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ex libris reviews

1 January 2004

"One spoonful after each meal and two at bedtime, and you will surely live forever," he said. "I scarcely need mention to a colleague that the Elixir of Life can have distressing side effects, and that it is best to try it first on a rat."

"Or a cat," said Master Li.

"Or a crow."

"Or a cow."

"And if you happen to have a useless hippopotamus--"

"Actually, I was planning to try it on an elephant," said Master Li.

"A wise decision," Dr. Death said approvingly.

Barry Hughart


In This Issue:
Whither Ex Libris?

There was a time when I averaged three or so new subscriptions to ex libris reviews each month. As I write, I can't remember the last time anybody signed up for one. (It's possible, of course, that I'm simply not seeing the e-mails anymore.) As all of the content except Craig Clarke's reviews first appears on our web log, and as I announce each month's issue on the web log, the drop in subscriptions doesn't surprise me.

On the other hand, it does make me wonder whether it's worthwhile to continue publishing ex libris every month, especially since the web log does have a monthly archive page that's automatically generated.

So here's a challenge for those of you who are (A) subscribers to ex libris and (B) don't read our weblog: send me some e-mail. If even one or two of you write me and ask me to keep ex libris going, I'll do so.

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Art of Unix Programming
By Eric S. Raymond

There are hundreds of thousands of distilled man-years of programming wisdom in this book. Some of it was already familiar to me from hard-won experience; some of it was new to me; some of it made me see aspects of my current project in a new light. It's the sort of book that puts words to things I know perfectly well but have never verbalized.

If you're a programmer, get a copy of this; it's a fun read, and I guarantee you'll learn something you didn't know before.

Bridge of Birds
By Barry Hughart

This is quite simply one of my favorite books; in my view it should belong on any list of the 100 best fantasy novels of the 20th century.

It's a peculiar tale set in China circa 600 AD, and it begins in a straightforward way. A plague has been visited upon the children of a small village of silk-growers. Number Ten Ox, the strongest young man in the village, is sent to Peking with his mother's savings, there to hire a wise man to come and save the children.

Ox soon finds the Street of Eyes in Peking, where the wise men live; every door is adorned with the sign of a wide blinking eye. The wise men see all, and they see quickly that Ox's mother's savings isn't worth their time. He is nearly despairing when he sees one last house, a shack adorned with the sign of an eye that's only half open. "Some things I, but some I don't," the sign seems to say.

Ox enters the shack, and finds a wizened old man snoring amid squalor and the smell of sour wine. On the wall is a diploma that declares that 78 years before, one Li Kao won first place in the Imperial chin-shih examinations. He is quite taken aback.

I turned from the picture of the rose and gazed with wide eyes at the ancient gentleman on the mattress. Could this be the great Li Kao, whose brain had caused the Empire to bow at his feet? Who had been elevated to the highest rank of mandarin, and whose mighty head was now being used as a pillow for drunken flies? I stood there, rooted in wonder, while the wrinkles began to heave like the waves of a gray and storm-tossed sea. Two red-rimmed eyes appeared, and a long spotted tongue slide out and painfully licked parched lips.

"Wine!" he wheezed.

I searched for an unbroken jar, but there wasn't one. "Venerable sir, I fear that all the wine is gone," I said politely.

His eys creaked toward a shabby purse that lay in a puddle. "Money!" he wheezed.

I picked up the purse and opened it. "Venerable sir, I fear that all the money is gone too," I said.

His eyeballs rolled up toward the top of his head, and I decided to change the subject.

"Have I the honor of addressing the great Li Kao, foremost among the scholars of China? I have a problem to place before such a man, but all that I can afford to pay is five thousand copper cash," I said sadly.

A hand like a claw slid from the sleeve of his robe. "Give!" he wheezed.

I placed the string of coins in his hand, and his fingers closed around it, taking possession. Then the fingers opened.

"Take this five thousand copper cash," he said, enunciating with a painful effort, "and return as soon as possible with all the wine you can buy."

After this inauspicious beginning things improve for truly this is the great Li Kao, foremost among the scholars of China, and truly he is a brilliant man--and also an incorrigible reprobate and con-man. It will take all of Ox's strength, and all of Li Kao's wits, to save the children of Ox's village, for there is more going on than meets the eye. What follows is a delightful romp through Chinese myth and legend. The story is bawdy (but never obscene), funny, and moving by turns, and though Hughart wrote two further books about Ox and Li Kao he never quite reached the same height.

The Discarded Image
By C.S. Lewis

This book was much better than I feared it would be. It's an introduction to medieval literature that I bought it when I was in Australia earlier this year, only because I'm a big-time Lewis fan and had never read any of his literary work. I figured it would be way over my head and dull as dishwater.

The facts are to the contrary, I'm pleased to say--Lewis on medieval literature is just as readable as Lewis on any other subject. And he explains many things I hadn't understood, both in his own work and in other reading I've done, and shed quite a bit of light on matters my English Lit teacher in high school merely touched on. (Mrs. Martinson, your Great Chain of Being lectures were not entirely wasted!)

I expected the book to be a survey of medieval literature, but that's not the case. Instead, Lewis attempts to capture the general world-view of the medieval age--the Model of the universe shared by readers and writers alike. In so doing he presents many examples from a plethora of authors, and gives us some idea of what they are like, but that's secondary. The primary goal is that we should have some idea of the things the authors would have taken for granted.

I won't try to explain the Model; it took Lewis an entire book, so I'm hardly likely to capture it in a blog post. But it has several aspects I'd never have guessed. First, it was the synthesis of all extant written knowledge by men who could not conceive that anyone would go to the trouble of writing a book that was not true. Most books were old and venerable, and were therefore seen as authoritative. And if all were authoritative, then inconsistencies had to be made to fit. This led to allegorical interpretations of many works that were never intended to be read that way, and one wonders if it led to the rise of genuine intentional allegory.

Second, the medieval world had almost no sense of historical period. We are accustomed to clothing the people of history in period costumes; they did not. They saw the Greeks, Romans, and Jews of history as men and women more or less like themselves, with similar skills, similar garb, similar institutions, and similiar habits. They perhaps knew less of history than we do--but at the same time they felt much closer to the Ancients than we do, for they perceived no essential gulf between themselves and the folk of ages past.

I won't say that Lewis has instilled in me a desire to go read lots of medieval literature--but I enjoyed his book very much.

By Steven Brust

When I get caught up in a project, as I have been for some time, I naturally gravitate toward old favorites--books that I know I'll enjoy, and that I know I won't have to work at getting into because they are already familiar. If I then get sick, as I did this week, the acceleration of gravity doubles or triples. Which explains why I've re-read Brust's entire "Vlad Taltos" series since Tuesday--nine books, all that currently exist, though ultimately the series is expected to run to exactly double that.

And though--as I'm caught up in a project, and as I'm still getting over being sick--it would be easy to tie all nine books up in a short bundle of prose and say, "Go read them," I'm not going to do that. Instead, I'm going to attempt to handle each book individually, and convey a little of the flavor of each one.

Jhereg is the first of the series as they were originally published (though not the first chronologically; as with the Narnia books, I find it best to follow the publication order rather than the internal chronology).

Jhereg introduces us to one Vlad Taltos: mobster; assassin; gourmet chef; master swordsman (in the Eastern style); witch. Vlad lives in Adrilankha, the capital city of the Dragaeran Empire, where he's a minor but successful mob boss. In addition to managing his territory, he's also security consultant to Lord Morrolan of the House of the Dragon. And a minor disaster has arisen which brings these two worlds into conflict.

In the Dragaeran Empire, organized crime is the province of the House of the Jhereg. And it seems that a highly placed member of the house has absconded with most of the house funds--and taken refuge with Lord Morrolan, who has offered him 17 days of sanctuary. For business reasons, the thief has to be killed ASAP, but Morrolan has sworn an oath that the lives of his guests are sacred. Guess who gets the job of performing the hit?

Vlad's a witty (if unreliable) narrator, and Dragaera is an interesting blend of hardboiled detective fiction with the traditional sword-and-sorcery milieu, with perhaps a dash of Monty Python thrown in. I confess, Jhereg took me a while to get into the first time I read it, partially because Vlad doesn't explain much at first, and partially because the book is set in the middle of Vlad's story, just before his life is about to take an abrupt left turn. On the other hand, the book introduces not only Vlad but also many of the other continuing characters: Morrolan, witch and wizard both, who has been known to sacrifice entire villages to his goddess, and who also maintains a twenty-four-hour-a-day cocktail party; his fiery cousin Aliera, Dragon-Heir to the throne, who's inclined to kill first and ask questions later--literally; Sethra Lavode, the undead Enchantress of Dzur Mountain; Cawti, Vlad's wife; Kragar, his lieutenant; and, of course, Loiosh, Vlad's sarcastic familiar.

By Steven Brust

This is the second book in Brust's "Vlad Taltos" series. Having introduced the major characters (Vlad; his wife Cawti; his lieutenant, Kragar; Dragonlords Morrolan e'Drien and Aliera e'Kieron; and Sethra Lavode) in the previous book, Brust now proceeds to tell us how Vlad first came to be a mob boss for House Jhereg, and about some of his early challenges.

As the book opens, Vlad is informed that the Jhereg boss from the neighboring territory has just opened a gambling den in Vlad's area. Vlad brings his crew to shut it down, and so begins a war that will quite literally rock the Empire. Vlad even gets killed at one point-- by a pair of elite assassins known as the "Sword and Dagger of the Jhereg", it's quite an honor really--and after Sethra Lavode and Aliera revivify him he's inclined take it as such. Especially since the Dagger of the Jhereg is a pretty little Easterner named Cawti.

Aliera and company are more interested in Cawti's partner Norathar--and it begins to seem that there's more going on in Vlad's little war than internal Jhereg politics.

A word about the names of these books. The Dragaeran Empire is made up of two kinds of people: humans like Vlad, and Dragaerans, like Morrolan and company. But there are in fact seventeen distinct Dragaeran races--the Seventeen Houses of the Empire. Each house has its own distinct characteristics and traits, and is named after an animal that typifies those traits. Sixteen of the houses are considered "noble"; the seventeenth, the House of the Teckla, is the largest and constitutes the peasantry. There is little crossbreeding between the houses; half-breeds, having no proper house of their own, are ostracized. The few such that there are can join the Teckla, swearing allegiance to some noble, or they can buy their way into the Jhereg. Even Easterners can buy their way into the Jhereg, which is how Vlad's father got in. That is, in fact, how House Jhereg got started--as an accumulation of outcasts from all of the other houses.

For what it's worth, a jhereg is a winged lizard, rather like a small dragon. Jheregs are about the house of hawks or falcons, and like them are scavengers.

Now, the yendi is a kind of snake, and members of House Yendi are known for cold, calculating, and devious. It is axiomatic that a Yendi's schemes are too subtle for anyone but a Yendi to comprehend. And if I didn't mention a single Yendi in the above plot summary, it just goes to show that the book is aptly titled.

Died in the Wool
By Ngaio Marsh

Deb reviewed this not long ago, so I don't intend to say much about the setup.

In the books prior to this one, Marsh had begun to introduce Inspector Alleyn very late in the story; in one case, his role didn't amount to much more than a cameo. She reverses the trend here, introducing Alleyn right at the beginning, but with a twist: the murder is about a year old, and the trail is consequently muddled.

The murder took place on a remote New Zealand sheep station. Alleyn arrives there as the book opens, and spends the first half of the book listening to the four primary suspects as each one tells his or her story in detail while the others heckle. We gain a lot of information about what happened once upon a time, but there's next to no action in the present. Part of the fun of a mystery novel is following the sleuth around as he chases down blind alleys, and Alleyn remains firmly planted in a chair for far too long.

Bottom line: Marsh gets points for invention, but loses them again for tedium.

By Steven Brust

Man, I hate this book.

It's not that it's badly written. It isn't. If it were badly written, I wouldn't hate it so much.

This is the third volume in Brust's "Vlad Taltos" series. We saw something of Vlad's "normal" life in the first volume, Jhereg, and something of how he got there in the second volume, Yendi. As the book begins, Vlad is one happy camper. He's got a good job, he's reasonably affluent, he's got the respect of his peers, he has some powerful friends outside of the Jhereg, and above all he's got a beloved wife.

Until she married Vlad, Cawti was a freelance assassin for the Jhereg, working as one half of a team. Her partner retired due to the events in the previous book, and though Cawti has "worked" occasionally since then she's mostly had a lot of time on her hands. Consequently, she's been spending a fair amount of time in South Adrilankha, where (unlike she and Vlad) most "Easterners" in the city live in squalor and poverty. She's made some new friends there--friends who are convinced it is time for the Easterners and the Teckla (the Dragaeran peasantry) to band together, rise up, and take over the Empire. More over, she's come to agree with them, body and soul.

When Vlad discovers what she's been up to, he is not best pleased. Nor is he pleased when she begins to question his livelihood, both as a Jhereg boss and as an assassin. What follows is a detailed portrait of a loving marriage going straight to hell.

I hate that a whole lot.

It's especially painful because even as I identify with Vlad, I have to admit that on most counts Cawti is right. Assassination really isn't a good way to make a living. Easterners and Teckla really are fairly well down-trodden.

At the same time, Vlad knows that any such attempt at revolt is doomed. In the Dragaeran Empire, the ruling house can only be succeeded by the house that follows it in the Cycle. Empress Zerika is of the House of the Phoenix; it's well known that her successor will be of the House of the Dragon. The House of the Teckla is halfway around the Cycle, and so Cawti's rebel friends have about as much chance at succeeding as your average Christmas fruitcake does of getting eaten. I might add that this isn't simply political theory; in Dragaera, the Cycle has pretty much the same force as physical law, and Vlad, for reasons we do not discover until the next book, has a better reason to know this than even most Dragaerans do.

So Vlad's in a real bind. Knowing what he does, he can't bring himself to buy into Cawti's new political views. On the one hand, he wants to save his marriage; on the other, he wants to prevent Cawti from getting herself killed. It's not at all clear that he can do both. Meanwhile, revolution is bad for business; his Jhereg superiors aren't happy with Cawti's activities.

Teckla is an ugly, unhappy, unpleasant book, and unfortunately it's also the hinge upon which the rest of the series turns.

Bottom-line: if you read Jhereg and Yendi, and you like them, read this one and get it out of the way. Then you can go on to Taltos, which is a lot more fun.

By Steven Brust

This is the fourth of Brust's tales of Vlad Taltos, and it's probably my favorite of the nine he's written to date.

Having pulled us through the wringer in Teckla, Brust now steps back and gives us a tale of Vlad's earliest days. The main plot concerns Vlad's first meetings with Morrolan e'Drien, Sethra Lavode, and (eventually) Aliera e'Kieron, as well as such divinities as Verra, the Demon-Goddess. As such, it's as close to a straightforward heroic fantasy as we've yet seen in this series. But in addition to the main plot, we're also given a series of vignettes about Vlad's childhood and young adulthood. We hear how he regularly got beaten up by groups of punks from the House of the Orca until he got strong enough and quick enough to start picking them off one by one. We hear about how he joined the business side of House Jhereg, and how he became an assassin.

Truly, when we first meet Vlad he isn't a nice guy. In this book we learn how he got to be what he is when we first meet him--and we also see the seeds of the person he can become when (not if) he eventually overcomes them.

By Steven Brust

This, the fifth book in Brust's "Vlad Taltos" series, picks up immediately after Teckla. The initial plot concerns an extremely odd bit of "work" that Vlad does for a most unusual client--Verra, the Demon-Goddess. And as such, it takes us to some interesting places we've not seen before.

But mostly, this is the book in which the tensions, the doubts, and the self-examination begun in Teckla begin to ripen. This is the book where Vlad decides what's really important to him, and just how far he's willing to go in pursuit of it. It's not an entirely satisfying book--Vlad and Cawti remain estranged--but it's got some pretty nifty moments.

Requiem for a Ruler of Worlds
By Brian Daley

This is an old favorite, and as I've reviewed it many times before I'm not going to say much about it; you can click on Brian Daley's name, above, to jump to a page listing previous reviews.

What it is, is a rollicking romp of a space opera. It's not perfect but it's still an awful lot of fun. With my head completely taken over by programming projects, I needed something both light and familiar to relax with in the evening, and this fit the bill perfectly.

Jinx on a Terran Inheritance
By Brian Daley

This is the sequel to Requiem for a Ruler of Worlds, and as with its predecessor I'm not going to say much about it this time around; except that I took it off of the shelf because it's fun, and familiar, and comforting.

And also because it contains one of the funniest scenes in all science-fiction, the funeral of the Lord High Meddler.

If you have any taste for space opera at all, and you've not read these, you really ought to dig up copies. Good fun is guaranteed; tell 'em Delver Rootnose sent you.

The White Company
By Arthur Conan Doyle

Doyle is remembered Sherlock Holmes, but it's his historical novels--and this one chief among them--that he really loved. I'd heard about The White Company for years before I ever actually found a copy on-line. I was immediately enchanted.

That was some years ago, and since then I'd been looking for a paperback edition to no avail. It seems the book isn't very popular, which is a shame. I finally located a library edition, in hardcover with a library binding and illustrations by N.C. Wyeth. It was expensive, but it was worth, for this is seriously good stuff.

It is the time of the Hundred Years War. When William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, defeated the Saxons to become King of England, he didn't relinquish his French territory. And often enough his successors not only attempted to expand English holdings in France, they tried to take the French crown as well. The war dragged on for a century, with occasional fits of peace, and it is during one of these that our story takes place.

It is the tale of a young man who has been raised in a monastery from his earliest days. He's just turned twenty, and though he loves the cloister his father's arrangement with the monks is that he must spend the next year in the world before he can elect to become a monk and dwell in the cloister all of his days. (His father was clearly a man of sense.) He immediately falls in with interesting folks, and shortly, to his surprise, his finds himself squire to the famous (if impoverished) knight Sir Nigel Loring. With Sir Nigel he travels to France, for Sir Nigel is going there to take command of a troop called the White Company and lead them into battle in Spain for England and Prince Edward.

Let me tell you, if you want knights in armor, and chivalry, and tournaments, and all that sort of high-flown thing this is the book for you. More than that, it's a celebration of the manly virtues: honor, honesty, stoicism, courage, and similar things American society would do well to rediscover.

It is a tad anti-clerical--monks, friars, and so forth are described in no very admirable terms--whereas Sir Nigel and his fellow knights are (for the most part) described in glowing terms with every sign of sincerity. There are good monks, certainly, and knights who fail to achieve every knightly virtue, but it seems clear where Doyle's sympathies lie. And so I was interested to read in an afterword that indeed, Doyle had given up on religion as a moral foundation for society, and he honestly favored a return to the knightly virtues as a replacement. Amazing.

Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

The Difficult Saint
By Sharan Newman

It's always difficult to come into a series midstream if the narratives are sequential and build upon each other. And this one is 5th or 6th in the series, something I didn't realize when I bought it or began to read it. Still, it held my attention and then piqued my curiosity enough that I went to the library and got a couple of the earlier books. They are buried somewhere in the bag set by my chair for my reading hour during the day.

The setting for this series is mid-12th-century France. Catherine Le Vendeur is a young matron and mother living with her husband in the home of her merchant father. Catherine was a novice nun in a convent at Paraclete under Heloise when sometime in the past she left the novitiate to marry her English husband, Edgar. And sometime in the past, she discovered that her father is actually a Jew converted at sword point to Christianity. Oh, and her mother is insane and cared for by nuns somewhere and her sister, Agnes, refuses to have anything to do with her or her apostate father. Oh, yes, and somehow, Edgar lost his forearm in a sword fight.

That's the background that I gleaned from this story, actually a murder mystery. Agnes, her sister, up and comes to Paris demanding her share of her mother's jewels as dowry since she is marrying a count somewhere in a German state. And after a couple weeks of marriage, her new husband dies mysteriously and Agnes stands accused of witchcraft for causing his death. Catherine can't just let her sister either rot in prison or be killed as a witch so she and her husband and a Jewish merchant partner of her father's make the journey to Germany under the auspices of a trade mission and hopefully while there prove her innocence. Catherine discovers that the marriage is unconsummated and that the count and someone else in the household may have been involved in some odd ball ascetic cult of some sort. And that may have been what caused his death.

For a historical mystery, Newman does very well. Giving Catherine a converted Jew as a father gives her a twist that allows her to pick out bits about the plight of medieval Jews in Europe. The supporting Jewish characters are nearly as interesting as Catherine and her family. Now I have to go back and find out just how Edgar wooed her out of the convent and just what happened in England that he lost his arm. Not to mention what comes next in the series.

Post Captain
H.M.S. Surprise
The Mauritius Command
Desolation Island
By Patrick O'Brian

OK, so I broke down and bought all the books in the series after finishing the two I had on the shelf. The bookstore owner just chuckled, the swab, when he saw what I had in my hand. Apparently O'Brian fans come into his store with an addicted gloss to their eyes needing the next fix in the series. And, boy, can I see why. I thought I'd slowly drift thru the series, maybe one a month, and take my time. But no, I am actually finding myself staying up a night to finish one so I can go on to the next. And the suspense with the whole Diane/Stephen thing is killing me.

Will has reviewed the books three or four times in the last few years and I suggest you go and read his thoughts.

I can only add that if you are new to the series, muscle your way thru the first book (Master and Commander) just to get the characters down and then proceed on. Skip liberally if you need to but still retain the sense of storyline. O'Brian gets over the need to explain ever jib, spar and sail on a ship and moves the action along much better after he gets the series going. Maturin also develops depth as the series progresses and so far as I can tell, becomes almost more interesting than Jack Aubrey. He certainly is a good foil to the heavily muscular naval setting in the books.

The Curse of Chalion
By Lois McMaster Bujold

Recently I was laid off from my job at a state funded non-profit due to budget cuts. I knew for two months ahead that this was going to happen, giving me plenty of time to make plans in my head of all the housework I would get done and all the cool projects I could work on and all the great books I could read with all the wonderful free time. And then just before my last day at work, my husband found a better, saner, higher paying job relieving me of an immediate need to take any old job that comes my way to keep the mortgage paid. Phew, I can sit back and relax and enjoy this time around the holidays.

Well, what really happens is that one day you are part of an organization and the next you aren't and the abrupt change leaves you disoriented and somehow in mourning for something that's not specific. I was wandering around the house in my pajamas all day and taking too many naps and drinking too much coffee and eating way too much chocolate until I realized I need to get out of the house more and set up a routine to keep myself from slowly getting weird. So now I visit the library at least weekly and reward myself for a morning doing nasty housework chores with an afternoon at the local coffee shop with a book and a cup of ridiculously expensive coffee. And it's working. I started reading again and knitting again and stopped moping. Moping gets you nowhere fast.

So, on my last weekly visit to the library I was browsing the sci-fi/fantasy shelves looking for something my son might like that he hasn't already read. I saw this book by Bujold which rang little bells in the back of my head due, I think, to a review of Will's of its sequel. It made its way into my bag of books. I picked it up one afternoon and couldn't put it down. I was as enchanted with this book as with her Miles Vorkosigan series.

What she does with the military in the Vorkosigan series, she does with religion and clerics in this novel. She takes what is at least nominally familiar to most of her audience and tweaks it enough to make it fresh and realistic and yet still allow herself latitude to be creative. And she sets it in a world that resembles medieval Europe with Church and State being almost completely intertwined. There's kind of a fun little nod to Chaucer near the end that amused me no end. She does some very interesting things with free will, fate and divine intervention and how they relate to the lives of human beings.

The best thing about Bujold, though, is her incredible narrative skills. She tells the most wonderful, believable stories in a style that's articulate and clear and descriptive. I can't wait to find the next in the series at the library next week.

Monstrous Regiment
By Terry Pratchett

A new Pratchett novel is an occasion for celebration in our house. When I found this one in the bookstore I snatched it up and presented it to my son for first reading. And the little snot wouldn't tell me anything about it til I had read it myself. Hmpff. All I could get out of him is that Vimes is a peripheral character and there weren't any witches or wizards in it.

Well, I read it in a longish afternoon that actually began pretty mid morning and was punctuated by a trip to get my flu shot. And of course, after a flu shot, you are pretty much incapacitated and just have to lie on the couch and read until the throbbing pain subsides or the book ends, whichever comes first.

This newest Discworld book isn't a part of any continuing series Pratchett has going. It's more of a meditation on people's inability to change thier beliefs in the face of reality. And on War and what it does to people. Early on I suspected he was gleaning material from All's Quiet on the Western Front though once the action got going, that faded into the background. It's not quite as boisterously funny as some of his other novels which was fine. His wit was just as quietly sharp when touching war as it is loudly funny when talking about politics or the arts.

And that's all I'm going to say about it except that Vimes is peripheral character and there aren't any witches or wizards in it. You have to read it yourself.

Craig's Recent Reading

by Craig Clarke

The Game of Words
By Willard R. Espy

The late Willard R. Espy was one of the foremost examples of the admirable disease known as word obsession. The Game of Words was his first book, but it was quite the debut. Espy covers everything from Acronyms to Univocalics, with Clerihews, Malapropisms, Palindromes, and Spoonerisms inbetween.

Ordered alphabetically, Espy goes through over a hundred different types of wordplay, always illustrating each kind with an example--most of them original! It is a true delight to read; Espy's love of words is palpable with the turn of each page.

The Game of Words is perfect bedtime reading--given as it is to short bursts of perusal--however one would best make sure that one's bedfellow doesn't mind being awakened by laughter and quotations. Available now in a budget edition for less than ten dollars, it is the ideal gift for a loved one with a passion for the English language.

Basket Case
By Carl Hiaasen

Miami's master of the comic crime novel has stretched himself with Basket Case--it's his first novel written in the first person. But don't let that turn you off; it's still filled with some of the most offbeat characters this side of the Atlantic.

Jack Tagger is an obituary writer obsessed with death. He goes around comparing how long he's lived with the ages of death of various celebrities and if you tell him your age, he'll know who died at that age. While covering the death of rocker Jimmy Stoma (of Jimmy and the Slut Puppies), he interviews the widow, one Cleo Rio, and becomes suspicious when the story she gives him differs from the one she gives another paper.

The investigation becomes more interesting (not least because the high-profile obit could give Jack a front-page byline) when others connected with the band are killed off one by one. Meanwhile, Jack's editor, Emma, is trying to get him to write the pre-posthumous obit of former newspaper owner MacArthur Polk (it's strange names like this that are Hiaasen's stock in trade), who has been at death's door for, seemingly, years.

Combine all this with a romance, a strange friendship with an ex's daughter, a spy novelist, an internet sex proprietor who dresses up in SWAT gear, a bodyguard/producer named Loreal, and a mysterious song that seems to be entangled in the whole mess. Also featured are the lyrics to Jimmy Stoma's (and Slut Puppies') songs cowritten by the late Warren Zevon--who I couldn't help picturing as Jimmy despite the vast difference in stories.

Hiaasen excels at this kind of rollicking story, quirky characters, stretch-the-imagination plotlines, and endings that seem so far out yet wholly appropriate; and he doesn't show any signs of slowing. I've read half a dozen of his books and this is right up there. Fun, furious, and fervent, Basket Case is a true rock and roll newspaper novel and exhibits Carl Hiaasen at his peak.

The Adventurer
By Paul Zweig

Regular readers of Ex Libris know that the staff here are rather partial to what some may call "low-class" fiction: mysteries, adventures, science-fiction, etc. You know, books where things happen, as opposed to where characters exist to know themselves better.

Author Paul Zweig asks the question, when did these stories become less respected--even derided when compared to their more "serious" counterparts? At one point, he says, adventure stories were the only stories worth telling. Witness Homer, Beowulf, Gilgamesh, and Greek mythology--all tales of motion, action, and derring-do. When did "character" take over "plot?" Somewhere along the way, our literary heroes transformed from Homer's Odysseus--who travels all over the world, skirting danger at every turn--to Marcel Proust's narrator--who is almost entirely inactive, preferring to remember what other people did.

But in the end, we know more about Marcel's thoughts and motives than Odysseus'. Thus we see the former as more "fully realized" than the latter, even though what we know of Odysseus is all we need to know to appreciate his story.

This is all well and good, and Zweig has plenty to say about the subject. Unfortunately, and as is often so in books of this sort, he says the majority of it in his introduction, leaving the remainder of the tome to simply expand on the basic ideas using quotes and citations and more lengthy explanations. (I found this to be a similar experience with Fast Food Nation although I believe everyone should read the introduction to that book in order to educate themselves.) This makes The Adventurer an intellectually stimulating read, but not one particularly suitable to the title. It is as if he has become one of the "antiheroes" that he is talking about--talking and not doing. I really like his ideas, and I am glad I read the book, but what it made me do was hunger for a real adventure story.

McNally's Secret
By Lawrence Sanders

Archy McNally is a rich playboy and a sleuth. His father Preston operates McNally and Son, Attorney-at-Law (note the use of the singular) and is the source of the family income, leaving Archy free to philander and operate Discreet Inquiries into clients' cases.

Lady Horowitz's Inverted Jennies have been stolen (Inverted Jennies are the rare stamp with the upside-down plane) and she has filed an insurance claim. Archy is requested by Preston to do a little research and that's the whole plot. You don't want too much going on in a Lawrence Sanders novel. He has to leave room for the inimitable McNally narration, interesting supporting characters, and a healthy amount of sex all around.

I read Sanders when I'm in the mood for a trashy thriller that I can zip through without a problem. The "McNallys" series is more mystery than thrilller but Archy is fun and his exploits are always good for an escapist romp. Since Sanders' death the series has been taken over by Vincent Lardo, attesting to its popularity.

A Whiff of Death
By Isaac Asimov

As a fan of his "Black Widowers" series and the stand-alone novel Murder at the ABA, I have always wished that Isaac Asimov had written more mysteries. I believe that it was the form in which he was most comfortable--most especially the puzzle form of mystery that relies on a simple twist of phrase.

A Whiff of Death eventually hinges on just such an occurrence. After the apparently accidental death of a student, Professor Louis Brade becomes convinced that it was murder. Unfortunately, as he sees it, he is the only suspect.

Asimov takes this simple premise and runs with it for over two hundred pages, never making it dull or dry. Despite the prevalence of scientific knowledge throughout, there is nothing that the average person can't understand as it is explained. There's nothing classic here, but Asimov's mysteries are always entertaining and I never pass up a chance to pick one up, especially as most of them are sadly out-of-print and therefore hard to obtain.

Sleep No More
By Greg Iles

Having never read any of Greg Iles' other works, I had no idea what I was getting into when I picked up Sleep No More. This is a thriller like none I've read before. It starts out slow, but once it gets going it doesn't let go. It's as twisty as a mountain road, and as nerve-wracking as one without a guardrail.

John Waters is shocked by the attractive Eve Sumners' blatant attempts to seduce him using methods previously utilized by his dead psycho ex-girlfriend Mallory Candler. He is even more shocked when Eve delivers the information that she is Mallory, or, rather, Mallory's spirit inhabiting a "borrowed" body in an attempt to reunite with John.

This nailbiting discovery is only the tip of Iles' iceberg. But the whole novel depends on the believability of this premise and Iles delivers an explanation that has to be read. It's mindblowing but simple in its execution. This plot point affects nearly every character in Sleep No More and this gives the author the opportunity to show his skills at characterization. Each and every motivation is expressed soundly, with no flaws evident. Each character is a real person and is truly believable in their behaviors. The ending, though dramatically somewhat unsatisfying, is, in truth, the best way.

Money, Money, Money
By Ed McBain

The title of McBain's 51st entry in his 87th Precinct series is most definitely a harbinger of its contents. I read this one because it is set during Christmas, when a woman is found eaten by lions. Because her leg was carried over to the 88th Precinct, Detectives Carella and Meyer have to share the case with one Oliver Wendell Weeks, known as "Fat Ollie" for obvious reasons. Ollie is a good detective, but he is definitely the most bigoted character in what has been a very socially progressive series. He also doesn't hesitate to talk about himself when questioning witnesses, making sure to embellish the truth if he's trying to impress an attractive woman so he'll appear multi-talented.

Counterfeiting is a major plot device in Money, Money, Money, which also involves drug runs, burglary, and that most devious of criminals, book publishers. As always, McBain ties several characters' stories together neatly and with style, never giving away too much and letting us remember specific clues on our own. He doesn't feel the need to hold our hands and I respect him all the more for it.

Plus, these novels are terrific entertainment and most of them are relatively short. I read Money, Money, Money in a little over a day and I'm not a fast reader. Lucky for me, there are many more of these novels to be read as this is probably only the sixth or seventh I've read. It is certainly the most recent that I've read and McBain's talent shows no signs of waning throughout the series.

On the other hand, the writing talent of Ollie Weeks (the story continues in Fat Ollie's Book, and the tome of that title is begun at the end of this one, giving us a taste of the level of Ollie's talent) leaves much to be desired.

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 January 2004
Copyright © 2004, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
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