Home : Ex Libris : 1 August 2004

ex libris reviews

1 August 2004

For a moment I thought a gelatin dessert of a size to gag an elephant had come to pay its respects--and spoil the sitting-room rug with its viscous trail--but it was, of course, only my roly-poly pal.
P.H. Cannon


In This Issue:
Absence of Mind

Alas, Craig Clarke had a busy July, and couldn't write us any reviews; with luck he'll be back with us next month. In the meantime, there's plenty from Deb and I.

-- Will Duquette

Books to Read Aloud

by Will Duquette

The High King
By Lloyd Alexander

My boy David and I have finished up Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain with this book, in which Arawn the Deathlord of Annuvin makes his move against the High King of Prydain and is ultimately defeated. As always, our viewpoint character is Taran of Cair Dallben, Assistant Pig-Keeper--but really, the point of the whole series is that the Taran of this book is not the Taran we began with. In each book he's matured, little by little; at the start he was a foolish kid who wanted to be a hero, and now he's a much wiser man and a leader of men. He has become strong, loyal, persevering, humble, and honest--indeed, he has all of what used to be called "the manly virtues."

And on top of that, there's also a rollicking good adventure, spiced with real loss and heartache, but ultimately having a happy ending. As a book (and series) to read to my kids, what's not to like?

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Night at the Vulcan
By Ngaio Marsh

I'm not sure Marsh plays quite fair in this book, but it's such a charming read that I don't care.

Martyn Tarne is young stage actress from New Zealand. She's had some success touring in Australia, and has come to London to see if she can make it big. Most of her money was stolen en route, and she's spent the last two weeks traipsing from theater to theater trying to find a part. She's a stubborn girl, our Martyn; she wants to succeed on her own terms. Finally she arrives at the Vulcan theater late on a dreary afternoon, only to discover that her information was incorrect; there's no audition, and no job. It begins to rain, and with no money, little food, and nowhere to go, she takes refuge in the theater lobby.

And there begins a Cinderella story so replete with interesting characters that it's almost a pity that a murder has to enter into it--which, indeed, it doesn't until over halfway through the book, on the play's opening night. Enter Inspector Alleyn and the usual crew, there are many questions, the murderer is discovered, and young Martyn's career is launched.

All in all, quite a satisfactory book.

Gardens of the Moon
By Steve Erikson

One of my (few) complaints about The Lord of the Rings involves the economics. The Shire evokes the simplicity of the pre-industrial English countryside--but even that simple countryside did not exist in a vacuum, and its inhabitants depended on trade for much that they could not produce themselves. Tolkien mentions trade now and then, when it suits his story, but it has always seemed tacked on to me, not really a part of his world. And though those simple English countryfolk might not travel more than ten miles from their homes over the course of their entire lives, there certainly were those who did. At a minimum, there was always contact between neighboring countries. Yet in Middle Earth, even long-time allies and next-door neighbors like Gondor and Rohan are so estranged that there is little contact between them.

In short, people have a tendency to reproduce, and spread out, and fill the available space. Realms have a way of butting up against each other. When you think of it that way, Middle Earth seems strangely empty, especially in the regions around the Shire.

Gardens of the Moon, by a new author named Steve Erikson, is squarely at the opposite end of the spectrum. It's the first book in a projected ten-book series called the Malazan Book of the Fallen, and there is little about it that's simple, least of all the geopolitical background. Indeed, I'm inclined to call it the theogeopolitical background, because the Gods are very definitely involved in human affairs, as if human affairs weren't complicated enough already. And I call them human affairs, although there are at least five different intelligent races involved (none of them, blessedly, elves, dwarves, or goblins).

To begin with, there's the ever-expanding Malazan Empire, a sort of magical police state ruled over by the Empress Laseen. Laseen, the former head of the Claw (the Malazan secret police), killed her predecessor and usurped the throne, and immediately purged as many of the old Emperor's supporters as she could; at least one reason for the wars of expansion is to provide plentiful opportunities for the remainder of the Malazan old guard to die in battle, far from the capital. But that's just part of the story.

One remnant of that old guard is the Bridgebreakers, a company of the 2nd Army, now commanded by Dujek One-Arm. They were the backbone of the army in the days of the old Emperor; of late they have been given assignment after assignment designed to get them killed. And they are tired of it. When they are ordered to infiltrate the city of Darujhistan to prepare for a later Malazan, they decide to do it their own way. But that's just part of the story.

Then there is the city of Darujistan itself. Largest and wealthiest of the Twelve Cities of Genabackis, it is the place where many and diverse threads will come together. There's the young fisher girl, now posessed by Cotillion the Rope, and turned professional killer. There's the young thief, chosen tool of Oponn, the Twin God of Luck. There's the seemingly frivolus Kruppe, a man who speaks much nonsense and hears everything of sense in Darujhistan. There's the assassin who's determined to avenge the wrong done one of his friends, and the fop who aids him. There are the councilmen who think they rules the city, and the cabal who actually do. But that's just part of the story.

Then there are the mages and alchemists, including an insane puppet with a nasty sense of humor and a penchant for chaos. The magic they practice is refreshingly novel in its details, which (delightfully) are never fully explained. And one mustn't forget the gods and demigods: Cotillion and Oponn, already mentioned; Shadowthrone, King of the Shadow Warren and lord of the Hounds of Shadow; Hood, the Lord of Death; Anomander Rake, the Lord of Moon's Spawn; any many others.

In passing, I'd like to point out the opportunities for some struggling grad student to do a thesis on the evolving notions of godhood in fantasy literature. The divide between the concepts of divinity in your average modern fantasy novel and any religion practiced by real people has (with a few exceptions) become a yawning chasm. But that's a topic for another time.

All in all, this is an amazingly rich and complicated book, and as it's the kind that doesn't pander to the reader it took me a while to get into it. Once I did, though, I was hooked. In fact, I ended up staying up late to finish it (on a weeknight, no less), which doesn't happen as often as it once did. The climax was worth it, too.

So I was entertained. Beyond that, I'm not really sure what to say. At times I was reminded of Fritz Leiber; at other times, of George R.R. Martin. The book is certainly better than many I've read, and might really be very good, but it is so different from its nearest neighbors that I think I'll have to read it once or twice more (at judicious intervals) before I know for sure. In any event, I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for the next book in the series.

Spinsters in Jeopardy
By Ngaio Marsh

This is the next of Marsh's Inspector Alleyn mysteries, and I'm afraid it's aged very badly.

Alleyn, his wife, and their little boy Ricky (his first appearance, as it happens) take a vacation to the south of France. Alleyn's mixing business with pleasure; while Troy and Ricky are having fun, he's going to be helping the Sureté bust up a drug ring. Tied in with the drug ring, possibly, are the denizens of the Chateau of the Silver Goat, the owner of which is the leader of what we'd now call a New Age cult. It's a scam, of course, at least mostly, but the cult leader uses the drugs to keep control over his small flock.

And this is where it gets dated. The two drugs mentioned in the book are heroin and marijuana, tellingly spelled "marihuana". Heroin is no joke, even now, but for the rest this spills over into Reefer Madness territory. The pinnacle comes during an occult ritual which Alleyn has infiltrated; there are six other participants. Each attendee is given a "reefer" to smoke; through a little sleight of hand, Alleyn substitutes one of his own cigarettes.

Now, really. I've never smoked either tobacco or marijuana myself (I was always a goody-two-shoes) but I know what they both smell like, and if Alleyn had lit up a normal cigarette in this situation, you can't tell me that the other six wouldn't have noticed the difference.

The book does have some fun moments, including one delightful scene where Alleyn comes over all Cary Grant and loses his temper with a slimy French executive, but the first half of the book is a bit of a slog.

A Mist of Prophecies
By Steven Saylor

This is the latest of Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa series, a collection of mystery novels set in ancient Rome in the waning days of the Roman republic. The current installment is set in the period after Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon; Pompey, Caesar's chief rival, has fled to Greece, and Caesar and his legions have gone after him. Meanwhile, things are chaotic in Rome itself; some support Pompey, some support Caesar, prices have gone through the roof, and only the bankers and big landlords are doing well. If Caesar defeats Pompey--or, alternatively, if Pompey defeats Caesar--it's clear that things will calm down.

But what if Caesar and Pompey both die in battle, far from Rome? What then? There's a slim possibility that a clever, ambitious man could sweep into power on the wings of a popular revolution. Marcus Caelius thinks he just might be that man.

As always, Saylor's viewpoint character is Gordianus the Finder, the man Cicero called "the last honest man in Rome." Gordianus is getting on in years, and his son Eco is doing most of the finding these days; Gordianus spends most of his time tending his garden or hanging out in the Forum listening to the other geezers belittle each others' politics. He doesn't want to get involved with rebellion; he just wants to live comfortably and enjoy his children and grandchildren.

And then a strange woman comes to Rome. She has no memory of her past; because she occasionally falls into fits and utters strange prophecies, she is soon dubbed "Cassandra". She is strange, and unkempt, and beautiful, and Gordianus, for all his years, is captivated.

And then she is murdered. Gordianus gives her a funeral, since no one else comes forward--and seven of Rome's most notable women attend, briefly, on her funeral pyre. Why? Why was she murdered? And who killed her? It falls, naturally, to Gordianus to find out, as revolution brews in the streets of Rome.

Alas, I don't find Gordianus as compelling as I once did. He's become rather a sad sack; paint him dreary. And then, although Saylor's focus on historical events lends the Gordianus books much of their interest, it's also a problem. Each book involves some crux in the Roman political record, and that means that the books are never really about Gordianus or his doings at all. It's also why Gordianus is so old and tired only eight books into the series; there are only so many major political upheavals in one man's life span.

So what can I say? The book was published in 2002, and it's been knocking around the house for ages; I only picked it up because I was going to be waiting at the airport for an hour or so, and it was more or less the first paperback I put my hand on as I was going out the door. It didn't disappoint me--I'm not sorry I read it--but I'm not terribly excited about it either.

Scream For Jeeves
By P.H. Cannon

This is the Lovecraft/Wodehouse parody I mentioned a couple of months ago. I wanted to dig into it immediately on arrival, naturally, but I restrained myself because I wanted to see if I could turn the silly bit from the above link into a full-length story. I got a fair ways, then ran out of gas. And then, a few days ago, I really needed something to distract me from Russian Bride, of which you'll hear more in the next day or so. And Scream for Jeeves was just sitting there, and, well, here we are.

I have good news and bad news. The good news is, the book really is genuinely funny. It contains three Jeeves and Bertie stories, each of which follows the classic pattern: an old friend of Bertie's requires his help--well, Jeeves' help, really--and Bertie clusters round, Jeeves saving the day. The author has Bertie Wooster's narrative style down pat.

At the same time, each story is a retelling of a classic Lovecraft tale, with admixtures from various others. And here's the first bit of bad news: the three Lovecraft tales are "The Rats in the Walls", "Cool Air", and "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward". The first of the three is one of my favorites, but I fear I've never much cared for the other two, and that was a disappointment. I had visions of Bertie vacationing in the shadowy town of Innsmouth: "A bit scaly, what, Jeeves? I mean to say, you'd think they were all French." "Indeed, sir, the residents do seem to have a batrachian aspect." But no, it was not to be.

One gag that's repeated in each story is a conversation between Bertie and one of the other characters in which the other character speaks in dark purple Lovecraftian prose and Bertie is simply himself. The difference in style is quite funny--for awhile. The other character never responds to Bertie's inanities, indeed, never seems to notice them.

On the other hand, there are some really good bits; I rather liked the idea of Bertie Wooster and Charles Dexter Ward treating Erich Zann to some old Broadway showtunes. Plus, there are some neat illustrations by J.C. Eckhardt.

Russian Bride
By Steven Alexander

This is the true story of a nice guy who loved not wisely but too well and got his heart ripped to shreds for it.

Steven Alexander, the author, is the nice guy; and Natasha, his Russian bride, is the one who ripped his heart to shreds. In a nutshell, Fifty years of age, Alexander has a successful career as a salesman but hasn't as yet found Miss Right. An elderly couple, close friends of Alexanders, live in a retirement home run by Russian emigrés, and he becomes acquainted with a number of the Russian women who work there. They are friendly, attractive, hard-working, good cooks, and they take excellent care of his friends. He begins to think that perhaps a Russian woman would suit him very well.

He goes on-line and finds a site with personal ads from Russian women who are interested in meeting Americans. And after a lot of hesitation, he sends a letter to a beautiful woman named Natasha, through a translation service. She responds. One of his friends from the retirement home visits St. Petersburg and meets Natasha; when she returns, she tells him that he should go to Russia and do the same.

And he goes, and he meets her, and eventually she comes to the United States to see if she'll like it here, and after several weeks he asks her to marry him, and she says yes. And so they are wed.

And that's when the trouble starts. I'll leave it at that, so as not to spoil Alexander's story; I'll just say that it's a painful, unpleasant tale, just chock full of important life lessons: never underestimate the power of cultural differences; judge people by their actions, not their words; marry in haste, repent at leisure; don't marry anyone expecting to change them afterwards; if your friends don't like your beloved, you should pay attention.

Alexander's not a professional writer, and it shows; his prose has a plain-spoken artlessness about it, as though he's telling you the story over a beer after a long day.

The book has two serious faults. First, the section from the beginning of the book up to the wedding is too long, and frequently dull; it's as though he's building a court case and doesn't want to exclude the smallest scrap of evidence. After the wedding it becomes quite gripping, rather like watching a train wreck in slow motion. Second, possibly due to 20-20 hindsight, he lays out the case clearly enough that the reader can see the train wreck coming almost from the first moment he meets Natasha in St. Petersburg. I can only hope that it wasn't as obvious when he was living it.

When I finished the book I went and found Jane and told her, "Jane, anything you'd like me to do, you got it."

Pride and Prejudice
By Jane Austen

What can I say about a classic like this?

I was tired, I had finished Russian Bride, and I needed a pleasant, familiar, comforting book, something I could fall into with speed, something as comfortable and satisfying as a pair of tennis shoes at the end of a day of hiking in heavy boots.

And darned if I didn't stay up way past my bedtime to finish it. (That was the subsequent evening, of course. Pride and Prejudice is too long to read in a single evening.)

Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

Little Britches
Man of the Family
The Home Ranch
Mary Emma and Company
The Fields of Home
By Ralph Moody

When I read kid books, I try to keep in mind the way the child would read them. Children, in my experience, read primarily for story line and dramatic telling. They don't pay attention to imagery, foreshadowing or any other of the many literary devices that can make books compelling. And that's OK. It's the way I read many books also. However, there are occasionally children's books with deeper themes that catch my attention and then I begin to pay attention to what I call the deliberateness of the author. Those are the books I talk about with my kids. And they are the books I give away as gifts at Christmas and birthday time. I have a feeling there are 3 or 4 kids who will be getting this series for Christmas this year.

Moody writes about his childhood in Colorado, Boston and Maine. When the series opens, his family has moved to Colorado to farm in hopes that the dryer climate will help cure his father's TB acquired from working in the textile mills of the East. Little Britches is a homesteading story told from the viewpoint of a 9 year old boy, Ralph, nicknamed "Little Britches" by the cowboys on a nearby ranch. The family struggles to make it on the farm with poor land and very little water. There are disasters and good times but through it all is a deep sense of the value of every member of the family. Ingenuity and hardwork are portrayed as positives in this book and although the family doesn't make it on the farm, it's not for lack of trying.

Man Of The Family picks up where Little Britches left off. Father has died of complications from pneumonia leaving Mother with 4 kids to feed and 4 months pregnant. They move to town and again pull together as a family working odd jobs, raising food and keeping body and soul together as best they can. Throughout the book, the emphasis is on hard work and the blessing of having enough to eat and a warm place to live.

The Home Ranch is a side story briefly mentioned in Man of the Family when Ralph takes a job, for a man's wage of a dollar a day, at a cattle ranch as a cowboy. It's a great story with horses and storms and cowboys who take him under their wing teaching him what he needs to do to work like a man. Part of what makes this book so much fun is the mentoring he gets from the older men.

Mary Emma and Company takes the family back to Boston. Mother has been subpoenaed in Colorado to give evidence against a horse thief that she knows is up to be hung based upon her testimony. Her principles won't allow her to send a man to the gallows so the whole family goes back to Boston to avoid the consequences of the trial. Here she must find a new way to support the family and Ralph must find his own place in a very different world than the one he is used to. Ralph gets a job after school and Mother and Grace, Ralph's older sister, take in laundry to keep food on the table. Unfortunately, what seemed normal activities in Colorado don't quite fly in the city and Ralph keeps finding himself in trouble both in school and out.

The Fields of Home has Ralph going to his grandfather's farm in Maine to keep him out of trouble. Here he has to deal with his crusty, cantankerous grandfather who cant seem to adjust to anything new and makes life miserable for Ralph. This book is about how both of them learn to get along and bridge the gap in the generations. And it's on the farm in Maine that Ralph finally realizes that he needs to work with the soil and animals to be content.

I loved these books. They celebrate values like pride in the quality of your work and perseverance in the face of hard times. The kids in these books know who they are and how important they are to the survival of the family. Moody could have made the books seem glum and grim but he rather emphasizes the joy in living and working and being with family. Mother sings as she works and Ralph is very proud of his reputation as a kid who can work like a man. It's refreshing to read. They'd make great read alouds for parents to share with their children.

Free Land
By Rose Wilder Lane

Rose Wilder Lane is the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder of the Little House books fame. She also wrote books about homesteading in the Dakotas which are now reprinted by The University of Nebraska Press under the Bison Books logo. And if I remember correctly there was a short lived TV series in the 70's or early 80's based upon this book.

Anyone who is familiar with the Little House books will find much that is similar in this book. David Beaton and his new bride, Mary, take up the government on the offer of free land in the west. The story is of their first five years homesteading 300 acres of land, living in a sod hut, surviving tornados and blizzards and childbirth. It's a compelling story. It's much grimmer than Laura's telling of the same events in the Little House books. Mary gets tired and cranky. There is often not enough food. Cabin fever is a problem in winter. Children freeze in blizzards. Horses are stolen. And yet there is satisfaction in surviving and finally beginning to prosper. David and Mary stick together as a team similar to the matched Morgans that David is so proud of. It's also just a good, clean adventure story written for adults but eminently suitable for young folks. If you can find it, it's worth reading if only to remind you to be grateful for your washing machine and indoor plumbing.

The Road to Middle-Earth: How Tolkien Created a New Mythology
By Tom Shippey

This book has been on my shelf awhile. Part of me rebels against analyzing Tolkien's work since I think it should be just read and enjoyed for it's own sake. On the other hand, after reading this book some of what I found puzzling in Lord of the Rings makes more sense than it did before. Shippey wrote this book as an answer to the critics of Tolkien making an argument that it is a much more scholarly work than it appears on the surface to be. And it was the genius of Tolkein that he could write stories with very scholarly roots that hold lasting appeal to the mass market.

What this book puts across so strongly is that Tolkien created the languages of Middle Earth before he created the place. And he thought up the places before he thought up the story lines. It's a very upside down way of writing and but it accounts for the consistency throughout the different works. Tom Bombadil, whom I have always found to be a problematic addition to the plot of Lord of the Rings, was created much earlier than the story of Frodo and Sam. And while he rightly isn't part of the plot line as a whole, he is an important character to the world of the story since he demonstrates the agedness of Middle Earth. He is the Oldest, older than Sauron, Gandalf and the Elves. He "is," as Goldberry says of him.

Shippey also attempts to explain how Tolkien infused his own Christian beliefs into Middle Earth without making it an overtly Christian story. I've read other thoughts on that subject but nothing at the depth that this books looks at. He points out images from the Bible that end up in the story--the cock crowing is one that comes to mind. Rereading it, I'm surprised I missed some of them.

He also writes about the later years in Tolkien's writing and how his conception of Middle Earth evolved over time, causing problems for him as an author. He had to maintain consistency with older, published writing and while continuing to work on the world he created. Middle Earth for Tolkien was a life long project not captured in one or two published works. It mostly existed in his mind and we are treated to a glimpse of it in his writings.

I unfortunately haven't read The Simarillion which is discussed in the last few chapters of the book. It's something I plan on doing in the near future. Then, of course, I'll go back and read the relevant chapters in this book again. I'm glad I kept it on the shelf rather than tossing it into the "sell at the used bookstore" box.

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.

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