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ex libris reviews

1 October 2004

Night had come to Waycross on Innish-Kyl. Night, but not darkness or quiet. Bursts of loud talk and raucous music spilled out through open doorways, and the low thrumming of heavy machinery never stopped. Beka Rosselin-Metadi strode through the crowded spaceport with a starpilot's fine disregard for the dirtside locals. The locals, in turn, took note of her purposeful air, and of her heavy war-surplus blaster in its worn leather holster, and let her pass.
Debra Doyle and James D. MacDonald


In This Issue:

Alas, we're Craig-less this month; Craig Clarke has had a busy life recently, and has been working--can you believe it?--rather than writing reviews. Here's to hoping that next month is better for him. In the meantime, here are a few reviews by me and Deb.

-- Will Duquette

Books to Read Aloud

by Will Duquette

Mr. Mysterious & Company
By Sid Fleischman

This is an outstanding book by the same author as By The Great Horn Spoon!, which I reviewed a couple of years ago. That book involved the California Gold Rush. I'd read it many times as a kid, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it to my eldest boy, Dave.

The only other book of Fleischman's that I'd read as a kid was this one, Mr. Mysterious & Company. It takes place in the 1880's and concerns the Hackett family, who are migrating from somewhere in the Mid-West to San Diego, where Mr. Hackett's brother has a cattle ranch. In addition to knowing cattle Mr. Hackett is also a consummate magician, and as book begins the Hackett family is traveling westward through Texas, paying their way by giving magic shows in each town they visit. Mr. Hackett performs as Mr. Mysterious, his wife plays the piano, and each of their three children has a part. And on the way to California the Hacketts buy a dog, meet an outlaw, drive off a band of Indians, and save a town from ruffians.

It's a fun adventure, and the highest praise I can give it is this: the night after we finished it, David wanted me to read it to him over again. I declined, though honestly I don't think I would minded all that much.

I don't know why I never looked up Fleischman's other books when I was a kid; I rather expect I'll be doing so over the next few years.

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane
By Robert E. Howard

Back when I was in my mid-teens, my older brother started buying and then loaning to me a series of books about a big bruiser named Conan the Barbarian. The original tales were by Robert E. Howard, of course, but L. Sprague de Camp, the editor of the paperback series, had gone to great lengths to put them all in some kind of consistent order based on their internal chronology, and if I recall correctly he added some Conan tales of his own to fill in the gaps and round out the series. I read every one of them, and then I gave them back to my brother, and I haven't seen them since. Most of Howard's other output was also available in those days, and just as with Conan my brother bought them and I got to read them. Just hearing the names brings back those days: Kull of Atlantis, Bran Mak Morn the Pict, Cormac Mac Art...it was great stuff.

I read it all once, and never again, because I don't have the books on my shelves, and they haven't been in print in years.

Then Forager 23 reprinted a post of his in which he contrasted Howard with Tolkien to the latter's detriment (a dispute upon which I will not venture an opinion at this time except to say that Howard is pretty darned good and Forager is still bananas), and that got me thinking about ol' Conan and his ilk. And so the next time I was at the bookstore I looked for Howard and discovered that Chaosium (the outfit that publishes the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game) is republishing Howard's fantastic fiction. They had exactly one volume; and somewhat ironically, perhaps, it's the one major character of Howard's that my brother never got to (not that I recall, anyway): Solomon Kane, a stern Puritan of the 16th century.

Kane is a tall stern man; he wears black, naturally, with a broad slouch hat, and his face has a dark pallor. I'm not sure how you have a dark pallor, but the words were used in a number of the stories, and who am I to argue? Kane's the sort who will verbally rebuke those who offend his morals with loose talk or blasphemies but he reserves his anger for those whose crimes are considerably more active--at which point he begins to regard himself more-or-less as God's executioner. And once on the trail he will pursue his quarry quite literally to the ends of the earth.

The tales were precisely the sort of thing I remember--swordplay, bold speeches, inhuman fiends, and the like--with the striking difference that the hero never gets the girl (well, he's a Puritan after all). I enjoyed them, certainly, though they didn't seem quite as good as I remember Howard's other stuff being. But it's so hard to tell, from this remove; I was less discerning in those days, and that's a sword that cuts both ways. I really need to re-read some stuff I remember from before.

There were a couple of things I noticed that I know I would have either missed or ignored had I read these tales way back then. The first is a logical error: Howard describes Kane as always acting on impulse; a true fanatic, he never considers the true reasons for his actions but just goes straight ahead. And yet, isn't it the hallmark of the true fanatic that he always knows exactly why he does why he does, and can explain it to you in great and appalling detail? In any event, Solomon Kane was first envisioned by Howard while the author was still in his teens, and I think it's fair to say that the darkly pallid fellow owes more to Howard's imagination and youthful misconceptions than he does to any Puritan who actually walked the earth.

The other issue is a shocking degree of racism. About half the stories in the book take place in central Africa, and Kane several times runs into lost cities once inhabited by proud races of a higher type than the savage black negroes of Africa who have since replaced them. It's only fair to say that the proud races in question are not presented as being less cruel than their successors; just more civilized and racially more advanced.

The racial foolishness didn't spoil my enjoyment, not the way it would have if the stories were of a more recent vintage; I don't regard these stories as being about the real world anyway, and anyway they were written in the 1930's, a time when such sentiments were frequently held about present-day Africans, let alone those in the forgotten jungles of the 1500's. Howard was, after all, a man of his day. But if you're the sort who is excessively bothered by this kind of thing you'll want to give the book a miss.

The Price of the Stars
Star Pilot's Grave
By Honor Betray'd
By Debra Doyle and James D. MacDonald

So when you're feeling glum and you need a lift, what do you do? You look through your library looking for something that's familiar and fun, and re-read it. Or, in this case, them.

These are the first three books in the author's Mageworlds series, which I've reviewed twice before (clicking on the author's names, above, will take you to a page that has links to those reviews). They are great fun, if you like space opera.

Here's the setup. Beka Rosselin-Metadi is a star-pilot; that's all she's ever wanted to be. She's also the daughter of Jos Metadi, privateer and war hero, and of Perada Rosselin, the Domina of Lost Entibor--Entibor being a planet whose entire surface was turned to slag during said war. As the Domina-in-waiting, Beka's life was dominated by politics and court manners until she ran away from home at age 15 to follow her dream.

Now the Domina has been assassinated, and her father makes her an offer she can't refuse: he'll give her her own ship--and not just any ship, but his own ship, the armed freighter Warhammer, the ship in which he did his privateering, the ship in which he led the resistance against the invasion from the Mageworlds, and (not coincidentally) the ship in which Beka learned to be a pilot. In return, she has to use her new mobility to determine who was behind Perada Rosselin's assassination. Over the course of the these three books, which form the heart of the series, Beka does just that, with the help of a large and varied cast of thoroughly delightful characters. Of course, it's not as easy as all that; along the way, she has to cope with a new invasion by the Mageworlders, who have been languishing in resentment and trade sanctions since the last war.

The sixth book in the series came out six months or so ago, and has been sitting on my shelf ever since; I expect that I'll be getting to it soon.

Thirty Years That Changed The World
By Michael Green

Michael Green is an Anglican priest; he was also one of the speakers at the Plano West conference, which is where I bought this book, a detailed study of the Acts of the Apostles.

Acts is the fifth book of the New Testament; written by St. Luke the Evangelist, it picks up where Luke's gospel leaves off, with the events in Jerusalem in the days and weeks after Christ's resurrection. Early on the focus is on St. Peter, but before too long the focus shifts to St. Paul and remains with him to until the end of the book. All told, the narrated events span thirty years, thirty years in which the Christian faith spread from Jerusalem to the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire.

Should you ever visit the north of England, go to the city of York and tour Yorkminster Cathedral. Don't miss the undercroft. Renovations there uncovered the remains of two previous churches and a Roman camp dating back to the New Testament era--and in the Roman camp they found Christian graffiti. It's been conjectured that St. Paul converted some of his Roman guards during one or another of his spells in prison, and that the poor fellows were shipped off to England as a result.

Now, consider the distance between Jerusalem and York. Consider that Christianity spread purely by personal contact and individual persuasion. Christians were the least of the least in the Roman world; they had no political power, and no way to coerce belief. I might add, Christianity continued to spread in this peaceful way, occasionally suffering great persecution, for over two-and-half-centuries, until finally a Christian sat on the Roman throne.

One might contrast this peaceful process with the history of Islam, which was allied with political authority and spread by military force from its inception. Constantine's conversion was hailed as a great deliverance by Eusebius and others, and in the short term they were certainly correct; with him the intermitten waves of persecution finally came to an end. But in him the Church found itself to be the partner of the State, and that's generally been a bad thing. I support the separation of Church and State with my whole heart, not because of the corrosive effect of a state religion on the state but because of the corrosive effect of political power on my religion.

Anyway, the whole process began in those first thirty years, the thirty years discussed by Acts. Taking the remarkably quick spread of Christianity as his starting point, Green asks, "How did it happen? What were these early Christians like? How did they live? What did they do, to spread the Good News?" Rather than taking the book of Acts verse by verse, chapter by chapter, Green takes in the whole book, scrutinizing these early believers from many different angles, and drawing parallels with our current practice--and largely, and fairly, to our detriment.

I found it a fascinating book, both as Church history and as a call to action in the present day. It's a rich source of ministry ideas and an inspiration both. It is, however, aimed directly at a Christian audience, and moreover an audience already familiar with the book of Acts; if you're looking for a general history of the early Christian era or an introduction to the book of Acts, you'll need to look elsewhere.

Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

The Princess Diaries
By Meg Cabot

Last spring I went to an author signing/talk given by Tamora Pierce. She's been my daughter's favorite author for a couple years now and since I forced the kid to go on the class trip rather than allowing her to stay home and attend the talk, I felt compelled by maternal guilt to at least get the newest hardback autographed for her.

I was first struck by Ms Pierce's uncanny resemblance to my daughter's math teacher, a woman with infinite patience and fortitude, an ample bosom and a face like a bull dog. Pierce treated the, mostly, girls in the audience to an hour of honest talk about what writing is about, what publishing is like and where she gets her ideas from and her own incredibly sly sense of humor. She also discussed her respect for other author's YA books, particularly mentioning Meg Cabot as one whose book The Princess Diaries was gutted of all merit when made into a movie.

Now I kind of liked that movie. The image of Julie Andrews clumping across the doorway in imitation of her granddaughter was hilarious. My son, disdainful of anything resembling a chick flick, laughed out loud thru most of it though he wouldn't admit it later. So if the movie is a gutted representation of a much better original and I like the movie, then perhaps I should find out what this book is about. Not to mention that it's been selling like hotcakes and has been followed up by several sequels that are selling like hotcakes. So I read it.

It was, well, ok. The premise of the book is that Mia Thermopolis finds out that her father, conveniently dead in the movie, is actually King of a small city-state sort of like Monaco rather than the wealthy man involved in politics that she has always been led to believe by her mother. Not only is he King, but he has been rendered unable to produce more off spring by a form of testicular cancer, now making Mia, his love child from his college days, the heir to the throne. And Grand-mere, the dragon who takes care of her summers at the little chateau in France, will be responsible for training her for the throne. Mia is traumatized. And to top it off, her mother is dating her Algebra teacher, the only subject in school she's failing.

The book was cutesie. Aside from some very unnecessary but not overt jokes about her father's, um, testicular issues, most of the humor struck me as the type an adolescent kid would enjoy. There's a lot of emphasis on bad hair, clothes, what shoes to wear and that sort of thing. The writing is a masterpiece in girl speak. Cabot's got the, like, you know, bad, um, like, conversational style, the, like, girls seem to use these days. It's not something I'm sure I want my daughter to imitate but it was the only really objectionable thing in the book. It's kind of nice little dessert book, something light and not too heavy.

The Beekeeper's Apprentice
By Laurie R. King

Since I began homeschooling my daughter, I've begun reading aloud to her daily again. When she was in public school, homework took so much of the evening that it impossible to read aloud on a regular basis. Now, however, the only school work we do in the evening is a run thru of the flash cards I've made up to drill her in Latin phonograms. So, I had to come up with a book that would be entertaining and yet still be a stretch for her vocabulary. The educational goal here is to increase her vocabulary and teach listening skills. That's the rationale I gave my husband for reading aloud to a 14-year-old who can read to herself. The real hidden agenda I have is to spend some time cuddling on the couch with my teenage daughter while sharing a good story. Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes fit the bill perfectly.

Since this book has been reviewed by both Will and me in the past I will skip the normal plot summation. I did find reading it aloud to be a bit of a tongue twister at times. Polysyllabic words I can silently read automatically don't trip off my tongue quite so easily and my daughter had gotten to listen to Mommy sounding out a few herself. That's a good thing. She's also been told to stop me whenever a word is used that she's unfamiliar with so we read with the dictionary next to us on the couch. That also is a good thing. But the best part is that the book is almost funnier read aloud. Abby identified with the fifteen year old Mary and guffawed thru several passages when Mary let fly with her highly mature, highly intelligent and very sarcastic comments. And I'm hearing the "Can we read now, Mom?" question again when she's wanting a little cuddle time with Mom. She also commented that it's all she can do NOT to pick up the book and read ahead when I'm not around. What could be better?

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