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ex libris reviews

1 March 2004


But Gaylene Ffrench was a child of nature. Emotions flitted over her face like captions in the silent cinema, and she could no more hide her irritations, her jealousies, her contempts than a dog could hide its interest in a bone.
Robert Barnard


Contents


In This Issue:
Of No Particular Interest

I've been fighting a cold for the last week or so, and consequently have nothing of any interest to say (beyond what you'll find in the reviews, below). So you'll have to make do with those, and the equally fine reviews by Deb English and Craig Clarke.

-- Will Duquette


Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Basket Case
By Carl Hiaasen

I tend to read about one Hiaasen novel a year. On the one hand, he's wickedly funny; on the other hand, he's wickedly funny, and tends to exceed the level of sex'n'drugs'n'sleaze I'm comfortable with. And then, he tends to harp on the subject of over-development and related government corruption in Florida--a serious problem, no doubt, but one I'm not especially interested in. So I find that about one a year suits me fine.

And then in January's Ex Libris Craig Clarke reviewed Basket Case. I won't describe it; click on the link to read Craig's review. But it sounded both intriguing and different than Hiassen's usual thing, or at least different than the ones I'd read previously.

And in fact it was a lot of fun. It wasn't as outrageously over-the-top as I've come to expect, and consequently wasn't as funny as usual; but then, there was somewhat less sleaze as well. Taken all-in-all the resulting book is a pretty good thriller, with memorable characters and a nice little romance thrown in for good measure. Oh, and over-development only gets a short paragraph. Who could ask for more?

Firedrake
By Ann Ewan

A few times a year I'm asked to review somebody's new book. Most of the time I say no. If the book isn't the sort of thing I usually read there's no way I can review it fairly or objectively. I suspect many authors wouldn't care about my fairness or objectivity provided that I liked the book--but if it were the sort of book I like it would be the sort of book I read, if you follow me.

So I've established some rules. I only accept book review requests if it's the sort of book I might read anyway, and if they are willing to send me a review copy. Once in a while those conditions are actually met...and then, of course, I have to read the darn thing, and then review it. And that's a problem.

It's very odd. I've been reviewing pretty much everything I read for over six years. I know when I pick up a book that eventually I'll be recording my opinion of it for posterity--or, at any rate, for you folks. And yet, it's different when I've been asked to review a book. I find I can't approach it with an open mind and an open heart and simply try to enjoy it; instead, I've got my critic's hat on from page 1. And, absurdly, this just makes it harder for me to know what I think, because I end up watching the book instead of reading it.

I say all this as fair disclosure--Firedrake, a young adult fantasy novel, is one of the rare requests that made it through my filters.

So what's it about?

Shan is a young girl. Since she was a small child she's been in training to be a Wolf, one of the elite soldiers who guard the borders of the land or Perinar. Once, long ago, the common folk loved and honored the Wolves, for it was the Wolves who kept them safe. Several centuries past, however, after having saved Perinar from a horrible enemy, a group of wizards known as the Arkanan took over the rule of the country. They also discovered a horrible way to live beyond their normal span of years, and since that time all of their skill and strength has been devoted to retaining their lives and their rule. The Wolves are their chief tool.

The common folk have a prophecy that the Arkanan will be destroyed by a blind woman, a madman, and a wizard. Shan isn't blind, quite, but everything beyond arm's length is a blur. Could she be the blind woman of the prophecy?

In this genre, that's pretty much a rhetorical question. Of course she is, and of course the Arkanan are going to be destroyed. The only question is how. And the answer is, pretty well; it's an interesting ride.

So far as the book involves a young person going through a training regimen and growing into a destiny she only dimly understands, the book reminds me of something by L.E. Modesitt, Jr (and doesn't that tar Modesitt with a broad brush!). But there's also an element of suspense and claustrophic tension that reminds me of C.J. Cherryh. And like both of those authors, Ewan dumps you into Shan's world with a minimum of exposition--you have to watch and observe to figure out what's going on. This is generally considered to be a good thing.

On the whole, I'd say that I liked it. Once I got started I kept turning pages until I was done, which was for the better part of a long, lazy day. The writing is quietly competent, rather than flashy, and Shan's world has some neat aspects. At the same time, I'm not head-over-heels in love with the book.

I'm really quite curious to know how I'd have responded to Firedrake if I hadn't been asked to review it. Perhaps someday I'll pick it up again and read it just for fun, and then maybe I'll find out.

The Black Cauldron
By Lloyd Alexander

The plot of this, the second of the Chronicles of Prydain, is simple. Arawn, Dark Lord of Annuvin, has a black cauldron which he uses to turn the bodies of his slain enemies into deathless, fearless, pitiless warriors known as the Cauldron-Born. Recently he's been gone even farther--he's been sending his servants out to catch and slay the living, and bring their corpses back to Annuvin and the cauldron. This clearly cannot be allowed to continue, and so Gwydion Prince of Don plans to steal the cauldron and destroy it, gathering a team of men to help him--a team that includes our hero Taran of Caer Dallben and his friends. And naturally, it's Taran who will succeed (with the help of his friends) in finding the cauldron.

So much for the plot. As with the previous volume, the real story is the story of Taran's own moral growth, the mistakes he makes, the lessons he learns, and the hard choices he makes. And most of the characters in the book are there as moral exemplars of one kind or another.

Several of the characters return from the previous book. Gwydion, Prince of Don, represents the ideal man--that which Taran most admires. Princess Eilonwy, with her matter-of-fact analysis and her resourcefulness, is common sense. Fflewddur Fflam, whose accomplishments so often fall short of the desires of his great heart, represents perseverance in the face of human frailty.

But it's the new characters who provide most of the interest. Ellidyr, youngest son of the King of Pen-Llarcau, is haughty, thirsty for honor, and hag-ridden by envious pride, and not much older than Taran. Taran and Ellidyr clash badly at their first meeting, and at regular intervals thereafter--and the conflict forces Taran to confront his own pride and thirst for honor.

And then there's King Morgant, who stands to Gwydion much as Ellidyr stands to Taran, except that he's older, wiser, and sneakier, and knows how to bide his time.

But the book isn't entirely, or even mostly, filled with somber morality and growthfulness. It's also graced by considerable good humor, and nowhere more than in Taran and Co.'s encounter with Orrdu, Orwen, and Orgoch, as merry (and terrifying) a group of Fates as I've yet seen. I'd completely forgotten how much fun they were.

Competitions
By Sharon Green

This is the second book of Green's series The Blending, which I panned back in November. So why did I read the second book if I disliked the first? I have three answers. First, Jane liked it rather better than I did, and wanted to read the second book. Second, the premise is somewhat interesting; I'm curious to see how it plays out. Third, I didn't read this book--rather, I got through a hundred pages or so and decided I didn't want to read any further thanks to a case of acute moral indigestion.

It's dangerous, of course, to guess a novelist's views from their work; one is all too likely to take some sentiment vehemently expressed by some character or other as a statement of the author's beliefs, only to be proved ludicrously wrong. Nevertheless an author's worldview generally does show up in their writing--and Green's world view, as I see it reflected here, is one that I find particularly pernicious, as well as all too prevalent. It is, quite simply, the belief that spiritual growth equals mental health, that religion equals therapy.

An examination of Green's characters is illuminating. The "good" characters are open, thoughtful, and friendly (with each other, anyway). They are mostly emotionally damaged in some way: one is claustrophobic; one fears sexual intimacy because of a prior marriage to a cruel husband; one has little understanding of people because his domineering mother attempted to fixate him on her; another has a heart of gold but is unreasonably jealous (that is to say, he believes in traditional monogamy!). But because they are "good" they are all trying to overcome this damage and grow into full emotional balance. And--this is where the book becomes particularly wearing--those passages which don't advance the plot are dedicated to the characters administering therapy to each other. It's not called that, but that's what it is.

The "bad" characters are also mostly emotionally damaged, but unlike the "good" characters have no desire to grow into health. Instead, they glory in their infirmity, which generally manifests as some kind of sexual perversion. They are sadists (genuine sadists who really enjoy causing pain to non-consensual partners), or masochists, or indulge in unloving promiscuity, that is, promiscuity for pleasure only, with people you don't care about. It's clear that in Green's world, promiscuity with people you love isn't a problem--as I noted above, a hangup about this is the obstacle one of the "good" characters has to overcome.

Tellingly, the only major characters I've noted who are not emotionally damaged, that is, who are "well", are adepts of Spirit. In Green's world, every person is aligned to a greater or lesser degree with one of the five elements: Air, Earth, Fire, Water, and Spirit. Adepts of Spirit are able to read very clearly the emotions of others, even those the others might wish to keep hidden, and if strong enough can manipulate the emotions of others as well. Supposedly, strong adepts of Spirit have to be emotionally stable, because otherwise the emotions of others would destroy them.

One of the two "healthy" characters, Jovvi, is not only an adept of Spirit but a prostitute by trade who has grown rich in her profession by manipulating the emotions of her customers with her magic talent. She never manipulates the emotions of the other "good" characters, of course, except for their own good.

And there we have the pinnacle of Green's moral pyramid: emotional stability, along with the ability to manipulate the emotions of others "for their own good." It's a world in which the only saints are therapists.

It's a world view that's becoming increasingly popular these days; as I've written elsewhere it's a world view that has nearly consumed the Episcopal Church, of which I'm a member. And it's a lie. Most people are not emotionally damaged and in need of therapy. Spiritual growth is not the movement from a position of emotional injury to one of emotional stability (though it may involve that). Spiritual growth is a movement from being centered on one's self to being centered on God, a process which can involve considerable discomfort, and which has little to do with being a well-adjusted member of society.

The ironic thing is, I could probably tolerate Green's world view if she'd just leave out all of the therapeutic conversations and sexual healing (by the good guys) and weird sexual power games (by the bad guys--one of whom is purely disgusted when he finds out that a woman he knows is a dominatrix. In his view, the man ought to be holding the whip)--if, as I say, should discard all of that and just get on with the damn story.

But where the first book was told from five good, ever more healthy viewpoints, this book adds five additional mostly sick and twisted viewpoints. And there are three more books to follow before we get the payoff. Frankly, I decided that I couldn't stomach it and put the book away.

The Silmarillion
By J.R.R. Tolkien

Having finished re-reading The Lord of the Rings, it seemed reasonable to keep moving along and re-read The Silmarillion. And I'm glad I did; but at the same time I find I don't have much to say about it. It's history rather than narrative, and except for a few points (notably the story of Beren and Luthien) I don't find it nearly as moving as the trilogy. There's pleasure in it; but it's a different kind of pleasure.

Death of an Old Goat
By Robert Barnard

An aging Oxford professor of English is travelling across Australia, giving "guest lectures" at all of the institutes of higher learning (so called) in that country. It is the mid-1970s; he wrote the two lectures he is giving in the 1920s, when he was a young don, and has been giving them unchanged, word-for-word ever since. He is deadly dull.

And at one of his stops, a particularly back-water sort of University even for Australia, he is murdered for no discernible reason.

If you've detected a note of disdain for Australia in this review, it's simply because I'm trying to maintain the tone of the book itself, a so-called "satire" in which Australia is shown to be in every way dirtier, shabbier, and coarser than the mother country, even down to its academic politics (which, heaven knows, are pretty shabby no matter where you go).

But if, on the one hand, you've got a book that repeats all of the usual pommie slanders, then on the other the mystery is fairly lightweight.

The book is, I hasten to add, well-written--the characters are all marvelously well-drawn and very much themselves. But one doesn't like them, or the constant English snobbery, and the mystery does little to make up for it.

Oh, well.

Death on the High C's
By Robert Barnard

This one's much better than the last Barnard I read, Death of an Old Goat, better in every way. The plot is better, the characters are better, the mystery is better, and it doesn't drip with scorn. It's true, the most obnoxious character in the book is Australian, but you get the sense that she'd have been just as annoying no matter what her origin.

It involves a young but promising opera company in the north of England. They are just beginning their second season with a staging of Rigoletto--and Barnard clearly knows and loves Rigoletto just as much as he (apparently) dislikes Australia. There are lots of nice twists and turns, and it ends up quite satisfactorily.

One of the interesting things about Barnard's work is that he doesn't have a consistent tone. Sometimes he plays for laughs; sometimes he's more serious; and in this one, it almost seems like he's trying to play Ngaio Marsh. If so, he doesn't quite make it...but the results are pleasingly Marsh-like nevertheless.

In the Hall of the Martian King
By John Barnes

This is the third of Barnes' Jak Jinnaka series; I like it considerably better than its immediate predecessor, A Princess of the Aerie, though not as much as the first book, The Prince of Uranium.

In this episode, Jak Jinnaka is serving his time in his first post as Vice Provost of Hive's base on Deimos. Ostensibly he's a civil servant; really, he's an agent of Hive Intelligence. His boss, the Provost, is a wise and canny fellow who unaccountably likes living on Deimos, has two ways of dealing with his VPs: either they are incompetent, in which case he sacks them for the good of Deimos, or he arranges for them to look so good they get promoted elsewhere. As the book begins, said boss is about to take a trip to Earth, living Jak in charge. There's bound to be a crisis of one kind or another while he's gone, so he tells Jak; if Jak can rise to it, it will make his career.

A crisis does arise, of course, and a variety of funny, distressing, and action-packed scenes follow, and as I say I enjoyed the ride. Nevertheless, the series leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. It appears to be Jak's fate to be double-crossed by everyone he trusts, and in particular by his employers, and to be swept hither and yon by powers too subtle for him to perceive until it's too late. It's as though Barnes has a kind of anti-Heinlein thing going. Instead of a main character who's too amazingly competent for belief, we've got a guy whose own desires are almost literally beside the point.

I enjoyed it enough to read the next one, if there is a next one, but it's still a little too cynical for my taste.


Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

The Wood Beyond
Recalled to Life
Arms and The Women
Dialogues of the Dead
By Reginald Hill

These are four more books in the Dalziel/Pascoe series by Hill. After reading On Beulah Height I just had to find more, it was that good. After a trip to the two Large Chain Bookstores in my area and a side trip to my local independent store, I came home with nothing. Zip, zero, nada. It was exasperating but there is a mystery bookstore in town that I normally avoid since a visit there is usually a big hit on the wallet so I called them and, joy!, had them set these aside for me.

Will has reviewed them before and given excellent plot summaries so I will skip that. However, what struck me reading these so closely together is that each book had several layers and one of them is always a text--a diary, a story, etc.--that either mirrors the plot or is key to the mystery the detectives are trying to solve. It was fascinating in Arms and the Women to watch Ellie Pascoe, write a story about Odysseus and Aeneas meeting on the island of Calypso and base Odysseus and Aeneas on Dalziel and her husband. In The Woods Beyond, Pascoe's great-great-grandfather's war diary from WWI provides the subtext. Very interesting.

Another thing that stands out when dashing thru the books one after the other is the way Hill plays with long words. There were times I literally had to look things up in the dictionary because he was using adjectives and nouns I had never seen before. Ever. Dialogues with the Dead has characters playing a hyped-up version of Scrabble that uses word play and puns in multiple languages and Hill just goes wild tossing off polysyllabic mysteries that beg to be checked up on.

Plus the mysteries are so well plotted I almost never figured them out ahead of time. And I find Dalziel, a truly gross man, compelling. He's fat, sweaty, cynical and abrasive but there is something that makes you unable to take your eyes away from him and after a bit you find he's messing around with your mind.

Now I just have to find more of them. There's always Amazon, I guess.

Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren At a Time
By Michael Perry

This is not a book I would see on a bookstore shelf and think, gosh that looks like a good book. Even the blurbs on the back don't really sound all that interesting. I read it because my book group decided they wanted to read it.

Michael Perry writes about returning to live, after 10 years in the wide world, to his home town of New Auburn, WI, pop. 485. In a community of loggers and farmers he is a writer and poet, and though a native son he needs something to help ease himself back into the community. He joins the local volunteer fire department. Each chapter is an essay on some emergency or another that he is called out on, often humorously told with himself as the butt of the joke. The story about working on a guy down in a cow barn wedged between two cows while he, the first responder, is dressed in bike shorts and work boots and in direct line with a cow's business side is sweet and hilarious. His descriptions of the other guys in the department are so vivid I bet if I drove up to New Auburn, I could pick them out. And when they go to the local school to do the Firemen's Talk, which he calls "cultural interdiction," I could just see the kids in the gym sitting on the floor, absolutely enthralled by the firemen. But essentially it's a meditation on community and neighbors and being dependent on the people you live among. I found it engaging and sweet. I hope he writes more.

1632
By Eric Flint

We had a big snowstorm this week. I'm unemployed right now, which is not a bad thing during a huge snowstorm, and I had my housetending chores out of the way and supper in the crockpot so I settled down with this book and just read. It's a good book for a snowy day when you have nowhere to go.

The novel's setup is fairly simple. An entire county of West Virginia is mysteriously transported back in time, intact, to Germany in 1632. Power is shut off, communications are gone and roads end in a clean cut at the perimeter of the area. Those within the area are left to cope with what supplies they have and good old American ingenuity. Fortunately, it's an area well armed with hunting rifles and hand guns. Fortunate also, they just happen to be sitting on a viable source of coal with a town full of coal miners and have the local power plant sent back with them. This is all fortunate because they landed smack dab in the middle of the Thirty Years War and the Inquisition among neighbors who live with the plague and believe in witchcraft.

It's an interesting premise and what Flint does with recreating the situation of the Founding Fathers is a tribute to the democracy and the American Way. And I don't mean that cynically either. He puts the his characters in a fantastic situation and then lets them struggle and develop based on the principles we all talk about but never really have to put into practical use on a daily basis because the mechanisms and institutions are established. What would happen if they just went away? The heroes in this book aren't the theorists or white collar guys who run things. The heroes are the working class folks who can get the power back on and deal with the realities of producing food and heating the houses and defending the town from the natives until negotiations can be made.

It's not a staid book either. The culture shock of 20th century meeting 17th century is funny in parts and full of rollicking derring do in others. I kept thinking to myself that folks who are anti-hunting and anti-gun would have a bird reading parts of this book. And my practical side kept wondering what they are going to do for little things like, oh, toilet paper or toothpaste or baking powder once the town's supplies are gone.

Now I have to read the next one, 1633. It's available on line at the Baen website so I downloaded the first couple of chapters to see if keeps the same tempo before heading off to the bookstore with my wallet.

Magician: Apprentice
By Raymond E. Feist

The beginning of this book was very promising but then it degenerated so quickly into a knock-off of other authors that I found it irritating. It's the story of Pug, the young orphan boy, who is taken as apprentice to the local magician and finds that although he has no talent for conventional magic, in high stress situations something just happens and magic flows. And then there is this weird rift in space/time that is letting really bad guys from another place thru to plunder Pug's world and all the good guys are trying to figure who they are and how to defeat them. Oh, yes, there are elves and dwarves. The elves live in the woods that are magically imbued with their essence and the dwarves are miners and metal workers. And there is a mysterious woodsman who has dealings with the elves. And there are little dragons, who thankfully don't have swirly eyes or I'd have tossed the book across the room, but who are taken as pets by the wizard. And there is a princess whom Pug is just really hot for but you know, he has a destiny to fulfill and can't really commit right now.

I finished it but it became so obviously dependent on Tolkien and others that I don't think I will read the next one in the series. By the end of the book the plot was so confused and disjointed I just didn't care anymore. It might make a good read for the young adult audience and I will probably pass it along to a 10-year-old I know, but there are too many other good stories well told to read that don't rip off other authors. Bah!

The Murder Room
By P.D.James

I actually bought this book in November but put off reading it right away so I could savor it in January when things slow down. And, darn, then I forgot about it until I rearranged my bookshelf the other day. It was like my birthday all over again.

I like P.D. James mysteries, a lot. The way she sets up the plot, develops all the characters and then brings in Dalgliesh to sort thru the mess of the crime is so elegantly done I find it hard to class her with other mystery writers. She's more mainstream in her writing; more literary than genre. And she does it again in this book.

The DuPayne Museum is a privately held museum on the outskirts of London dedicated to preserving the social and political event of the years between WWI and WWII. Of special interest is the room dedicated to the famous murders and their results of the period called The Murder Room. It's full of ghastly photos and exhibits of crimes committed and persons found guilty.

The three trustees are the children of the founder and all must sign the renewal of the lease on the building for the museum to continue. They don't get along and one is refusing to sign. They employ a curator who is a former government official now writing a book on some esoteric topic concerning the period, a receptionist/office manager who has the personality of a grumpy crab and a housekeeper who enjoys her work and especially the home she has found in the cottage attached to the museum.

And then one night one of the trustees is set on fire, alive, in his car in exactly the same manner as one of the exhibits of the Murder Room. And all the folks involved in the murder have motive and possibly opportunity.

The book is one of her better ones, I thought. And considering that she turned 80 in 2000, I am in awe that she is still able to plot and write with such manifest skill. But I do think it's the last Dalgliesh mystery. There are two many final notes in the book. Too many of the main characters were old people looking at a graceful exit from the stage. And at the end, when Dalgliesh throws back his head and laughs his triumph aloud, I was sure there weren't going to be any more stories well told about him. Read it and see if you agree.


Craig's Recent Reading

by Craig Clarke

Me Talk Pretty One Day
By David Sedaris

David Sedaris is one of those few writers who can make me laugh out loud in public places, embarrassing enough in itself, but when combined with the implied schadenfreude that comes from laughing at his troubles and imperfections, makes for a complex emotional experience.

Me Talk Pretty One Day is one of a series of essay collections written by the This American Life contributing editor. I'll be the first to admit that I was very likely drawn in to these essays by the fact that half of them cover Sedaris' attempts to survive as an American in Paris, since I was one recently. But I believe that this is not a prerequisite to the enjoyment of these tales. Anyone with a crazy family will find comfort in the fact that Sedaris' is far crazier, and with six siblings--in addition to his parents--to pick from, there is a treasure trove of humor to be mined.

My favorites are "Go Carolina" which covers Sedaris' school days in speech therapy (he has a lisp), "You Can't Kill the Rooster" which focuses on Sedaris' creatively foul-mouthed, younger brother who nonetheless has an enviable relationship with their father, and the various appearances of his sister Amy whose pitch black sense of humor propels the book to a new level. I also enjoyed the pieces involving Sedaris' time spent in France, but as more of a springboard to reminiscence of my own time there than as actual humor.

(For a similar outlook, pick up Sedaris' This American Life cohort Sarah Vowell's writings on American as she sees it, The Partly Cloudy Patriot.)

Smokey and the Bandit Part II
By Jerry Belson and Michael Kane, directed by Hal Needham

Urban Cowboy
By James Bridges and Aaron Latham, directed by James Bridges

Nine to Five
By Patricia Resnick, directed by Colin Higgins

I was recently privy to television showings of three films that I watched multiple times during my childhood in the period from 1977 to 1981. That is literally the only thread that ties these films together, in case you were hoping for some sort of "critical analysis" of their place in history. I'm afraid you'll have to settle for their place in my history.

I was born in the southern United States, Tennessee specifically, and a lot of the characters in these films show similarities with the types of people with whom I grew up. Without the blatant racism, of course. Though Smokey and the Bandit is still one of my favorite guilty pleasures, Part 2 inevitably pales in comparison. There are a few good laughs, mostly from Dom DeLuise as doctor to an elephant that is being driven across the country (the major plot point), but the old "lots of car chases and crashes and evading policemen" thread grows tiring quickly. Even Jackie Gleason, who at least appeared to be having fun in the first one, seems to be phoning in this performance.

Urban Cowboy is basically Saturday Night Fever with the country club culture taking the place of disco. It was the starting point for the 1980s' line-dancing, boot-wearing, mechanical bull-riding, country music-listening zeitgeist. Even Gilley's club owner Mickey Gilley became a star for a while and his club became a huge tourist attraction for a time. And any film that features the Charlie Daniels Band singing their hit song "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" can't be all bad.

The story is rather dark (and not likely something I should have been watching) and involves a good amount of infidelities--with the central couple of Bud and Sissy (John Travolta and Debra Winger, in her star-making performance)--and barroom violence between Travolta and Scott Glenn. The movie is engrossing, however, directly because of the characterizations. Watching Bud and Sissy, who obviously belong together, try and figure that out for themselves makes for a satisfying (and somewhat emotional) ending involving souvenir name-embossed license plates. As flawed as they are, I love them all the more because they remind me of the type of people I grew up with.

Nine to Five involves the plights of three women (Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton) and their sexually harrassing boss, deliciously played by Dabney Coleman (who was typecast as the lout until those roles petered out in the ensuing more "sensitive male" era). All the performances are excellent, but it is Dolly Parton (whose Dollywood theme park is a huge attraction near her home town of Sevierville, TN, and who is pretty much the "hometown girl who made good") who really shines in her film debut. Her spunky nature and uninhibited way of saying what she thinks while remaining the perfect Southern belle are perfect for this role.

Though the film degenerates into farce at the end, it is not entirely unexpected and can be enjoyable if you just go with it. Fonda is surprisingly good in a rare comedic performance and Tomlin always does solid work. Parton's rendition of the theme song was a huge crossover hit and gave a needed boost to her musical career as well as paving the way for future movie roles.

These aren't the best films ever made (some people would say that they're not even good), but they hold a place in my memory that ties me to my roots. This alone makes them somewhat entertaining in spite of their apparent shortcomings--equal to "comfort viewing"--but makes it hard to recommend them to people from other areas of the country.

The Blair Witch Project: A Dossier
Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows
Blair Witch: The Secret Confession of Rustin Parr
By D.A. Stern

The Blair Witch Files: The Dark Room
By Cade Merrill

I love the whole idea behind the Blair Witch mythology. I own the two (so far) films on DVD and still watch them excitedly, looking for more details involving the intricate backstory devised by The Blair Witch Project directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez.

But what makes my enjoyment more thorough are the books that have come from this phenomenon. The mythology is so dense that many tangents can be broken off from it and there have been at least a dozen book offshoots from this center.

The Blair Witch Project: A Dossier is a companion to the first film. Author D.A. Stern presents a collection of transcribed interviews and clippings along with the entirety of Heather Donahue's journal to give an indepth appreciation to the film. Reading the book reveals details about the movie previously imperceptible from just viewing it, like how these three met and gathered together for this project and what other townsfolk think about the Blair Witch and her alleged doings.

The sequel to The Blair Witch Project came with its own accompanying tome simply named after the film, Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows. Stern returns with another selection of clippings (this time from various tabloid sources), e-mails, and interviews that cover everything from the application process for joining the "Blair Witch Hunt" tour to character Jeff's history in a mental institution. A good amount of space is devoted to each character and their reasons for joining the tour, as well as past events that could or would have led to the final events of the film.

Both these books are riveting reading for fans of the films and are especially recommended for those interested in getting more from their viewing experience than two hours of film can offer. Other books cover more areas of the mythology in more tangential detail, like The Secret Confessions of Rustin Parr, which concerns a priest who accompanied convicted child murderer Parr (who said he was led to the killings by suspected Blair Witch Elly Kedward) during the last days before his execution.

Stern has written this book as a novel and it is quite the gripping read as Stern takes his time divvying up the so-called "secret confessions" one by one until the final blow at the end. The reader is led through these by priest Dominick Cazale, an engaging character in his own right who, after forty years, is finally able to reveal what has been torturing him for most of his life.

A series of books for younger readers, The Blair Witch Files was begun soon before the release of the second film back during the time that R-rated movies were still marketed to teenagers. Author "Cade Merrill" (presumably still Stern, though I have no evidence) purports to be Heather's cousin who is collecting information, X-Files-style, in order to understand what happened to his cousin in the forest of the Black Hills in Burkittsville, Maryland. People write him through his website and he meets with them and later tells their story in these books.

The only one I've read so far is called The Dark Room, the second in the series. (I found it on the bookshelf in a dollar store as they are now out of print.) Cade receives an e-mail from a girl who wants to come down and take photographs of the ruins of Rustin Parr's house (the site of the first film's climax). Once there, she begins frantically taking pictures of the site and saying things like "don't you see it?" though Cade only sees the same ruins that have been there since the house burned down in the 1940s. It is only when the pictures are developed that he realizes that she has seen something spectacular.

The Dark Room was a very quick read (I finished it in two hours) and was written with the skill of one who knows narrative pacing. The story continually offers surprises and discoveries that keep the reader turning pages to find out what is going on, and it is in that way quite similar to the Three Investigators series. The ending was mildly unsatisfying, but this is because the book is one in a series and can't really "end," so to speak. However, I definitely will be seeking other entries in the series to add to my continually growing collection of Blair Witch books.


Have any comments? Want to recommend a book or two? Think Will's seriously missed the point and needs to be corrected? Like to correspond with one of the reviewers? Write to us and let us know what you think! You can find the e-mail addresses of most of our reviewers on our Ex Libris Staff page.


Home : Ex Libris : 1 March 2004
Copyright © 2004, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
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