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ex libris reviews

1 December 2004

In India, "cold weather" is merely a conventional phrase and has come into use through the necessity of having some way to distinguish between weather which will melt a brass door-knob and weather which will only make it mushy.
Mark Twain


In This Issue:
Sadly Lacking

This issue of ex libris reviews is sadly lacking--and to be specific, what it's lacking is Craig Clarke and Deb English, both of whom suddenly and unaccountably developed Real Lives, with all of the attendant Real Demands, and consequently neither has reviewed any books this month. I've spoken to them both quite sternly, of course, and they promise that it won't happen again until next time.

In the meantime, yours truly will try to supply the lack on his own; it's not like he hasn't done it before.

Happy reading!

-- Will Duquette

Books to Read Aloud

by Will Duquette

The Hobbit
By J.R.R. Tolkien

I finished reading The Hobbit aloud to my two boys a few nights ago. It was an experiment: was James, my five-year-old, old enough to follow along with a longer story, night-after-night? And it was a complete success: both David and James were eager for the next installment every night, and of course I enjoyed reading it myself, having last read it two years ago...when I was conducting the same experiment with David.

We've gone on to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but that's another review.

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Detective Wore Silk Drawers
By Peter Lovesey

In Wobble to Death we made the acquaintance of Sergeant Cribb and his hardworking assistant Constable Thackery as they investigate a murder that takes place during a fiendish kind of footrace called a "Six-Day Go-As-You-Like". This book, which follows shortly thereafter, continues the sporting theme with a look at prize-fighting.

In England in those days, the term "prize-fighting" invariably meant boxing with bare-knuckles--no gloves. Gloves were a recent innovation, and were utterly disdained by the "Fancy", the followers of the sport. (See my review of George MacDonald Fraser's Black Ajax for another view of the Victorian Fancy.) And in England in those days, bare-knuckle fights were illegal, and had been for quite some time. Such fights as were held, then, were always held out-of-doors in some remote location, and near the county border so that if the location were discovered by the local magistrates it could be easily continued in another jurisdiction.

As the present book begins, Sergeant Cribb is led to a body found floating in the Thames. The body is headless, but otherwise bears all the hallmarks of a bare-knuckle fighter. Someone has committed murder, and the murderer is almost certainly belongs to the Fancy. Time for some undercover work, and hence the silk drawers of the title.

In my review of Wobble to Death I noted that there wasn't anything particularly memorable about Cribb, but in this book his personality begins to emerge. He's clever, and is willing to do quite unorthodox things in pursuit of his investigations, as he shows when he enlists a young detective who's good with his fists to infiltrate the Fancy. Prize-fighting is illegal, and no exceptions are made for detectives working a case; both of their careers are at stake. And though he's loyal to his underlings in his own way, he has a remarkably cheerful--one might even say sadistic--lack of concern for their comfort, a trait that only increases in later books.

So, the book is better than its predecessor, in that Cribb and Thackery are more fully developed; otherwise it's much the same, and that classic Lovesey flair is still lacking.

Lost in a Good Book
The Well of Lost Plots
By Jasper Fforde

These are the second and third books in Fforde's Thursday Next series, and they are just as delightfully literate and goofy as the first--perhaps even more so. Thursday spends even more time in the BookWorld, and finds out quite a lot about how the BookWorld operates, and what characters do when they're offstage. Lenny, for example, likes to visit Watership Down, and the Red Queen has a taste for trashy romances.

I hesitate to say much more about them, because I don't want to spoil the jokes; but I enjoyed them quite a bit, and I have every intention of getting the next in the series when it comes out in paperback.

Mad Hatter's Holiday
By Peter Lovesey

This is yet another Sergeant Cribb mystery, and yet it's entirely different than the two I've reviewed previously. The quirky Lovesey style, absent in the previous two books, is here clearly present, and wonder of wonders the book has nothing to do with the world of sport.

Instead, it concerns one Albert Moscrop, purveyor of fine optical instruments, as he begins his holiday in the English beach resort town of Brighton. With him he has brought a small collection of fine optical instruments, which he intends to use to view the beachgoers from the remote safety of one of Brighton's two piers. This, evidently, is how he usually spends his holidays, spying on people through binoculars or telescopes, though he tells himself he's really just comparing the resolving capabilities of different instruments.

And then, completely against his normal inclinations, he finds himself striking up an acquaintance with an elegant young woman he first sees from the pier--an elegant young woman who, sadly, turns out to be married to a philanderer. And as his objectivity lies in tatters, the young woman turns up missing, and a body is found buried in the Brighton sand....

Sergeant Cribb is actually a relatively minor character, given that he doesn't even appear until the book is approximately halfway through, and even then much of the action is told from Moscrop's point of view. But he remains the cheerfully sadistic fellow we've met before, and is just as willing to be a little unconventional if it gets him his man.

All in all, I liked this book much better than the two previous Sergeant Cribb mysteries I've read.

Swing, Swing Together
By Peter Lovesey

The procedure followed in this book is rather unusual, even for lateral-thinking Sergeant Cribb. A man has been murdered along the Thames near Oxford, and Cribb's only lead is a young woman named Harriet Shaw, a student at the Elfrida College for the Training of Female Elementary Teachers. Harriet and two of her classmates had crept out of College after midnight for a clandestine swim in the Thames, and been disturbed by a boat containing three men and a fox terrier. As they were in the buff (this adding spice to their scandalous behavior), consternation ensued, and what with one thing and another Harriet was lucky to return to College undetected by the steely-eyed Miss Plummer. Indeed, had it not been for the help of a kindly police constable Miss Shaw would have been packed home in disgrace.

Now Cribb wants to locate those three men and their boat (to say nothing of the dog) for he suspects them of the murder. And he requires the aid of Miss Shaw to identify them. And the only way to find them, he reasons, is to proceed by boat down river in the guise of pleasure-seekers.

By now some fraction of you are nodding your heads, and you are quite right to do so. Swing, Swing Together is Lovesey's homage to Jerome K. Jerome's delightful book, Three Men in a Boat. If it's not much of a mystery, it's nevertheless quite a lot of fun--though you should really read Jerome's book first.

But then, you should read Jerome's book anyway.

The Shadow Guests
By Joan Aiken

Despite not having read all that much of her work, I have a fondness for Joan Aiken. It goes back to reading The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (one of my sister's books, I do believe), and then discovering some of her grown-up fiction later on; I particular like her short stories "Dead Language Master" and "Sonata for Harp and Bicycle". Every so often I stumble across another of her books, and buy it, and sometimes I like it. Black Hearts in Battersea and Nightbirds in Nantucket are in some sense sequels to The Wolves of Willoughby Chase; I read them many, many years ago now, and at the time didn't think they measured up to their predecessor. (I shall have to read all three of them again and see what I think now.) On the other hand, I rather enjoyed The Cockatrice Boys. So when I saw a couple of juveniles by Aiken that I hadn't seen before, I bought them, with an eye toward perhaps reading them aloud to David.

With regard to this one, at least, I think perhaps I won't. But before I explain that, let me say a few words about the story.

Young Cosmo Curtoys (pronounced "Curtis") has just returned to England from Australia, where he had been living with his family in the desert until his mother and brother mysteriously disappeared. He'll be living in the old Curtoys family home with his father's cousin Eunice Doom, an Oxford professor. On the weekends, that is; during the week, he'll be attending a boarding school in Oxford. Cosmo takes to life on the old homestead with relish, but the situation at school is not so rosy. And then there are the ghosts, and the old family curse....

The Shadow Guests is essentially a rite-of-passage novel, with ghosts. Cosmo must learn to deal with his mother's death, and must learn to fit in at his school; he must also deal with the family curse, but that plot thread is given no more prominence than his progress at school.

I actually enjoyed the story well enough. So why don't I want to read it to David? There are two reasons, really. One has to do with the school story, and the other has to do with Cousin Eunice.

When Cosmo shows up at the school, he's shy, and feels out of place, and naturally keeps pretty much to himself. He's also the New Boy, coming to the school in the middle of the term. And the other kids put him through hell. He's fairly stoic about it, though he hates it, and though he doesn't complain several older people remark to him that it happens to all of the new kids, he has to show the right spirit by putting up with it, and eventually he'll be accepted and it will stop.

Now, this might be very good advice in the context of an English boarding school circa 1980; but I find the casual acceptance of cruelty by the older folks rather appalling. (I will say that the hazing is mild compared to other school stories I've read.) Anyway, I'd rather my boys learned to stand up for themselves a little more than Curtis does.

But the more important reason is Cousin Eunice and the absurd nonsense she spouts. Eunice plays a role in this book similar to that of Professor Kirke in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; she's the benevolent grown-up who listens to the kid's wild tales with an open mind. Kirke gives creedence to Lucy's stories of Narnia because of Occam's Razor--Lucy is either mad, or lying, or telling the truth, and as she's clearly not mad, and as she's known to be trustworthy he assumes that she must be telling the truth. It's simple logic, based on common sense. I could cope with Cousin Eunice if she dealt with the story of the family curse in just the same way. She starts there, indeed, but then goes on about the plausibility of telepathy, ghosts, and a variety of other phenomena using bad mathematical metaphors that prove nothing and sound remarkably silly if you know what she's talking about but which might sound convincing if you don't.

I want my kids to appreciate good fantasy, but at the same time I want them to always be clear on the difference between fantasy and real life, and Cousin Eunice muddles the two a little too much for my taste.

All that said, this isn't a bad book; it's not a great book, either, but it's not bad. I'll be keeping it, and if David wants to read it to himself in a few years, that will be OK.

Lonely Road
By Nevil Shute

Ian Hamet introduced me to Nevil Shute by encouraging me to read A Town Like Alice. I read it and loved it, and looked for more, and discovered that Shute is mostly out of print. So while I was scouting about the many used bookstores in New Orleans' French Quarter some while back, it occurred to me to look for some Shute, and this is what I found. It's an early novel, and it shows, a little; it's clearly intended to be something of a spy novel, and yet more than anything else it turns out to be a romance.

The book is set in England in the late 1920's, and (having been published in 1932) belongs to that small set of books that can look back to the Great War without any conscious overtones of the greater war to come. We think of them as the years between the Wars, but Shute and his characters do not.

Malcolm Stevenson is a war hero, having served in the Royal Navy, and consequently is now given the courtesy title of Commander. He owns a shipyard and a small fleet of merchant ships, and he spends most of his time designing ships and boats. He's unmarried, and not by choice; he has asked many women to marry him, and all have turned him down. It's not clear why, mind you; he's wealthy, good-looking, well-mannered, and friendly. In any event, he remains an essentially lonely man, buryied in his work.

Early in the book Stevenson is asked to help with a police investigation-- some group, probably Communist, is running guns into England in order to foment an uprising. During the course of things, Stevenson becomes acquainted with a hired dancer at a Palais de Danse in Leeds. Her name is Mollie, and she turns out to be the key to the investigation; her brother has been driving a lorry for the gun-runners. But as he comes to know her, things change between them.

And as I say, the romance between Stevenson and Mollie becomes the centerpiece of the book. She's a smart, capable girl from a lower class family, doing the best she can; he's a smart capable older man of means. Each of them have expectations about the other that turn out to be wrong; and amazingly, these differences are allowed to unfold naturally rather than being turned into dramatic plot contrivances. It's touching, and ultimately heartbreaking, and well-worth the trip.

Oh, and they find the gun-runners too.

The Whispering Mountain
By Joan Aiken

I picked up a couple of Joan Aiken juveniles a month or so ago; the first was The Shadow Guests. This is the second, and it's different from the first in every way but one--like the first, I'm not going to read it to my kids any time soon. The reason is different as well, as I shall explain later.

It so happens that The Whispering Mountain takes place in the same world as The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and its sequels. It's not a fantasy world, so much as an alternate history in which James II of England wasn't driven from his throne and James Edward Stuart (the "Old Pretender") took the English throne as James III. Just why Aiken chose this particular counterfactual I've no idea, as it rarely seems to play a significant role; but it does serve to relate a number of books that otherwise would seem to be unrelated.

In any event, the present volume takes place toward the end of James III's reign and is set entirely in Wales, beginning in the small Welsh town of Pennygaff. Owen Hughes, the curator of the town museum, has found an aged gold harp; he believes it to be the Harp of Teirtu which figures in many local legends. The local lord collects gold artifacts, and has demanded that Hughes give him the harp, as all found property in the lands surrounding Pennygaff are rightfully is. Hughes refuses; the harp was found on the site of a ruined monastery once used by the monks of the order of St. Ennodawg, and so legally belongs to the order--provided that any monks of the order yet live.

But the story's not really about Hughes the Museum, as the villagers call him, but about his grandson, also called Owen, who is kidnapped by the thieves Lord Malyn sends to steal the harp, and about Young Owen's friends Tom Dando the poet and his daughter Arabis who help him to recover it, and about the fairy folk who inhabit the Whispering Mountain of the title, the mountain on which Lord Malyn's castle is built.

Fairy folk--but didn't I say that this isn't a fantasy? And it isn't.

Aiken has here crafted an entertaining if not entirely convincing tale, and a host of memorable characters, not least of whom is His Royal Highness Davie Jamie Charlie Neddie Geordie Harry Dick Tudor-Stuart, the Prince of Wales (Davie to his friends); but what stands out most for me is the richness of the many dialects that appear. For example, there's a Levantine potentate, the Seljuk of Rum, who has the most delightful habit of speaking like a thesaurus:

"Well, well," cried the Seljuk impatiently when the gates stood open wide enough to admit the carriage, "what are you waiting for? Drive on, my good chap, fellow, old boy!"

"Two sides to that, I am thinking," said the driver. "Hired to drive you to Caer Malyn I was, not right into the castle. Sooner put you down here, I would."

"Tush! Pshaw! Odds Bodikins! In fact, fudge, my good man. Pray continue!"

Grumbling, the coachman climbed back on the box and drove the chaise across a paved courtyard. But when they came to an inner archway he stopped again.

"Come, come, come?" cried the Seljuk. "Proceed, my dear crony, I beg. There is yet another court, campus, quadrangle beyond that archway, can you not perceive, remark?

Then there are the two thieves, Bilk and Prigman. They hail from London, and speak what I suppose must be a sort of proto-cockey thieve's cant. Arabis sees them hiding the harp in a cave, and overhears the following conversation:

"All rug?" said one of the voices at length.

"I reckon she could lay there till Doomiesday, no one would twig. Back to the bousing-ken, eh? Us could do with a dram of hot stingo."

"You go on then, cully, and lay on a dram for me; I'm going to give my napper a rinsing in yonder freshet."

"Tol-lol; I'll meet you at the bousing-ken then."

And then later, having moved the harp to a different place, Prigman says,

"Oh, won't old Bilk-o be set back on his pantofles when he finds the bandore's not there any more. Ho, ho, I can't wait to see his nab!"

And then Prince Davie speaks the braid Scots tongue, and the Welshmen all speak an English with a decidedly Welsh flavor and lots of Welsh words which I cannot pronounce.

And that's why I'm not going to read it to my boys--I'm afraid that the very linguistic richness that made the story so delightful for me would make it nearly unintelligible to my kids, even assuming that I could do justice to the pronunciation. Maybe in a few years I'll give it a try.

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian
By Robert E. Howard

Some time back, The Forager reprinted a post on the relative merits of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard. As I related at the time, I was moved by this and by teenage memories to rediscover Howard's work, and especially his tales of Conan the barbarian.

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian is an anthology of the first thirteen Conan tales in the order in which they were written, and I have to say that the quality is spotty. Some of the tales are quite good; others seem designed just to let Conan spend a lot of time with hot chicks. And some of the plot elements are distressingly repetitive. In at least four different stories (and it might be five) Conan comes to an island on which he finds ruins made of a strange green stone which were built by some cosmically evil non-human elder race who worshipped a horrible demon who will return to cause Conan grave difficulty but over whom Conan will ultimately triumph. Sometimes the remnants of the cosmically evil non-human elder race still live among the ruins.

Now, if this were one single cosmically evil non-human elder race which left its markings scattered hither and yon across the globe, that would be one thing. But it's quite clear that each story concerns a different cosmically evil non-human elder race, and that each went from extreme majesty and power to the control of this one single island, and then dwindled almost to nothing, only to be forgotten by time. I mean, really--how many cosmically evil elder races can one planet accommodate?

There are other flaws as well. For example, no longer being fourteen I really can't believe that pirate queens can maintain discipline over an all-male pirate crew by lounging seductively on the quarter deck clad in next to nothing. And I dare say that most princesses, no matter how grateful, would prefer to remove themselves from the tomb of their late undead captor and perhaps tidy up a bit before allowing themselves to be ravished by their rescuer, no matter how buff and barbaric he is.

The best of the tales, though, are pretty good. As good as Tolkien? Me, I don't buy it. But pretty good. The biggest stumbling blocks for a modern reader are these: brevity and familiarity. Taking the latter first, Howard was enormously influential, and much that is original in his stories has become trite from overuse. And then, these are short stories; there's simply not time or space for the kind of character definition and narrative detail fantasy readers have gotten used to in recent years.

Ah, well. Considering the short length of his career (only twelve years) and the vast number of stories he wrote, I suppose I have to cut Howard some slack. Per Sturgeon's law, 90% of everything is crud, and when you're writing and selling your writing as fast as you can, I suppose a lot more of the crud inevitably gets through.

It appears likely that there will be at least one follow-on volume, and I suspect that I will probably get it if I see it.

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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