Home : Ex Libris : 1 June 2004

ex libris reviews

1 June 2004


There was, so the historians of the Middle West tell us, a man of Chicago named Young, who once, when his nerves were unstrung, put his mother (unseen) in the chopping-machine, and canned her and labelled her "Tongue."
P.G. Wodehouse


Contents


In This Issue:
Wow!

This past month has been something of a watershed in my life as a book reviewer. In the past month I've read five books which I received as free review copies--and for the first time one of them was a book which I'd have read anyway (Mistress of the Pearl, by Eric Van Lustbader). (You'll find all five reviews below.)

I've said a few words about review copies in the past. The books I review are the books I read, and the vast majority of the books I read are books I simply felt like reading. Or re-reading. Or re-re-reading. And all through the time I've been reviewing books on-line (I started in December of 1996) I've occasionally been asked if I'd enjoy a review copy of an author's book.

The first time it happened, I was so tickled that I gladly accepted. The book turned out to be an awful, horrible, unreadable philosophical/political screed, self-published by the author. I won't name it; let it rest in peace. Most of the requests that followed were similarly self-published, and most of them I skipped. A notable exception was Susan Wenger's The Port Wine Sea, a delightful parody of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series. That was just over four years ago.

But just recently I've been getting more such requests, and the quality has generally been going up. The three Lars Walker I review in this issue I was sent at the behest of Mr. Walker himself; I don't mention it in the reviews simply because, for a change, I didn't feel that it unduly affected the reading experience. It's surprising--you'd think I'd be inclined to favor books I get for free, but it doesn't work that way. It can be a burden--I accepted the free copy with the understanding that I'd review it, and reading something out of obligation tends to put me out of sorts and make me more critical. In Walker's case, his tales pulled me right in, without let or hindrance. And then, I was reassured by the fact that they are published by Baen Books, the publisher of Lois McMaster Bujold, and also by the diffident manner with which he approached me. What can I say, I'm a sucker for a soft sell.

The fourth book was Lance Rucker's No Secrets, which was a bit of a disappointment.

And the fifth was the aforementioned Mistress of the Pearl, which is published by Tor Books; they also publish Steven Brust. As I say, it's the first book I've been asked to review that I would have bought anyway. (Though, to be fair, I'd have bought Susan Wenger's book, and Lars Walker's books as well--except that until they approached me with them, I didn't even know that they existed.) I feel like I've finally come of age as a book reviewer--real publishers of real books that I really like have deigned to notice my existence. It's all too silly for words, I suppose, but gratifying nonetheless.

-- Will Duquette


Books to Read Aloud

by Will Duquette

Taran Wanderer
By Lloyd Alexander

This is the fourth of Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, and if you'd asked me some months ago, before I started reading them to David, I'd have told you it was my favorite. It might still be...but I was surprised to discover that it's not the book I thought it was.

Or, rather, it is...but the events that I remember and that made the book special for me and that I thought filled the whole book are actually all jammed into the last thirty or forty pages.

Anyway, this is the book where Taran, through self-sacrifice and hard work, finally becomes a man. This is the book where he discovers his limits--which are wider than he thinks in some places and which pinch unexpectedly in others--and makes his peace with himself. He becomes a man who can see what needs doing, and will do it, as best he can; who does not make excuses; who is brave, honest, and skilled, all three. Not a bad package, I think.

The Wee Free Men
By Terry Pratchett

I first read this last July and enjoyed it very much. I just heard that a sequel is due in June, and so I pulled it out and read it to Jane, who also enjoyed it very much. I won't say much about it (you can read the earlier review) but there are a few points worth mentioning.

First, it's a Discworld book; but it's also a juvenile. I've generally only seen it in the young adult's section of the bookstore; so even if you're a Discworld fan you might have missed it. Hie to a bookstore (or, more likely, to Amazon.com) and order it! (Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg have cameos.)

Second, it contains one of his best lines in a long time--one of the ones that doesn't hit you until you're already a couple of sentences past it: "The universe is a lot more complicated than it looks from the outside." Think about that for a while.


Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Complete Peanuts, 1950-1952
By Charles M. Schulz

This is the first of a series of books to be published over the next twelve years, containing the complete run of Peanuts cartoons from October of 1952 until Schulz's retirement, a span of nearly fifty years. I bought it for two reasons.

The first is purely nostalgic. During most of my life, the only Peanuts cartoons I read in the newspaper were the Sunday strips. The daily strips weren't on the usual comics page; instead, they were just inside the front page, which I seldom looked at. Thus, my knowledge of Charlie Brown et al came from a handful of Peanuts collections, most of which I inherited from my siblings, and all of which were from the first ten years of the strip's existence. I read them over and over. And many of the ones I remember best are from the time period covered by this current collection.

The other reason is that I'm a comic strip junkie, and I especially like watching comic strips evolve. There's always a period of time during which the cartoonist is figuring out how his characters are drawn, and what personalities they have, and I find it fascinating to watch. In this case, I also found it fascinating to re-read the same cartoons I'd loved as a kid, and see things that had gone completely over my head.

Here are a number of things I noticed as I was reading it.

As the strip begins, there are only four major characters: Shermy, Patty (who is not the Peppermint Patty of the later years), Charlie Brown, and Snoopy. Shermy and Patty are the big kids--they both go to school (though it might only be kindergarten). Charlie Brown is the little kid in the neighborhood; he doesn't go to school yet. And the kind of problems Charlie Brown has with Patty and Shermy (though mostly with Patty) are the kind of problems any little kid has with the Big Kids. Interestingly, there's a clear scent of on-again/off-again romance between Patty and Shermy. Snoopy, meanwhile, is just a dog. He has moods, and opinions, but they are non-verbal. His big thing is that he can always tell when Charlie Brown has anything to eat, especially ice cream or candy.

Over the course of the first year, Charlie Brown gets a little older, and a new cast member is added: Violet, a pretty girl of Charlie Brown's own age, with two straight pigtails in back (though she's usually drawn in profile, so you can only see one). One gathers that she was added to give Charlie Brown a love interest of his own. Violet, interestingly, is the first girl to hold a football for Charlie Brown; and though she takes it away at the last minute, it doesn't appear to be due to malice. Charlie Brown also shows up playing Beethoven (badly) on a violin during this period.

The next kid to arrive is Schroeder, the new baby in the neighborhood, and for the first month or so a baby is all he is--and then the piano shows up, and he takes off with Beethoven. By the end of the book he's walking and talking and playing baseball with Charlie Brown--who at this point is always shown as the catcher, never the pitcher--though he's definitely still younger than Charlie Brown.

Shortly after Schroeder makes the transformation from toddler to little boy and Charlie Brown's frequent companion, Lucy shows up. As with Schroeder, she starts out more or less as a toddler, and though she has an independent streak she's initially relatively guileless. Toward the end of the book, she does indeed hold the football for Charlie Brown in a Sunday strip in which he twice fails to kick the ball, and in neither case does she pull the ball away. The first time she's afraid that he'll kick her, and so she lets go of the ball so that it flops over just as he's about to kick it. The second time Charlie Brown warns her to hold it absolutely still, and she holds it so tightly that he can't kick it out of her grip. In neither case is she being mean; she's trying her best, in fact.

After Lucy appears, Violet's hairstyle begins to change, possibly because she and Lucy look too much alike. Over the course of several months it goes back and forth between her signature pigtails hanging straight down in back and a single proto-bun on the back of her head.

It's about this time, or maybe a few months earlier, that Snoopy shows signs of becoming a Dog of Parts. Charlie Brown comments that everyone in town is getting a TV, and gives as evidence Snoopy's doghouse, which has a TV aerial on top. (If I'm not mistaken, this marks the first time Snoopy's doghouse appears in the strip.) A month or so later, angry at being left all alone by the kids at the end of the day of a long day of play, Snoopy stalks off to his dog house. If they don't want to play anymore, that fine. He doesn't need them. He can spend the evening watching TV.

And then, just at the end of the book, Linus makes his first appearances as Lucy's baby brother.

As 1952 comes to a close, none of the characters yet look quite as we will know them for the better part of the strip's life. Charlie Brown's head is still noticeably oval when seen full-face. Snoopy hasn't yet begun to walk on his hindlegs or sleep on top of his dog house--it's not even completely clear yet that he's Charlie Brown's dog. Violet is clearly evolving toward her final form, but hasn't gotten there yet. Schroeder is already a big Beethoven fan, but Lucy has not yet fallen in love with him. Lucy, who is still noticeably younger than Charlie Brown, has not yet opened her psychiatrist's booth. Linus has not yet acquired his security blanket, nor can he talk. Charlie Brown plays baseball, but has not yet begun to pitch.

There's good stuff in this first volume, but clearly, the best is yet to come.

The Year of the Warrior
By Lars Walker

This is one of the more fascinating books I've read recently. It's the tale of a viking lord named Erling in the days of Olaf Tryggveson, when Scandinavia was beginning to become a Christian land. Erling is not only one of the first Christian lords in Norway, but also the first Christian in his own domain, and much of the drama comes from the clash of faiths, and the struggles between the followers of Odin and the followers of the White Christ.

To a large extent, it's an historical novel. Erling is an historical figure, as are many of the viking notables he meets. It's also a fantasy novel, for the followers of the White Christ must overcome not only the worshippers of the old gods, but supernatural forces as well. And, most atypically (as I pointed out a few days ago), it's a work of Christian fantasy, and a remarkably good one.

The viewpoint character is an Irishman named Ailill. Having just been kicked out of the abbey in which he had been a novice on account of his manifold sins, Ailill arrives at his parents home just in time to be taken captive by viking raiders. On the way back to Scandinavia the vikings cut his hair in a priest's tonsure, in hopes that with his monk's robes they'll be able to get a good price for him at the slave market; there are a few Christians there, and sometimes they will pay good money to redeem a priest from slavery.

And, in fact, that's more or less what happens. Ailill is purchased by Erling, whose previous priest had been murdered by Erling's father. Ailill is given the choice of coming back to Erling's home and being his priest, with all the risks that that entails, or being sold again. The difficulty is, Erling's nothing but a failed monk, and one with a serious grudge against God; he's taken no vows and is certainly no priest. But freedom is better than slavery, and he lies to Erling and accompanies him home.

The result is a fascinating, inspiring (and frequently humbling) story. On the one hand we have Erling's political and religious struggles, and as Erling is (after his father's death) one of the great men of Norway during a tempestuous time, that's an exciting tale indeed. And then, on the other hand, we have the personal story of Ailill, failed monk, who must perforce grow into his faith and his role as priest, and learn to care for the flock that God has sent him. And perhaps best of all, Walker doesn't attempt to whitewash history. Erling is (and historically was) gentle in his attempts to convert his people, but King Olaf brings Christ with the edge of his sword. The Church is made up of sinners, then and always, and the result is what you'd expect.

Walker handles the problem of how to mingle fantasy elements and Christianity with ease. He simply feigns that old gods have a certain reality, and that they and other less powerful beings (faerie, essentially) are being displaced by the new religion. The work thus feels all of a piece.

As I say, I found the story humbling--the fortitude and determination of these early Christians in the face of hardship is almost impossible to believe, and yet I know that Walker has portrayed them accurately. It makes me a little less satisfied with myself, in all truth.

I should add, Lars contacted me after visiting this blog, and asked if I would like to read any of his books. I said sure; they are published by Baen Books, who publish a number of authors I quite like, so I figured they couldn't be too bad. I was quite pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this one.

Blood and Judgement
By Lars Walker

Here's another book by Lars Walker. It's an ambitious concept, though I'm afraid he doesn't quite manage to pull it off.

Here's the set-up. Will Sverdrup is a high school English teacher. He's currently teaching Shakespeare's Hamlet; he's also a member of a local theater group that's just starting a new production of Hamlet (Will's going to start in it.) And then, during rehearsal one evening, something exceedingly odd happens.

First, Will finds himself in pre-Christian Denmark, in the body of a buff young dude named Amlodd, whose uncle has just killed Amlodd's father and married his mother. Will--

But I must digress for a moment. It seems that the original source for the tale of Hamlet is a 13th century manuscript by a fellow named Saxo Grammaticus. (Given his name, one can only imagine that our Saxo was writing things down when writing things down was a great eccentricity.) In Saxo's version of the tale, the star's name is Amlodd. But back to our story.

Will is familiar with Saxo Grammaticus, recognizes where he is, and somehow has to deal with it. Meanwhile, all of his relations not surprisingly think he's mad.

Meanwhile, and for no obvious reason, the rest of the theater company find themselves in a very odd place--a castle of vague outline that seems to want to become Hamlet's castle of Kronborg in Elsinore. Something in the air seems to want them to act out Shakespeare's play for real, quite possibly including all of the deaths at the end. But there are some wrinkles. To begin, Will Sverdrup isn't there, being in Amlodd's body in the real Denmark--but Amlodd is there in Will's body, and let me tell you he doesn't know how to behave in polite company. And then on top of that there's one other person there, the son of one of the cast members, a sullen teenager who has acquired an interesting set of new powers.

As the book progresses we get to follow first Will in Amlodd's body, then the company in the faux-Elsinore, and so on, as little by little we learn just what the hell is going on.

There's a lot about this book to like. The scenes with Will in Denmark are generally quite good, and the contrast between Will's views of what is right and proper and those of Amlodd's friends and relations is intriguing. And by far the best passage in the book concerns Amlodd's sojourn in England, a section which is told in third person so that it's unclear whether we're watching Amlodd as he would really have been, or Will in Amlodd's body.

The sections in the faux-Elsinore are less satisfactory, though Amlodd's difficulties with 21st-century manners and morals are a nice counterpoint to Will's problems. Walker has tried to draw the members of the theater company from all of the philosophical schools of modern America, so as to comment on each, and I'm afraid it doesn't work. It would take a longer novel to really flesh out each character; instead, several of them evolve into rather absurd caricatures (I'm thinking especially of the sullen teenager's father). The points Walker raises are valid ones, but it's hard to get past the characterizations.

Also, I'm not entirely happy with the portrayal of Christianity in the book; in some places it seems tacked on in a way that it simply doesn't in The Year of the Warrior. Will Sverdrup, in particular, is supposed to be making a moral and spiritual journey in the course of the book, a journey that ends in his conversion, and I'm afraid it seemed a little contrived. I hasten to add, though, that my concerns are literary, not theological.

Finally, the ending didn't satisfy me. The denouement denoue'd on schedule, but it wasn't quite clear to me why or how things worked out the way they did.

But no matter. The book held my attention right handily, even in the weak parts, and I rather enjoyed the good parts.

I've got one more of Lars' books left to read; I'm looking forward to it, and I gather that a couple more are in the works. I'm looking forward to those, to, the moreso as one of them is evidently a sequel to The Year of the Warrior.

Wolf Time
By Lars Walker

Here's yet another book by Lars Walker; I liked it almost as much as I liked The Year of the Warrior, although it's different in almost every way, being set in the near future instead of the distant past. The one thing they have in common is that both are tales of the clash of conflicting worldviews: the struggle of pagan Scandinavia against the coming of the White Christ in one case, and the struggle of a tired Christianity against the new paganism in the other. Though, perhaps I should say new paganisms instead. More of that later.

Walker has written a book that is both a tale, well-told, and a cautionary look at the end point of certain current trends. In his near-future America, the only real gods are the twins of multi-culturalism and diversity. It is illegal to use racial or ageist epithets. Every town has a Happy Endings euthanasia clinic; every person has a right to die when they wish. The Extinctionists are a growing political force; they believe that the Earth can best be preserved by the extinction of humanity. The Definition of Religion Act, passed unanimously by Congress, determines which sects will be recognized legally as religions, worthy of receiving tax-exempt status--and only those sects which accept that all religions are equally valid pass the test.

Yes, it's a bit unlikely--it was meant to be extreme. I think we have too much sense as a nation to go so far astray. But every one of the points I mention is a simple extrapolation of a current trend.

That's the background. The foreground is a small college town named Epsom, Minnesota, home of a small "Lutheran" college. The scare quotes are required; the school still has a chapel and holds services there, but our hero, Carl Martell, was hired as a professor there mostly because he wasn't Christian--something to do with diversity requirements.

It's an interesting time in Epsom, which is an old-fashioned Minnesota community. A bachelor-farmer died recently, and his farm has been taken over as a commune by a neo-pagan group from California; it's making a few people nervous, and there's a lot of angry sentiment in town. Meanwhile, the college is being visited by a famous Norwegian poet named Sigfod Oski, a controversial figure and avowed pagan who delights in shaking things up.

And what he's after at the moment is bringing back Odin the All-Father. Not for Oski the pale neo-paganism of today--he's after the blood-drenched paganism of yore. And only Carl Martell and a few others stand in his way.

As I say, I enjoyed it. G.K. Chesterton often talked about the wild romance of Christianity, the glorious adventure of it. It didn't surprise me when Walker captured that glorious romance in The Year of the Warrior; the setting was tailor-made for it. It does surprise me that he managed to capture it so well in a tale set in modern-day Minnesota.

No Secrets
By Lance Rucker

Fair disclosure: I read this book because the author's publicist sent me a review copy.

No Secrets is a thriller, the second volume in Rucker's series about Brandon Drake the "high-tech information agent". (The first, which I've not read, is called Intimate Falls.) It's published by Lochenlode Fiction--say that name out loud.

Drake is just wrapping up a job in Japan, collecting information from the lab of an expatriate American named Ansel. Completely legally, I might add. Ansel is an absent minded genius inventor whose motto is "No national boundaries. No secrets."; in other words, he'll give his inventions to anyone except those who would use them to enforce national boundaries. In the current instance he's invented a tiny robotic arm for use in dentistry, and Drake has been hired to get the design and related information from Ansel and bring it to a professor in Canada. In short, the entire job is completely above-board.

But something goes wrong. Drake's main contact in Ansel's lab turns up dead. The documents are stolen from Drake's hotel room. And suddenly Drake and his primary love interest (there are two) are on the run from...someone...who thinks Drake knows more than he's saying.

There's a lot to like here. Ansel's a genuinely interesting character, and Rucker evokes the Japanese setting delightfully. With the exception of a few short lapses, the suspense is well-maintained. The villains are nasty, and the climax ties up most of the loose threads.

On the other hand...

The prose style is weird, especially in the first few chapters. The first paragraph appears to be first person, and then Rucker moves jarringly to the third person. There are several other jarring viewpoint shifts in the course of the book. There are lots of sentence fragments, and some of the sentences are just plain weird. For example, the following sentences appears in the opening scene. Drake is at a hot springs spa, looking for his interpreter in the hot baths:

The grey eyes of the tall, fair-skinned, lanky, tried to perforate the steam nebula and wondered again where Yamamoto might be.

See what I mean? The phrase "perforate the steam nebula" is absurd, as is the implication that it's Drake's "grey eyes" that "wondered again". Thankfully, most of the stylistic peculiarities evaporate once Rucker is well started.

Too much of the book is taken up with a romantic subplot between Drake and his once-upon-a-time housemate and occasional lover, Mikki Sullivan. Rucker uses it to humanize Drake and fill in some of his backstory, but frankly I didn't find Mikki or her past history all that enthralling. And the character I did find compelling, Ansel the inventor, is rarely on stage--and, ultimately, not all that important.

Finally, although Brandon Drake is supposed to be a pretty shrewd guy he misses a number of obvious things--at least, until he's hit over the head with them. And he never does realize the most important fact--that he's clearly being used throughout the book. Actually, that's my interpretation of the story, as the book never says so in so many words; it's just the only way that I can explain a number of events in the book that are otherwise just as absurd as Rucker's prose excesses.

In sum, the book had some very good moments, but it didn't hang together all that well for me. I didn't find Brandon Drake all that interesting, either, alas. Pity.

The Ring of Five Dragons
By Eric Van Lustbader

I first read Eric Van Lustbader back in the 1980's, when he'd just written his Sunset Warrior trilogy. It had some good bits, but overall I wasn't impressed, and I stopped reading him. It's possible that the books went over my head, as my brother liked them then and still likes them now. Anyway, I heard Van Lustbader's name every so often through the years, until a couple of years ago I picked up a fat paperback called The Ring of Five Dragons. I was a bit skeptical, but I needed something to read, so I bought it--and was pleasantly surprised. Indeed, I liked it well enough to buy the sequel when it came out, but for one reason or another the sequel languished unread until just recently, when I discovered that the third volume in the series was imminent. It had been long enough that I'd forgotten much of the details, so I dug The Ring of Five Dragons out again, and dove in.

And once again I was alternately amused, bemused, and enthralled.

Let me say a few words about the plot, and then I'll try to explain my reaction to this truly weird book.

I suppose I can best describe the plot as the irresistable force meeting the immovable object. The irresistable force is the V'orrn, a spacefaring race that has been travelling through the galaxy for eons since their home world was burned to a crisp by a supernova. The heart of the V'orrn race is in the V'orrn fleet, apparently, but from time to time as new planets are discovered a contingent is spun off to exploit them.

Enter the immovable object, the planet Kundala. Before the V'orrn arrived, Kundala was a joyous planet under the special protection of the Goddess Miina. But some of Miina's worshippers rebelled, Miina withdrew her protection, and the V'orrn arrived to kick butt.

It's now about a hundred years later. The V'orrn are still in charge. All but one of the Ramahan abbeys that led the worship of Miina are in ruins, destroyed by the V'orrn; the only reason the remaining abbey is still standing is because the abbey leaders have been feeding information to the V'orrn about the Kundalan resistance.

But if Kundala has changed, the V'orrn have changed, too. The V'orrn are raised to be contemptuous of the races they conquer--but some of them are strangely attracted to the Kundalans and their ways, including the V'orrn regent, one Eleusis Ashera. More, it begins to appear that the Ramahan religion is true, and that the old prophecies of a messiah, the Dar-al-Salat, are coming true. And if that's true, then Kundala appears to be the center of the universe.

So much for the plot.

There's a lot to like in this book, amid the numerous subplots. The tale of the corruption of the remaining Ramahan abbey is particularly good, and chilling. The story of the Dar-al-Salat is equally compelling. The backstory unfolds like a mystery novel, and quite satisfactorily.

But then there are the weird things, which make it difficult for me to take the book seriously. V'orrn names, for example, often include weird spellings with tripled letters--name like "Stogggul" and "Rekkk" and "Khagggun" and "Salamuuun". I can't complain that they are unpronounceable--there's a pronunciation key in the back of the book--but they aren't pronounced like you'd think they should be. He could just as easily have chosen a more phonetic spelling.

Then there's the vocabulary, with which he does strange things--for atmosphere, I assume. The V'orrn and the Kundalans, though similar of appearance are two different races, and apparently neither of them are human; at least, the words "man", and "woman" are never used. He uses "male" and "female" instead, which is jarring. Similarly, instead of days he often has the V'orrn speak of "sidereal units" (because, of course, only V'orrn days are really days, and V'orrn days have no relation to the rotation of the planet Kundala). A little of this kind of thing is OK, but he takes it too extremes--as, for example, he invariably uses the word "quotidian" instead of "daily". Let me tell you, when you run across the word "quotidian" three times in thirty pages, you notice.

Then there's the "science". As I say, the V'orrn and the Kundalans are two separate races, though they look like. Although they are never called "men" or "women", Kundalans appear to look much like we do. V'orrn look mostly like Kundalans, but they are completely hairless, have two hearts, two stomachs, and one lung, and are slightly larger.

So tell me, how is it that the V'orrn soldiers can father bastards on the local Kundalan girls? They can, and they do, and nobody seems to think that this is at all unusual.

So honestly, what with the names, and the language, and the improbabilities, I found myself shaking my head or rolling my eyes regularly while re-reading the book--but the headshake or eye-roll was generally accompanied by a chuckle at Van Lustbader's audacity. I have to wonder whether it's supposed to be a little absurd!

This is going to be a multi-volume series, of unknown length (unless the third book ends it, which I doubt), and I want to make a prediction. Given Kundala's remarkably place in the cosmic scheme of things, and the length of time that the V'orrn have been travelling, and the vaguely Hindu/Buddhist feel about a lot of the fantasy details, I'm going to bet that Kundala is, in some sense, the V'orrn homeworld remade--that at long last, and after eons of genetic tinkering that have changed them almost out of recognition, they have returned home. We'll see.

The Veil of the Thousand Tears
By Eric Van Lustbader

Here's the second in Lustbader's current series, the Saga of the Pearl.

In the last episode, the Dar-al-Salat, the savior of Kundala, was saved from death by a dangerous ritual performed by Giyan the Ramahan sorceress. The ritual was successful, but since then Giyan has been afflicted by a horrible skin condition on her hands and forearms. In this book we discover that through an error in the ritual she made an opening through which the archdaemon Horologgia has been able to begin escaping from the Abyss. Worse, the archdaemon intends to take over Giyan's body--and, ultimately, all of her sorcerous powers. The Dar-al-Salat must find the Veil of Thousand Tears, a relic of the creation of the planet Kundala, to save Giyan from daemonic possession--for without Giyan the Dar-al-Salat won't be able to free the planet from the scourge of the V'orrn.

It's yet another fine piece of storytelling, even if the premise and the execution are sometimes a little goofy. The characters develop in interesting ways, and we find out more about the V'orrn, and in particular about the Gyrgon. The V'orrn have a caste-based society, and the Gyrgon--a caste of genetically-engineered cyborgs--are the top caste. They are greatly feared by the other castes, and are rarely seen in public, ruling primarily through the Regent, the leader of the Bashkir, or merchant, class. Little is known about the Gyrgon, but we get to learn quite a bit more here, and much that was obscure in the previous book is made clear.

Perhaps the most satisfying thing is that both this book and its predecessor have been properly structured; each book really is a complete novel by itself. All too often in multi-volume fantasy sagas it's all one long story chopped arbitrarily into volumes. Instead, each of these books has its own particular conflict which it tracks from beginning to end. Nicely done.

Mistress of the Pearl
By Eric Van Lustbader

This is the new third volume of Lustbader's epic Saga of the Pearl, currently out in hardcover; it continues the story of the Dar-al-Salat's struggle to free the planet Kundala from the oppression of the ruling V'orrn.

Up until about a century before the current action, Kundala was ruled by the Ramahan priesthood in the name of the Goddess Miina. The priesthood included both male and female Kundalans (I'd say "men and women", except that Lustbader goes out of his way not too), many of them sorcerors, but it was always led by a powerful sorceress called Mother. Shortly prior to the arrival of the V'orrn, a cabal of male sorceror priests staged a coup and deposed Mother--but they'd reckoned without Miina, whose reaction was swift and decisive.

First, the members of the cabal lost their sorcerous powers; in addition, Miina gave each one an unmistakable mark--a sixth finger, black and clawlike, on one hand, and extended life in which to enjoy their punishment. The Pearl, the repository of Miina's wisdom, was locked away beyond retrieval. And Miina herself turned her back on her creation until the coming of the prophesied Dar-al-Salat--after which the V'orrn landed, unopposed in the aftermath of the coup, and began their bloody conquest.

The members of the cabal scattered into the wilderness, and were later known as the "sauromicians". I have no idea what "sauromician" means, or if Lustbader himself coined it; certainly, the only Google hits I get on it reference Lustbader's work. But it's certainly a delightful name for evil sorcerors. For sorcerors they had been, and sorcerors they were again, though of a different kind--for they took up the study of necromancy, a sorcery powered by the shedding of innocent blood.

The sauromicians appear mentioned in the previous book, The Veil of a Thousand Tears, but only in passing. In this volume, they come to center stage. The sauromicians have no affection for Miina, and hence no sympathy for the Dar-al-Salat; they now live only to acquire more power. Riane, the Dar-al-Salat, and her companions, must oppose them and prevent them from destroying one of Miina's sacred dragons.

So much for the plot, which is tolerably baroque (but fun).

This volume of the saga took longer to get moving than its predecessors, and struck me as less focussed--that is, it spent proportionally more time on subplots and less on the main plot, and some of the subplots seemed a little too drawn out. On the other, this is a many-threaded saga with a cast of hundreds, and I expect some of the subplots will have big payoffs in future volumes.

One of my principles in my own writing is to carefully control the revelation of the back-story. Ideally, the past history should be revealed slowly, with each fact inserted where it will do the most good. Lustbader's doing a bang-up job of this, with respect to both the history of Kundala and the history of the V'orrn. The Ring of Five Dragons is an intimate book, focussed on the Dar-al-Salat and companions, with a minimum of subplots. In The Veil of a Thousand Tears it's as if the world expands--we learn much more about the history of Kundala, and quite a bit about certain of the mysterious V'orrn technomancers, the Gyrgon, and the cast of important characters increases. And finally, in this volume it expands yet again.

I'm quite looking forward to the next book.

A Damsel in Distress
By P.G. Wodehouse

Last November I reviewed an early Wodehouse novel called A Gentleman of Leisure, which was first published in 1910. It was interesting but flawed--Wodehouse couldn't seem to decide whether he was writing a serious novel with comedic overtones, or a farce. The plot was delightfully absurd, but the characters were too real, as were the consequences if their schemes came to naught. By 1915's Something Fresh, the first Blandings novel, he'd worked out the breezy style that makes his farces so enjoyable.

All of which means that I was completely unprepared for the present work, A Damsel in Distress. It was first published in 1919, after he'd got the bugs out, and so I was expecting a typical Wodehouse farce. And to my great and exceeding surprise, it's not a farce at all. Instead, it's a genuine comedy of manners. The characters are finely drawn and realistic, and the plot is no more far-fetched than any romantic comedy.

The difference between this book and Wodehouse's other novels is only highlighted by its resemblance to Blandings. Like Lord Emsworth in the early Blandings novels, Lord Marshmoreton only wants to be left alone to putter in his garden. Like Lord Emsworth, he is afflicted by an efficient secretary, a young woman named Alice Faraday, and an old battleaxe of a sister, Lady Caroline. His son Percy is a conceited snob of the first water, but his daughter Maud (the Damsel of the title) is a peach. She wants to marry an American fellow she met on vacation in Wales, but Lady Caroline and her brother Percy will have none of it, and confine her to quarters in the stately family home.

It all seems straightforward enough, and tolerably Blandings-like; and yet, Belpher Castle isn't simply Blandings Castle with the serial numbers filed off. Rather, it's the real thing, the model from which Blandings Castle was drawn. Blandings, Bertie, Jeeves, the Drones Club, all of them inhabit a dream of England in which the World Wars never came, in which a good silk top hat and a properly tied tie were the key to society, and in which nothing bad ever really happens to upper class twits. In this dream of England, most of the stories are indeed love stories; you have to hang the plot on something, after all. But here we have a tale of the real England, where consequences are real and where the hero really might not get the girl.

The tone is light, to be sure, and I frequently stopped to laugh out loud, but the undertone is deeply serious--and honestly, is there is anything more serious, at root, than a solid romantic comedy? It's funny precisely because the consequences are so serious.

Anyway, I enjoyed this as much as anything I've read in a great while. It warmed my heart and lifted my spirits, and I could wish that he'd written more books in the same vein.

Apropos of nothing, and at the risk of lowering the tone of this review, Jane insisted that I quote one paragraph from the later part of the book:

There was, so the historians of the Middle West tell us, a man of Chicago named Young, who once, when his nerves were unstrung, put his mother (unseen) in the chopping-machine, and canned her and labelled her "Tongue."

The Wodehouse wit is here in full flower. Go thou, and read.


Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

History of England: Volume 1, From the Earliest Times to the Reformation
By G.M. Trevelyan

This book was one of those little nuggets of gold that you sometimes come across while digging around in the dusty corners of the used bookstore. The cover isn't flashy, the font is very small and it was published in 1926. The writing, however, is good and the points he makes about the conquest of Britain first by the Celts, then the Romans, the Saxons, the Vikings, etc., is so interesting that I squinted my way thru it waiting for the next bit to unfold. His point about feudalism as a necessary step between tribalism and the nation-state which allowed the accumulation of wealth and the beginnings of the division of labor into specialties and trades is particularly interesting. It's also written from a pre-World War perspective when England still had an Empire of some sort and the British thought of themselves as a "race" so added to the history that he is writing is another layer of historical interest to the modern reader. Unfortunately, the book is out of print. And the bookstore only had this one volume published in 1953 by Anchor Doubleday. I managed to find the following 2 volumes on Amazon so I can continue the story, if my eyes don't give out.

Across Five Aprils
By Irene Hunt

I read recently in a book about textbook publishing and censorship in the use of teaching materials that there are two types of books published for children and young adults. The author of the book, Diane Ravitch, makes the distinction between "mirror" books that reflect back to the reader images of themselves and "window" books that give to the young reader access to other worlds and times and cultures. Many books written about teen problems and teen issues are mirror books. She also argues that "good" literature tends to be of the window variety. I personally think both have their places in the reading lives of children but I did find that to be a very interesting distinction since the YA books that I as an adult enjoy tend to be of the window variety while the mirror variety bores me to tears.

With that in mind, I would class this as a window book. It is the story of 9 year old Jethro Creighton who, in 1861, watches his family disintegrate because of the coming of the Civil War. The Creighton's live in southern Illinois where the feelings pro and con for the secession of the south are mixed in the community. And one brother goes to fight for the South and the other goes to fight for the North. For the next 4 years Jethro watches as his family struggle to maintain their place in the community--a brother off to fight the North is not a good thing for them--and to maintain their farm in the face of other family crisis. His father has a heart attack and Jethro becomes the backbone of the farm. A vigilante group sets their barn on fire and neighbors that had previously been antagonistic pitch in to help rebuild and restock their farm.

It's an interesting meditation on community and standing up for what you believe and loyalty in the face of hostile opinions. It's also a great way to get a little history into a kid since the events of the Civil War from Fort Sumter to Appomattox are a part of Jethro life and the economic issues, aside from slavery, that led up to the war are talked about in the family. It's a real life story about a believable kid in an awful time and I could find all sorts of complicated ethical dilemmas to discuss within the context of the book. I enjoyed the writing as well. She has a knack for making images and situations believable without overwriting them that I appreciated. Good book!

Troy
By Adele Geras

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand it's a good telling of the story of the Trojan War from the perspective of two young sisters who live within the walls of Troy. And it remains fairly faithful to Homer's story line and to the mythical aspects of the story. One of the girls works in the Blood Room where all the injured warriors are brought for treatment and also cares for the young son of Hector when his mother needs to do her royal duties. The other young girl is a maid and assistant weaver in Helen's household. She has the gift of being able to see the gods for who they are thru their disguises which makes for some interesting conversations. Both are caught in the crossfire of the war and its aftermath. And war is not pretty in Geras' story, nor is it a glorious exercise of national pride. Unlike Homer, Geras brings into the story real human emotions and conflicts. She's not writing a heroic epic. She's giving us a personal narrative that is behind the epic story. And it's really well told.

And that's where my problem comes in. The story is so good and yet Geras throws in some very inappropriate sexual content that just bugged me. And it bugged me more when I saw the litter of awards and honors for young adult fiction this book has gotten from all sorts of "reputable" organizations. The conflict/problem in the book isn't caused when one of the sisters has a roll in the hay with a young warrior. The problem is that the other sister also has her eyes on him. It just made me uncomfortable reading this as a young adult book. She could have done it as well, if not better without the sexual content. As an adult, I enjoyed it. As a mother, I will not be giving this to my 14-year-old daughter.

Stargirl
By Jerry Spinelli

Spinelli is a well-known children's author. I've seen his books on lists for kids put out by the library and by other various organizations in the know and I've heard from my kid's teachers recommendations for a couple of his books. My daughter read this one and handed it to me with an admonition to "read it, Mom, it's, like, really good." Anytime a kid says that to you, it behooves you to, like, pay attention. The librarian may make all the lists she can handle and teachers can recommend til they're blue in the face, but if a kid doesn't read books, it's an academic exercise.

So I picked it up and read it. The narrator of the story is Leo Borlock. Leo is a bit of a geek. He produces a local cable show about high school students called "Hot Seat." He fits in with the kids at school but isn't in the "popular" group. He has figured out how to get along and not stick out. He lives in an Arizona town dominated by a software company where everyone's Dad works. And he collects porcupine neckties.

For his fourteenth birthday, his Mom calls some info into the paper about him for their local birthday column, noting that he collects porcupine neckties. And when he comes home from school, there is one waiting for him. No name, no card, just a note saying "Happy Birthday." And no one he knows will take the credit for giving it to him.

At the beginning of his junior year in high school, there is a new girl in school. She calls herself Stargirl. She says hello to everyone. She plays the ukulele at school. She has a pet rat she brings to school. She dresses oddly in prairie dresses or costumes. She knows everyone's birthday and sings to them The Song in the cafeteria at lunch. She is totally oblivious to the social hierarchy and the complex culture of high school. She has been homeschooled up to this point. She is what we call in our house A Free Spirit. Everyone is amazed by her. Leo is fascinated.

Initially she enchants the school. Kids vie for her attention. She is popular with everyone. But then she starts making mistakes. You can't be a free spirit unwilling to conform and fit in in high school. This is the story of what happened to her that year, of how she tried to compromise and how the kids at school handled it. In some ways it's a celebration of Stargirl's unwillingness to lose her essential self to the herd mentality; in others is a grim tale of what kids do to those that don't comply with the social standards. And it's the story of Leo's dilemma of loving Stargirl and being unwilling to stand up for her when the going gets tough.

I am glad my daughter gave it to me to read. She is a Free Spirit. I learned a little about her from reading about Stargirl. She's right. It is, like really a good book.

The Phoenix Guards
By Steven Brust

It took me several tries to get past the first 100 pages of this book. I picked it up thinking it was similar to the Vlad Taltos series and got mired down in the language and details of the story. Will gave me words of encouragement so I went back to it and started over, mentally shunting aside any thoughts about Vlad and enjoying it for what it is on it's own.

On it's own, it's really good. One of the first things I noticed is that Brust has total control over his narrator. The book operates on two levels. There is the general story of Khaavren and his fellow Guardsmen and the intrigues of the Court and the Empire. There is also the story that the narrator, Sir Paarfi of Roundwood, is telling. The narrator's voice is as much a character in the story as the actual participants in the events that he is telling about.

Brust is writing a blatant ripoff of the style and some of the plot elements in Alexander Dumas' Three Musketeer books. (Click the link, if you aren't familiar with them.) The best known is The Three Musketeers but Dumas went on to continue the story in 4 more volumes, three of which are actually subdivisions of one book. So, like Dumas' books, this book is a historical romance, a swashbuckling tale of sword fighting and dueling with a love interest and court intrigues. It's wordy and has long, complex sentences and takes forever to get to the point. And that is what is so fun about it.

One suggestion I would make to any reader coming to this series after reading the Vlad Taltos series is to read the Author's preface and the two About the Author sections at the end before beginning the book proper. It will clue you into the narrator's voice and how it relates to the action of the story.


Craig's Recent Reading

by Craig Clarke

The Blair Witch Files: The Witch's Daughter
By Cade Merrill

The first book in The Blair Witch Files is marginally better than its successor The Dark Room (which I reviewed in March), and it's still a fast-paced, interesting, and quick read. When Justin Petit writes to Cade Merrill about his ailing grandfather Harper Kemp's belief that a young woman from his past is trying to kill him (because he believes she has already killed others who wronged her), Cade doesn't know what to believe.

He takes on the investigation, but said "investigation" involves simply telling Justin's story in narrative form. No solutions are offered and the ending is highly unsatisfying as it leaves the story up in the air with a kind of "that's when I knew that the story wasn't over" kind of cliffhanger that is not carried over into the second book.

However, since I find the whole Blair Witch mythology immensely intriguing, since I've been able to pick these books up for near to nothing, and since it's especially rare that I find a book I can finish in just over an hour (something I've begun to really appreciate about these books), I can guarantee I will continue to pursue these as far as I can.

Fat Ollie's Book
By Ed McBain

At the end of Money Money Money (reviewed in the January, 2004, issue), we learned that Detective Oliver Wendell Weeks of the 88th Precinct (not-so-affectionately called "Fat Ollie") had written his first novel. In Fat Ollie's Book, the next in the series, it takes center stage. When the book is stolen, along with the briefcase carrying it, it gets into the hands of a potential jewel thief, who thinks it is non-fiction and carries clues to the location of diamonds in the city of Isola. This part of the narrative is peppered by the thief reading portions of Ollie's incredibly poorly written book. I knew it was painful to read bad writing, but to have to read it to get through to the rest is something that is akin to torture.

Meanwhile Steve Carella, Bert Kling, and the rest of the gang from our beloved 87th are involved in their own cases. Carella has a particularly difficult time because Ollie wants to "share" a bust with him and he's not averse to reminding Carella that Ollie saved his life -- twice -- during "The $$$ Case" (as he's come to refer to it). Fat Ollie's Book is as good or better as McBain's other works, plus he's upped the humor quotient here, offering a sharp parody of police procedurals--especially his own (look out for the jab at his everpresent opening disclaimer).

Ollie is one of the more interesting characters Ed McBain has written in this 87th Precinct series. On the one hand, Weeks is an unapologetic bigot, not afraid to throw racial epithets as if they were simply definite articles. But on the other hand, despite his faults, he is an excellent cop with a powerful analytic mind. He gets his man, he just may go about it the wrong way. When he was only a supporting character, it was easy to dismiss him, but now, as he takes the spotlight, the reader has to find some part of him to relate to or the book doesn't work. This plus the forced bad writing makes for a mildly uncomfortable experience as the reader discovers more about himself through these trials. That McBain has pulls this off successfully shows me that, even after 50 novels in this series, his talent is even more admirable than I had originally thought.

Ice
By Ed McBain

After getting back into the 87th Precinct series with Fat Ollie's Book, I was eager to read another and picked up Ice (thus following my inadvertent pattern of reading them mostly in random order). I think it is safe to say that this is the best one I've read so far. Sally Anderson and Paco Lopez were both killed with the same gun. Whether there is any other connection between the two is up to the boys at the Eight-Seven to answer.

Taking place around Valentine's Day in the middle of an awful snowstorm, Ice is an indepth look at the workings of police investigation with all its inherent waves of excitement and boredom. At the same time as the police are investigating the murders, a couple of would-be criminals -- Emma and Brother Anthony -- are also looking into how they can get a piece of the deceased cocaine dealer Lopez's action. McBain increases the suspense by having each group (police and criminals) discover connecting clues almost at the same moment at different parts of the city. The people left in Emma and Tony's wake are picked up by the cops and added to the investigation as everything seems to be connected, but with no logical tie to the whole web. And when jeweler Marvin Edelman is murdered (with the same gun), the detectives start fearing that they might be dealing with a "crazy," because crazies make police work very difficult.

Eventually, of course, we are privy to the final piece that fits the puzzle into a whole, but along the way, we are given quite a ride as clue by clue is discovered. If you like watching hour-long cop dramas where the plot is assembled in the same fashion, you'll love Ice. I was thinking all along that it would make a great visual drama -- something akin to an episode of Hill Street Blues. So, I wasn't surprised when I read, during my research on the novel, that McBain's work had inspired that groundbreaking show. The plotting is tight and painstakingly crafted and the characters are becoming like old friends as I learn more and more about their personal lives (particularly Bert Kling's difficulties with women).

Eats, Shoots & Leaves
By Lynne Truss

Lynne Truss' "runaway British bestseller" about punctuation, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, has been a huge success both there and, now, here. I can understand why, sort of. It is like The Da Vinci Code in that it is an intriguing idea written so that anyone can understand it. In fact, it is essentially a book-long rant about how punctuation is descending into veritable non-existence due to the Internet, email, and "txt msgs."

Truss covers such famously misused punctuation marks as the comma (,), the apostrophe ('), the semi-colon (;), the colon (:), quotation marks or "inverted commas" ("), and the hyphen (-). She even gives some space to the question mark (?), the exclamation mark or exclamation point (!), the period or full stop (.); as well as a mention of the prevalent-in-comic-strips "interrobang" (?!). Truss covers the many rules (17!) governing comma use and how many people overuse them when another mark would better serve, like a semi-colon or a dash.

Examples abound, and she is particularly harpy on the title of the film Two Weeks Notice which, in order to be grammatically correct, should have an apostrophe after the "s" (if "one week's notice" is possessive, why not two?). Of course, she realizes that these rules are a starting point and that art must prevail, but that the artist must know the rules before breaking them. Due to a mention from one of her cited sources, author John Updike becomes the "poster boy" for this practice.

Truss is very passionate about her subject and Eats, Shoots & Leaves (the title comes from a joke about a trigger-happy panda) is a quick read. However, she does repeat herself on a couple of subjects and the book ends about three pages after it should, but these are minor infractions, especially for a book that is this necessary. I, for one, am hoping that many people will read this book and will then take more care in using punctuation, but then I've always been a dreamer. The best I can expect is that the rules will sink in along with the laughs and that inadvertent care will result -- the old "learning through osmosis" line. Unfortunately, this result will not be noticed immediately because no one notices good punctuation, only bad; and, until then, we are stuck with what we've got. Sticklers unite!

Ghosts
By Ed McBain

McBain combines his 87th Precinct series with the supernatural in Ghosts and produces a book that would likely please fans of both genres. After famous writer Gregory Craig is murdered, his current girlfriend, a psychic medium named Hillary Scott, tells the police that a ghost did it. As they investigate using their usual tried-and-true techniques, Hillary's ideas seem to be getting closer to the truth. Although Hillary is portrayed as flighty, and the boys at the Eight-Seven as skeptics, McBain treats his subject with respect, letting the characters work out their beliefs as the story progresses.

There is a blurb on the cover from Stephen King proclaiming that he thinks this is one of the best of the series, but I have to disagree. I read it in two sittings, but it doesn't seem to have left the impression that, say, Ice has a number of weeks after finishing it. A few interesting details arise, like Carella getting into a possibly adulterous situation, and a famous, rich writer named Craig (sure he's dead, but I'll take what I can get). Still, Ghosts is definitely a solid entry, and it's terrific to see McBain keeping it fun for himself by trying out new ideas, but Ghosts is merely passable in quality. Of course, that's like talking about a "bad" Picasso: a poor McBain is better by far than most anything else in print.


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 June 2004
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