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ex libris reviews

1 July 2004


Nevertheless, those who have managed to get to know them and survive say that they are also amazingly loyal, strong, dogged, brave, and, in their own way, quite moral. (For example, they won't steal from people who don't have anything.)
Terry Pratchett


Contents


In This Issue:
The Purpose of Fantasy Literature

I don't have anything interesting to say this month, but if you're interested in fantasy literature you'll probably find this essay well-worth your time.

-- Will Duquette


Books to Read Aloud

by Will Duquette

A Hat Full Of Sky
By Terry Pratchett

This is Pratchett's latest juvenile and his latest Discworld book; it's also the sequel to The Wee Free Men, which I reviewed last month.

I read it aloud to Jane, and we both loved it.

The Wee Free Men introduced us to a young girl named Tiffany Aching. She lives on a sheep farm in the Chalk country, and is in charge of the dairy. She's also a budding witch, which in the Discworld is a sort of combination of country doctor, clinical psychologist, and defender of the neighborhood from evil forces. She first assumes her role as defender of the neighborhood when she clobbers a nasty monster from Faerie with a cast iron skillet, having first staked out her little brother as bait. (Witches are not generally particularly sentimental, but they get the job done.) Later she has to rescue her little brother from the Queen of Faerie, which she does with the help of the Nac Mac Feegle, the Wee Free Men of the title.

The Nac Mac Feegle are fairies of a sort; at least, they lived in Faerie until the Queen cast them out for being drunk and disorderly. They are about six inches tall, are tattooed a vivid blue color, have red hair with a variety of objects plaited into it, and wear kilts. Some call them "pictsies" (a name I wish I'd thought of, darn it! though I doubt I'd have made a quarter as good a use of it if I had). The only thing that makes them happier than drinking is fighting--which, as they are immensely strong and nearly indestructible, they are exceedingly good at. And they are very fond of Tiffany, who they call their "Big wee hag."

At the conclusion of The Wee Free Men Tiffany meets Granny Weatherwax, one of our favorite Pratchett characters, who is clearly very impressed--not that it's obvious to Tiffany. As there are no other witches in the vicinity, Granny tells her that she'll need to leave home for a while to train, if she's to develop her skills.

A Hat Full Of Sky begins a couple of years later, just as Tiffany is leaving home. She's going to spend a year apprenticed to a witch named Miss Level, learning what being a witch is all about. Unfortunately, there's a strange creature called a "hiver" that's determined to make things deadly difficult for her....

There's so much about the book that I like. The Feegles are a delightful creation; I particularly enjoyed watching a drunk Feegle get into a brawl with one of Miss Level's ceramic garden gnomes (the Feegle won). We get to see another side of Granny Weatherwax, which is neat. But my favorite part is probably the Witch Trials. You know, the Witch Trials? They hold them every year. All of the witches get together and have a competition to see who can do the neatest stuff. You know, like sheepdog trials.

Anyway, if you've not encountered the Discworld, you've been missing out. And if you're a fan but have not seen these particular books, check out the Young Adult section; they are well worth it. Order them if you have to.


Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Uncle Fred in the Springtime
By P.G. Wodehouse

Uncle Fred, the Earl of Ickenham, the bane of Pongo Twistleton, congenital imposter, is perhaps my favorite Wodehouse character. And being a congenital imposter, it was inevitable, I suppose, that he would eventually come to Blandings Castle. But I really wish that Wodehouse hadn't done it. Uncle Fred may be a natural visitor to Blandings, but that's rather the point--it's Uncle Fred's job to be as thoroughly and completely outrageous in his imposture as possible, and it's difficult to that in a place like Blandings where imposters are a dime a dozen.

Ah, well. It's still a fun read.

Quick Service
By P.G. Wodehouse

This little number is the second Wodehouse novel I ever read. The first was The Code of the Woosters, which I fear I did not appreciate as I should have. I kept asking inconvenient questions of myself, like "Why is Bertie willing to risk being arrested just so that he can keep eating the food prepared by his Aunt Dahlia's cook Anatole? He must be an idiot!" The unwritten rules that govern Bertie and his fellow Drones weren't yet clear to me, and it was some years before I attempted Wodehouse again.

When I did, it was in the guise of that admirable collection, The Most of P.G. Wodehouse, which is still in print, and which I highly recommended as an introduction to Plum and his creations. It consists mostly of short stories, including the inestimable "Uncle Fred Flits By", and one novel, to wit, Quick Service. I read the novel, and then I read it aloud to Jane, almost immediately, the first of many Wodehouse novels so read. And then I didn't read it again until just now, in the new "Collector's Wodehouse" edition, when I enjoyed it just as much as before.

It's all familiar territory by now, of course. There's the aspiring socialite who controls the purse strings, and her henpecked husband. There's the pretty young girl. There's the young upper-class twit she thinks she wants to marry. There's the curmudgeonly, misanthropic, dyspeptic, fat, middle-aged businessman who controls the upper-class twit's inheritance.

And then there's Joss Weatherby. Among all of Wodehouse's leading men, Joss Weatherby stands alone. He is creative, resourceful, capable, courageous, forthright, eccentric in speech and manner, ardent in love, and above all, determined, and very, very, funny. The only character I can compare him to is Psmith, except that he's like Psmith with the volume turned up three or for notches--if such a thing is possible. Watching Joss work--well, it's a treat.

You should try it some time.

Legacies
By L.E. Modesitt, Jr

I like this book, and I'm not entirely sure why. I liked it the first time I read it, and I wasn't sure why that time either. In fact, I liked it better this time than that time. It's a long, slow book, but something about it grabs me. The longer Anthony Trollope novels grab some people that way, and I imagine it's the same kind of effect.

Anyway, this is the story of a farm boy named Alucius. His father went off to fight a border war when he was a baby and never came back; consequently, he's been raised by his grandparents and his mother. I called him a farm boy; in fact, he's what's called a "herder", and he helps his grandfather raise and herd nightsheep, large, tolerably fierce sheep that grow a special kind of wool--properly processed, it becomes a pressure-sensitive fabric called nightsilk. Nightsilk undergarments, if properly cut to your body, will stop a bullet.

Of course, tending nightsheep is a lot of work, and it takes a particular kind of Talent to do it well. The Talent lets you control the nightsheep, and can also help you detect sandwolves and sanders before they attack. All herders have a touch of the Talent, some more than others; if they didn't, they wouldn't be herders. Townsfolk with herder forebears sometimes have it as well.

The early part of Alucius' life is what you'd expect...working with the nightsheep, learning how to card the wool and process the nightsilk, a variety of chores, the occasional trip into town, the occasional daylong party at someone's stead. But then he comes of age, and is drafted into the militia; Alucius' small country is under attack, and he's needed to defend it. Fortunately, thanks to the Talent is that he's a first-class shot.

The book follows his career in the militia as a horse-trooper and scout, his eventual capture, and his subsequent career until his return home. Along the way he learns a lot more about his Talent and about his world, as do we, and a variety of interesting things happen.

And when you get to the end of the book, you say, "Well, that was interesting...I wonder what the point was."

And yet, for some reason I was happy to read it again. Weird.

The General
By Buster Keaton

Some while ago, Ian Hamet wrote a lengthy post about one of the great comics of the early days of the silver screen, Buster Keaton. And so when I was at Fry's Electronics the other day, and found a DVD of Keaton's The General on sale for the whopping sum of $4.95 (eat your heart out, Ian) I nabbed it, and we watched it.

In this flick, Keaton is a train engineer with two loves--his girl, and his locomotive. And then the Civil War breaks out, and honor--and his girl's family--demands that he join the army. He can't, of course, because he's more useful to the South as an engineer, but his girl doesn't buy it. Snub, snub.

And then some Union soldiers make the mistake of stealing his locomotive, the "General". Keaton grabs the next locomotive, and they're off!

Let me tell you, this is some seriously funny stuff--it's like a live-action Warner Bros. cartoon. There are train chases, misfiring cannons, a damsel in distress, slapstick aplenty, plus lots of dangerous stunts--and then you realize that Keaton did all his own stunts. So did Daffy Duck, but somehow it's more impressive when Keaton does it.

The film quality was pretty good, considering; the low price shows up mostly in the soundtrack. It's a silent film, of course, so the folks who produced the DVD added a soundtrack of classical music standards played seemingly at random. There's a battle scene near the end with cannons and rifles going off, and big bursts of smoke drifting across the valley, all to the pleasant, peaceful strains of the Blue Danube waltz. For a moment I thought I was watching Dr. Strangelove.

It's not the funniest movie I've ever seen; the pacing is a little too slow for that. But it was definitely $4.95 well-spent.

Darknesses
By L.E. Modesitt, Jr

This sequel to Legacies continues the story of Alucius, nightsheep herder and horse trooper, as the political situation develops and he learns more about his world. He's now married, and (thanks to his exploits in the previous book) is a captain in the Iron Valley Militia. All he really wants to do is complete his term of service and return to his life as a herder. But there are two obstacles to that dream: his skill, and his Talent. He's too good a commander to be allowed to leave the service, and though he's worked hard to keep his Talent a secret, he didn't reckon with the Lord-Protector of Lanachrona.

It seems that in the dim distant past, the entire continent of Corea, of which the Iron Valleys are a very small part, was ruled by a government called the Duarchy. It was a golden age, so the legends go, in which Talent and technology were combined, though it had some nasty flaws that led in the end to a complete societal collapse all across the continent. Few of the Duarchy's artifacts remain in Alucius' day; the most obvious is a road network of imperishable stone. But the Lord-Protector of Lanachrona has a wondrous device, the last remaining Table of the Recorder. A person with sufficient Talent and the proper training can use the Table of the Recorder to see events anywhere in the world, at the present moment or any moment in the recent past. The Table of the Recorder has an interesting blind spot, however--whether unavoidably or by design, highly Talented individuals are invisible to it. Their surroundings, however, are not.

The absence of a person in the table where interesting things are going on is therefore interesting information. The absence of a person in the table where your spies indicate that a person should be is therefore interesting information. As the book progresses, the Lord-Protector has a shrewd notion that Alucius is very talented indeed. And as it has long been the Lord-Protector's dream to annex the Iron Valleys, you know that Alucius isn't going to have a quiet time between now and retirement.

Meanwhile, in a vault deep in the grass-lands of Illegea, a nomad warchief is given access to weapons of the Duarchy that have lain in suspended animation for a thousand years: twenty pteridons and sky lances of the Myrmidons of the Duarchy. With himself and nineteen of his fighters awing on pteridon back, and all of the clans of Illegea united under him, Edyss thinks it's a fine time to take on the decadent city-dwellers.

On the whole, this is a rather more satisfactory read than its predecessor; there's plenty of action, and we actually get some interesting (and surprising) answers about the history of Alucius' world. However, I'm quite curious to see where Modesitt takes this next--the next step isn't at all obvious.

Saint Thomas Aquinas
By G.K. Chesterton

I continue my Chesterton streak with this slim biography of St. Thomas Aquinas.

St. Thomas was a Dominican priest; and though you may not of heard of him he was also one of the world's most influential philosophers; indeed, his writings still provide the theological foundation for Roman Catholic doctrine.

A little history. You all remember the Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. St. Paul, St. Augustine, and many of the other early church fathers were greatly influenced by what's called neo-platonism; they identified Jesus Christ, the Word of God, with the neo-platonic "logos". Because of neo-platonism's emphasis on the ideal, there was a tendency in the Christian followers of Plato to emphasize the goodness of the spirit and the wickedness of the flesh, sometimes to the extent of saying that the flesh and the material world are altogether evil.

Now, this is part of the Manichean heresy, and has never been acceptable Christian doctrine--after all, God created the world and then said that it was good. Jesus Christ, so the early church councils decided (and so we believe today) was fully divine and fully human--and if fully human, then partially material, ergo, the material world cannot be evil.

As Thomas approached adulthood, the work of Aristotle was becoming known in Europe once again, mostly through the work of a muslim named Averroes, and because Averroes had added some decidely problematic ideas of his own, Aristotle was acquiring a bad name among churchmen. It was Thomas, reading Aristotle afresh, who "baptized" his work and in so doing slew the dragon of Manicheanism.

In my Intro to Philosophy class in college we didn't study either Aristotle or St. Thomas; we skipped straight from Plato to Descartes, and then on to David Hume. And looking back on it, I'm very sorry we did so, for I'm acquiring a taste for Aquinas, mostly because everybody since has gotten it all wrong. Let's look at David Hume to see why.

David Hume was an empiricist. Following Locke and Barclay, he believed that we can only know what we perceive with our senses--a seemingly reasonable starting point, but coupled with the notion that Hume wasn't sure he could trust his senses it led, in the end, to solipsism--the idea that we can't be sure that anything exists but ourselves.

In my view, this is utter nonsense. Reality bites, as they say; I've long thought that any philosophy that doesn't take the existence of objective reality as axiomatic is looney-tunes. The difficulty for me, then, is that the only prominent philosophy I'd been familiar with that takes the existence of objective reality is axiomatic is materialism, the notion that natural world alone exists. As a Christian, materialism really isn't my cup of tea either.

And then I picked up Chesterton's book on St. Thomas, and lo and behold--unlike those who follow him, St. Thomas doesn't attempt to prove everything from a miniscule set of first principles. Not for him the foolish game of pretending to know less than we do. Instead, with common sense not shown by philosophers as a class, he accepts God's creation--the universe we live in--as a given.

Imagine--all this time I've been a Thomist, and I didn't even know it.

Anyway, I liked the book a whole lot. And I'm clearly going to have to spend some quality time with St. Thomas.

Much Obliged, Jeeves
By P.G. Wodehouse

It's only fair to say that I was under the influence of a lingering sinus infection when I read this book, and this might have jaundiced my view, but for once Wodehouse has failed to impress me. The book was published in 1971, just a few years before Wodehouse' death, and frankly it feels tired. Here's the plot: Bertie goes to visit his Aunt Dahlia, and sits idly for the rest of the book. While he's sitting, doing not much, a variety of complications appear, take their turn on the stage, and then evaporate. He's briefly engaged to marry Madeline Bassett; and then suddenly he's not. He's briefly engaged to marry Florence Craye; and then he's not. He's briefly in danger of being arrested for stealing an article of silver from one of his aunt's guests (an accusation which, for once, he is innocent of, even if the article is found in his possession), and then suddenly he is not. He's briefly in danger of being seriously embarassed by publication of the Junior Ganymede club book, and then he isn't. In fact, (and this is the crowning glory, if glory is the word I'm looking for, which it isn't) at the conclusion Jeeves agrees to destroy all of the pages in the club book which refer to Bertie--and this for no particular reason.

Even Jove nods, they say, and I fear this time he nodded right off. The plot has lots of elements but no complexity; with the exception of Bertie, Jeeves, and Aunt Dahlia the continuing characters (Madeline, Florence, Spode) are but shadows of themselves.

I dunno. It's possible that my mood affected my reading, but I think it more likely that this one's just a stinker.

The Kalahari Typing School For Men
By Alexander McCall Smith

I'm not sure, but I think Mr. Smith is slacking off.

I mean to say, I read the book in part of an afternoon, and it isn't like I didn't do anything else. Plus, for a mystery novel about a private detective agency there wasn't much detection in, or much that was mysterious either. Granted, that's never been a big part of the series anyway, but the lack is more pronounced this time around. I've always said that I like mystery series with strong continuing characters, but there should be more to a mystery novel than the continuing soap opera of the sleuth and her loved ones.

I enjoyed, it I guess; but had this been the first in the series, I doubt I'd have gone on to the second.

King's Blood Four
Necromancer Nine
Wizard's Eleven
Jinian Footseer
Dervish Daughter
Jinian Star-Eye
By Sheri S. Tepper

I used to really like Sheri Tepper's stuff; whenever a new book came out, I was all over it. She has a vivid imagination, and she can tell a story. Ultimately, though, her message started to take over, and that's tiresome. And it happens that a good bit of her message is that Women Are Wiser Than Men, and another bit is that Religion Is Bad, and being a male Christian I found that even more tiresome.

Still, I remember her early books fondly; and I was quite surprised to discover, whilst doing a little site maintenance, that I'd only read and reviewed a single one of her books in all the time since I started reviewing books on-line (December of 1996). So it seemed like a good time to re-read some of them, and see how they have held up.

The books listed here are six of the nine books in Tepper's "True Game" series. The first three books are among her earliest, and introduce her world. It's a planet somewhat like our own; mankind's arrival on the planet was long enough ago to be a dim and dusty legend when it's remembered at all. And the part of the planet where our story begins is the land of the True Game.

It seems that after the arrival of men and women on the planet, some of them began developing strange talents. Some could fly, or lift heavy weights with their mind, or teleport, or read minds, or (horrors) raise the dead. Somehow--it's unclear just how, as Tepper changes her story in the course of the series--the notion of the True Game arose. Those who have a power, or Talent, are Gamesmen; those who don't are Pawns. The Gamesmen are the elite, and they spend much of their time gaming (read, fighting) with their peers. Being near such a battle, or grand game, is dangerous; Gamesmen draw energy from the immediate vicinity as they use their Talents, and an unwary pawn can be frozen to death if they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or the right place at the right time, for what else are pawns for?

It's easy to die in such a game, so children of Gamesmen are usually sent to a boarding school, where they will learn the rules of the True Game and how to play it well, and this is where we meet Peter, our hero. The first three books follow his history as he is first used in a game by a man he trusted, gains his Talent, and takes his revenge. Along the way he explores a goodly bit of the planet, and discovers some truly odd things, including the Gamesmen of Barish. The Gamesmen of Barish resemble chess pieces; there's one for each of the first eleven legendary Gamesmen and women. And Peter discovers that if he takes one of the pieces in hand, he can awaken that legendary invididual and use their talent.

The first three books are OK, in a science-fantasy sort of vein, if flawed. Tepper's writing improves in her later books, and it's clear that her concept of Peter's world evolves considerably from book to book. The series begins with the notion that the True Game is a kind of super-chess played with real pieces; in fact, the metaphor doesn't work out in practice, at least as Tepper tells the story. None of the "games" we actually see resemble what's described in Peter's schooling in the slightest. And certain segments are simply ludicrous; in the middle book, for example, Peter discovers the "Base", which is where the spaceship from Earth first landed. It's a fascinating and baroque place, where the descendants of researchers from the original crew spend their time breeding and studying genetic monsters. The trouble is, their motivation for doing so is too absurd for words; it's one place where I think Tepper's ideological preoccupations got the better of her.

The next three books in the series, which I didn't re-read this time around, involve some adventures of Peter's mother, the famous shapeshifter Mavin Many-Shaped. They are prequels to Peter's part of the story, and contain some background for the concluding three books, but as I may yet re-read them I won't say anything more about them here.

In the third book, Wizard's Eleven, Peter meets an intelligent and resourceful young woman named Jinian, and after saving her life a couple of times not unreasonably falls in love with her. Jinian takes center-stage in the final trio. Jinian Footseer tells of us Jinian's life from her childhood up to the climax of Wizard's Eleven, and here's where the nuisance factor begins to scale up.

Jinian Footseer is a much better book than the first three. The story is more interesting; Tepper's writing has improved; and the world is more deeply and richly described. What's not to like? Two things--first, it almost doesn't seem like the same world; it doesn't quite fit. Second, Tepper's ideology shows up again. Those times when Peter saved Jinian's life? She arranged for it happen, so that he could save her, so that he'd come to love her. Peter's amazing feat at the end of Wizard's Eleven, that saves the day? Most of the work was actually done by Jinian, behind the scenes.

Yes, it's interesting to see the events from two points of view, and it's true that this didn't bother me much when I first read these books. It's the cumulative effect that matters. And then, in the final two books, the series takes on the aspect of a kind of environmentalist parable, including a truly scurrilous slam on the Roman Catholic Church.

Have you ever noticed, while eating something tasty, a bit of an off-note in the flavor? An off-note that gets not louder but more noticeable with each bite, until finally you just can't ignore it any longer? That's how I feel about these books. Well-written; interesting tales, well-told; and an agenda I simply don't buy.

The moral bottom-line of the series is this: it's evil to punish those who can't learn to do better. And those who can't learn to do better should be killed. I am not, as they say, making this up. Tepper refers many times to a particular Talent, that of the Midwives. The Midwives are able to see the future in a particular way--that is, when they deliver a child, they can tell whether the child will ever develop what Tepper calls a soul and I'd call a moral compass. And if not, they kill the child then and there. The child will never be able to learn better, so punishing it for wrong-doing is evil, and letting it harm others is equally evil; better kill it.

Now, at first glance it appears that there's something to this: the prominent Gaming families eschew the use of midwives, and we certainly run into a number of sociopaths among their number. Arguably, Peter and Jinian's world would have been a better place if these conscienceless men and women had been strangled at birth. And then it becomes clear that Tepper extends her principle not just to sociopaths, but to any human being that is incapable of learning--the severely retarded, for example. Or those in a persistent vegetative state. In one book we encounter two of the genetic monsters bred at the Base: a fat man with no legs, and a pair of Siamese Twins with only one pair of legs between them. As they are described to us, they are clearly sociopaths--but later on, Tepper makes it clear that their shapes are of themselves evil, and that children with such monstrous shapes should have been killed at birth. Yes, she really says that.

It's always dangerous to presume that an author believes the things her characters avow, or that a book's clear message necessarily represents the author's own views; Swift didn't really think that selling Irish babies at the meat-market is a good idea. But I don't see any sign of satire, here, and it's a thread that runs right through the six books. And frankly, it's repulsive.

The Everlasting Man
By G.K. Chesterton

I first tried reading this around the time I got out of college. Then, as now, I was a big fan of C.S. Lewis, and especially of his book Mere Christianity, and I'd been led to believe that this was more of the same. And in fact, it was nothing like I expected; I found it disappointing, and heavy going, and I soon abandoned it.

Now, the fact is, I was doomed from the start. Chesterton is not Lewis, and must be enjoyed on his own terms. If they explored some of the same territory, they explored it in completely different styles. Lewis set out with little but surveying instruments of the highest quality; Chesterton set out on elephant back, with Persian rugs and his entire library in jeweled boxes at his side. If sometimes seems that it takes Chesterton a full page to say what Lewis can say in a sentence or two, still, Lewis does not provide us with such a dizzying panoply of examples, illustrations, and allusions in every breath.

Suffice it to say that I appreciated the book much more this time around.

It's difficult to summarize Chesterton, especially at this length, but I'll try. We moderns have gotten used to thinking of Christianity as one religion among many: Christianity in this column, Judaism and Islam just adjacent, with Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism just beyond that. That is, we've gotten the notion that all of these labels stand for things that are much the same underneath, when nothing could be further from the truth. In this book, Chesterton has undertaken to show us how different Christianity is from all of these others, and indeed how radically different it was at its inception from the Greco-Roman paganism it replaced--that is, how different Christ, the everlasting man of the title, is from Zeus and all that lot. Along the way he explodes a great many sacred cows of his day, and it's rather surprising to note how many of them have calves roaming our streets even today.

It's a fascinating book, frankly, and as always with Chesterton makes me look at some familiar things in a new way. I'm clearly going to have to re-read it in a year or so, though, just to see what I missed the first time through.

Saint Francis of Assisi
By G.K. Chesterton

Having enjoyed Chesterton's The Everlasting Man and Saint Thomas Aquinas, I opened this autobiography of St. Francis eagerly. And I enjoyed it, and I learned quite a bit about St. Francis, but it definitely left me wanting more.

Compared to St. Thomas, of course, St. Francis is a saint of a different color. Apparently there's not all that much biographical information available about St. Thomas; not surprisingly, as he spent most of his time thinking and writing. The difficulty in writing about St. Thomas is that to explain why he was and is important you need to get into serious matters of philosophy and theology--and to do that in a book intended for a popular audience without losing them is no mean feat.

The problem of writing about St. Francis is far different. Here there is a vast wealth of material, a plethora, possibly even a superfluity of story and legend from which to draw. At the same time, Francis is a far more popular saint than Thomas; everyone has at least the notion that Francis got on well with birds and suchlike creatures, even if they know nothing else about him. With Thomas, Chesterton didn't need to worry much about people's preconceptions; here he does.

Consequently, Chesterton's avowed intent in this book is to illuminate the saint's character. He tells us, in dribs and drabs, the bare biographical details; he shares with us a handful of anecdotes which illustrate his points. And he spends quite a lot of time telling us, somewhat abstractly, what St. Francis was like, and perhaps more time telling us what he wasn't like. But he doesn't tell us many stories about things Francis actually did, because he's more concerned that we have the proper grounding to appreciate such stories and not misunderstand them.

Unfortunately, this approach means that the narrative is somewhat detached. For example, the early biographies of Francis tell of a number of miracles God worked through him during his life. In the chapter where Chesterton addresses this, he spends most of his time talking about how strange it is that your average historian will read such a biography, discount the miraculous on the ground that it's nonsense and that the author must be lying, credulous, or a simpleton, and yet presume the remainder of the work to contain worthwhile historical detail. Surely, says Chesterton, if the author is unreliable, he's unreliable?

Well, and so, but I'd have liked to hear more about Francis' miracles.

I gather from some comments that Chesterton lets drop that he wrote this book during a period when Saint Francis was quite a popular figure in England, and books containing the kinds of stories Chesterton mostly left out were perhaps all too easy to come by. Chesterton clearly assumed that his audience had already read such books, or that having finished his they might go on to do so, and therefore it was more important to provide something they did not than to simply duplicate them.

I can't argue with that; but it does mean that the book, though valuable, didn't satisfy me, and that I'm probably going to have to find something else to read about St. Francis.

Chesterton, darn him, would undoubtedly be pleased.

Ring for Jeeves
By P.G. Wodehouse

Now this book is a genuine oddity--it's a Jeeves novel without Bertie Wooster. Nor is Bertie's absence the only anomaly.

In general, Bertie Wooster and his man Jeeves live in a world on which the passing years leave no mark. This novel, on the other hand, is firmly set in a time after World War II in which, thanks to punitive taxation and other social legislation, the stately country became a larger than usual albatross about the neck of its owners--and in which, consequently, the landed gentry have all had to seek employment. Sir Roderick Carmoyle, for example, is a floorwalker at Harrige's department store, and our hero, Lord Rowcester (pronounced "Roaster"), has embarked on a career as a Silver Ring bookie, taking bets on horses.

This might seem an odd occupation for one of England's younger earls, but it is easily explained. It seems that, thanks to the winds of change blowing so strongly through England's mighty oaks, Bertie has decided that he must learn to fend for himself, just in case, you understand, and so has taken himself off to a boarding school dedicated to teaching upper-class drones how to darn socks and fry an egg. This has left Jeeves at a loose end, and to fill in the time he has taken service with Lord Rowcester. It was at his suggestion that Lord Rowcester has taken up his new trade, having gone through the classified section of the telephone book from A to R without finding anything for which he was suited and then stumbling upon Silver Ring in the S's.

Because Bertie's absent, we don't get his usual first person narration; instead, the book is told in third-person. And if I'm not mistaken, that makes this the only book in which we see Jeeves from a relatively objective point of view, rather than filtered through another's eyes. Jeeves remains himself, of course; yet he seems a little freer with the literary quotations, and perhaps a little more likely to take liberties than when he's with Bertie.

There's one Jeeves and Wooster short story told from Jeeves' point of view, in which it becomes clear that Jeeves' entire aim is to make sure that Bertie never dispenses with him (or marries anyone who would force Bertie to do so); for he'd have the dickens of a time trying to find anyone so easily managed as Bertie. Jeeves comes off as rather cold-blooded, really. And I think something of the same is going on here. I don't think that Jeeves is really working for Lord Rowcester, however much he's paid and however satisfactory his service is. I think he's just having fun seeing how much he can get away with.

Well, anyway, it's a fun book; if perhaps not one of Wodehouse' best, it's still much better than Much Obliged, Jeeves.

Final Curtain
By Ngaio Marsh

Since April, 2003, I've been slowly working my way through Ngaio Marsh's Inspector Alleyn mysteries in chronological order. The last one I read and reviewed, A Wreathe for Rivera, was an accident; somehow I accidentally skipped over the present novel. I go into this only because Final Curtain occupies a key place in the sequence--Roderick Alleyn spends the years of World War II doing anti-espionage work in New Zealand, and is parted from his wife, the artist Agatha Troy, for the duration. This is the book in which he returns from New Zealand, is reunited with Troy (as he calls her), and takes up his police duties once again.

Consequently, the book is fraught with tension. Alleyn and Troy hadn't been married long when the war broke out, and haven't seen each other in over four years; both are concerned that whatever magic they had for each other has evaporated. And no sooner is Alleyn home than he ends up investigating a murder to which his wife is a prime witness; this is difficult for him, as he first got to know her during an unpleasant murder investigation (in Artists in Crime, and it caused such trouble between them that since then he's been trying to keep his home and work lives compartmentalized. And now all of those mental barriers are necessarily falling.

The quintessence of the English murder mystery is the country house mystery, which, as Marsh seems to delight in avoiding cliche, is probably why this is only her third novel in that sub-genre. And, typically, it's not just a country house mystery; Marsh brings in her beloved theater by making it a country house mystery about actors.

Sir Henry Ancred is a famous Shakespearian actor, now nearing the end of a long and productive and highly emotional life. He's the patriarch of a large dramatic family; not all are actually on the stage, but the only one of his descendants who isn't giving to making scenes and over-dramatizing every little thing is in fact a theater producer. He browbeats Troy, who is eagerly awaiting her husband's return and not much interested in working, into coming to his stately home, Ancreton, and painting his portrait. Thus, Troy becomes our viewpoint character for the first half of the book. While there she meets his unspeakable family and the young starlet they fear he will marry, and when he dies in bed after an overly rich dinner and a fit of rage she has a niggling feeling that perhaps his death wasn't entirely natural.

She and Alleyn discuss it, and are the verge of forgetting the whole thing when the CID receives an anonymous letter claiming that Sir Henry's death was murder. Alleyn must find out whether it was murder, and whodunnit, and reconcile his job with his married state.

All in all, not a bad outing.


Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

Dancing at the Rascal Fair
By Ivan Doig

There are some folks who write clean and crisp prose with a snap to it like sheets fresh from the sunshine. And there are some who write melodies that flow from the page into the mind, dancing rhyme and rhythm into a story that lasts and lasts. But the really good writers can do both. Ivan Doig is one of those.

Dancing at the Rascal Fair is the story of two friends, Rob Barclay and Angus McCaskill, who emigrate from Scotland in 1889 to become sheep ranchers in the high country of Montana. They are young bucks in a new land believing that a canny mind and hard work will make them successful. They have left behind the poverty and harshness of life in Scotland for the promise and harshness of life homesteading. And in it they find joy. But it takes a hardpan spirit to survive undamaged the brutality of the winters near the mountains and the hard life of a sheep rancher and Angus McCaskill is of softer soil than that. A rift develops between the two friends, widened by Angus' love of a woman he can't have and Rob's inability to accept that his friend is not able to bounce with the same gusto he does. The story of the rift between these two friends who are closer than brothers is what forms the core of the book. The story of Montana and the forests and mountains in the west is the background that it is played against.

This was actually my third time thru the book. I bought it soon after it came out in 1987 on a whim in the bookstore and read it thru once. A few years back I picked it off the bookshelf to see if it was as excellent as I remembered and it was. And lately NPR has featured it on "Chapter a Day" which brought back to me the musical quality of the language that Doig uses to tell his story. It reads aloud incredibly well. At first I thought it was the phrasing that he uses that was so wonderful, almost like a Scots burr rolling off the r's and broadening the vowels with snippets of Bobbie Burns woven in to pick out the colors. But this time thru what I really noticed is that the story plays out almost as if there is a fiddle playing highland music in the background, faintly picking up tempo or going down to the deep notes as the story unfolds. I have rarely read a writer with Doig's facile touch with language. It was a true pleasure.

The Subtle Serpent
By Peter Tremayne

This is one of Tremayne's Sister Fidelma mysteries; he also writes about the history of the Celts under the name of Peter Berresford Ellis.

Fidelma of Cashel is the sister of the King of Cashel and a highly educated advocate of the Brehon laws in Ireland in the 7th century AD. She speaks three or four languages, can read and write and has studied law for eight years in a bardic school in Tara, the central kingdom of Ireland and domain of the High King. She also is a member of the religious community of the St. Brigid of Kildare. The community that she belongs to is very different from the monasticism that later developed in Europe with celibacy and cloistering as basic tenets. The Irish church had developed separately from Rome during the early part of the millennium and had adapted to the cultural values of the Irish Celtic society. Tremayne, by the way, includes an excellent introduction giving some of the background of tensions between Irish Catholicism and Roman Catholicism that creates a lot of the tension in the book. Fidelma has not taken vows of celibacy, nor has she entered a cloistered community so she is available to lend her assistance as an Advocate of the Courts when a legal issue, such as murder, comes up.

In this book, set in 666 AD, she is called to an Abbey on the far west coast of Ireland to investigate the murder of a young woman. She has been found hung from the well rope in the Abbey's well, naked and beheaded. No one claims to be able to identify the body without the head and no one has reported a woman missing in the near vicinity. Fidelma is called in to investigate and try to figure out who the girl is and who killed and left her in such a ghastly way.

That's the main plot. The subplot involves Brother Eadulf, a Saxon monk who adheres to the Roman Catholic tradition and usually acts as Fidelma's sidekick in her investigations, providing a counterpoint to her theological beliefs and the slightest hint of love interest. On the sea voyage to the Abbey, the ship she is on discovers a Gaulish ship floating abandoned at sea, with a missal Fidelma has given to Eadulf in one of the cabins. She had left him in Rome and is beside herself with worry, especially after finding blood on the deck of the ship.

The Sister Fidelma series is generally pretty good. The early ones are a little spotty in the strength of the plot lines and Tremayne has an irritating tendency to explain Fidelma's credentials more than is needed, but essentially they read well and are interesting. The historical detail is fascinating without intruding too much on the action. I'm looking forward to finding a few more of these.


Craig's Recent Reading

by Craig Clarke

Monsieur Pamplemousse Investigates
By Michael Bond

When I reviewed Monsieur Pamplemousse Takes the Cure in the February issue, I found it charming, but never imagined I would actually pick up another one in the series -- especially as they all seem to be out of print. But there I was, at the library book sale, and what should pop out at me but Monsieur Pamplemousse Investigates for one dollar. I quickly snatched it up and began reading it almost immediately. Sadly, it does not reach the novel heights of its predecessor.

Aristide Pamplemousse awakens to the news that le directeur of Le Guide -- the eminent restaurant guide where he works -- is dead. Dressing in mourning -- complete with similar attire for his dog, Pommes Frites -- he arrives at work to see that the news was incorrect. This is never explained to my satisfaction, but the story continues anyway. Le Guide has been transferring all of its data to computer via les disques and someone has sabotaged the publication by putting a Chinese takeaway at the top of the recommended list. Quelle dommage!

The main suspect turns out to be Madame Grante, the company accountant, and the only other person with full access to the database. Strangely enough, she has taken missing, so Pamplemousse is sent to find her so the problem can be rectified before the guide's release date...in three days.

Pamplemousse and Pommes Frites still make a charming couple (he certainly shows his dog more respect than his wife, Doucette), but it appears that Bond is losing interest. Although the story centers around the newly burgeoning computerization of publishing, Monsieur Pamplemousse Investigates is very much an old-fashioned mystery, albeit an inferior one.

Azazel
Tales of the Black Widowers
More Tales of the Black Widowers
By Isaac Asimov

I would consider myself a fan of Isaac Asimov, but not in the conventional way. I've never been able to complete the Foundation trilogy (I barely made it through the first book, and I couldn't tell you anything about it), though an omnibus still finds itself on my shelves out of respect. No, what I like to read of Asimov's are his series of short stories and mysteries: the Black Widowers series, Murder at the ABA, even the R. Daneel Olivaw sci-fi mysteries. And now this book I came across in a used bookstore (the page ends so brittle that extreme care must be taken lest they crack): Azazel, called "light fantasy" on the cover.

In the stories in Azazel, Asimov writes as a thinly disguised version of himself telling stories about a friend of his named George Bitternut, whose friendship consists of thieving from and insulting the Asimov doppelganger, and who has use of a two-centimeter high demon named Azazel, from whom he can occasionally ask a favor for a friend, as long as it does not benefit George in any way.

However, like in the movie Bedazzled, any arrangement with a demonic entity -- no matter how innocuous it may seem -- must be handled carefully, and a lot of the entertainment in the Azazel stories comes from the unexpected (one might even say "Wodehousian," since they typically follow the style of that author's golf stories) results of the "favors." The fantasy elements are limited to the existence of the demon and, usually, the favors asked for (flying, time-switching, mind-reading), otherwise, these are simply charming confection of the type that Asimov spent a lot of his final years writing.

But if puzzle mysteries are more your thing, the Black Widowers series (of which I read two: Tales of the Black Widowers and More Tales of the Black Widowers) is definitely worth searching out (since most of them are out of print, except for a recent "best of"). Based on a real club to which Asimov belonged, the Trap Door Spiders, each story takes place at a dinner meeting of the Black Widowers, a men's-only club where the point of the day is to insult your co-attendees.

However, this is only the opening of the story. Someone has always brought a guest with him, who always seems to have some problem that needs solving (this usually involved some wordplay or simple deductive reasoning -- nothing too difficult). After the members have batted around possible solutions, their waiter, Henry (who is accepted as an honorary member by the rest), invariably cuts through the dross to the only obvious solution. This is most impressive in the story where Henry deduces that, since many of the story points don't work out especially well, that the guest must be lying. But the solutions are most often of the more pedestrian nature.

There's nothing here that is really going to stick in the memory, but these stories quickly became a favorite for bedside reading. The stories are just the right length, and of just the right "fluffiness", to be a perfect end-of-the-day treat. (Also, reading too many at once brings out the monotony of style.) They are good collections of lightweight stories that would likely find fans in our readers.

The Drowning Ghost (Blair Witch Files #3)
By Cade Merrill

According to the Blair Witch lore, 175 years ago a young girl named Eileen Treacle was drowned in the two-foot-deep Tappy East Creek when she was held down by a mysterious bony hand, purported to belong to Elly Kedward, the Blair Witch who was banished and left for dead forty years prior.

Now Cecilia Northrupp has contacted Cade Merrill with her story of a school-related camping trip, located in the area of Tappy East Creek, and how the ghost of a little girl ended up turning what was supposed to be a test of survival into a bloodbath by continually luring many of the thirty seventh-graders out to "play" because she was lonely.

I love these Blair Witch Files books, and this is my favorite of the three I've read so far. It's surprisingly well-plotted with engaging characters and truly suspenseful situations. I zoomed through the 175 pages in just over an hour and was riveted to the story the entire time.

I've recently discovered that each of these books was "ghostwritten" by a different author. The author of this one (Natalie Standiford) has a lot of experience with series for younger readers and The Drowning Ghost shows that she knows how to keep the reader involved. Something new is happening on every page, and a surprise revelation appears at the end of nearly every chapter, sure to keep the pages turning.

Dead Man's Tale
By Ellery Queen

I had always thought that Ellery Queen novels starred a sleuth of the same name, but Dead Man's Tale threw me for a loop. Queen was the pseudonym for Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay, but when they retired, further titles were ghostwritten by other authors. Dead Man's Tale was written by Stephen Marlowe and needn't have been published under the Queen moniker at all.

Perhaps it was the change in author(s), but this book was not at all what I expected. It is not even a mystery novel; it's more a crime novel, the only mystery being whether the protagonists will eventually find Milo Hacha (and whether the book would ever end -- a sad statement given that it was just over 100 pages in length). And, what with all the convoluted connections between characters and the dense plot, I found it very tough having to keep up with all the different (but very similarly written) characters, and often wanted to just give up the whole thing as a loss. Dead Man's Tale just wasn't worth my time.


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