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ex libris reviews

1 May 2004

"The name is Psmith. P-smith."

"Peasmith, sir?"

"No, no. P-s-m-i-t-h. I should explain to you that I started life without the initial letter, and my father always clung ruggedly to the plain Smith. But it seemed to me that there were so many Smiths in the world that a little variety might well be introduced. Smythe I look on as a cowardly evasion, nor do I approve of the too prevalent custom of tacking another name on in front by means of a hyphen. So I decided to adopt the Psmith. The p, I should add for your guidance, is silent, as in phthisis, psychic, and ptarmigan. You follow me?"
P.G. Wodehouse


In This Issue:
An Unexpected Silence

Not much to say, this month--good books, all the usual suspects...go thou and read!

-- Will Duquette

Books to Read Aloud

by Will Duquette

Sethra Lavode
By Steven Brust

At last we've reached the final volume of Brust's epic three volume novel, The Viscount of Adrilankha, and it's a doozy: all the swashbuckling, derring-do, and ridiculously long conversations you've come to expect, plus the end of the story complete with a "Where are they now?" section.

I hesitate to say too much about the plot, given that this is the final volume not just of the extended novel but also of the Khaavren series as a whole; I don't want to give anything away. I will, however, make two relatively general comments.

First, to my great joy and delight, Vlad Taltos is mentioned in this one, in the context of Morrolan's endless party at Castle Black. At least, he doesn't really appear as all of the action predates his birth; but Paarfi mentions that the party is still on-going, even at the time of writing, and that throughout its long history many of the notables of whom he has written have frequently been found there...along with, occasionally, other less savory elements. Which is to say, Vlad.

Second, we get an interesting insight into how truthful Paarfi is. In Teckla, a Teckla tells Vlad of an encounter he has with a wrathful Lyorn who can only be our old friend Aerich. In this volume we see the encounter from Aerich's point of view. Needless to say, there are discrepancies....

Anyway, you should go out and buy The Phoenix Guards, the first title in this series, if you haven't read it already.

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Tongue in the Sink
By Dennis Fried, Ph.D.

Fair warning--this is another book I read only because I was offered a free review copy.

Subtitled "The Harrowing Adventures of a Baby Boomer Childhood," this book is further labeled, "Warning: This book contains heavy doses of humor. Do not read while driving or operating heavy equipment. Standard adult dose is one chapter per day. In case of overdose, discontinue reading immediately, lie quietly, and watch the news." I suspect that this is adequately expresses how funny Fried wishes he were; alas, it's an overestimate.

The first chapter is particularly bad; in it, Fried explains how he moved to Florida, and what he found there. It's got all the usual tired digs about development and elderly drivers, and is punctuated with lots of little gags that mostly fall flat. It short, it's trying far too hard to be funny, and not managing.

The remaining chapters are much better, and include many anecdotes of Fried's childhood that are genuinely funny, if not quite the laugh riot the cover bids you expect. And, unsurprisingly, the funniest bits are those in which Fried stops trying to be a comic and just tells the story. I enjoyed hearing about his dog Sardo, and the varied population of his hometown, the more so as he grew up in a time and place that I know little about (Upstate New York, in the 1950's).

I suppose what fascinates me the most about the book is the moral dimension, which is almost completely lacking. There are a handful of passages infused with PC-piety on animal rights and the environment, but in all of the tales of his youthful exploits there's no sense of shame or contrition or sheepishness, but only the concern then (and pleasure now) that he didn't get caught at the time. He relates an incident concerning one of his childhood friends, who inadvertently ate some candy after giving up candy for Lent. The friend was absolutely mortified about it. Fried comforts him, but clearly doesn't understand the problem.

Now I'm not looking for heavy-handed moralizing; it's meant to be funny, after all. But somehow Garrison Keillor manages to acknowledge his own moral frailty without ceasing to be funny. Fried's parents were Jewish, so he tells us, but were apparently not particularly observant, and left him to make up his own mind about religion; which is to say he got no religious instruction whatsoever. Keillor, on the other hand, was raised in the Church. Fried's book has no real moral dimension; Keillor's books, on the other hand, do. It makes you wonder.

So anyway, I read the book, and enjoyed most of it--except for the first chapter--well enough, but I didn't have to pay for it. Would I have paid money for it? Well, honestly, I probably wouldn't even be looking in that part of the bookstore. But if someone called it to my attention, and I leafed through it....well, probably I would have left it in the store. Still, if you have a particular interest in mid-1950's Americana you might take a look.

Children of the Storm
By Elizabeth Peters

This is the umpteenth Amelia Peabody mystery; it's just been released in paperback. The umpteenth+1 has, accordingly, just been released in hardback, and no doubt we'll be hearing from Deb about it in a few weeks.

The first thing I have to say about this book (which I devoured) is that Elizabeth Peters is utterly shameless. I won't go into details, because that would spoil things; all I'll say is that someday I expect Amelia and her intrepid husband to run into a completely new adversary, and die of shock on the spot. I'm no longer sure whether this is a mystery series, or a soap opera.

Anyway, if you're not familiar with the series by now, go click on the author's name, above, to go to our Elizabeth Peters page; there you'll find a list of the earlier books in the series. That's important, because you won't want to start with this one.

If you are familiar with the series, then all you need to know is that it's much like its predecessors. The Emerson clan arrives in Egypt, Emerson wants everyone to help excavate, Amelia wants to organize everyone, there are mysterious happenings, Amelia wants to investigate, Emerson and Amelia quarrel and make up repeatedly, scandalizing Ramses and Nefret, who quarrel and make up occasionally, amusing Emerson and Amelia, while diverse members of the extended (and growing) Emerson family wander in and out and about, still more mysterious happenings happen, Amelia succeeds in organizing everyone and has to make up with Emerson (again), and Ramses and David investigate this and that and occasionally get injured, until miraculously at the end we find out who the villains are and how they are related to the Emersons, who probably can't wait to make up again.

I enjoyed it thoroughly.

By G.K. Chesterton

This is a simply amazing book, and one that I'm having great difficulty reviewing. When reviewing a non-fiction book, I like to summarize the book's argument. That's absurdly difficult in this case, because the book is almost embarassingly rich--is almost bigger on the inside than on the outside. I think I'm going to need to re-read it every couple of months for the indefinite future if I'm to do it justice.

Anyway, here's what it's about (as opposed to what's in it). Chesterton wrote a book called Heretics, in which he described several of the prominent thinkers of his day and the world-views they espoused, and pointed out the weaknesses and failings of the latter. A critic of the book declared that it was unfair for Chesterton to deal so with his subjects without giving them the opportunity to criticize his own world-view. Chesterton was always willing to plunge cheerfully into battle, and wrote the current book in answer.

Just as Surprised by Joy describes C.S. Lewis's personal journey of faith, so this book describes Chesterton's with great humor. Indeed, the whole book can be described as an enormous joke on Chesterton himself. As a young man he rejected Christian orthodoxy, and became a freethinker. And as he examined each school of thought proposed by the freethinkers before him, he found that it wouldn't answer. Rejecting each of them, he boldly struck out on his own, and attempted to devise his own system of thought that commended itself to his reason and his common sense. And when he had completed it, and saw that it was good, he discovered that he had reinvented Christian orthodoxy.

There now, I think I've adequately described the premise of and occasion for the book; it's the content that's hard to summarize. I'll have to read it again.

In the meantime, I suggest you take a look at this essay, which undoubtedly does a better job of introducing the book than I have.

March to the Stars
By David Weber and John Ringo

This is the third book in the series that began with March Upcountry. To recap, Prince Roger MacClintock is the Heir Tertius to the throne of the Empire of Man, which is your typical garden-variety interstellar empire. Thanks to a botched attempt on his life, he and the company of Imperial Marines who form his bodyguard are stranded on a low-tech backwater planet. The local food doesn't supply sufficient nutrition, the jungles are rife with really nasty creatures, and though the locals have four arms and are covered with a coating of slime, they are a lot like humans--dangerous as all get out. Some how, Roger and his troops are going to have to fight their way half-way around the planet to the single starport. And when they get there, they are going to have to capture the starport, because the Imperial Governor is collaborating with the Empire's enemies. And then they are going to have to capture a ship.

The marines are going to have their hands full, because Roger is pretty much a useless fop.

At least, he starts out that way...

What follows is a saga of personal growth chock-full of military-SF goodness, and it's really pretty good if that's your cup of tea. As the name implies, this is the book in which Roger and company finally get to the starport, but if you think that's the end of the story you're gravely mistaken.

I don't know what the name of the next book is, but I'll surely buy it when it comes out in paperback.

Thank You, Jeeves
By P.G. Wodehouse

This is yet another Jeeves and Wooster novel, like unto the rest for the most part, though it has its distinguishing features, and almost entirely enjoyable.

It is thanks to one of these features that I say "almost entirely", but more of that anon.

The basic plot is familiar. One of Bertie's chums and one of his ex-fiancees wish to marry, but are prevented by Members of the Older Generation with their Hands on the Purse Strings. Bertie wishes to do all he can to help. However, Bertie and Jeeves have fallen out due to some innovation of Bertie's. Jeeves will naturally save the day, and Bertie will abandon his innovation in gratitude.

The first unique feature of this particular volume is that the innovation has nothing to do with Bertie's dress or appearance. He is not wearing clocked socks; he does not have a brightly-colored cummerbund; he has not grown a mustache. Instead, he has taken to playing the banjolele, an instrument so vile that he is evicted from his London flat when he refuses to give it up. More--when Bertie proposes to retire to a small cottage in the country where he will devote himself heart and soul to the pursuit of excellence with the banjolele, Jeeves refuses to go with him! The horror! In fact, Jeeves leaves Bertie's service altogether. It seems that Jeeves has developed a horror of the banjolele, and the thought of being incarcerated with one in the confines of a small cottage is simply too much.

The banjolele, incidentally, is a real instrument; it's a banjo body with a ukelele neck. It has four strings like a ukelele, and is tuned like a ukelele, and is intended to allow ukelele players to sound something sort of like banjo players. Apparently back in the 1920's or so there was a fad for this sort of thing, and every combination of mandolin, banjo, and ukelele bodies and necks were available. I found this out by Googling on "banjolele"; the number page not only answered the question, but quoted this particular book.

The distinguishing feature that mars the book is a distressing bit of racial foolishness. In the vicinity of Bertie's cottage is a troupe of what are described as "nigger minstrels". We never meet them, and it's never entirely clear whether they really are black, or whether they simply perform in black-face, though (since sometimes the phrase "negro minstrels" is used) I suspect the former. Either way, the "N-word" appears multiple times. And a good bit of the plot depends on Bertie being in black-face, and therefore being both unrecognizeable and indistinguishable from one of the minstrels.

Now, Wodehouse had no intention of being racist. When this book was written there really were minstrel troupes, and they really were named as I've described, and were undoubtedly so-called even by the minstrels themselves. And you can't accuse him of presenting blacks in a bad way, as they do not in fact actually appear. And the whole thing with black-face wasn't intended to be anything but entirely silly.

In short, this is not a racist book. And yet one of the effects of forty years of advances in civil rights in this country is that I can't read a period book that uses the "N-word" with no intent to offend without feeling dirty. There's something wrong with that. On the one hand, I'd never call anyone a "nigger"; it's impossible to use the word today without offending. But why should that offense be allowed to work its way backward to taint a book with no harm in it, that doesn't perpetuate racial stereotypes, that simply uses the word as it was once commonly used?

In short, I'm less annoyed that the book uses a term that some find offensive, and more annoyed that I can't read the book without thinking about how some other people might be offended by it.


Mulliner Nights
By P.G. Wodehouse

This is yet another collection of Mr. Mulliner stories. Mr. Mulliner, for those who have not met him, is a regular in the bar-parlor of the Angler's Rest, where he frequently holds forth about his vast array of remarkable relations. These stories are less well-known than the Jeeves and Wooster stories, but I like them just as much.

Leave It To Psmith
By P.G. Wodehouse

This is an interesting book on several counts. First, it's a Psmith novel, and of all Wodehouse's young men, Psmith stands alone by being both eccentric and competent. Second, it's also a Blandings novel. And third, although it's a Blandings novel it predates Lord Emsworth's interest in pigs. I have nothing against the Empress of Blandings, but a pigless Blandings makes for a nice change.

Psmith ends the book as Emsworth's secretary; it's a real pity Wodehouse didn't follow up on that, because Psmith really makes Blandings come alive. Ah, well.

Anyway, I enjoyed it thoroughly. But it's Wodehouse--so surely you expected that by now?

Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

A Grave Talent
To Play the Fool
With Child
Night Work
By Laurie R. King

Aside from her amusing series about Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, I had not previously read any other books by Laurie King. She has this series about Kate Martinelli, two linked novels and a complete stand-alone as well. I like the Mary Russell series very much and decided to give Kate Martinelli a shot to see if King's story telling is as good in a modern series as it is in early 20 century England.

The main character is Kate Martinelli, a young detective newly transferred to San Francisco from San Jose with a good reputation and little experience. On her first assignment she is assigned to work on a child kidnapping/murder case with Inspector Al Hawkin, a seasoned veteran who slightly resents being saddled with a primadonna just to keep the media happy. Women look good on cases with kids, more compassionate and all.

A Grave Talent is the story of that case. All the little girls are about the same age, look very similar and, unmolested, are dumped after death on a specific road in hills, coincidentally in the middle of a closed community of old hippies and hermit types. The access in and out of the community is locked. Cars are only allowed on specific days, phone lines are limited and everyone knows everyone. Plus the terrain makes transporting a dead child cross country from elsewhere next to impossible. And then they discover that one of the community's residents has spent time in jail for killing a child she was babysitting. A child who looks very much like the murder victims. And she is also a world famous artist whose paintings are faintly disturbing in light of recent events.

The first book is as much about discovering who Kate is and the development of her partnership with Hawkin as it is about the murder. There is much to learn about Kate. She's had some hard knocks up til this point and has learned to keep her private life separate from her work life, to the point of using the nickname Casey at work and Kate with her friends. Watching her relationship with Hawkin grow is interesting also. He has a disturbing tendency to call at all hours and not sleep til a case is solved. He also doesn't pry.

The next three books continue with Martinelli and Hawkin working together. To Play the Fool has them investigating the lives of the homeless after a man has been murdered and then partially cremated in a park. This book's prime suspect is Brother Erasmus, a man who speaks only in quotations and ministers to the homeless and the poor. Conversations with him are interesting, to say the least, especially if you aren't extremely well versed in the Bible and Shakespeare. King is exploring the role of the Fool and how human interactions depend on language in this story. It was interesting.

With Child is about a bad patch in Martinelli's home life. She has taken a leave of absence for medical reasons. Hawkin is getting married so Martinelli offers to care for his new stepdaughter during his honeymoon. The child is way too bright for her own good and when she disappears from their motel room in the same vicinity as a serial murderer, things get even worse.

Night Work was the least straightforward and most problematic of the four. Kate continues to have domestic issues and at the same time is investigating murders of men who have abused or beaten their wives in some way. They all have the same markers, especially the candy left in their pockets. Plus a good friend of Kate's is a suspect or at least complicit in the crime somehow. This one wasn't as tightly plotted as the previous three, however, and I kept wondering how she was going to tie all the loose ends together at the end. She manages it, but just barely. And there were some plot points that were just a little too over the top to be believable.

These books aren't the amusing mysteries that Kings other series is but the character of Kate is compelling. And King uses the books to explore themes that are fascinating. Her background in Old Testament theology and religion keeps showing up deepening the novels and toning down much of the feminist angst that other women authors play up. I liked that about them. Good stories, well told.

The Game
By Laurie R. King

This is the next installment of the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes mysteries that King writes. Holmes and Russell are called in by Mycroft, Holmes' brother, to investigate the whereabouts of a missing English spy in the highlands of India. The spy just happens to be Kim O'Hara from Kipling's novel Kim. Apparently, Holmes made his acquaintance 30 years before, just after the novel about him ends. Off they go to India, Russell learning Hindi and the local dialects along the way in preparation to go undercover in an unstable India.

The book is good but problematic. First, much of the richness of the plot depends on having a working knowledge of Kim. I hadn't read it beforehand and missed many of the references that would have made it more amusing. Second, King splits up Holmes and Russell about halfway thru the book and I realized that without the interplay between their personalities, the books lose something. It went flat at that point.

I'm glad I read the book but would really recommend going back and reading Kim first. I realized this after I read Kim and discovered what some of the jokes and story puns were about. This isn't the strongest in the series but still amusing and worth reading.

The House on Mango Street
By Sandra Cisneros

I have been generating a reading list for each of my kids for the summer. My daughter especially needs books that will stretch her abilities a little. She tends to read things that are too easy for her and that require no thought at all. Of course, if you are going to do this to kids, you have to find Good Books that they will enjoy reading. This book is on a lot of lists for young adults and comes highly praised by Those Who Know. I've read some real clinkers recommended by TWK however, so I bought a copy and read it myself. I can see why the library has 7 copies on their shelf. It's absolutely wonderful.

The story is told in a series of vignettes ranging from a paragraph on a page to two or three pages. They are all told by Esperanza Cordero, a young Chicano living in Chicago. Mango Street is the neighborhood she lives in. Esperanza doesn't want to live on Mango Street. She doesn't want to have a strange name and she doesn't want to be Mexican. She wants more out of life than growing up to marry early and to hope that the husband comes home in a good mood. She doesn't want to belong to the culture of Mango Street. Mostly she wants to write and tell stories. In the vignettes, she tells stories about her family and her neighbors and her life, describing them all with her fresh voice and her critical eye.

The book is so well written I sat down and reread it as soon as I finished it. It's not long but in a few short vignettes, Cisneros gave me a complete picture of the world of Esperanza and what she wants from life. The writing was breathtaking. It's one of those books you want to give people with the admonition to "Read this, you'll be amazed!"

By Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is mostly known for his sci-fi books but he has written a trilogy about the wives of the Old Testament Patriarchs. These are the first two in the series. I haven't been able to find the third and probably will end up ordering it from the bookstore just to find out how he handles the Rachel story.

These are fiction and it's important to remember that going into them. Card takes the very bare bones of a story and extrapolates on it. He leaves things out that are repetitious from one story to the next, so that while Abraham claims Sarah as his sister in Egypt, Isaac later does not. And Card adds in elements to the stories that are not based on what is in the Bible but which are plausible based on our knowledge of the cultures of the times and of human psychology. Hagar the Egyptian is a maid that is given to Sarah by Pharaoh in Egypt when he has her in his house of women.

One of the most interesting things Card does is define the blessing given to Abraham by God as the written works of the Old Testament. The blessing then becomes a real thing, a knowledge of language and of God that is written down and kept alive by each generation. So when Jacob fools Isaac into giving him his blessing rather than his brother Esau, it is the possession of the Book that he is really getting and the privilege of continuing on with the creation of the Scripture. That's a very interesting thought.

The other interesting thing he does is create a very complex relationship between Abraham and Isaac stemming from the willingness of Abraham to kill Isaac at the command of God. I've often wondered how Isaac felt about the whole thing; apparently Card did also. The father/son relationship is strained to say the least and Abraham as an old man comes across as a bit of a tyrant over his son and his son's household. The unequal love that Isaac feels for his twin sons Jacob and Esau are a reflection of the scars he carries from his relationship with his father. As I said, not biblical but certainly humanly plausible.

That was the interesting thing about these books. They took bare bones stories and made them rounded and developed. How accurate his retelling is is questionable but for sheer storytelling, they're really good. I enjoyed them.

By Laurie R. King

I don't think I would class this book as a mystery, per se. Or, to be more specific, it does not follow the normal patterns and conventions of the genre. It isn't exactly a thriller either, though my experience with that genre is limited at best. I'd call it suspense. Hitchcock could have done wonderful things with this book.

The story revolves around Rae Newborn who moves to an island off the coast of Washington that she has inherited from her father. The island is not inhabited having been turned into wildlife sanctuary of some sort years before, but near its only navigable beach is the ruin of a log cabin flanked by stone towers originally built in the 20's or 30's by her great-uncle. Rae is a world famous woodworker/artist who also happens to suffer from severe chronic depression and suicidal ideation. She comes to the island to try to recover something of her life after losing her beloved husband and young daughter in a car accident, sparking off yet another breakdown and long path back up from the pit. She has also suffered an attempted rape while still on the mainland, leaving her shaken and paranoid and only that much more depressed. She also comes to the island to rebuild the house. The work, the fresh air and mostly the solitude are her prescription for therapy over drugs and doctor's offices. And she's doing well beating back her paranoia and fears when she finds a footprint near the spring she is piping her water from.

The book really showcases King's own interest in building and woodworking. You can tell this woman has actually worked with tools and wood and building plans before. It adds to the verisimilitude of the book. It also brings up the mysterious element in the novel since Rae's great-uncle vanished years before with no further contact with the family and the house was burned to the ground just after he left it. Rae uncovers clues about him while salvaging the wreckage. And she begins to feel the presence of someone else on the island. Ghostly, almost. Is it her paranoia or is it real? There is the footprint, but she could have left it herself without knowing. Honestly, until the end, I couldn't figure out which. I didn't see the ending coming at all.

It's an interesting read. Very different from the humorous mysteries she normally writes. Actually, though, I found myself thinking about it, almost hoping she would write a sequel so I can find out what happens to the house and to Rae and the island.

Keeping Watch
By Laurie R. King

Keeping Watch is a stand-alone book, but the major character is one of the minor characters in another of her books, Folly.

It has an interesting premise. Allen Carmichael rescues children from hopeless situations. To be more exact, he kidnaps them for an organization that places them in safe homes when either their parents or social services refuse or can't keep them from abusive situations. Often he helps both a mother and the children escape. Rarely, is it just the child. And it's all completely illegal also making his life just a little abnormal.

This time his organization, headed by a Feminist With An Attitude, has been contacted by a child who claims his father is going to kill him. They call in Allen to watch the house and the child to substantiate the claim. He has all sorts of interesting skills with technology and is able to, indeed, verify that the child is in danger and that the father is extremely abusive. He takes the child, with the kid's consent, and places him in a family chosen by his organization in the wilds of Montana. And then he decides to quit. Living below the radar is too stressful, too dangerous and he's got a love interest in his life. Except the kid's father disappears under suspicious circumstances and Allen begins to wonder if the kid set them all up, taking out his father after he was safely away.

The other half of the book, the background to all this, is Allen's experiences in Vietnam. He has lived for years with post traumatic stress disorder and the residue of killing children in Nam. The risk of the rescue effort is his therapy and expiation for the past.

The whole book is fascinating. There really is an organization like the one described in it. In fact, King references it in the novel. Her descriptions of people's mental states are spot on without being over the top. The waffling that Allen goes thru, not knowing if the kid is a psycho or a victim is so believable. And it has a realistic ending. I'm thinking about rereading again soon just because I enjoyed it so much.

Algebra 1: An Incremental Development, 3rd Edition
By John Saxon

My kids think I am the nerdiest mother ever since I began teaching, or I should say, reteaching myself basic algebra this spring. My 16 year-old son mutters things about mumblemumble mom doing mumble algebra for mumble fun and, like, mumble get a life, jeez mumblemumble. My daughter is a little less subtle. She just declares to any and all that she has the weirdest mom in the whole world. Do I care? Not in the least.

There is a story behind this. I didn't just wake up to some odd biological, midlife, menopause-related crisis with a burning desire to solve equations for x or to delve into the mysteries of the quadratic theorem.

First of all, my daughter is LD and needs mucho help with homework. She actually gets mathematical concepts quite well; it's figuring out what the problems are saying and what is the stupid question that is hard for her. Copying from one spot to another, as in copying down a problem and then recopying it as you do the work, is another difficulty. So quite often I am explaining and checking math. That's ok when we're talking long division or fractions. Percentages are a snap. So is factoring and figuring out common denominators. But you start combining letters with numbers in any equation and I start getting just a wee bit befuddled. Faking it doesn't work either. Tried that--she got every problem wrong. I got a snotty email from the teacher. And next year she's in high school with real algebra, not just the watered down, wussy 8th grade version. Yikes!

Second, I am unemployed right now. I have a fair amount of free, quiet time. There are only so many times you can clean the house. The dog is not a good conversationalist. Boredom sets in.

Saxon is fairly well known in the homeschool circles. He uses a simple format of 4 lessons and then a test. Each lesson teaches one small increment or concept with 5 or 6 worked examples. Then you are given a couple practice problems specifically on the concept taught. Finally, there are 30 problems that review all the material learned up to and including that lesson. There is a 20 problem test given at the end of the 4 lessons that is actually testing things learned in the prior lesson set. So on the test after lesson 80, you are questioned on the concepts taught up to lesson 76. By reading the explanations and then following along as the examples are worked, you pretty much have all the teaching you need because everything is taught in very small steps. There are no tricksy problems. All is straight forward and above board. It takes me roughly an hour to do a lesson.

The critique I've heard of the program is that there isn't enough repetition. Some kids need the 5 extra worksheets with 50 problems each to get the concepts and in a schoolroom situation, the teacher needs those resources in order to teach. It also is just straight math. No "real life" applications aside from the word problems. No hands-on learning activities demonstrating why a certain concept is important to a particular profession. Actually, I like that about the book. My daughter's book from school is so full of culturally diverse examples and cool scientific applications, it's hard to find the math problems in it. Curriculum committees might not find it so wonderful, tho.

So I ordered the next book in the series, Algebra 2, and I may take this new little passion all the way to calculus. I am finding the lack of ambiguity in math comforting somehow. There is an answer; all you have to do is correctly follow the steps. As an adolescent I found that frustrating beyond belief. As a middle-aged adult, it's kind of nice that at least in some things in life, there are concrete answers to certain questions even if they are questions like "what is the slope-intercept method for finding the equation of a line on a rectangular coordinate grid?"

Craig's Recent Reading

by Craig Clarke

The Bookman's Promise
By John Dunning

I have been a fan of John Dunning's writing since I first read the initial Cliff Janeway bibliomystery, Booked to Die. This was followed by The Bookman's Wake and the old-time radio novel Two O'Clock, Eastern Wartime, which I consider to be his masterpiece.

Now Janeway has returned after about ten years in The Bookman's Promise, which is set not long after The Bookman's Wake in 1987. Most books on books have a central figure (Wake's was Edgar Allan Poe, A Pound of Paper by John Baxter was about Graham Greene), and The Bookman's Promise focuses on the work and life of Sir Richard Francis Burton. Unfortunately, Dunning focuses so much on Burton that he forgot to write a gripping mystery. I can't say I wasn't enthralled by every page of Promise, but to nowhere near the extent of the previous two Janeway novels, which had me reading them at every free moment. This one, on the other hand, was an effort to complete and a real disappointment.

However, it did pique my curiosity about Burton and his works. He seems to have led a fascinating life, and, while I'm not sure to believe some of the plot points surrounding his life as presented in The Bookman's Promise, I'm sure there is a lot more to research. Travelling and writing: that's the life. Also, while I was disappointed in the story, the characters seemed very real (I think Dunning may be using Janeway as a doppelganger for his hidden desires--which makes him sometimes unlikeable); although it was difficult early on to differentiate the two female leads--but that could just be me.

The Best of Ray Bradbury: The Graphic Novel
By Ray Bradbury

I am a huge Bradbury fan, so I picked this book up at the library on impulse. Never having really been keen on graphic novels, I thought that this would possibly be good for a bridge into liking them, since the entries were based on stories with which I was already familiar.

Well, I was wrong. These are uniformly bad. There's none of the joy that is palpable in Bradbury's original texts, and, in fact, the tendency of these artists is toward the depressing and melancholy. None of them enhanced my enjoyment of the stories, and all of them detracted from it. The illustrations are at best passable and, at worst, impressionistic, leaving the reader to form his own opinion of what is being drawn. Most of all, they are simply retellings of the stories, only without the imagination that my mind put to the originals upon reading them.

Supposedly, these are some of the best graphic artists working today, with names connected to such titles as Watchmen and Sandman (which I always assumed--and this title offers evidence--were popular due to the quality of the writing, not of the art). I only hope that this collection does not have the same effect that a music video does for a song, and that I will be able to revisit the stories without having these images in my head. Just awful.

The Crossword Connection
By Nero Blanc

Nero Blanc (pseudonym of husband and wife duo Cordelia Frances Biddle and Steve Zettler) returns with the third in their popular crossword puzzle mysteries. The novelty of this series is that there are six crossword puzzles included throughout the novel and the clues of the puzzles lead to the solution of the crime, even within the story, since the characters are solving the puzzles as well.

Rosco, a police detective, and Belle, a crossword editor (the series' continuing protagonists), are preparing for their wedding when a string of murders of homeless people leads Rosco back to work. Crosswords are found at the scenes of the crimes and soon are being left at Belle's house to point to an even more personal threat. Oh, sure, it's silly, but working the puzzles in the book is fun (I've read one other of the series) and is a nice break from the passivity of simply reading a book. The story doesn't ask much of you but to pay attention and appreciate the work involved in its creation. For light entertainment with a minor mental effort, you can't do much better than a crossword mystery.

Encyclopedia Brown Solves Them All
The Case of the Exploding Plumbing and Other Mysteries (aka Encyclopedia Brown Lends a Hand)
The Case of the Dead Eagles and Other Mysteries
Encyclopedia Brown Carries On
By Donald J. Sobol

Rereading the Three Investigators series (reviewed earlier) made me remember another juvenile detective whose exploits I enjoyed at an even earlier age: Encyclopedia Brown. Leroy (as his parents call him) lives with his parents in a small house on Rover Avenue in Idaville. His father is the police chief but what people don't know is that he often comes home to describe particularly tough cases over dinner to his ten-year-old son, who usually comes up with a solution before dessert, though sometimes he needs to have seconds for additional time.

Encyclopedia is so monikered because he reads a lot, and remembers everything he reads, which is useful in solving conundrums in Idaville, which most often seem to involve cases of wordplay, or missed details, or whatever Bugs Meany (leader of the Tigers and Encyclopedia's nemesis) happens to be involved with at the time. Assisting Encyclopedia is Sally Kimball, not only the prettiest girl in the fifth grade, but also the strongest, and the one person Bugs Meany fears because she beats him whenever they fight.

These four books comprised a boxed set that I've had since childhood. I've read them so often, that I would sometimes not only remember the solutions to the cases, but the important detail that lead to them. Some examples include the length of a dollar bill, the placement of the full moon in the sky, the temperature of water in a hose, and the fact that some words end with the same letters that begin them. These were great fun to read over again. Author and micromystery specialist Sobol also published two volumes of *Two-Minute Mysteries* for adults, but I didn't find those nearly as enjoyable. In this case, the characters and their dependability (Encyclopedia will always solve the case, Bugs will always create trouble but then admit his wrongdoing when confronted) are half the fun, and Sobol obviously knows how to contruct a story of this size to great effect, something that would seem to be a feat in itself. But the fact that these books have stood the test of time, and are still bestsellers, speaks well of Sobol's strength of characterization. Leroy "Encyclopedia" Brown has two of the ideal aspects of a fifth grader's life: he is incredibly intelligent and, instead of being an outcast, is actually rewarded for it by his peers.

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