Home : Ex Libris : 1 December 2003

ex libris reviews

1 December 2003

There is not a moment to lose.
Jack Aubrey


In This Issue:
Seven Years

The web page that eventually became ex libris reviews first debuted seven years ago, at the tail end of December, 1996. That first version was called "Will and Jane's Books Page", and consisted of notes on what I was reading in something like what we'd now call a weblog format. Over time I stopped updating it every day (hey, we moved and had a new baby during the first months of the site's life) and in the summer of 1997 I went to a monthly format under the current name. In January of 2000 I acquired the "wjduquette.com" domain and moved the site from my then ISP to a dedicated web hosting service, a move I have never regretted.

I've had a number of guest reviewers over the years; Deb English joined the team in September of 2001 and has been contributing reviews regularly ever since, to the extent that she can hardly be called a guest any longer; she's also become a good friend. Craig Clarke started contributing in October of 2002 and has been with us every since.

And then, ironically, last year I started up a weblog, first as part of our main site, and then as a sister site, where I'm posting things most every day. Putting ex libris reviews together each month has gone from being an all day affair to a matter of assembling the reviews that appeared on the weblog along with those from Craig Clarke. Every so often I think of retiring ex libris reviews altogether, but whenever I suggest this, somebody cries out, "No, No, NO!". So here's to seven years of happy reading!

The pickings are a bit slim this month, alas; neither Deb nor I read that much, and Craig was busier than usual and wasn't able to get me any reviews, though I expect to have him back next month. But here's what there is; enjoy!

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Church and State
By Dave Sim

Church and State is the next volume in Sim's massive saga of Cerebus the Aardvark, and I do mean volume, as in "voluminous". In fact, it's two volumes, together comprising 1200 pages of aardvarkian lunacy.

I read Church and State in two installments, about a month apart, which I don't think hurt the story any.

In the first volume, which I very much liked, Cerebus is named Pope of the Western Church of Tarim. It's a political move, and the result of much pulling of strings by a variety of players; he's a compromise Pope named only because the powers that be think he'll be easily manipulated. After all, Astoria had him performing like a trained seal as Prime Minister of Iest in the previous volume, High Society.

But the fact is, Cerebus (who begins to refer to himself as "Most Holy") is tired of being manipulated. Most Holy is tired of working hard when everyone else gets the credit. Most Holy is tired of being pushed around. Most Holy is tired of not getting to enjoy the spoils of his position.

So he takes his show on the road.

Which is to say, he abandons the Papal Palace in ritzy, upper-class Upper Iest and moves with his bodyguard into a beat-up hotel in sleazy lower-class Lower Iest. After he's harangued the crowd for a while, there's no chance of any of his erstwhile handlers getting near him. And just what does he ask his adoring crowd of peasants to do?

I can't tell you, but it's funny.

And so Volume I continues, with Most Holy having to learn to live with the consequences of his own success. And it ends with a quite shocking turn of events which I nevertheless found hysterical, having read the early parts of the series.

So far, so good; Church and State, Vol. 1 was a good read, and more fun that High Society.

So then I read Church and State, Vol. 2, in which we find out why a lot of this maneuvering has been going on. It turns out that once an age, one person, properly equipped, can actually try to meet the Divine Tarim and become his avatar, the Messiah of the World. If he succeeds, something glorious will happen; if he fails, there will be great devastation, and no one will be able to try again until the next age. On gathers that nobody has actually managed it.

I won't go into details about what happens, except that I found the second volume of Church and State to be a bit of a disappointment. There are pages and pages of beautiful (?) drawing during which very little actually happens--it's much more slowly paced than his earlier work. There are many episodes which make almost no sense, comic or otherwise. And the final payoff was more of a rip-off--bad theology, with heavy-hand irony and ridiculous sneers at the United States' space program. (Yes, really. Why? I have no idea. But apparently the Challenger blew up to show us that we should have known better. Gag.)

But there were some pretty funny bits anyway; I especially liked the scenes with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

Will I get the next volume, Jaka's Story? Probably; it's considered to be the zenith of the series, apparently, after which it's all downhill. After that, who can say.

Death and the Dancing Footman
By Ngaio Marsh

When one thinks of traditional English murder mysteries one immediately thinks of country houses, billiard rooms, breakfast buffets, dressing for dinner, butlers, maids, and all the rest of the trimmings. And yet this, Marsh's eleventh novel, is only her second country house mystery. (Her first was also her first novel, the underwhelming A Man Lay Dead.) And like the first, it's about a house party with a gimmick. And just as this one is immeasureably better than that first novel, so it also has a better gimmick.

Jonathan Royal is an unmarried middle-aged gentleman of means whose chief amusement seems to be observing the behavior of other people. After bankrolling a successful play, he decides to try his hand at a different kind of drama: a house party made up entirely of people who are at odds with each other. I won't go through the list, as that's part of the fun; I'll simply say that it's a wonder that the murder doesn't happen as soon as the party assembles, instead of rather later.

Inspector Alleyn makes a remarkably late appearance in this one, his latest in the series to date; although he's mentioned as an acquaintance by one of the characters early on in the book, he doesn't actually appear until page 183. Even then he doesn't have much to do; once he's questioned everyone and done an experiment or two, the answer's obvious (to him, anyway).

I had trouble getting started with this one at first, in part, I think, because the thought of a house party composed of enemies rather put me off. But I must also confess that I was deeply involved in our projects during that stretch of time, and hadn't much brain left by the time I opened the book.

The Convergence
By Sharon Green

Now this book is just too silly for words: an absurdly earnest mixture of Modesitt-style fantasy, pop psychology, and romance novel shtick. Let me tell you a little about it.

There are five branches of magic, Air, Earth, Fire, Water, and Spirit. Every person in Green's world is more or less capable in one of these areas. Most people are Lows. Some are Middles, and some are Highs--and every person revealed to be a Middle must go to the capitol and be tested to see whether or not they are Highs. Our tale concerns five such people, one from each of the five aspects. This is Very Significant, for the nation in which they live is ruled by the Ruling Blending. The Ruling Blending is a team of five people, one from (of course) each of the five aspects, who have not only learned to merge their magic together, but who won their place through fierce competition.

This competition is held every twenty-five years, and the winning Blending rules the nation for the next twenty-five years. A great deal is at stake, here, and so of course there is great incentive to skew the results. Our five heroes are not supposed to win, and of course they will, though not in this book (it's the first of five in a series called, natch, "The Blending").

So who are our charming five? First, there's a sea-captain who has no interest in being a High, even for the power the position holds; he just wants to live on the sea. Why? Because although he's a rough, tough, extremely handsome well-built man, he's claustrophobic. He simply cannot stand to be cooped up inside.

Then there's the astonishingly beautiful young woman who has been seriously traumatized by a forced marriage to elderly sadistic lecher whose business interests her father wished to control. The old lecher is dead, now, and her father wishes to marry her off again. She'd rather die.

Which brings us to our young gentleman, the sheltered, protected son of one of the highest-born ladies in the realm, one of those poisonous women who live through their children. He's never before been anywhere without his mother, and he has no idea of how the world works. But he's extremely handsome, and remarkably well-built, because one of the servants showed him how to exercise.

Then there's our astonishingly beautiful lady of the evening with a heart of gold, the leading courtesan from a major provincial city. She's no interest in being a High, either, but coming to the capitol to be tested got her out from under the thumb of her erstwhile madam. Remarkably, she's the one with the least emotional baggage, even though she doesn't think that love is real.

And finally there's the farmer's son from the boondocks, a truly decent salt-of-the-earth type who sincerely wants to be a High. He's hampered by two things: the fear of trying to use more magical power than he can control and thereby turning himself into a vegetable, and the narrow and limited moral code he grew up with that tells him that the courtesan's profession is simply wrong, a problem since he's rapidly falling in love with her--and she with him, although she doesn't believe him. Have I mentioned that he's extremely handsome, with a hard body from all that farm work?

And so all of them have baggage, and all of them have issues, and oh, they all have such wonderful and growthful advice for each other, and such astonishing insights into what makes everyone else tick. It's like inviting Oprah Winfrey into your fantasy novel. It's so wonderful to watch all of them growing into healthfulness. And then, of course, five of them are such wonderful people, not like any of the other folks in the story, all of whom are twisted, evil, manipulative users--at best.

I'll give the author this much--despite all the anachronistic pop-psychology and the absurd characters, and despite the five-fold symmetry that means we get to hear about all of the testing and training in five times over in five slightly different yet still tedious flavors--despite all that, I say, she managed to hold my attention to the end of the book. I'm not sure whether that means that Ms. Green can really spin a tale, or whether she just pressed enough of the right buttons amid all of the unintentionally hilarious wrong ones to keep me going.

I've given the book to Jane to read, because I want her opinion. I know a little bit about being a man, having been one lo these many years, and the leading men in this tale don't strike me as being men. Instead, they strike me as a romance novelist's fantasy of what desirable men should be like. But it could be that I'm doing the romance genre a disservice, as I don't read them.

I'm mildly curious about the next book in the series, as the whole testing/training/bootcamp kind of tale appeals to me for some reason; it's why I like L.E. Modesitt, Jr's books. But it's not a good sign when you find yourself giggling at a book rather than with it.

We'll see what Jane says.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
By Peter Weir

I went to see the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World last night, and I must say I was impressed. As a long time fan of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series I had carefully kept my expectations low so as not to be disappointed. The finished product is much better than I had hoped, and though there are any number of absurdities I find myself rather more approving than not.

Spoiler warning: if you haven't seen the movie or read the books, you might not want to read further.

My first grounds for worry was the title, which is the concatenation of two of the titles in the Aubrey/Maturin series--the first book, in which Jack Aubrey is indeed a master and commander, and the tenth, in which Jack has long been a post-captain. I was afraid that the movie was going to be some kind of unholy conglomeration of disparate plots.

In fact, although the movie does draw on a fund of small incidents from here and there in the series, the plot is roughly based on the latter of the two books, The Far Side of the World, though there are some amusing changes. In O'Brian's novel, H.M.S. Surprise is ordered to follow the United States frigate Norfolk, of 32 guns, into the Pacific. The Norfolk has been sent to wreck havoc on English whalers; Surprise is to stop her from so doing. That's right--the bad guys are Americans. I imagine the producers found this unpalatable, but in any event the movie moves the action from during the War of 1812 to some seven years earlier, and transforms the Norfolk into the French privateer Acheron--which, though French, is not only American-built but is astonishingly like the American 32-gun heavy frigates which British ships didn't encounter until years later.

But that's by the way. I did not expect the plot to follow any of the O'Brian novels very accurately, if at all. What I was hoping for, at best, was an extra-canonical tale with the same characters and setting.

Fan-fiction, in other words.

What I got was a tale that, for all its changes, followed one of the books much better than I'd expected, and got quite a lot absolutely right.

To begin with, the visuals were perfect. H.M.S. Surprise, an old friend, was a delight to see. I can give the movie-makers no higher praise than this--I sat through the closing credits, as I always do, and when the Industrial Light and Magic and Weta Digital visual effects credits were scrolling by I was dumbfounded. It literally had not occurred to me, while watching it, that there were any special effects at all.

After the visuals, the sound was right. It's difficult while reading about a battle at sea to really picture the chaos and the smoke; it's even more difficult to imagine the sounds--the booming of the guns, the shouting, the small-arms fire, the rattle of splinters hitting the deck.

Next, the tone was right. It would be impossible for a two-hour movie to capture all the richness and nuances of a twenty-volume series, and to his credit Peter Weir chose to focus on just one aspect. The movie is a sea-story from start to finish. The ship is right, the foremast hands are right, the weather is right, Killick's grumbling is right, Tom Pullings is perfect (though William Mowett is a little too old), and the incidental details are (almost all) right. Jack is the competent leader of men and expert seaman; Stephen is the physician and naturalist. The other aspects of their characters simply do not appear.

Best of all, the movie makes no attempt to explain or to provide background. It simply tells a story; if you know the background you can enjoy it that much more. In particular, it doesn't simplify the background so that it can be manageably explained within the movie.

In short, Weir and company made a movie that will enhance my future enjoyment of O'Brian's series, and that's no small thing.

All of that said, there are a number of things I simply have to gripe about.

The first is the casting of Billy Boyd as Aubrey's coxswain, Barrett Bonden. Boyd captures Bonden's cheerfulness well-enough, and I can't fault his acting. But damn it, Bonden's supposed to be a champion boxer, not a hobbit. Every time Boyd came on screen I could hear Gandalf saying, "Fool of a Took!" Actually, I can't remember whether Boyd played Merry or Pippin; the two characters have so far been roughly interchangeable in Jackson's movies.

The second is the actor who played Stephen Maturin. Maturin is supposed to look older than he really is, and have a forbidding eye. The actor they chose looks far too boyish. He played the role well, though the script didn't show off Maturin's sense of humor.

Russell Crowe's Jack Aubrey was a little too good to be true, though that was the fault of the script, not Crowe's acting, which was excellent. My favorite moment is when Aubrey looks over the rail at a lovely Brazilian girl--not long after we see him writing a letter to his darling wife Sophie. For just a few seconds the air is full of sexual tension--Aubrey knows he has no time for dalliance, but oh if things were different. In that single moment Weir illuminates an important side of Aubrey's personality that would otherwise have been ignored.

But Weir's Jack Aubrey is a little too fond of making rousing speeches to the crew, and a little too witty. In the scene where Aubrey tells of how the great Admiral Nelson once asked him "in the most natural way" to pass the salt, Weir has Aubrey play it for laughs--and very well, too--which strikes me as wrong. It's a bit of narrative straight from one of the books, and I've always read it as Aubrey telling the story perfectly straight--aware, of course, that the remark is trivial, but nevertheless impressed with the great man's manner, and with his politeness to a young officer.

Maturin also gets his share of absurdities. Weir turns O'Brian's novel into a story of pride. Aubrey, we find, has exceeded his orders by following the Acheron past Brazil; he intends to capture the privateer come what may. It therefore falls to Maturin to argue with Aubrey over whether they should turn back, and the discussion grows quite heated. And yet, that's entirely wrong. As ship's surgeon, Maturin would have given Captain Aubrey his opinion of the health of the crew and the need for fresh food, and would have argued passionately about making landfall if it were necessary for that reason. As a republican and philosopher, he'd occasionally make remarks, more in irritation than in anger, about the hierarchical nature of the navy. And as Jack's friend he might have asked, calmly and without anger, whether they ought to turn back, and his friend Jack would have answered in the same vein. He'd never presume to question Jack's command of the ship--except where botanizing and naturalizing is concerned.

The scene in which Stephen remonstrates with Jack for breaking his promise about spending a week at the Galapagos Islands is straight out of O'Brian's novel--but even that isn't played quite right. Stephen knows perfectly well that all such promises are subject to the requirements of the service (though he'd rather not admit it), and Jack's perfectly correct that Stephen's completely irresponsible about time while he's gathering specimens. Thus, Stephen's speech should have much less cold anger and much more pique--in the book it remains a serious disagreement, but it also provides some comic relief.

Nevertheless, Weir and company did a fine job. If they weren't quite true to the spirit of O'Brian's books, I think they were as true as they could have been within the bounds of producing a salable movie. I don't know how the movie will strike someone who has never read O'Brian's work, but it worked pretty well for me.

Colour Scheme
By Ngaio Marsh

Marsh's next outing combines her knowledge of New Zealand and the theater as Alleyn visits New Zealand to do counter-espionage work during the early days of World War II. The action takes place at a seedy hotsprings resort in a rural area of New Zealand, the temporary home of a diverse cast: the vague retired colonel, owner of the resort; his foolish wife; their mousy daughter; her uncle, an irascible doctor who sees Japanese spies under every bush; a sharp businessman with his eye on the hotsprings--and on the colonel's daughter; a justly famous Shakespearean actor, and his entourage; assorted layabouts; and an entire Maori village.

This is one of the first of Marsh's books that I ever read, and it's different than I remembered it. I found the beginning exceedingly tedious, but that might simply be because I had my head deeply into a programming project, and found it difficult to concentrate on anything else.

Overall, not a bad read, but not my favorite either.

A Storm of Swords
By George R.R. Martin

This is the third volume of Martin's lo-o-o-o-ng saga, "A Song of Ice and Fire", and I don't want to say too much about it because I don't want to spoil the plot. Suffice it to say that it's a worthy successor to A Clash of Crowns; see last month's review for my general comments.

I embarked on the 1128 pages of this book with patience in my heart, and I enjoyed every moment of it thoroughly. Even the walking corpses.

Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

All Creatures Great and Small
By James Herriot

I haven't been doing much serious reading lately. I will take down a well worn, familiar book and read bits out of it without completing the whole thing. Austen and Dickens are good for that. Or I will start one and lose interest a few pages in, abandoning it to the pile next to my chair. That's where "The Odyssey" is living at the moment. Someday.... However, I must read before turning out the light at night. It's a habit I have developed and one I find difficult to avoid if I want to fall asleep without time spent brooding.

I took this book off my shelf while looking for something to hold my interest for the 20 minutes I read before sleeping. The flyleaf is inscribed with a "Happy Birthday from Mom and Dad, 1978" which means I was a sophomore in college when I read it the first time. I don't recall reading it since.

And what a treat it is! The chapters are short enough that I can finish one quickly and the stories he tells are amusing and sad and vibrant with his love for the countryside he lived in. I had forgotten the war between Siegfried and the secretary and the impossible escapades of Tristan. And I had completely forgotten the character of Tricki Woo, the little Peke dog who provides James with treats and good things all in appreciation of good care whenever the dog goes "flop bott."

It's a good book to revisit if you are looking for enjoyable stories well told, something to soothe the mind and quiet the noises of the night.

Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper, Case Closed
By Patricia Cornwell

First, I have to say the only reason I picked this book up is because I enjoy the Kay Scarpeta thriller series by Cornwell. It's a closet pleasure and one I usually don't tell friends who know my normal reading tastes, but there it is. So, when this one came out I browsed it a bit and decided to wait for paperback before reading it

And I found I didn't like it. At all. First, the book is badly written. Really badly written. I had a hard time following her line of reasoning because she jumps from one scenario to another with no logical path or connecting point. She's purporting to examine the remaining evidence and yet she occasionally lapses into a fictional mode when describing the victim's thoughts. My biggest problem is with her analysis of her suspected killer, an artist named Walter Sickert. With no real evidence, she tries to build a profile of the adult based on some childhood operations that, again with no evidence, traumatized him sexually and turned him into a psychopath. And she uses his art as further proof of his mental state which seems to me to be iffy at best. She makes glaring suppositions about his ability to fake the various handwritings in the Ripper letters. She can't actually put him near the scene of any of the murders and since his body was cremated after death, there is no possibility of using real DNA analysis of his DNA vs. what is left on envelope flaps or licked stamps. How she could title the book "Case Closed" is beyond me. She raises a few questions but really has no decisive evidence one way or the other.

I also should have realized that the reason I don't usually read true crime novels or books is because I don't generally care for the genre. Authors include photos of crime scenes that are gruesome at best and Cornwell felt it necessary to put photos taken of the Ripper victims in her book. They were not pretty though thankfully fuzzy and in black and white. I have too vivid an imagination to read books like this. I was expecting something a little deeper and found instead something that is supposed to titillate in a sick, twisted way. No thanks.

The Stone Monkey
By Jeffrey Deaver

I have a couple of thriller series I keep up with if I happen to see them on the racks at the grocery store. Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpeta series is always good for a gritty, gross read when you just want something light and sort of entertaining. Jeffrey Deaver's Lincoln Ryhme series is another. The kicker with this series is that the forensic detective, Rhyme, is a C4 quad with movement only in the ring finger of his left hand. The premise is that the enforced lack of movement helps him channel his razor-sharp intellect into paths that wouldn't be obvious to someone distracted with things like, oh, working hands. This, of course, also forces him to have a host of supporting players to help him solve the crimes he can no longer investigate on him own. Prime among all of them is a working CSI, Amelia Sachs, who walks the grid at crime scenes with Rhyme hooked into a cell phone connection as she does it. And there is Thom, his immaculately dressed, gay attendant, taking care of his bodily needs and making sure he doesn't overdo it in his desire to solve the crime. There are other beat cops and detectives that float in and out but the main action almost always takes place in Rhyme's apartment/forensic lab with all sorts of cool equipment and assistive devices. And it helps that a romance has developed between Rhyme and Sachs which, thankfully, have the physical details of their love life kept off stage.

In this installment, a boat full of fleeing Chinese dissidents is blown up offshore of New York by a well-known smuggler in an effort to avoid capture. Two families, a couple of individuals and the smuggler survive and then mysteriously disappear into the Chinatown neighborhoods of New York. The mystery begins with why he scuttled the boat and evolves into a desperate chase to find the smuggler before he offs the two families. Fortunately, one of the survivors is a Chinese cop who has a charming way with broken English and some investigative methods that are not purely scientific.

I have to admit, I didn't see the ending coming and was surprised. And the Chinese cop kind of grew on me as the book progressed. I'll probably read the next one when it's out in paperback. It's a light read to curl up with on the couch on a cold November afternoon.

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 December 2003
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