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ex libris reviews

1 September 2004


I must write something with a villain named Braxton Hicks one of these days... he'd be the type to invent one of those torture chambers where the walls slowly squeeze in on the hero, I suspect.
Charlotte Macleod


Contents


In This Issue:
A Tribute

I know many readers of ex libris reviews are fond of Charlotte MacLeod's Peter Shandy and Sarah Kelling mysteries, and so I'd like to draw your attention to this tribute, put together by a long-time friend and correspondent of the author.

-- Will Duquette


Books to Read Aloud

by Will Duquette

Philippe in Monet's Garden
By Lisa Jobe Carmack

This is a book intended for sale in museum gift shops, for people to buy and give to small children under the illusion that they are bringing culture to said children, when all they are really doing is parting with their hard-earned money to no good purpose. This stinker of a book was published by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, by people who really should have known better. I hasten to add that none of the fault lies with the illustrator, Lisa Canney Chesaux; the illustrations are fine, and suit the story.

The story, now, the story might be salvageable; I'm not sure. But the telling of the story is surely awful.

The story is straightforward. Philippe is a frog with unusually large legs. And as he lives in France, he is in constant danger of having his legs eaten. Indeed, two frogs of his acquaintance, shortly after having mocked his unusually large legs, are captured and whisked off to the kitchen right before his eyes. But lucky Philippe! He wanders into Monet's garden, where Monet is pleased to see him; he adds a dash of green. Philippe is safe forever.

Not a bad plot, I suppose; it has definite humorous possibilities; but as it's executed there's no rising action, no tension, no sense that Philippe is ever actually in danger--despite having his two acquaintances captured before his eyes. But it's the words that are the real problem.

The book is written in rhyming prose. I assume it was intended to be in some kind of verse, but the rhythm changes from line to line so that the rhymes don't come when you'd expect them to. There's no discernable rhyme scheme. And the rhymes are often horribly strained. "Fried" doesn't rhyme with "good-bye", nor "escape" with "fate", nor "Philippe" with "bleat", nor a dozen other hopeful combinations.

In short, reading this book aloud is almost physically painful. Since it seems unlikely that everyone connected with the project has a tin ear, I can only conclude that none of them cared much about the words, or about reading the book to real, live children.

Note to museum-goers--read the book, before you buy it for your niece, nephew, or grand-child. Thank you.

Treasure Island
By Robert Louis Stevenson

Amazingly, I passed four decades on this Earth without ever having read Treasure Island until just this month, when I read it aloud to my son, David. I tried to read it once when I was a kid, but didn't get far; when Billy Bones was given the Black Spot I got depressed and put the book down, having become quite attached to that sullen old gentleman of fortune. On top of that, given what little I remember of that first attempt, I think I might have been reading an abridgement or adaptation of some kind; either that, or I was retaining only about a third of the words.

Anyway, it turns out to be a fine adventure tale in the old tradition; old, in that the pirates are indisputably bad, and the good guys indisputably good, if not always entirely wise. It was rather refreshing, actually. The prose was rather over David's head, I fear, and I was continually having to explain bits to him, but once I did he enjoyed it thoroughly.

I think the bit that amazed me most was Long John Silver. I'd formed the impression of Silver as your typical pirate captain, with a cocked hat and a parrot and a pegleg, and somehow I had the notion that Silver and Jim Hawkins went off to search for the treasure together, as good comrades-in-arms--in short, that Silver was something of a hero.

The reality is somewhat different. Silver has the pegleg, and the parrot, oh yes, and he goes off to search for treasure with Jim Hawkins; and for part of the book the pirates regard him as their captain. But there's absolutely nothing of the hero about him. Instead he's a quite plausible rogue, as Jack Aubrey might say, with one eye on the main chance and the other on the door, and if he has a silver tongue he has two faces with which to wield it. A cunning fellow, indeed, but thoroughly contemptible.

How did I ever get the idea that Long John Silver was one of the good guys? I really have no idea.


Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Lord of the Isles
Queen of Demons
Servant of the Dragon
Mistress of the Catacombs
Goddess of the Ice Realm
By David Drake

If The Lord of the Rings is about resisting great evil in one fell swoop, the Lord of the Isles series is about coping with one damned thing after another. Through to Drake's excellent storytelling we get to come along for the ride, and a fun ride it is.

The world of the Isles consists largely of ocean, with a ring of largish islands (think England rather than Hawaii) that extends from the tropics on the south to the cold regions of the north. At one time the Isles were united under a single king, and it was in that time that civilization in the Isles reached its zenith. The united kingdom fell apart a thousand years prior to the beginning of our story, but the memory of that Golden Age is so strong that even now the lords of the island of Ornifal style themselves "King of the Isles".

The kingdom fell after the death of Carus, last King of the Isles. He was approaching the island of Yole with his warfleet (the Duke of Yole having rebelled) when the Duke's wizard sent him and his warfleet to the bottom of the ocean. The Duke of Yole was thus saved from having to fight Carus' army, but he didn't live to enjoy it; the forces raised by his wizard inadvertantly sank Yole and all its inhabitants beneath the waves.

It seems that every thousand years, the forces of magic are strengthened for a time. Hedge-wizards become strong; great wizards become strong beyond all imagining--and beyond their own understanding. The Duke of Yole's wizard saw that he could drown Carus, fleet and all, but the repercussions were (one presumes) rather a surprise to him.

This increase in magical power has two effects. First, dark-lord-wannabees come out of the woodwork. They have great ambition, and great power, but usually little experience. Second, powers dormant for a thousand years awaken, and endeavour to forward plans which might span millenia. Neither effect is particularly conducive to peace for the Isles and their inhabitants.

Enter Garric-or-Reise, the son of a tavern-keeper in a small village on the island of Haft, and the lineal descendant of King Carus. He's given a medallion by his father, a medallion that commemorates the coronation of Carus himself. And after he begins to wear it, he finds Carus speaking to him, first in his dreams, and then later in his waking moments of abstraction. Carus has knowledge of politics and warfare and royal courts and hand-to-hand combat to share with his descendant; and also the wisdom that comes from 20-20 hindsight and a millenia to reflect upon one's own failings. Garric brings his own contribution to the party; he's big and tough, full of peasant common sense, and thanks to his father, once a court functionary, he can read and is thoroughly grounded in the classic authors. He's no dummy, which is a good thing, for Garric's task is to reunite the Isles so that they can stand together against the forces of evil, whatever they might be.

That's the premise of the series, and it's a surprisingly good one. There's no single Dark Lord to defeat; Garric must deal with both the purely human troubles of courts and politics and ambition, and also the myriad magical threats to the Isles. As a result, the series is nicely open-ended--each book deals with one cosmic threat, while advancing the story of Garric and his friends. As I say, it's just one damned thing after another.

Garric isn't alone, of course. There's his friend Cashel, the shepherd. Cashel's a big guy--the sort who's so wide he looks short until you get close and realize you're looking up at him. He carries a metal-shod hickory staff, and when he starts to spin and swing it he becomes the nearest thing to an immovable object you're likely to run into--unless it's an irresistable force you're in need of. He's not too quick mentally, our Cashel, but he's got his head on straight, he always does what he thinks is right, and his instincts are usually correct. Oh, and he's only half-human. It's not entirely clear what the other half is, but it makes him almost impossible to defeat.

Then there's Cashel's twin sister Ilna, the weaver. She's smarter than Cashel, and colder than Cashel, but just as concerned with doing the right thing, as she sees it. She's a master of her craft, and thanks to a mis-step in the first book of the series she can weave patterns that'll turn your head inside out if you look at them. She's interested in Justice, is our Ilna, and she definitely makes Mercy look good.

And finally there's Garric's sister Sharina, who compared with her brother and his friends is almost refreshingly normal. She's just strong, mentally tough, able to take care of herself in any situation (you learn how to do that, growing up in a tavern), and she has the most amazing knack for making friends when she needs them. (I do not mean that salaciously; she and Cashel are a definite item.)

If the books have a fault, it's that there's a bit of a formula to them. In each book, you know that our heroes are going to be faced with both political and magical problems. You know that the magical threats are going to appear to be coming from several different sources, but they are all going to be linked together in the end. You know that several of our heroes are going to be in some way translated to other magical worlds/planes/eras, and have to find their way back home. You know the bad guys are going down, especially if Cashel is facing them.

And yet, even with all that, none of the books has repeated the pattern exactly; and the latest book, Goddess of the Ice Realm, has a truly chilling twist at the end--no pun intended. Seriously.

When I read the fourth book, I thought the series might be on the verge of becoming tedious--but I admitted at the time that I'd read it while afflicted with a bad cold, which might have affected my opinion. On re-reading it, I think that on the whole it was better than I first thought, but still a little silly. The new book is better, and I'm looking forward to the next installment.

Idlewild
By Nick Sagan

A couple of weeks ago I was asked by a representative of Penguin Books (Penguin Books! How cool is that?) whether I'd like to review a new science fiction novel by Nick Sagan, son of the famous Carl Sagan. It sounded interesting, so I said OK. My only concern was that the book was a sequel to Sagan's first book, which I'd not read. He responded by sending me both books, for which I am truly grateful.

I admit I opened the book with some trepidation--Sagan has a famous name, sure, but can he tell a story? Turns out he can, and with style. He begins with the hoary-but-effective plot contrivance, the man with amnesia. Our hero wakes up, injured and alone, and unable to remember where he is, how he got hurt, or his own name. Bits of memory begin to creep back as he explores his surroundings--his quite remarkably outré surroundings. He lives in a house shaped like a cathedral, complete with gargoyles; he is served by nightgaunts; his name, apparently, is "Halloween." And it's almost certain that someone is trying to kill him.

Meanwhile, a global pandemic is raging, and people are dying in vast numbers. The killer is a virus called Black Ep, it's invariably fatal, and there's no known cure. Worse, it has an incubation period of years, and is highly contagious, so virtually everyone on the planet has it. A small team is working against time on a scheme to defeat the virus and preserve mankind from extinction.

And how are these two disparate plot elements related? Therein hangs the tale, which I won't spoil for you.

As I say, Sagan's a good storyteller; he kept me interested and turning pages, not an easy feat with four kids in the house and the Olympics on TV. If I have a complaint, it's that there's little here that I haven't seen before. Even if he built the story from familiar parts, though, the resulting edifice still has a number of striking features and surprises, and there are a number of absolutely images. I particularly enjoyed it when Halloween throws a luau and has nightgaunts in Hawaiian shirts passing out the drinks and canapés. And if I'm occasionally reminded of Roger Zelazny, or Greg Bear, or even Stephen King, I suppose that's no bad thing in a first novel.

Edenborn
By Nick Sagan

This is the sequel to Sagan's Idlewild, and I confess I'm not sure what to make of it.

It begins about 18 years after the conclusion of its predecessor. The human race has been all but destroyed by the Black Ep virus; the only survivors are Halloween and five others, and the children they have since brought into the world. Their chief goal (indeed, their reason for being) is to find a permanent cure for Black Ep and then repopulate the world. But Halloween and his age-mates didn't have what you'd call a normal childhood with a stable home-life, and raising children is a tricky business indeed. Most of the kids are doing OK, having normal adolescent angst, but one or two of them, well...

In fact, that's probably the best way to describe this book--it's about parenting, and how to raise sociopaths. As such, I don't find it entirely convincing; the proportion of truly amoral people in this book seems to me to be a little too high.

There's an interesting note on the effect of a religious upbringing. Five of the kids are raised in the Sufi tradition (Sufi is a mystical branch of Islam). The most stable kid in the whole bunch is one of these; he's also the most devout. He's balanced by his two older brothers, who had the same upbringing; one abandons his faith for atheism and the bright lights, while the other abandons Sufism (Sufiism? Sufi-ism?) for a more literal reading of the Koran and becomes mightily annoying to all around him.

On the whole, I don't think I like this book as much as its predecessor. It takes a while to get started, and it's less convincing. Moreover, the point I draw from it--that kids need a moderate, firm level of discipline, giving them neither too much nor too little freedom of choice and experience--seems obvious to me. But then, I grew up in a functional family.

Bottom line: I dunno. I'm curious as to what happens next, though.

The History of the Church
By Eusebius

When I first ran into The Da Vinci Code I knew it was nonsense; as history buff, I already had enough general historical knowledge under my belt that it smelled really bad. Nevertheless, it prompted me to go out and see what I could find on the specifics, and this book is the first fruits of that.

The History of the Church is the earliest history we have of the Christian faith in its first few centuries. Eusebius was born around 260 AD, and wrote most of the book between 315 and 325 AD. It begins with Jesus and the apostles, and traces the apostolic succession down to the early reign of Emperor Constantine. Along the way Eusebius discusses a variety of persecutions, martyrs, heresiarchs, and the like, along with a number of comments on the canon of the New Testament, and in so doing he quotes a vast number of sources at great length. Indeed, in some ways, that's the chief value of Eusebius; he wasn't an original thinker, but he had a large, well-stocked library and quoted from it liberally. Many of the passages he cites we know only from his quotations; where we have the source documents as well, he is shown to be fairly trustworthy.

So what did I learn from Eusebius?

First, that the canon of the New Testament, although still somewhat fluid even up to the end of Eusebius' life, was nevertheless pretty well thrashed out. All of the books we currently have in the New Testament were well-known to Eusebius and his sources, many of which date from the first and second centuries, and were liberally quoted by them. In Eusebius' day there was still some controversy about Revelations, Paul's Letter to the Hebrews (Eusebius maintained that it had indeed been written by Paul, but in Hebrew, and was translated into Greek by Clement of Rome), and some of the so-called "Catholic" letters. On the other hand, the various "gnostic" gospels so beloved of certain scholars these days as holding hidden knowledge--the Gospel of Thomas, for example--were also well known to Eusebius and his predecessors, and were generally dismissed as bogus. (The discussion often involves comments on the style of the various authors; it sounds quite contemporary to my ears.) In short, the New Testament was too well known and too widely quoted in earlier times to be the work of Constantine, as Dan Brown would have it.

Second, the early Christians were dedicated to (among other things) preserving the faith as they had received it from the apostles, and as a result they had a short way with heresy.

Most of you are probably now picturing witch hunts and auto-da-fés, but nothing could be further from the truth. Christianity was never spread by violence until it became married to the power of the state by Constantine, and even after that it was spread violently much less frequently than most people would suppose. But be that as it may, in the time period of which I'm writing Christianity spread from person to person without any form of coercion--the early Christians had no power, and hence no way to coerce anyone.

The way they dealt with heresy was manifold. Heretics were shunned. Books and pamphlets were written refuting their heresies; a number of these have come down to us. If a bishop should fall into heresy a synod, or council, would be convened and the matter thrashed out; if the council found that the bishop was indeed in error, he would be stripped of his position. If heretics repented, they were received back into the fellowship--but were never again given positions of responsibility. And that was the extent of it. Some heresies and their purveyors persisted for decades, but the early Christians stood firm against them, and in the end they came to nothing.

It's notable that heresy was usually linked to a lust for power and wealth; even allowing for exageration, Paul of Samosata sounds like a third-century Jim Bakker.

This is yet another reason why the so-called "gnostic" gospels were abandoned--the church as a whole, which at that time was a collection of city churches united in one faith but distributed over the whole of the Roman empire, judged them false and didn't preserve them, because they didn't accord with the faith received from the apostles.

Third, the early Christians were willing to die for their faith. It was customary for Roman citizens to make certain sacrifices during the course of the year; and in many cities, especially in Asia, the emperor or his predecessors were accorded divine honors. The early Christians refused to have anything to do with such sacrifices, which led to the initial waves of persecution. Christians were accused of a variety of evil practices (including incest and baby-eating), they were imprisoned, they were flogged, they were burned at the stake, they were given to wild beasts in the arena, they were starved, they were torn apart and thrown into the sea to feed the fishes, they were tortured in various ways, periodically, all through the first three centuries of the church.

What impressed me particularly was the way most of the martyrs died. They had taken to heart Christ's saying from the Sermon on the Mount, "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." Under the torture, some certainly renounced their faith; of these, some few repented later. But most seem to have gone to their deaths rejoicing that they had been thought worthy to suffer and die as witnesses to Christ. "Witness" -- that's what the word "martyr" means.

It's not that these early Christians were so eager to die that they went looking for trouble. But if trouble came to them, they were determined to die as well as they possibly could. We're all familiar with the image of the Christians being thrown to the lions; it was even used in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. (Yosemite Sam, the captain of the Imperial Guard, had to find a victim for Emperor Nero.) What I didn't know is that sometimes the lions, for whatever reason, balked--so that the martyrs had to encourage them to eat. And they did.

Think about that for a moment. It seems crazy--until you remember the pearl of great price.

As a follow-on to Eusebius, I've found a book that has material written by four of his sources: Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus of Lyons. Clement and Ignatius date from the first century; Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons from the second. (As an indication of the size of Roman empire and the rapid spread of Christianity, note that Irenaeus was the head of a sizeable church in the city of Lyons, in what's now France.) It took me many months to work my way through Eusebius, so don't hold your breath.


Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home
By Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer

About 3 or 4 weeks ago, my husband and I made the decision to pull our 14-year-old daughter out of school and teach her at home. Not lightly or easily either, I might add. We made up long pro and con lists, talked to homeschoolers in the area, looked at the local school's curriculum for high school and counted the cost, literally. We debated, argued and reasoned with each other. Then we gulped and decided to give it a shot. That's when the discussions really began in earnest. Then we had to think about exactly how do you homeschool a kid in high school and do a good job. And what is good job anyway? Are grades important? What is important? Yikes!

Fortunately, homeschooling has been around for a long time and going really strong the last 20 years or so. There are a plethora of books out on the market, most of which I either own or have read. Many are tales of happy homeschoolers blissfully teaching their kids the love of learning. Bleh. Most espouse their own favorite "approach" to homeschooling. They range from a "unschooling" with no defined structure at all to classical schooling with a prescribed 4 year cycle of learning. None of them is a perfect fit for my daughter. So I am picking and choosing.

One book that is incredibly helpful in some sort of method is the mother/daughter collaboration, A Well Trained Mind. They outline a Classical Approach based upon the grammar/logic/rhetoric sequence outlined in an essay by Dorothy Sayers on education. The premise is that you start children out learning about history/science/literature with the ancients and move in a 4 year sequence thru modern times, repeating it for the entire 12 years of school. Each stage of the cycle has its own learning objectives; facts come first, then logical analysis, then synthesis into a personal opinion. Latin is begun early on, in 2nd or 3rd grade, with modern languages added in after the basics of Latin are learned. Readings become progressively more advanced as the child grows and matures. Writing progresses until the child is doing a long thesis in the senior year of high school. There is a great deal of emphasis on writing to learn and independent study on the child's part in the later grades. Especially helpful, the authors outline books to use if you choose or programs that are well-written with homeschooling or school resources listed as suppliers of materials. If begun early on, this whole book would have been my guide to teaching my daughter.

Unfortunately, I have gaps to fill and skills that need teaching before I could begin this method as written. I have, however, gleaned a few useful items. We'll be studying Latin rather than a modern language for now. With my daughter's language deficits from her learning disabilities, having a solid base of word roots will help her enormously and the program I found teaches English grammar very well. I will follow the general idea of a history cycle with Western Civ, American History, 20th Century History and Civics/Government. She'll be doing the note-taking and-book outlining they suggest, keeping notebooks by subject and reading many of the works outlined in the text, if in an abridged version. I am using the math program they suggest, published by Saxon and based upon an incremental direct-instruction method of learning math.

We did have one hurdle to get over mentally before we made the decision. It's the big question that homeschoolers get about socialization of the children. Will a kid learning at home be as well socialized as a peer in school? My husband and I struggled with this. It's a tough one.

On the one hand, being around other kids may teach them valuable skills for getting along with people. I am a little dubious about that one, especially after my son came home from kindergarten proud as a peacock because he learned to play "smear the queer" on the playground that day. It's a form of dodge ball, in case you are wondering. But there are some useful skills learned about give and take in having friends your own age whom you see daily. On the other, there is peer dependency and "the looking glass self" mentality where kids define who they are based upon who they are with. In high school, that gets really scary with things like drugs, sex and rock-and-roll out there.

In the final analysis, I agree with the authors when they say "in this age of endemic family breakup, teaching your high schooler to live peacefully in a family is probably the most important feat of socialization you can accomplish." That made a huge amount of sense. Family life is the heart of life as I see it and living well in the family is almost a key to a fulfilling life no matter what your occupation or work is. And my sister, ever good with the advice, pointed out that the last time she was in a room full of people exactly her own age was at her last class reunion. She also reminded me, the wretch, that neither of us went to prom so my daughter won't be missing anything there either.

It's going to be a journey for all of us. I am frantically reading books trying to put together a Western Civ course that will challenge her and still teach very basic skills. I realize that this won't always be rosy. There will be times when I want to chuck the whole thing and send her off on the bus to let someone else deal with because I want to wring her wretched little neck. There will be times when I want some time just to myself without having to go into the bathroom to get it. There will also be times when we get to giggling together over something or decide to take a break and go for a walk. We plan on taking good weather days off rather than snow days. Why not stay home and learn when the weather is yucky and go for a horse ride or to town on a nice day. We'll see.

Docendo discitur
-- Seneca (One learns by teaching)


Craig's Recent Reading

by Craig Clarke

The Red Box
By Rex Stout

In this early Nero Wolfe mystery from grand master Rex Stout, candy proves deadly when a young woman dies from ingesting a Jordan almond from a sampler from which two other people had also eaten. Since the young woman had no enemies, and the candy was undoubtedly intended for someone else, Nero Wolfe is called on the case.

In the meantime, the reader is introduced to a slew of odd characters, most of which come from the Frost family. Llewellyn first hires the detective, but when he gets upset and fires him, his "ortho-cousin" (a term with which I was unfamiliar but which proves central to the plot) takes on the fee.

Unlike most of the Wolfe mysteries, The Red Box struck me as too long by a fault. About halfway through, I was thinking it should begin to wrap up when there was still half a book remaining. No harm done, though, as the conclusion was entirely satisfying.

A Study in Scarlet
By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

It is difficult to go back to the early works of such a beloved duo as Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson and not be just a little disappointed by what was essentially the work of a beginner -- at least that's what I found out upon rereading A Study in Scarlet.

In many ways, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle started out running. His characters are complete entities from page one and he even offers up tidbits of past experience to let us into some aspects of their personalities. (It would not be until The Sign of Four that the various eccentricities would crop up, however.)

Part one is spectacular, focusing as it does on the discovery of the murder and the enigmatic scrawling of "RACHE" in blood on the wall. Unfortunately, in an exercise of poor decision making, the author veers away from this fascinating tale to drop us in the middle of frontier America and the history of the characters leading up to the motivations for the murder.

This part is as well-written as the rest of the book, but it is jarring for those expecting a pure Holmes tale like the ones Conan Doyle would write later. Perhaps, he realized this was a misstep, because he never did it again: focusing on the short stories allowed his readers to receive a full dose of Holmes without extraneous matters and, if a story rated the fuller treatment, it would be done properly.

In the end, A Study in Scarlet is still a classic novel with most of the things readers love about Holmes and Watson already intact; one simply needs to go into it knowledgably to appreciate full spectrum of the author's talent, or to decide to skip the interlude in favor of a pure serving of the great consulting detective. Whatever the decision, the book itself does not disappoint.

The Moment She Was Gone
By Evan Hunter

As Ed McBain, Evan Hunter writes the wonderful 87th Precinct series and the lesser-but-still-entertaining Matthew Hope series. Under his real name (legally, that is, he had it changed), he writes thrilling psychological studies like Criminal Conversation (The screenplay to Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds and the novel on which the classic film The Blackboard Jungle was based also came from Hunter's pen.)

The Moment She Was Gone begins just then, as Annie Gulliver, twin of narrator Andy Gulliver ("no relation to the Raggedys"), has disappeared yet again. The story is told from Andy's point of view as he remembers their life and tries to put the pieces together to figure out what exactly is wrong with his sister. She seems to be hallucinating often, gets into a lot of trouble, makes obscene jewelry, and lives off their mother while traveling the world. Is this all based on an event that happened when Annie was sixteen, or is there something more sinister at work?

Hunter's skill lies in offering up the thrills in realistic situations. The Moment She Was Gone kept me turning the pages until the very end, where I was stopped short, having wanted the story to continue. My only complaint is that Annie's behavior is never truly explained, mostly explained away, but the book itself is such a quick and engaging read that it is easy to forgive.

The Wench is Dead
By Colin Dexter

In the tradition of Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, Colin Dexter has his famous police detective Inspector Morse solve a crime from his hospital bed. While undergoing convalescence, Morse receives three books to read from varying sources. Sergeant Lewis is understanding enough to offer a blue novel along with his wife's gift of a social sciences monograph.

But it is the third book that really grabs his attention. Given to him by the wife of a deceased room mate (by whom it was written), Murder in the Oxford Canal tells of a nineteenth century crime with a mysteriously easy solution -- for the time, anyway. Morse believes that the suspects who were executed for the crime were innocent and too-easily convicted. He spends the majority of the book investigating (via Lewis and another roommate's librarian daughter) the papers from the period and comes to a fascinatingly complex conclusion.

Dexter is one of my favorite mystery writers due to his convoluted way of delivering the fun. A fan of crossword puzzles, anagrams, and the like, I always enjoy following along as the crime is solved -- usually through some sort of word-focused means or another -- and The Wench is Dead succeeds in giving me what I want. One of two of Dexter's books to win the Golden Dagger, the audiobook is read by the author himself, giving us a view perhaps of what the characters sound like in the author's mind. An extra layer added to entertainment never hurts.

I, Richard
By Elizabeth George

After reading her novel Payment in Blood (reviewed last year sometime), I have had trouble getting myself to pick up another of George's novels. I, Richard is a collection of five longish short stories (about 50 pages each), so I thought this would be a good way to get back into her work. I think it may have worked.

Only one of the stories in this collection features her detective Thomas Lynley, and merely in a supporting role, though he does solve the crime inadvertently (something to do with a recent ex-girlfriend). "Exposure" is set at Lynley's aunt's mansion, which is open to the public and which becomes the site of a murder. Coming next in order is the story of a man whose visit to a psychic informs him that he is about to receive "The Surprise of His Life," and what he decides to do about it. This one could have easily found a home on Alfred Hitchcock Presents or The Twilight Zone.

No matter what Robert Frost said, "Good Fences Aren't Always Enough," as the residents of Napier Lane find out when their new neighbor moves in. This is an excellent portrait of how "well-meaning" quickly becomes "meddling." When Eric Lawton dies and leaves behind a mysterious legacy, his last words, "Remember, I'll Always Love You," take on an entirely new meaning for the new widow.

These four are solid in their own ways, but it's the title story that is the highlight of the collection. "I, Richard" focuses on a Ricardian scholar and how he hopes the relationship with his ex-best friend's wife will eventually be able to fund his writing. The tension is threaded through every sentence and the ending, while likely somewhat predictable to those who choose to figure out solutions on their own, is poetic justice at its finest.

Fans of George's novels will definitely find familiar ground being trod here, and I, Richard is also a terrific introduction to her work -- especially considering that it is collectively about one-third the length of those longer works. As a bonus, we get to see how this American writer of very English mysteries writes about her home turf.


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