty guide. What made Frommer's win out was in fact its specialization. It goes into more detail about the attractions and also recommends cafes, bars, and brasseries at which to rest your legs along the way. Plus, the Metro map on the inside back cover was immensely convenient.

Pimsleur's method of language learning was the best way for us to start our familiarity with French. Mostly because one of the first things it teaches you is how to say "Do you speak English?" "I don't speak French," and "I'm sorry, I don't understand"--phrases I used most often while we stayed there. The Berlitz book was most helpful for on the spot needs like restaurants, our hotel, and other places where we couldn't find anyone who spoke English. Things like "I would like..." and "where is...?" Luckily, this was rare, and I only angered two people during our whole trip--something I consider quite an accomplishment.

Wicked French was something we hoped to be able to use, but fortunately didn't have to. It is mainly a humor book that lists how to say such bizarre phrases as "get away from me" to urchin pickpockets (according to signs posted in the train stations, picking pockets is the crime of choice of Parisian children) and "I love Monet's use of blue" and "we've been here for four days, where is the exit?" while in the Louvre. (Which isn't really too far off. It's an enormous place and they make you follow a labyrinth of "Sortie" signs in order to leave.)

But even though the opportunities for these phrases did not arise, we still enjoyed reading this thin book for entertainment purposes, with its sections on "How to Condescend like a Native" and the eternally useful "Curse like a Foreign Legion Trooper." And we enjoyed out trip immensely. If life there were like our vacation, we would move. And I have to give a great portion to my wife--and her excellent planning skills--and these books.

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