Home : Ex Libris : 1 January 2005

ex libris reviews

1 January 2005

Spring had come to New York, the 8:15 train from Great Neck had come to the Pennsylvania terminus, and G. Ellery Cobbold, that stout economic royalist, had come to his downtown office, all set to prise another wad of currency out of the common people.
P.G. Wodehouse


In This Issue:
Eight Years On

I counted the years off on my fingers this morning, and discovered (greatly to my surprise) that I've been writing ex libris for eight solid years, which is about a century in Internet years. If ex libris were a dog, I'd have to start feeding it Cycle 4. How the time flies!

If you're so inclined, you can mentally insert a few bleary memories of Auld Lang Syne here; I'm too tired (and it's only 9AM on New Year's Eve!).

Craig Clarke is back today, happily; Deb English is still persona non grapha, alas. Maybe next month.

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Puck of Pook's Hill
By Rudyard Kipling

In this delightful book, Puck (yes, that Puck) introduces a couple of English children to people from the past history of their neighborhood. They meet a Norman knight who came over with William the Conqueror and hear how he received a Saxon barony as his fief--and how he managed to cow and then win the hearts of his Saxon subjects. They meet a Roman soldier who was born near their home and later went on to command the Roman forces on Hadrian's Wall. They meet a Renaissance stonecutter who built the neighborhood church. And through it all they begin to get a sense for the sweep of English history.

There's a problematic segment at the very end, when Puck introduces them to a Spanish Jew named Kadmiel, the son of a banker. Kadmiel tells them how men, bankers and messengers of other bankers, would come to his home when he was a child, and discuss with his father where they should lend their money to best serve their people--in short, to which rulers should they give money, and from which should they withhold it. So immediately we've got the notion of the Jews as behind-the-scenes string pullers, one of your basic anti-Semitic stereotypes.

What troubles me is, I'm not sure that Kipling's depiction isn't a fair one. It's certainly true that at the stated time (the reign of King John of England and Magna Carta) most of the bankers in Europe would have been Jews. Christians were not allowed to lend money at interest, and Jews were allowed to do little else. Kadmiel's father is clearly supposed to be one of the pre-eminent bankers in Europe. And I rather suspect that the more powerful Jewish bankers tried to use whatever influence they had to benefit themselves and their fellow Jews--and quite possibly they thought they had more influence than they really did. And if Kadmiel himself is a rather sour, bitter old stick, who's to say he hasn't earned the right to be?

Certainly Kipling isn't trying to whitewash anti-Semitism--the children remember from their own schooling that when Jewish bankers refused to loan money to King John, he'd have their teeth pulled out. And, by Kipling's story, Kadmiel is rather a hero--he claims to be responsible for ensuring that King John could borrow no more money, and having no money was forced to submit to the barons and sign Magna Carta at Runnymede.

Now, the tale of how Kadmiel does this involves a horde of gold brought to England by the Norman knight after an African adventure, and it's unlikely in the extreme. It's a good tale, but it never would have happened that way. So, even if the portrayal of Kadmiel and his father is a fair one, was Kipling being anti-Semitic by bringing Kadmiel into the book in this context? I think not, after due reflection...but your mileage may vary.

The Skeleton in the Grass
By Robert Barnard

Unlike most mystery writers, Barnard seems never to repeat himself; each book has a new setting and new characters. This particular effort is remarkable less for the mystery and more for the time period--rural England in the interval between the Wars. The main characters, the Hallams, are a well-to-do family dedicated to Peace and the League of Nations. And though this was written in 1987, I found that a number of passages resonated with the events of the last several years. Here, one of the younger Hallams has just heard of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and is on fire to go enlist in the fight against Franco. His father Dennis responds thus:

"Will, dear old thing," said Dennis earnestly, "I know how one reacts at first to things like this: one wants to fight back. It's an almost irresistable urge. But one has to resist it! Fighting back never settled anything."

"Fighting back settled the Spanish Armada," said Will, obviously clutching at the first historical example that came into his head. "What good have all your motions and resolutions done for Abyssinia? Did they stop Herr Hitler from marching into the Rhineland? They're just impotence with a loud voice."

"That's a very fine phrase, Will," said Dennis quietly. "But is that really all your mother's and my work means to you?"

Will looked momentarily shamefaced, and Helen said quickly:

"No, Dennis, you shouldn't put it like that. This is not a personal thing. The point is that if the governments of the world put their hearts into economic sanctions they really will work. And they'll work without the terrible senseless slaughter we went through in the war."

"If, if, if," said Will impatiently. "But of course they won't put their heart into sanctions. Half of them will be hoping Franco wins. Just watch Cousin Mostyn tomorrow. He'll be positively purring at the prospect. And he's in the government."

Substitute Iraq, Saddam, and the U.N. for Spain, Franco, and the League of Nations, and you've got a conversation that could have happened just months ago...and probably did.

I have my doubts about economic sanctions; from what I can tell, economic sanctions are simply a way to hold the common folk of a country hostage for the good behavior of their leaders--and if their leaders truly cared about the common folk we probably wouldn't be thinking about sanctions. But clearly they won't work if some of the nations levying the sanctions are cheating. And from what I hear about the Oil-for-Food program and the actions of the French and the Russians in the years during which sanctions were in place on Iraq, it seems pretty clear that young Will Hallam is right on the money.

Other than that bit of political observation, though, the book was rather ho-hum.

Pied Piper
By Nevil Shute

Two men sit in the library of a darkened London club. It's night-time; the air raid warnings sounded some time ago, and everyone else is in the basement shelter. The two men, one old, one young, sit in comfortable chairs and sip Marsala; and slowly, during the course of the night, the old man tells of his recent ordeal in France.

It was early in the war; the course of hostilities were not yet clear, and there was still hope of a diplomatic solution. The old man, a devoted fly fisherman, went to the Jura in France for a restful fishing vacation. He avoided the news the best he could, but one of the other guests was the wife of an English official at the League of Nations in Geneva; there is great concern that Hitler will invade Switzerland. She must return to her husband, but she prevails upon the old man to take her two young children back to England with him.

The old man sets off on the train to Paris with the boy and girl...just as Hitler invades France. They were to be in England the next day. It's going to take a little longer than that.

What follows is a gripping and reasonably harrowing story; the suspense is mitigated only by our knowledge that the old man will survive to tell his story. The detail, not surprisingly, is spot on.

Ian Hamet gave me this book two summers ago, when I happened to be in Ann Arbor on the occasion of my 40th birthday; and if he asks nicely (and sends me his mailing address in China) I might conceivably send him the new Lois McMaster Bujold when it comes out.

The Towers of Sunset
By L.E. Modesitt, Jr

This is the second book in Modesitt's long-running Recluce series; I picked it up the other night when I was tired and felt like reading something pleasant and familiar.

Young Creslin has a problem. He's a young man of position, the son of the Commander of the Fortress of Westwind, a fortress established near the peaks of the Westhorns which controls all trade through the mountains. As such, he's the eldest son of a head of state. Unfortunately for Creslin, Westwind is one of the countries of the Legend, which are ruled and run by women. His sister will inherit the command of Westwind; and he himself will be married into the family of some other eastern ruler for the usual diplomatic reasons.

Creslin doesn't much fancy being a pawn, and one can hardly blame him; there are many who dislike Westwind, and Westwind's control of trade, and anywhere outside of Westwind itself there are those who will attempt to use him to get at his mother, the Commander of Westwind--and chief among them are the white wizards of Fairhaven, who are busily conquering the eastern half of the continent.

But there's more to Creslin than meets the eye. Trained by the armsmaster of Westwind, he's a demon swordsman--and though he doesn't know it yet, he's a budding order-master with a knack for controlling the weather. His enemies don't know it yet, but they'll find out.

One of the peculiar aspects of the Recluce series is that it's written backwards. In the first book, The Magic of Recluce, we meet a young lad named Lerris, born when Recluce is at its height. In this book we travel back some centuries to the founding of Recluce, a nation born out of the ashes of Westwind and out of Creslin's determination to control his own destiny. Subsequent books fill in the middle of the story; and then Modesitt goes back even further, and the process repeats.

I don't intend to re-read the whole series at this point, but I might very well re-read one or two of the other books.

The Stars Asunder
A Working of Stars
By Debra Doyle and James D. MacDonald

These are the sixth and seventh books in the authors' Mageworlds series, which I've been re-reading and reviewing over the last few months.

When The Stars Asunder was published in 1999, Jane and I were excited; I'd read the previous books aloud to her to our mutual enjoyment, and this one looked to be a doozy. Set in the far distant past, long before the first Mage War, it promised to tell us of the first contact between the Mage Worlds and the rest of the civilized galaxy, and also to tell the story of Beka Rosselin-Metadi's enigmatic helper, the "Professor". We snapped it up the moment it came out, in hardcover no less, and I started reading it to Jane on the way home.

And, alas, we were greatly disappointed. I never finished reading it aloud; instead, we each finished it separately. And unlike the others in the series, it sat on the shelf, unread, until just recently when I picked it up prior to reading its successor, A Working of Stars. (It's some measure of my disappointment that the latter book was published in 2002, and I only just got around to it.)

Anyway, I approached The Stars Asunder with considerable curiousity. Was it as bad as I remembered? Had I read it fairly the first time? And I suppose the most honest answer is that it's better, and just as bad.

First, it's a different sort of book than the others in the series; it's slower paced, and there are fewer action sequences. Jane and I had the wrong expectations going into it, and so it's not entirely surprising that it didn't work for us. And, I was surprised to note that some of the amazingly stupid and awful scenes that I remember being so annoyed by aren't actually in the book at all. Apparently I dreamed them.

On the other hand, there are bad bits as well. There's a whole espionage and intrigue subplot that simply doesn't work: it's confusing, it slows down the main story, and although motivations of the characters involved seemed clear enough at the beginning I found them entirely mystifying by the end. The ending is abrupt and unsatisfying, and leaves lots of loose-ends floating about--and there's no indication that a sequel might be forthcoming. And then there's the centerpiece of the book, the first contact between a Mage ship and a freighter from the Civilized Worlds, which I still can't bring myself to believe in. Though, to be fair the scene's not quite as absurd as I thought it the first time I read it.

A Working of Stars is much more satisfying. It follows perhaps ten years after the finish of The Stars Asunder, and ties up a fair number of that book's loose ends (though by no means all of them), and it's got a lot more of that Space Opera Goodness we were looking for. My major complaint about it is that it seems to contradict things were were told in the second book of the series, Starpilot's Grave, though possibly there are reasons for that.

There's clearly room for yet another book in this part of the series, and I rather wish Doyle and MacDonald would get on with it.

The General Danced at Dawn
By George MacDonald Fraser

Fraser, best known for his books featuring Victorian soldier, lady's man, coward, and toady Harry Flashman, spent the Second World War as a British foot soldier in Burma, an experience he describes delightfully in his book Quartered Safe Out Here. At the end of the war he applied for officer training, and much to his surprise spent the years after the war as a lieutenant in a highland regiment, first in North Africa and later on in Great Britain.

Fraser later turned his post war experiences into three volumes of short stories, all told in the first person by one Lieutenant Dand MacNeill, of which this is the first. And they are an unbridled joy, delight, and wonderment--the sort of book I put off re-reading so that I'll savor it all the more later on. Also, the sort of book you end up reading half of aloud to whoever might be in earshot.

The present volume begins with MacNeill's examination for officer training, and continues with his introduction to life as an officer in a highland regiment. In it, there is much to be said about bagpipes, soccer (only, of course, they don't call it soccer), scotch whisky--

A digression. The senior officers in some regiments are (or were) a hard-drinking lot, and many lieutenants in such regiments felt they had to do the same to be accepted. In MacNiell's regiment, as in most highland regiments (so says Fraser), the subalterns drank either beer or orange juice--in highland regiments, the senior officers had no desire to see their fine single-malt scotch swilled by lieutenants with no appreciation for what they were drinking.

--scotch whisky, highland dancing, and personal cleanliness, or, rather, the lack of it displayed by Private MacAuslan, the dirtiest soldier in the world.

I should note that the Dand MacNeill stories completely lack the worldly, cynical edge of Fraser's Flashman books; if you've tried those and disliked them, don't let that put you off from enjoying these. If you can find them; I wanted to get a copy of this book as a Christmas present this year, until I found that it's a available used at Amazon starting at $58. Time to check the used bookstores!

The Magic of Recluce
By L.E. Modesitt, Jr

This is the first in Modesitt's long running Recluce series, and to my mind it's still the best. All of the others at best serve to either elaborate themes or fill in details sketched in here.

The story takes place when the island nation of Recluce is at the height of its power, and has most fully become itself. The country is peaceful, productive, and stable; the master of Recluce have not only learned what works to keep it so, but why it works. Where earlier generations of leaders were simply doing their best, the current generation has it more or less down to a science.

Now, Recluce as a society is based on order, in both the common sense of orderliness and in the magical sense, order being the force that opposes chaos. Chaos is rigidly excluded. Discontented folk breed chaos, so it follows naturally that those who do not fit in cannot be suffered to remain.

Enter our hero, Lerris. Lerris is a youth of good family, he's been given the best education available on Recluce, and he's bored. B-O-R-E-D, bored. Nothing ever changes in the small town in which he has spent his entirely life, and he's so incredibly bored he can hardly stand it. Boredom is a form a discontent, so after a couple of years of apprenticeship to his uncle, a master woodworker, he's informed that he has two choices: exile or the dangergeld.

The dangergeld is an interesting institution, and one that we see in several stages of development in the later books in the series (as I've noted in other reviews, the series order isn't chronological, and tends to go backwards as often as it goes forwards). It's a form of limited exile--after several months of intense survival training, dangergelders are sent overseas to one of the planet's several continents. Once away from Recluce they may do as they like...but each dangergelder is given a specific task to do. If they carry it out successfully, and they still wish to do so, then they are allowed to return to Recluce. Invariably, the task is one which will require them to deal with the root cause of their discontent--and possibly one or two other matters.

In Lerris' case, he's commanded to travel by ship to the continent of Candar. Once in Candar, he's to travel past the Easthorns to the Westhorns (two ranges of mountains). He's to travel alone, i.e., apart from the other dangergelders, and he's not to return until he knows he's ready, whatever that means. Lerris leaves Recluce convinced that it's meant to be a one-way trip.

Now, it develops that Lerris isn't your average rebellious teenager. At least one of his parents is a powerful order-master (that is, a wizard). Though he doesn't know it, he has the potential to become a powerful wizard himself, with the capacity to turn towards either order or chaos. Should he choose the latter he'll destroy himself in a short time, as he hasn't the temperament for chaos, but it will be exceedingly messy. As for order, he needs to learn to value it in a more chaotic setting. And thanks to the balance of order and chaos, Candar, the closest continent to Recluce, is an extremely chaotic place. In short, Lerris is liable to make mistakes, his mistakes are liable to be spectacular, and so the masters of Recluce are sending him where he can make them without harm to his countrymen.

But there's more to it than that. The havoc a budding order-master can leave in his wake is a potent force if it can be channeled properly. Recluce has been sending young lads like Lerris out into the world for centuries, and the masters of Recluce have a shrewd notion of Lerris' full potential. He's not just a journeyman wizard, seeking to find himself; he's a guided missile, and a tool of Recluce's foreign policy. Just imagine how angry he'll be when he finally figures it all out....

I really do enjoy this book. There's more than a hint of wish-fulfillment in it, I'm sure; I'm not super-powerful myself, but it's fun to imagine. On top of that, parts of the book have the whole boot camp dynamic working for them; I always like that. And then there's the emphasis on values, and on doing the right thing whether or not it's expedient (the proper use of power is a major theme in all of Modesitt's books). Finally, though, it's an interesting tale well-told, and the hero not only grows up, he also gets the girl--who, actually, is quite a heroine in her own right. Her story is just as interesting as Lerris' and would have made a fine novel, except there'd have been considerably less magic in it.

If you like epic fantasy, and you haven't read this book, you really should, even if you never go on to read the rest of the series.

The Magic Engineer
By L.E. Modesitt, Jr

This is the third Recluce novel in series order; it takes place a couple of hundred years after The Towers of Sunset and (I think) something longer than that before The Magic of Recluce.

When the book begins, Recluce is a reasonably prosperous nation; order-masters are good with plants, and consequently Recluce has become a major exporter of spices. It is still fundamentally rural, and the population is concentrated at the north end of the island, just as it was in Creslin's day.

Enter Dorrin. Dorrin's a nerd. Instead of learning to send his mind out on the winds like his storm-wizard father, he wants to build steam engines. And steam boats. And all manner of other dangerous objects. Such things are forbidden on Recluce; because they depend on the containment of fire, which is naturally chaotic, steam engines are thought to be works of chaos. Dorrin's sure this is mistaken; but you'd have to build them out of ordered materials. In short, they need to be built by an order-master.

Recluce hasn't survived for 200 reasonably peaceful years by ignoring possible sources of chaos, and it's clear that Dorrin's going to have to take a hike. Fortunately, his family is reasonably well-off, so they can afford to send him to the Institute for training. The Institute was founded by members of the cadre of Westwind guards who came to Recluce at the time of the founding; most citizens call it the Institute of Useless Knowledge and Unnecessary Violence, but it's a useful place to study if you're about to be kicked out: Candar and Hamor are violent places, and weapons training can be extremely useful.

The training segment is at once the most interesting and least satisfying part of the book. Least satisfying, because Modesitt cribbed a little too much of it from The Magic of Recluce. There's one scene on the ship from Recluce to Candar that's almost identical, for example. I suspect Modesitt was trying to be clever, because although the words and actions are similar the people are markedly different; but it doesn't come off right. Most interesting, because here we see the seeds of the dangergeld of Lerris' day. The folks who exile Dorrin really don't want to do it; they just want him to give up his engines. They tell him, though not in so many words, that he can come back when he's done that. They have no idea what they are about to unleash; it's an interesting contrast to Lerris' story, in which his needs and the needs of the country are equally balanced, and his dangergeld is designed to serve both.

Anyway, Dorrin goes off to the country of Spidlar in Candar, and begins building things. Relationships; business; engines; his reputation; he's a quiet man, a focussed man, an unselfconscious man, and everything he does is constructive. He can't help it; he's an order-master of the highest degree, and the first person to really work out the details of the order/chaos balance.

Of course, it wouldn't be a novel without some conflict, and it so happens that Spidlar is next on the list to be conquered by the White Wizards of Fairhaven. Dorrin rises to the occasion; and amazingly, unlike Creslin and numerous other Modesitt heroes, he doesn't do it solely by thinking of bigger and better ways to kill lots of people.

I've never like The Magic Engineer as well as some of the other books in the series; but it has its own flavor and atmosphere, and it's better than I remembered.

Craig's Recent Reading

by Craig Clarke

The King of Torts
By John Grisham

Grisham is usually dependable light reading. I usually like his work better on audiobook so I don't actually have to pay attention; I can just let the fluff wash over me. The King of Torts is a more recent novel about public defender Clay Carter and his new entry into the world of mass tort litigation. As you can tell from the title, Clay succeeds admirably, for a while.

But Grisham never allows his characters to succeed fully. There must always be The Thing That Goes Wrong but he makes us wait an interminably long time for it to come, and then it's rather disappointing, compared to previous Things in his other novels. The author has written so many of these novels by now that it's sometimes hard to separate one from the other, apparently even for him. His style is fluid, however, which makes these ideal for quick reading.

A Kind of Anger
By Eric Ambler

My first exposure to Eric Ambler was via the Orson Welles film, Journey into Fear, of which he wrote the basis novel. It wasn't a film that impressed me, despite its classic status, so despite the fact that I knew Welles had altered the screenplay, I never pursued Ambler's work any further. My loss.

But the name stuck in my head and at a recent library sale, I picked up two of his novels, without really even remembering why. Had someone told me that A Kind of Anger starred a suicidal Dutch newspaper reporter-cum-investigator, I would have read it on that basis alone. I was not prepared for the ease of reading and the humor that was in store.

When a high-ranking Iraqi official is murdered, the only witness -- a beautiful girl in a bikini -- is seen leaving the scene hurriedly and then disappears. Reporter Piet Maas is ordered to find her and get an exclusive interview, but he has to jump through myriad hoops of hidden identity to locate her: the identity of a man who would rather not be found.

Maas is a charming narrator, easy to identify with and sensitively flawed. His attempted suicide is treated delicately, not merely as a sensational idiosyncracy to be exploited. In addition, Ambler's breezy style makes all the deception and conspiracy fly by like cotton candy with wings, making A Kind of Anger a fun read all around.

The Thin Man
By Dashiell Hammett

After playing Bob Cratchit in a local theatre adaptation of A Christmas Carol, I was a little tired of the Christmas spirit, but I wanted to try and keep it up. While reading an anthology called Murder for Christmas, I noticed a list of alternative Christmas-themed mysteries. The Thin Man was on it, as it takes place during that time period. I've seen all the movies, but I hadn't read the book in a long time, though I own a copy. This was a prime opportunity.

Shockingly, if you have seen the film, the book will seem like a re-viewing. It is one of the most faithful of film adaptations. To go by it and The Maltese Falcon, it would seem that Hollywood liked Hammett's work enough not to mess with it.

All of the great stuff from the book: the witty banter, the charming alcoholism, the lighthearted marriage of Nick and Nora Charles: are all right there on the screen (right down to the dialogue and action lifted directly from the page), personified joyously by William Powell and Myrna Loy.

The murder itself is secondary, although Hammett was certainly one of the best at plotting, but his greatest strength lay in characterization, as fans of the films would certainly attest. Even the films loosely based on his Continental Op novel, Red Harvest (which include Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars) are remembered primarily for the actors in the lead roles, a testament to their strong characters.

24 Hours
By Greg Iles

Road trips are the time to break out the audiobooks, especially something fast-paced and suspenseful to help keep the driver awake. Greg Iles is a wonder at this kind of book.

24 Hours takes place in the titular time period and involves the kidnapping of a doctor's child. Joe Hickey makes a habit of kidnapping children for ransom and, with the help of his wife and cousin, has always been able to return the child unharmed and receive the money, which he attributes to thorough planning and the fact that his victims never press charges. However, after hearing of the present crime, one of them decides to come forward.

Iles draws the characters individually but, unfortunately, reader Dick Hill only has about three voices at his disposal, sometimes making it difficult to separate the good guys from the bad guys. That said, 24 Hours was still entertaining, even though there were few surprises. But, then again, one doesn't necessarily want challenging literature when on I-81 at 3am.

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 January 2005
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