Home : Ex Libris : 1 February 2004

ex libris reviews

1 February 2004

For I also am a steward. Did you not know?


In This Issue:
Hither Ex Libris!

I'd like to thank everyone who wrote in asking me to continue publishing ex libris every month. There were gratifyingly many of you, and so I intend to go on as I have been. Mind you, I'll probably ask again next year at this time.

So this month we've got reviews from the usual suspects: me, Deb English, and Craig Clarke--though Deb's contribution is surprisingly small this month. It turns out that she's been plowing through Steven Brust's "Vlad Taltos" series rather than writing reviews. Go figure.

Craig, on the other hand, has been reliving his well-spent youth with a reissue of one of the classic "Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators" books--I remember them fondly myself.

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

By Steven Brust

This is a singular book for Brust, not just in the context of his "Vlad Taltos" series, but with respect to all his work to date.

One of the fascinating things about Brust's work is that he always uses an unreliable narrator. Even when you think the narrator is giving you the story straight, you can't be sure--and you certainly can't assume that the narrator is always 100% correct.

In this book, which follows immediately after Teckla and Phoenix, Brust dispenses with a narrator altogether, and consequently gives us the only unbiased external view of Vlad Taltos we are likely to get.

Toward the end of Phoenix, Vlad took some actions that seriously angered his superiors in the Jhereg. He's now persona non grata and will be rendered persona non viva (if that's the right expression) as soon as the Jhereg's best assassins can catch up with him. So he's wandering about the countryside trying to keep his head down--and attached.

As this book begins, he's just come to a rural area; the local lord turns out to be an Athyra wizard Vlad had a difference of opinion with in Taltos. The wizard kills someone who helped Vlad at that time, and then tries to kill Vlad; Vlad obviously needs to do something about it.

The neat thing is, not only is Vlad not narrating, Vlad's not even the viewpoint character. Instead, the camera follows a young Teckla boy who's being trained to be the village healer, and who (being curious) befriends Vlad when our hero first shows up. It's simply fascinating how different Vlad looks from the outside as opposed to the inside.

By Steven Brust

The seventh book in Brust's "Vlad Taltos" series has yet another twist on the "unreliable narrator" idea. With the exception of Athyra Vlad's been narrating them, and there are tantalizing hints in one or two of the books about his having to tell his story to a metal box. It's not at all clear just who the metal box belongs to, or why Vlad's agreed to talk to it; in particular, I don't know whether the box is just a conceit to explain how Brust got the story to begin with, or whether there's something deeper going on. (There are hints in Brust's "Khaavren" books that their "author", Sir Paarfi of Roundwood, has had some kind of dealings with Mr. Brust.)

But Orca does something completely different. Orca picks up some time after Athyra; Vlad is seeking help for a Teckla boy who was injured saving his life, and he's called upon his old friend Kiera the Thief to help him. And here's the trick: most of the book is narrated not by Vlad, but by Kiera. And even the sections that Vlad narrates are apparently based on Kiera's remembrance of how he narrated them to her. Moreover, some third-person interludes make it clear that she's not relating the tale to some old metal box, but rather to Vlad's estranged wife, Cawti--although apparently we the reader (whoever we are in the grand scheme of things) are privy to certain bits of information Kiera's not passing along to Cawti.

The plot in this particular volume is fairly pedestrian. A wisewoman might be able to help Vlad's young Teckla; in return, she wants to keep her house, which has recently been foreclosed on. Vlad and Kiera investigate, and find their way into a financial scandal that could rock the Empire. Ho. Hum. But it's a good read nevertheless, not least because it's the first time we get to see Vlad and Kiera interact for any length of time, and because (as in Athyra) we get to see Vlad through the eyes of another.

Oh, and there are Important Revelations. More than that I shall not say.

By Steven Brust

In this, the eighth book of the tale of Vlad Taltos, Brust once more steps back from the main narrative to fill in some of Vlad's history. Ever since Jhereg we've been hearing bits and pieces about the Battle at the Wall of Barrett's Tomb. We've also been told that Dragons are natural military commanders, though it's not always been clear who the enemies are supposed to be. In this book we find out about both of these things.

Barrett e'Lanya, a great and respected Dragonlord, dies suddenly, leaving behind a large collection of weapons. Our old friend Morrolan e'Drien is given the honor of safeguarding Barrett's estate, but another Dragonlord conspires to steal one of the weapons. This touches Morrolan's honor, of course, and the only thing that will do is a carefully planned and fought war--held away from settled lands, of course, so as not to be too destructive. Vlad comes along for the ride, mostly because Morrolan's opponent insults him grievously and he wants revenge. And thus, he finds out first hand what it's like to fight in a Dragon army. Just what he always wanted.

This is a fun book, having more of the happy-go-lucky flavor of Jhereg and Yendi, and yet it serves a serious purpose--it's providing background we need for the following volume, Issola, which will continue with Vlad's main narrative. To wit: where do Great Weapons like Morrolan's Blackwand and Aliera's Pathfinder come from? And what's with the golden chain, Spellbreaker, that Vlad's been carrying around for the whole series?

You won't find these things out from me, of course.

By Steven Brust

This, finally, is the ninth and latest volume in the story of Vlad Taltos, and it's a doozy. During the previous books we've occasionally heard about a mysterious race called the Jenoine who seem to have had something to do with the creation of the Dragaeran Empire. Apparently they are really bad news--in fact, Morrolan and Aliera have gone missing, and Sethra Lavode believes they've been captured by the Jenoine. Vlad, she thinks, might be able to find them.

I don't want to say too much about this one, as I don't want to spoil it; suffice it to say that the Issola of the title is Lady Teldra, Morrolan's hostess, and that we finally find out what she's really like.

Theoretically there should be nine more of these books, one for each of the remaining houses of the Dragaeran Empire. I'm looking forward to them, because I have absolutely no idea where Vlad goes from here.

Soul Music
By Terry Pratchett

I didn't really want to read this book, except that I wanted to read Hogfather, and I needed to refresh my memory.

But first, some history. Way back when, in the fourth Discworld book, Death took an apprentice named Mort, who eventually married Death's adopted daughter, Isabelle. (Trust me, it all made sense at the time.)

In this book, we meet Mort and Isabelle's only daughter Susan. Susan's a strange child, as befits Death's granddaughter. She has little patience for fools (they suffer her, rather than vice versa), and she has a tends to be hard to see when she wants to be left alone. And when Death takes a holiday, as he is occasionally wont to do, it's Susan who must pick up the slack. Susan plays a major role in Hogfather, which is why I needed to re-read this one first.

But that's another review. So what's this one about?

Death, and Rock-and-Roll. You can be the greatest musician in the world, one that they'll talk about forever, but there's a price--you have to live fast, and die young....

So why didn't I want to read it again at the moment?

The wonder of the Discworld is that it's a whole world; Pratchett can satirize anything he likes, and make it work on the Discworld. But Rock-and-Roll just doesn't seem to fit quite right, just as Hollywood didn't seem to fit quite right in the earlier Discworld book Moving Pictures. Also, there's a bunch of foolishness with the faculty of Unseen University that seems to be neither here nor there so far as the plot is concerned. It's filler.

But hey, I enjoyed the book anyway.

By Terry Pratchett

Now, I read Soul Music so I could go on and read this one.

As you'll recall, Susan Sto Helit is Death's granddaughter. She's also the Duchess of Sto Helit, but as she has philosophical problems with being a non-working drone she's currently supporting herself at the only job deemed appropriate for young unmarried gently-born ladies--that is, she's a governess. And she has a problem. Her predecessor was a believer in the "bogeyman" school of discipline, i.e., "If you don't stay in bed, the bogeyman will do thus and such!" Reality is thin on the Discworld, and the result is that after dark the nursery is regularly infested with one kind of bogeyman or another.

But Susan copes admirably and dispassionately; as a believer in the "iron rod" school of discipline she simply applies an iron rod--specifically, the fireplace poker--to all and sundry bogeymen....and then lets them go, to spread the word that her nursery is To Be Avoided.

Meanwhile, for reasons I refuse to explain, Death is standing in for the Hogfather this year. The Hogfather? You know--the Hogfather. Jolly old fellow in a red suit, says "Ho, Ho, Ho," rides in a sleigh pulled by four giant pigs, and fills stalkings with sausages and blood pudding and toys every Hogswatchnight. Him. For good and sufficient reasons, Death is filling in for him this year. Consequently he's having to shirk his usual duties, and so Susan gets pulled in to take care of them--and Susan Is Not Amused.

This is a book that answers a great many interesting questions, including one great and abiding mystery: just what does the Tooth Fairy do with all those teeth?

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
By J.K. Rowling

It began to seem like I'd been reading this book forever.

Don't get me wrong; I like Harry Potter. It's fun stuff. But when David insisted that I read him the second Harry Potter book as his bedtime story I was reluctant. I wasn't in the mood for it, and anyway I'd read it to myself late last spring in preparation for the publication of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It was simply too soon. On top of that, Dave already knew the basic story very well, from watching the movie.

When you've got an adult who's reluctant and a kid who already knows what's going to happen, there's no real tension, and thus no incentive to read a book quickly. And so I read it to him a few pages a night, taking three or four days per chapter instead of one. And let me tell you, read that slowly this book is a real dog.

Reading a book aloud word by word casts a bright light upon it, and all of its flaws and imperfections spring out. It's a dangerous thing to do. I had an entire series of books by a guy named Craig Shaw Gardener that I summarily disposed of after a failed attempt to read the first one aloud to Jane. So long as I could read them at speed I was able to ignore the lack of substance, but let the harsh light of slow and careful reading be once cast upon them and my enjoyment ceased.

This book, fortunately, is not that bad. The first Harry Potter read aloud adequately (though not superlatively), and I've no doubt this one would have read aloud adequately as well under better circumstances. I do confess, by the end of the book I'd started editing Rowling's prose, omitting needless adjectives and adverbs here and there.

The Story of the Stone
By Barry Hughart

This is the first sequel to Bridge of Birds, Hughart's delightful tale of Number Ten Ox the peasant and Master Li Kao, the sage with a slight flaw in his character. This book takes place a few years after its predecessor; one gathers that Ox has been living with Li Kao in Peking and that they've had a number of adventures in the meantime.

In this book, Master Li and Number Ten Ox are summoned to a distant valley which centuries ago was the home of the fiendish and sadistic Laughing Prince. A monk has been found dead, apparently of fright, strange sights have been seen, and the local abbot is afraid that the Laughing Prince and his followers have returned.

Like its predecessor, The Story of the Stone is a skillful mixture of Chinese life, legend, and myth, well-leavened with humor. I've never thought it quite as good as its predecessor, and on this reading I set out to find out why. It turns out that there are three related reasons.

The first reason is a difference in structure. Bridge of Birds is essentially episodic in nature, though the episodes are joined by an over-arching narrative. Moreover, all of the episodes share a single narrative and comic structure. The Story of the Stone is much less episodic, and the storyline is rather more complex.

The difference in structure has two effects, our second and third reasons. The first effect is that while there's much to laugh at in The Story of the Stone, the comedy is incidental rather than essential--it could easily have been left out without changing the story significantly. The second effect is that the book is much less fun to read aloud--which is how I first tried to read it. (Bridge of Birds reads aloud marvelously.)

And that's what left the bad taste in my mouth--I was expecting a delightful, joyous read-aloud, and I didn't get one.

This time around I resolved to just let the book do its thing, without comparing it to its predecessor, and I've decided that it's really much better than I'd given it credit for--that it's a good, well-crafted tale. It still isn't the book Bridge of Birds is; but then, few are.

Eight Skilled Gentlemen
By Barry Hughart

This the third and (to date) final volume in Hughart's tales of Number Ten Ox and Master Li Kao. There won't be any more as Hughart got little support from his publishers and gave up writing novels in disgust. This an extreme pity, as he'd originally planned on writing a series of seven books. Agony!

This particular story begins in Peking, where a vampire-ghoul interrupts a public execution and causes the official headsman to miss his stroke, thus losing his chance to break the standing record for the longest run of consecutive clean kills. So sad, especially as it led to a temporary reprieve for Sixth Degree Hosteler Tu, a loathsome murderer and gourmand. The vampire-ghoul leads Master Li to yet another murder, a series of strange encounters with ancient demons, and a dragon boat race on whose outcome the fate of the world rests.

Stylistically, this one is close to its predecessor, The Story of the Stone; it's both interesting and funny, and for different reasons. Overall I think I prefer it.

Facts and Fallacies of Software Engineering
By Robert L. Glass

Robert L. Glass is an old-timer in the field of software engineering; this book is founded on decades of experience. Moreover, his discussion of any given topic is based not only on his own experiences but also on any relevant studies that have been done in the area (if any). As a software engineer myself, I found his observations a refreshing change from the usual sort of thing one hears: "If you'll just look at things my way, and follow my process, then all of your software engineering problems will go away!" I found much of what he had to say to be useful and timely.

The book isn't perfect. In a number of places he makes observations and then doesn't follow up on their obvious corollaries; he has a touching faith in ten and fifteen-year-old studies that have never been replicated; and his attitude toward the Unix programming community is almost patronizing at times, which is annoying.

On the whole, though, the book serves as a useful reality check, especially for those who want to elevate the process over the people involved.

Lord Darcy
By Randall Garrett

Now, here's a book with something for everybody--or, at least, everybody who's likely to be reading this review in the first place.

If you like mysteries, you'll like this book. Lord Darcy is the Chief Investigator for His Highness the Duke of Normandy, and is kept quite busy investigating one murder or another, with the occasional jaunt into counter-espionage.

If you like fantasy, you'll like this book, for Lord Darcy's right-hand man is a forensic sorceror named Sean O Lochlainn. It's his job to preserve the victim's corpse until it has been fully examined, to determine whether a bullet was fired by a particular gun or not, to determine whether the death was from purely physical causes or due to black magic, to recreate aspects of the crime, and so forth.

If you like science fiction, you'll like this book, for Master Sean's sorcery is a science rather than a art, in accordance with the magical laws of Similarity, Contagion, and Relevance. Garrett has a deft touch; the Laws of Magic are developed clearly enough that we can believe in a magical "science" yet concisely enough that we avoid boredom. Moreover, the mixture of magic with physical technology is a hoot.

If you like alternate history, you'll like this book, for the major premise (other than the efficacy of magic) is that Richard Coeur-de-Lion does not die young but rather returns to England to rule wisely and well and found a dynasty that will last until the present day. In the 20th century the Anglo-French Empire is the dominant power, directly controlling England, France, and the Americas (fetchingly called New England and New France), and indirectly controlling much of the rest of Europe.

The amazing thing is that Garrett manages to combine all of these elements into a single book and make it work--this is topnotch police procedural of the classic English kind as well as topnotch fantasy. I kept picturing Lord Darcy as a mixture of Peter Wimsey and Roderick Alleyn.

The book is collection of short stories with one novel, Too Many Magicians; the latter contains a Nero Wolfe pastiche that's especially choice (Ian, are you listening?). Garrett wrote these classic tales in the 1960's and 1970's; the indefatigable Eric Flint has collected them in a single volume, and I suggest you buy it. My only complaint about it is that it isn't longer.

Lapsing into a Comma
By Bill Walsh

Bill Walsh is the copy desk chief at the Washington Post's Business Desk, and this is his book on proper style, which a friend gave to me for Christmas. I always enjoy reading books on style, if they are engagingly written, and this one surely is. Whether I actually learned anything from it is unclear.

The Book of Three
By Lloyd Alexander

This is the first book of "The Chronicles of Prydain," a five-book series intended for younger readers which I first read in high school, and which I'm now reading at bedtime to my almost seven-year-old, Dave. (In fact, I'm reading it to him from the same copies I bought then.) He's eating it up.

A boy named Taran lives on a farm called Caer Dallben. He has no mother or father; he's being raised by Dallben the wizard and Dallben's assistant Coll. He's not learning to be a wizard; he's not even learning the manly art of swordfighting, which is a great trial to him. Mostly he's learning how to grow vegetables and make horseshoes and tend to Dallben's pig, Hen Wen, none of which is terribly exciting. He yearns for adventure, and to be a hero. Instead, he's stuck being Dallben's Assistant Pig-Keeper.

Adventure has a way of seeking you out in books like this. Hen Wen is no ordinary pig, but an oracular pig capable of telling the future. For this reason she was once stolen by the dark lord Arawn, Lord of Annuvin. Now Arawn is plotting once again to take over the land of Prydain through his servant the Horned King, and he needs Hen Wen to be sure of victory. As the Horned King approaches Caer Dallben, Hen Wen runs away in fright. Taran chases after, and is soon lost--and has two conflicting missions: he must find Hen Wen, and he must warn the High King at Caer Dathyl that the Horned King is on the move.

I hadn't read The Book of Three in years, and never aloud (It reads quite well aloud, I might add), and it's been interesting to revisit it. It's much more clearly a juvenile series than I remembered; Taran begins the series as an impetuous and foolish (if stout-hearted) boy, dealing with the kinds of interpersonal problems boys are heir to; much of the book is about how he learns to deal with these problems, and thereby grows up. Indeed, the book hovers just on the edge of being preachy without quite crossing the line--several of the other characters have no compunction about rebuking Taran if he does something foolish or inconsiderate, while others appear to be there mostly to serve as moral exemplars (both good and bad).

Thus, the aim of the story is partly didactic: if Taran is to grow up to be a virtuous, wise, and considerate man, he must first learn how--and despite all the fantasy elements, growing up is the real story here. But though didactic, the author isn't heavy handed about it; and it certainly won't do Dave any harm to watch Taran mature into a decent human being.

Meanwhile, Dave is simply thrilled. It's got a hero he can identify with, and a villain with horns on his helmet, and sword fighting, and amusing companions who say funny things, and lots of excitement, and a pretty girl. We finished it up the night before last, and last night nothing would do but to start the second book in the series. More on that in a few weeks.

The Lord of the Rings
By J.R.R. Tolkien

I first read The Lord of the Rings the summer I turned ten. My elder siblings had all read it, and I wanted to know what it was all about. I remember spending one entire afternoon and early evening sitting in a lawn chaise on our patio, continuing to read as the sun went down and it got darker and darker, because I was in a hurry to finish and find out what happened.

Bang! That was it; The Lord of the Rings was officially my favorite book. And it has remained so.

I first read my siblings' copy of the trilogy--the Ballantine Books edition with the weird psychedelic covers. Oddly, I still have it. Later, my mother gave me (for Valentine's Day, which was not usually an occasion for such things) a boxed set of the trilogy in paperback. That was the one with a big photograph of Tolkien's head in profile on the back of each volume and Tolkien's own paintings on the front. I no longer have this set; I wore it out.

Over a period of several years Mom got me my own hardcover editions of The Hobbit (the green edition with the tooled binding that comes in a matching green box) and The Lord of the Rings (the boxed set with the Eye of Mordor on the spine of each volume); and later, when they came out, The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales as well. That's one of the things about my Mom; she didn't like that kind of fiction, and was rather inclined to think it was probably garbage--but she knew what I loved.

I took the whole set off to college with me, reasoning that at some point in any given year I was going to want to re-read the whole thing. I find it hard to remember precisely, but I expect that I probably re-read the trilogy at least once a year from the time I was ten until after I graduated from college.

In the last fifteen years that rate has slowed down considerably. I last read the trilogy in December of 2000; this December, I watched Peter Jackson's version of The Return of the King. And though it was a grand spectacle, it just wasn't right somehow; it didn't satisfy. And though in the ordinary scheme of things it would probably have taken another year or two, the movie prompted me to pull The Fellowship of the Ring down from the shelf. Late last night, I finished The Return of the King (reading large snatches of "The Scouring of the Shire" to Jane. And I was happy.

What first attracted me to Tolkien was, naturally, Bilbo's and Frodo's adventures. What kept bringing me back was my realization that Tolkien had created an entire world, with its own history and literature and languages, a world nearly as complete and detailed as our own. And that was cool!

In his essay "On Fairy Stories," Tolkien talks about the creation of such a fantasy world as "subcreation," as the activity in the exercise of which we are most clearly created in God's image. By that time I knew just what he was talking about--because I'd seen him do it.

The way I read the The Lord of the Rings has changed over the years. I remember racing through the first half of The Two Towers, and the first half of The Return of the King as fast as I could, because I wanted to find out what happened to Frodo and Sam. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli got short-shrift. By the time Frodo and Sam got to the Cracks of Doom, I was going so fast I completely missed what happened with Frodo and Gollum and the Ring. And the Scouring of the Shire was a horrible shock--endings were supposed to be happy. Let's face it, I wasn't a very careful reader in those days.

The last two or three times through the trilogy I've made it a point to read slowly rather than quickly--to savor the fine details and the bits of landscape and the shadings of emotion, and the things that are present simply because that's the way Tolkien's world is. When Tom Bombadil escorts the hobbits on the way to Bree, he sees a hill that makes him sad, though he won't speak of the cause. We don't know what memory the hill evoked in Tom's mind; it doesn't come into the story.

Why does Tolkien tell us about Tom's sadness? We think of history as chronology, as a time line, but history is also geographical. Every hill and every valley has its memories. And Tolkien knew that at that place was a memory to sadden even the mercurial Tom Bombadil, and to have left it out would have been to lie.

These days, ironically, I find that the chapters I cherish are precisely those I skimmed on first reading: Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas chasing the orcs across the fields of Rohan; the passing of the Grey Company through the Paths of the Dead; the seige of Minas Tirith; the parley before the Black Gate; the celebration on the Field of Cormallen; the Scouring of the Shire. Some I read with laughter; some I read with tears; all I read with great joy.

Of the books of my childhood, The Lord of the Rings stands alone. Most of the books I loved as a child I've outgrown. A few I remember with great fondness. Fewer still (notably the Narnia books) I continue to read and enjoy. But only The Lord of the Rings has grown with me, deepening with every passing year.

Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

Shepherds Abiding
By Jan Karon

Mitford stories are always great fun. I always feel just happy after finishing one and I've looked forward to a quiet afternoon to read this book for a time.

This time around, it's October and Father Tim has come across a dilapidated old plaster nativity scene that the antiques store owner has brought back from England with him. He's bored with retirement and his book of essays is not going well. The creche reminds him of his childhood Christmases and, on the spur of the moment, he decides to buy it and fix it up for Cynthia as a Christmas gift. The book is the story of how he goes about it, how the townsfolk help and hinder him and how he keeps the secret from Cynthia.

It's a good story though perhaps not as tight as some others she has written. It could have been either a well-written short story with some of the extras cut out or a more developed novel with a bit more tension and detail but on the whole I enjoyed it. It's always fun to go back to Mitford, visit some of the old haunts and find out what everyone is doing lately. She does hint of the next book and where that one may take place too.

On Beulah Height
By Reginald Hill

This is one of several books I read before Christmas that got put aside and forgotten for a time. Mysteries are the type of book I read but don't retain well which means if they aren't reviewed quickly, they get passed over for more recent fare. This one, however, stuck.

It takes place in a small village in England. Years before the neighboring village had been evacuated and abandoned because a dam had been built, after much local political wrangling, and the village was on the site of the reservoir below it. Just before the villagers leave, little girls begin disappearing. The bodies are never found and the snatchings stop when the village is drowned. The police, including a young Dalziel, never catch the kidnapper though the main suspect is thought to be a slightly touched boy from the village who also disappears after the village is flooded. Then, after years of relative calm, the snatchings begin again. And an older, wiser Dalziel and his partner, Pascoe, are brought in to try to figure out who and why.

There were several things that interested me about the book. One was the mystery within the mystery. In order to figure out the modern crimes, Dalziel must recreate and solve the old crime. The major characters from the previous crime scenes have either died or grown up or moved away and he is working against time and lack of evidence to figure out the mystery. Not to mention that the crime scenes have been under water for years.

The other is the use of diary entries by a young women from the village interspersed into the narrative action. Her story becomes a secondary plot line that weaves it's way into the main criminal investigation. And in the end, how she figures in the whole situation was a complete surprise to me. I didn't see it coming, at all.

It's always a delight to find a new author who writes mysteries with the emphasis on the detection and the puzzle and not on the gory details of the crime. This is one of the latest ones Hill has written and I am doubly delighted to have more to look forward to. I gather there is a long history of cooperation and partnership between the two detectives, Dalziel and Pascoe, that has developed as the books were published. Hopefully, they are all still in print.

Queen Victoria
By Lytton Strachey

I picked this book up for two reasons. One is that having read a great deal of the literature from the Victorian period in British history, I have never read anything about the actual monarch who lent her name to it. The other is that I spent an entire summer reading the diaries of Virginia Woolf once and Lytton Strachey figures prominently in the Bloomsbury group she was part of. His writing piqued my curiosity.

This is a nice little precis of the life of Victoria. It dwells on the personal side of her life and touches on the political less than I could have wished but all in all I found it enlightening. He also brings to the front the importance of Albert in British foreign policy and suggests that had he not died just on the eve of the American Civil War, the British policy towards the war may have been significantly different. His emphasis on the personal loneliness of Albert, an intellectual man married to a non-intellectual woman who adores him was also new to me. I had never given much thought to Albert as more than the man Victoria mourned for over half her life.

The book read well also. I was surprised at that since my take on the whole Bloomsbury group is that they were well above the general level of rest of us and wrote for themselves and Art as an abstract rather than for general consumption. To find a little gem like this was a treat. Now I have to go find a biography of Strachey to find out more about him than Virginia Woolf's sometimes catty observations in her diary.

The Princess Bride
By William Goldman

I haven't quite decided what to make of this book. For a story so deceptively simple, the more I think about it, the more complex it becomes.

On the one hand you can read it as a very simple children's fairy tale with giants and good guys and pirates and bad guys and, of course, The Girl Who Need Rescuing. But Goldman then goes and sticks all those personal comments in about himself and the original manuscript and his first experience of the story and things just get more and more murky. And interesting.

I have to read it again when I have time to think about it more as I'm reading and not just to get the plot down. In the meantime, if anyone cares to enlighten me on what to look for, I would be appreciative.

Craig's Recent Reading

by Craig Clarke

Monsieur Pamplemousse Takes the Cure
By Michael Bond

I had meant to review this last month, but this book, to speak in culinary terms like its hero, is light and airy like a meringue and was thus quickly forgotten. It's not a bad book, simply a fluffy mystery where the mystery is second to the engaging character of Monsieur Aristide Pamplemousse and his dog, Pommes Frites.

Gourmand that he is, Pamplemousse is shocked to be sent to a health camp where elderly women are dying. In order to retain the companionship of Pommes Frites, he masquerades as a blind man, which not only works but also places him in close proximity to various occurrences of unaware--and therefore unashamed--nude women.

This series is funny and charming, which is to be expected from the author of the "Paddington Bear" series, and Monsieur Pamplemousse Takes the Cure is as good a starting point as any, as it appears that previous book knowledge is not necessary to enjoy the story, such as it is.

A Year at the Movies
By Kevin Murphy

A former writer/producer/performer for Mystery Science Theatre 3000, Kevin Murphy gave himself a challenge--to see a movie a day for 365 days. (It must be nice not to have to keep a real job.) To make this goal more attainable, he decided that he could see a movie more than once and he brought along a portable projector with some classic reels in case he was not able to reach a theater on a particular day (this saved him more than once). This book is the result of his travels, with each chapter comprising one week.

A Year at the Movies, subtitled "One Man's Filmgoing Odyssey," was as quick and fun a read as I expected. I was hoping for more film criticism and less thematic essays, but, even at almost 400 pages, the book is a breezy joy. Murphy describes his visits to film festivals, themed theaters (including one in an igloo) and his travels to various corners of the world, leaving me with one important lesson--seeing a movie every day is hard work and, although I enjoyed living vicariously through this book, I would not want to attempt it myself.

The Eyre Affair
By Jasper Fforde

Literary detective ("LiteraTec") Thursday Next lives in a different 1985 where she has a pet dodo (from the recent cloning craze) and spends her time investigating literary forgeries and being hassled by the Baconians (a militant group that believes Francis Bacon wrote the works of Shakespeare), and where the ending of Jane Eyre is woefully unsatisfying. Her uncle Mycroft has also invented the Prose Portal, which allows people to move back and forth between fiction and reality. Unfortunately, arch criminal Acheron Hades has discovered this machine and wants to use it to ruin some of the world's greatest literature if his demands aren't met. His first threat: to go into the original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit and kill Chuzzlewit himself, making the rest of the book absolutely useless.

Jasper Fforde has created a modern fantasy world where things seem familiar but are just a little bit off. Bibliophiles should love it; I did. His wordplay is fast and furious and his character names even more so (including the unabashedly named Jack Schitt). After a slow start involving some necessary exposition that, while clever and funny, is still exposition, The Eyre Affair really takes off into its intriguingly constructed world. Jane Eyre is a thread that ties the book together, but isn't truly featured until the climax, when Thursday teams up with Edward Rochester and...

But that would be giving it away and the ending, while somewhat predictable in parts (especially if you've read the Bronte classic), is still a real cracker. I'm already looking forward to the sequel, Lost in a Good Book and regular readers of ex libris would do well to search out the Thursday Next series.

(The series has so far been published in the UK months prior to its publication in the US, but the fourth book in the series hopes to rectify that, so that we Yanks can enjoy the series along with our British counterparts.)

The Mystery of the Fiery Eye
By Robert Arthur

When I was a preteen, my favorite books to read were from the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series. They concerned three boys (Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw, and Bob Andrews) who run an investigation service out of Jones' family's junkyard. They were simple puzzlers written with an eye for action--just the things to entertain my summer-bored mind (I wasn't much for going outside).

It was only recently that I discovered they were being reprinted (sans any reference to Hitchcock, the film director is now called "Hector Sebastian") and started picking them up at my local library. (Oh, man, the stares a 30-year-old man gets while hanging around the Juvenile section of the library!) Surprisingly, unlike many things revisited at a more cynical age, they are just as entertaining as they were then. Unfortunately, the library doesn't have them all in order so I'm having to take them as they come. No matter though, I'm having a blast.

The Mystery of the Fiery Eye concerns a young man named August August who received a letter from his recently deceased uncle concerning his inheritance. The letter turns out to point him in the direction of a priceless (but cursed) ruby hidden in a secret location. As the boys begin their investigation, two men become involved in the search as well. These two, known only as Three-Dots (due to their appearance on his forehead) and Black Mustache (for obvious reasons) are willing to do anything to get their hands on this ruby.

Needless to say, the Three Investigators solve the mystery and get home in time for dinner. But, as it is a series, there are a few running plot developments that are touched upon along the way. These keep us reading and rereading the books to see how things turn out. And, as always, the director turns up at the end to congratulate the boys on a job well done and foreshadow the subject for their next case. All in all, a joyous mystery romp with often unexpected plot turns (even for a kids' book) and the ability to hold the reader's attention.

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