Home : Ex Libris : 1 April 2005

ex libris reviews

1 April 2005

The good ones always die.
Marco Rossolino


In This Issue:
Walking, Walking, Walking

Ramble took up less of my time this month, but on the other hand Notebook took up more; plus, my doctor put me on a strict diet with exercise last month, so I've been spending a lot of time walking and not eating. Still, I got some reading done; and so, pleasantly enough, did Craig Clarke.


-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Ethos Effect
By L.E. Modesitt, Jr

Modesitt's books are invariably about the ethical use of power, and The Ethos Effect is (unsurprisingly, given the name) no exception. More bluntly, The Ethos Effect concerns this question: if in the 1930's you could foresee the rise of the Third Reich and all of the associated pain, suffering, and death it would cause, would you be justified if, given the capability, you were to nuke Germany off of the map? It's all cast in the far future, and the players are different, but that's more or less the question.

Spoiler Warning: I don't usually include spoilers in my reviews, but I feel I need to in this case. In case you don't wish to read further, I'll give the bottom-line: this is a weak story well-told, and not up to Modesitt's usual standards.

Van Albert is a commander in the navy of the Taran Republic, one of a number of large space-faring powers. The political situation is too complicated to go into, but the most serious threat is a theocratic totalitarian space empire which supposedly grew out of some unholy union of Islam and the Mormon church--

I digress. Modesitt really seems to have it in for the Mormons, as this is the second series in which they've been the bad guys. I don't see it myself. I don't buy Mormon theology, and I find the origins of the LDS church to be highly suspect, but there are lots of Mormons here in the Foothills, many of them folks I grew up with, and they've never struck me as any more prone to jihad than, say, the local Methodists.

But anyway, the Shepherds, as they called, have been expanding slowly for a couple of centuries. They've avoided a major war in that time, choosing to take over small systems one by one, first economically and then politically. And where ever they take over, the populace are sent to re-education camps to learn to be good little Shepherds. As such, they make a nice bugaboo for 21st century blue-staters. It's always dangerous to guess an author's views from a work of fiction, but I have to believe that Modesitt doesn't like or understand religion very well (certainly, a sythesis of Islam and Mormonism strikes me as unlikely in the extreme) and thinks that strong religious feeling is dangerous. It's telling that throughout the book we never really get to know any of the Shepherds.

I digress again. None of the other major powers are willing to stand up to the Shepherds; the last time any tried, the result was an enormously bloody war that left both sides reeling (that story is told in The Parafaith War). A man Commander Albert comes to esteem highly has devoted his life to strengthening the smaller systems on which the Shepherds feed so that they can avoid been swallowed, but reluctantly comes to the conclusion that his best efforts are insufficient. The Shepherds cannot be turned from their path by ordinary means; and so he uses advanced alien technology to trigger a solar flare that renders the main Shepherd system uninhabitable in a matter of hours. Billions of Shepherd civilians lost their lives, both then and during the political aftermath.

Later, Commander Albert determines that his home star-nation, the Taran Republic, has become fascist, racist, xenophobic, and expansionist. His home planet is known for being the most freethinking and friendly to the arts in the entire Republic; it's also the only one where gay marriage is commonly accepted. (Albert himself has two fathers, a lawyer and an opera singer.) As the fascists take control, Albert's homeworld is is brutally suppressed.

There's an odd hint that the Taran Republic has become so through an over-reliance on free market economics and soulless capitalism, which frankly makes no sense to me; fascism breeds in bad economic times, not prosperous times as indicated here. In Albert's view, the Republic has become just as corrupt and evil as the Shepherds at their worst. Albert's friend left behind a second solar-flare device...ought he to stop the problem before it starts by destroying the Taran capital system? And would doing so make him a horrible monster or a savior ensuring the greatest good for the greatest number? As to the first question, he eventually decides that he must. As the latter, you'll have to decide for yourself. Modesitt's answer seems to be that Albert's action is, if not completely justifiable, at least understandable.

Frankly, I don't think Modesitt makes his case. As I read it, it seemed to me that the subtext was, "I don't like free-market neo-cons, and I don't like religious fundamentalists; both kinds of people are fundamentally flawed and since I can't fix them and though it's probably wrong of me I wish I could just blow them all up." I don't know that this is what he was thinking; but that's the impression I got, and the only explanation I can give for the general weakness of the book relative to his usual standard is that political rancor got the better of him.

If there are any other Modesitt fans in the audience who think I've misread the book, I'd be glad to hear from them. I read this during the first week of a really nasty physician-mandated diet (think Atkins with the good parts left out), and I was in rather a jaundiced mood. But Modesitt doesn't usually strike me this way.

The Misplaced Legion
By Harry Turtledove

This is one of Turtledove's early books, dating back to 1987, and one of the first of his works to appear under his own name; prior to this, he'd written mostly short fiction under the name Eric G. Iverson. These days Turtledove's best known for his novels of alternate history; this is something similar, yet not quite the same.

Marcus Scaurus is the commander of a Roman legion fighting under Julius Caesar in Gaul. During a battle with the leader of a Gaulish troop, druid magic sends Scaurus and his legion (and his opponent) to another world, a world almost impossibly strange, to a place called the Empire of Videssos. Videssos is what we'd think of as a proper empire, ruled by an emperor and controlling vast regions; the Roman empire Scaurus knew was still ruled by the Roman Senate in the name of the Senate and People of Rome. Moreover, Videssos is an empire of long standing, and its court protocols and politics are singularly convolute. The people of Videssos and most of the surrounding countries worship a single god named Phos, though in slightly different ways from country to country, which leads to a fair amount of strife; Scaurus and his men naturally worship the gods of Rome.

Has the penny dropped yet? That's right, The Misplaced Legion is really about what the Byzantine Empire, an empire which still called itself Roman, would look like to a Roman of Caesar's day. And the answer, like nothing on earth. Oh, Turtledove's dressed it up a bit. Persia is to the west of Constantinople--excuse me, Videssos the City--instead of to the east; there's no analogue of Rome, Videssos the City has always been the capital of Videssos the Empire; the religion is roughly Zoroastrian instead of Christian; all the names have been changed, except they mostly sound like Greek anyway. Oh, and there's magic; and since the dominant religion is Zoroastrian with the Videssians as the followers of Ahura Mazda, naturally the bad guys are wicked as all get out and worship Ahura Mazda's opposite, the loathsome Ahriman. Though of course, they call him Skotos instead, just like they call Ahura Mazda Phos. This is called poetic license, I suppose.

Anyway, it's an OK book, if not quite as good as I remembered; there are three more in the immediate series, plus some spin-offs, and no doubt I'll get to all of them again in time.

The House Sitter
By Peter Lovesey

This is a lovely book; I took an evening earlier this week and just wallowed in it.

This is yet another of Lovesey's Peter Diamond novels; it takes place just about a year after Diamond Dust. Diamond is back in the saddle, and working with his team--I said, after the last book, that I was really looking forward to seeing Diamond working with his team instead of investigating as a loner, and I got my wish--but he still hasn't really come to terms with the death of his wife.

Meanwhile, there's a murder on a beach in another county; the victim proves to be from Bath, which drags Diamond in, and further turns out to have been a "profiler", working in a very hush hush murder case--could there be a link? The Powers That Be say "No!"; Diamond says "Maybe!"; you figure out.

There are lots of lovely bits in this book, but I won't spoil them for you; I'll just say that the first chapter is as neat a bit of deception as I've come across in a long while, and that we might have spotted a new love interest for Diamond.

The Bad Beginning
By Lemony Snicket

When I first read this some while back, I said that it was interesting but too short to be worth the nine dollars I'd paid for it. I got lots of e-mail over that, mostly saying something like, "Will, you just don't get it."

I still don't.

At bedtime just a couple of nights ago I finished reading this book to my two boys. And when I had read the last sentence, I closed the book with great relief and a feeling of liberation. I was done. I didn't have to to read it aloud anymore. For the first time I felt glad at how short it was.

To be frank, I can't think of a book I've read aloud that I disliked reading aloud more than this book. It's not that it's poorly written, or that the prose doesn't flow; there's just something about the atmosphere, and the arch little asides to the reader, and the unrelenting gloom that made for a thoroughly awful experience.

For what it's worth, James agreed with me, and we finished it only at David's request. After the first few days, I began every reading session with "I hate this book. You know that, don't you." And David would say, "Yes," and James would say, "So do I," and then we'd get on with it.

David's been put on notice that he can read the other books in the series if he likes, but if so he'll be reading them to himself. I'm out of it.

Porco Rosso
By Hayao Miyazaki

Ian Hamet has been raving about this movie for as long as I've known him, so when it was re-released here in the states I was quick to grab a copy. And I'm pleased to say that I was not disappointed, for it is indeed a truly charming movie. My favorite Miyazaki to date is still Spirited Away; but then, Porco Rosso is a different kind of movie altogether, and it doesn't seem like it should be rated on the same scale.

Porco Rosso is a tale of a brave and skillful seaplane pilot who lives on an island in the Adriatic sea in the time between the world wars, when Italy was sliding into fascism. He makes his money as a bounty hunter; the Adriatic, evidently, is home to scads of air pirates (Miyazaki has a thing for air pirates), all of whom fly various interesting kinds of seaplanes and prey on the local shipping. It's Porco's job to find them, stop them, retrieve their booty and free their hostages--and, of course, to get paid for it.

The odd thing about Porco is that he has the face and ears of a pig. He wasn't born that way; he's evidently under some kind of curse. But it makes him an outsider, and allows him to speak harsh truths others don't want to recognize. They call him on it, of course; they say to him, "Porco, you really are a pig!"

I don't want to say too much about the plot for fear of spoiling it. But there are cute little girls, and ugly poorly-washed air pirates (and an interesting mixture they make, I might add), and a pretty girl and a beautiful woman and lots and lots of planes and flying scenes and dog fights and a rivalry and an adolescent crush and serious aeronautical engineering--and, I think, something like redemption. If I'm reading it right (and Ian will no doubt correct me if I'm wrong), Porco Rosso isn't a fantasy at all, despite its snouted hero. Rather, it's an excursion into the world of magic realism.

As for the animation, it's simply stunning throughout. I don't have words to describe how beautiful it was--or how funny. It's not a comedy as such, but I think I must have had a dopey grin on my face the whole time I watched it. My favorite funny bit is when all of the air pirates try to get their picture taken with the lovely young Fio. It's just a moment, there and gone, but it's perfectly done.

I watched it with the new English soundtrack, which I thought was very well done. Disney once again made some surprising choices for voice actors that nevertheless worked out perfectly--even if you'd never guess who they were until the credits scrolled by.

Anyway, Porco Rosso is in the stores now. You should find a copy and settle in with some popcorn.

Don't forget the popcorn; it's very important. I didn't get to have any, since I'm on a strict low-carb diet, and I really think you should eat some for me. Thank you.

Stagestruck Vampires
By Suzy Mckee Charnas

I really wish I could say that I liked this book, which is an anthology of Charnas' short fiction. She writes well, and the stories kept my attention; there's certainly no lack of quality here. So why did I find them so uncongenial? I've been pondering this, and I've come up with a number of reasons.

To begin with, there are the vampires. I like a good monster as well as the next person, but I'm not really down with the whole psychosexual Anne Rice vampire thing. It does nothing for me. For what it's worth I suppose I like Charnas' vampires better than Rice's.

Next, there's the style. Although work of book-length fiction is commonly called a "novel" these days, there's an important distinction between the novel proper and the romance. I don't want to go into it in detail here, but simply put, in a novel the action is largely internal and in a romance the action is largely external. Many books work in both ways, of course, and those are the ones I tend to prefer, but otherwise I'll take a straight romance instead of a straight novel most days of the week.

Anyway, in my view Charnas is using romantic conventions (vampires, werewolves, and so forth) to write stories which aren't romances at all. All of the important action is inward, inside the characters. I don't say that this is bad; but I do say that it's not to my taste.

The third problem is exacerbated by the second, and that's the worldview, Charnas' model for how the world works and how (consequently) people can change. She and I clearly have different assumptions about some basic things, enough that her characters feel somewhat alien to me, and the manner in which they evolve is unconvincing. I kept founding myself saying, "But the world isn't like that. People aren't like that." It might seem silly to lay stress on this over stories that are overt works of fantasy, but the internal component is so important to the story that it typically overwhelms the plot. If it doesn't work, the story doesn't work. And in this case, it doesn't mesh with my own experience of life.

All that said, there's some striking storytelling going on here. The first tale extends the Phantom of the Opera; what if lovely Christine chose the ugly Phantom over handsome Raoul? Why would she, and what would follow from it? Another tells of a girl on the brink of womanhood who discovers that the full moon brings out the wolf in her--and that this offers the means to a highly desired end. Another takes place at a performance of Tosca at the Opera House in Santa Fe, New Mexico, during which Puccini's music drives a vampire wild; the description was crystal clear and almost made me wish I was there--though the plot itself was negligible and not very interesting.

I suppose my least favorite moment comes during a story called Peregrines, which was written just last year; its background is so clearly a liberal nightmare of post-Bush America, and yet it's just too absurd. Let's see. In this future America you need a permit from Homeland Security to travel from one of the 50 states to another. Anyone who looks or speaks differently than their neighbors is liable to be taken away by Homeland Security for "questioning"; such people don't come back. This is all due to the victory of the Fundies, who got control after terrorists bombed the Status of Liberty.

Now, this is all background, and most of it is superfluous to the story. The essential thing is the specter of the secret police, which is used to add suspense; the rest is gratuitous. The only reason I can think of for why Charnas included it is because it seems like a real threat to her. She really thinks that the "Fundies" want to turn to turn America into a police state where immigrants are harassed and oppressed merely for their looks and language.

The kicker, for me, was the reference to the terrorists bombing the Statue of Liberty. Dude, the Statue of Liberty is a major American landmark, sure. But the significance of September 11th isn't that a pair of landmarks were bombed and subsequently collapsed. The significance of September 11th is due to the 3000 people who didn't get out in time--or who tried to fly.

Frankly, it rubbed me the wrong way.

Anyway, those are the reasons why I can't say I liked the book. On the other hand--if Charnas' style is the kind of thing that appeals to you, you should check it out; she definitely knows her craft.

Plato Unmasked: The Dialogues Made New
By Keith Quincy

This fascinating book is a new translation of Plato's dialogues, a translation done with two objects in mind. The first was to convey the spice of the original Greek text. Apparently the first English translations of Plato were done in a polite and bowdlerizing era, whereas the Greek text was rather less polite and occasionally outright lewd. The second was to condense Plato's more elaborate rhetorical flights so as to make his philosophical arguments plain and easy to follow without losing any essential nuances.

I predict that this book is going to start a fairly large number of arguments. In the first place, I rather expect it will disjoint the noses of quite a few academic purists. I'm sure that many philosophy departments will ring with the question, "Have you seen the new Reader's Digest version of Plato?" accompanied by snickers and giggles.

The larger number of arguments, though, will be among the groups of people who actually read the book. Now, I have to preface the following remarks by saying that I am not a philosophy major, nor do I speak classical Greek, nor have I read all that much Plato in English translation (and that little almost twenty-five years ago). In short, I am no judge of whether Quincy's condensation is as faithful and nuanced as he claims. On the other hand, I think I can fairly say that it makes for good reading. In the dialogs that I've read so far (Lysis, Euthyphro, Crito, Apology, Phaedo, and Gorgias) I found myself following Plato's arguments without the least bit of difficulty and finding lots of spots where I wanted to argue with him. What's not to like?

And that's why I think the book will start lots of arguments. Because Plato's line of reasoning is so clearly presented, it becomes easier to take exception with it. And as different readers are likely to take exception to different parts, I'd expect discussion to flow fast and furious. In the preface, Quincy notes that he's taught from this translation, and "only in my Plato class have I had to break up a fistfight between students." I expect a book club could have great fun with it.

The dialogs are presented in order of composition; each begins with a historical note (sometimes quite lengthy) about the situation in Athens at the time the dialog supposedly takes place. These are also likely to raise eyebrows, at least for those familiar with Plato and Socrates and not with wider Greek history. We're accustomed to thinking of Plato and Socrates as two of the "good guys"; like almost all human beings, their actual conduct was less than saintly.

Although Quincy claims that his condensed translation captures every important nuance of the original Greek text, he is quick to point out that this book is not intended to replace standard translations of Plato's work, but rather is intended to be an aid to understanding them. In fact, he recommends reading each dialog at least three times: first in a full translation, then in his condensed translation, and then in the full translation once more. For philosophy students I suspect that this is wise council; for the generally curious reader, though, Plato Unmasked stands perfectly well on its own.

Scales of Justice
By Ngaio Marsh

This is a "country" mystery; that is, it's similar to a country house mystery except that the venue has expanded to include an entire neighborhood and all of its colorful characters. A resident is killed while angling in the stream and is found dead with another man's catch at his feet. Inspector Alleyn is called in by the local Lady of the Manor to trawl through the red herrings.

I'm normally very fond of Marsh's work, but I'm afraid I thought this one a bit tedious. Possibly I just wasn't in the proper mood for it; but on the other hand, I seem to recall thinking it tedious the first time I read it as well. The ending surprised me, though, and there are some memorable characters, so it wasn't a total loss. I especially liked Nurse Kettle, who reminds me of a recorder player I know.

How Great Generals Win
By Bevin Alexander

Whilst I was at the bookstore some weeks ago I decided, for some unaccountable reason, that I wanted to learn more about military strategy. I cast about to see if I could find something like Military Strategy for Dummies or Warfare for the Compleat Idiot, but those titles were conspicuously lacking. This book doesn't quite meet that need, but it goes part of the way and it was an interesting read besides.

Alexander begins by observing that "The rules of war are simple but seldom followed," and that attacking a prepared position usually results in slaughter for the attackers. Instead, "great generals strike where they are least expected against opposition that is weak and disorganized." The remainder of the book is a series of case studies of great generals and how they won their greatest battles: How Hannibal Barca won at Cannae and how his nemesis Scipio Africanus finally defeated him. How Genghis Khan and his generals conquered the geographically largest empire the world has ever seen. How Napoleon Bonaparte won his early battles. How Stonewall Jackson used his small force to neutralize far larger Union forces. How William T. Sherman won the Civil War by doing in the South what Stonewall Jackson wanted to do in the North, had he not been killed in battle. How Sir Edmund Allenby stopped the Germans in the Middle East, with a little help from T.E. Lawrence and his Arabs. How Mao Zedong led the Red Army during the Long March. How Heinz Guderian, Erich von Manstein, and Erwin Rommel realized what tanks were really good for, and the use they made of them. How Douglas MacArthur won at Inchon and why he failed spectacularly afterwards.

The book ends with a summary of the principles discussed throughout the book:

  • Operate on the line of least expectation and least resistance. Figure out where the enemy doesn't expect you to go--and go that way. France fell so quickly at the beginning of WWII because no one thought the Germans could bring tanks through the forest of Ardennes.
  • Maneuver to the rear of the enemy. Your enemy's morale will suffer when he realizes that you're sitting across his supply lines; and if he's too far from home his army might just disintegrate. That's what happened to the North Korean army in South Korea after MacArthur's invasion of Inchon.
  • Occupy the central position. That is, if your enemy has two forces, maneuver to a point directly between them. This ensures that you can deal with either one before the other joins with it, thus "defeating the enemy in detail". Napoleon was a master at this in his early days; once he became emperor, though, he lost his subtlety and tried to win all his battles with brute force.
  • Follow a "plan with branches". Uncertainty and misdirection are your allies. Therefore, maneuver in two or more columns, keeping the columns far enough apart that the enemy can't guess what your true objective is, but close enough together that they can support each other at need. The enemy won't know what to defend, and will likely end up dividing his forces to defend a number of spots. No less than three times during Sherman's march north from Atlanta the Confederates split their forces between the two cities his columns appeared to be approaching; and in each case Sherman marched his troops right through the middle and captured a third, undefended city.
  • Don't attack prepared and well-defended positions. Instead, make the enemy leave their positions and come to you. Scipio Africanus conquered Carthage not by a frontal assault on the city, but by marching into and burning the city's agricultural hinterland. The Carthaginian army was forced to follow after, or else the city would starve.
  • Don't get pinned down in fortifications. If you're holed up in a fort, you're effectively out of the battle.
  • Where the enemy's army isn't is often more important than where it is.

All in all it's a fascinating book, and for my purposes useful as well. I recommend it.

The Game
By Laurie R. King

This is latest of King's Mary Russell mysteries to come out in paperback, and it's a worthy addition to the series. More a thriller than a mystery, it takes Russell and Holmes to India to look for a missing British agent named Kimball O'Hara. Kipling fans will recognize O'Hara as the young hero of Kipling's novel Kim, though by the time of this story he's a full-grown man.

The title of the book is a reference to the "Great Game"--a cold war of espionage, bribery, and dirty tricks between Russia and England that spanned much of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th. The nature of this war is simply put: England had India, with its wealth and warm water ports, and Russia wanted it.

In two ways, the book's title is a bit of wishful thinking on King's part. First, the Great Game was really pretty much over by the time Russell and Holmes are supposed to have arrived in India, a few years after WWI; but I suppose we can't blame her for that. More seriously, most of the action of the Great Game took place not in India but in the shadowy regions to the North--in Tibet, in Afghanistan, and in that broad stretch of Centra Asia known variously as High Tartary, Chinese Turkestan, and Sinkiang or Xinjiang (take your pick).

Poetic license to the side, I must say that King did her homework. She does an excellent job of capturing the feel and atmosphere of the latter days of the Raj, especially as regards the odd sport of pig-sticking (she draws on a treatise written by Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts, of all unlikely people); she also draws extensively from Peter Hopkirk's excellent history The Great Game, which I highly recommend. Follow the link for our list of Hopkirk's books--interestingly, it's the #1 Google hit for Peter Hopkirk. Just goes to show, Hopkirk's not nearly as well known as he should be.

Bottom-line: I liked it.

Craig's Recent Reading

by Craig Clarke

Heir to the Empire
Dark Force Rising
The Last Command
By Timothy Zahn

I never thought I would ever read any of the Star Wars series of novels. For one, I vehemently deny my inner geek and Star Wars books are geek paraphernalia extraordinaire. And second, where would I start? Luckily (or not, depending on the mood I'm in), I have a friend who is a huge fan of the novels, even going so far as to set aside space in his entertainment area for their display (lighted, no less). He offered me the set of three novels that were the first to spin-off the universe in novel form, and have since become the books against which all the others are compared -- the three-book cycle that has come to be known as "the Thrawn cycle": Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command. They take place five years after the end of Return of the Jedi, close enough to be familiar, but far enough away to allow for license with the intervening facts.

Hugo-winning author Timothy Zahn was a terrific choice to continue the saga. Not only is he a solid writer, but he balances devotion to the existing characters with creative additions to the canon, most of all the Grand Admiral of the Empire known only as Thrawn. Mysterious and evil, Thrawn is a non-human Grand Admiral, something that the original Emperor (now dead, of course) was assumed to never allow. His blue skin and red eyes make for an imposing figure, yet his open-minded ruling style (he rewards as well as punishes) inspires admiration from the reader.

A good amount of things have happened since the destruction of the second Death Star: Luke Skywalker is a full fledged Jedi with all the skills and respect thereto implied. Han Solo and Princess Leia Organa have wed and Leia is pregnant with twins (a piece of conflict used to great effect, since she is still constantly placed in harm's way). Also, there has been discovered on a far-off planet, a long-thought-dead Jedi Master named Joruus C'baoth (who may even be a clone). He is working with Thrawn to assist in battles (as the Emperor used to do), by controlling the minds of the participants, in exchange for the delivery of some Jedis to turn over to the Dark Side: Luke and Leia and (most excitingly to C'baoth) the twins. At the same time, an assistant to Talon Karrde (who has taken over the smuggling ring run by the late Jabba the Hutt) named Mara Jade is seeking Luke so she can kill him in the worst way. Her motivation is hidden from the reader for a wonderfully long time, really stretching out the suspense.

Zahn's skill at characterizations combines with his description of battle to make these books really move, and yet remain grounded in the Star Wars world we all know. I found myself absolutely enthralled by this story that stretches over three books. Heir to the Empire is wonderful, even as filled with exposition as it is. Dark Force Rising suffers somewhat from Second Book Syndrome; its main purpose is to link book one to book three, but still manages to tell its own story, though there is that definite feeling of "more to come."

With all this preparation, getting into The Last Command was as easy as opening the book. The story picked up right away but led to a relatively unsatisfying conclusion. The main drawback to this series is that the books get progressively larger, thus negating the effect of the story getting faster-paced. It seemed like The Last Command would never end, not because of poor writing, but just because it was so LONG! All in all, this was a terrific introduction to a world connected to one with which I am very familiar. Unfortunately, I think that, in the future, I am going to have to check out the relative page-counts of series novels (standalones will not count) so that this does not happen again.

Who Has Wilma Lathrop?
By Day Keene

When Hard Case Crime announced their release of Home Is the Sailor, a classic crime novel from the pseudonymous Day Keene, my interest was instantly piqued. During the minimal research that I did on him, I noticed that another Hard Case Crime author, Allan Guthrie (Kiss Her Goodbye) also ran an online publishing company called Pulp Originals and that they had a "Day Keene Double," available for four dollars in ebook form, consisting of two of Keene's later works: Who Has Wilma Lathrop? and Sleep with the Devil.

I don't really like ebooks, because I don't have a portable method of reading them; I end up printing them out (on office paper -- shh!) and carrying them around in a folder in my bag. Thus, anything over around 200 pages is absolutely to be avoided. Luckily, these two are only around 150 pages.

Who Has Wilma Lathrop? is worth the effort (I haven't read Devil yet). On his way out of the courtroom, where he testified against a trouble student, Jim Lathrop is accosted by two thugs. They give him $5000 and a message for his wife. Then they beat him up, break his glasses, and leave him lying in the parking lot. Lathrop goes home and asks his wife Wilma about the men; she denies knowledge of all of it. They have dinner, make especially hot love on the couch, and go to sleep. The next morning, Wilma is gone.

Keene keeps the suspense ratcheted up. While Lathrop is trying to find his wife, the police and the thugs are trying to find him. He becomes the prime suspect to the former, and he's in the way of the latter. Along the way, he runs into conflict wherever he goes: at home, at work, even just sitting in his car is potentially deadly. He eventually goes up against newly-discovered members of Wilma's extremely disturbed family, finding out more about the situation as he goes along. It's no accident that the moment Lathrop loses his glasses is the moment he finally begins to see things clearly.

The Cutting Room
By Laurence Klavan

Every once in a while, a book comes along that simply screams out to a reader, "I was made for you!" Recently, I heard that clarion call from The Cutting Room, written by Edgar Award winner (under a pseudonym) Laurence Klavan. I read the blurb on the back and felt as if I were home (even though I was standing in a commuter station bookstore). Anyone who likes mysteries and movies -- especially Orson Welles -- will be taken away to a land of murder and film trivia as amateur gumshoe and "trivial man" Roy Milano pursues the long-lost original two-hour cut of The Magnificent Ambersons.

Roy Milano lives in a unique circle. He spends his days amassing and distributing movie trivia, mostly through his newsletter, Trivial Man. His friends, such as they are, are also in the "business". And, though she couldn't stand it when his focus was more on films than her, his ex-wife Jody still calls him when she needs to identify someone in a old movie.

Somehow, Klavan makes Roy's life seems pitiable and enviable at the same time. Perhaps an outsider would see it as pathetic, and Roy is a self-described "loser," but I immediately identified with the protagonist (though I have been able to come out of my shell -- and convert my wife -- enough to maintain a happy marriage, which, in that way, makes us more like the Kripps, another couple in the novel).

The Cutting Room is a pure joyride. Milano travels to New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and Barcelona in pursuit of the film, finding out information about Welles along the way, as well as trying to fight his way out of harm's way. There is a good amount of disbelief to be suspended, but going along with the idea is more than rewarding. It's fluff, but in the best way. And any character who recites Oscar winners in chronological order to calm himself is one that I'll be standing by. I'm already looking forward to the next one: The Shooting Script.

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 April 2005
Copyright © 2005, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
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