Home : Ex Libris : 1 February 2006

ex libris reviews

1 February 2006

The good thing about drawing a tiger is that it automatically makes your picture fine art.


In This Issue:

I've been taking an interesting in photography recently, having gotten a new camera; you'll find some evidence of that in the reviews. Craig Clarke is back with a couple of reviews of his, having managed to scrounge some reading and writing time in between taking care of his new baby. (Aside: it's good to be Dad!) Oh, and Jane got over her pneumonia without complications. So go read!

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Assassin's Apprentice
Royal Assassin
Assassin's Quest
By Robin Hobb

I've been trying to work my way through my shelves of unread books, and one book on the shelf is Fool's Errand, a book my brother loaned me some while back. It's the first in a trilogy; but that trilogy is, taken all-in-all, a sequel to a previous trilogy which my brother loaned me even longer ago. In order to have the background for Fool's Errand in mind, then, it seemed wise to re-read the three books of the previous trilogy first; and then I could give all four volumes back to my brother at our family Christmas gathering. That was the plan, but in fact I was only part way through the third book in the first trilogy, Assassin's Quest, when Christmas rolled around. Ah, well; I've since finished it, and here's what I think this time.

The three books listed above tell the first part of the story of FitzChivalry Farseer, the bastard son of a prince of the kingdom of the Six Duchies. Acknowledged by his father, who promptly abdicates in embarassment at having sired a bastard, he is given a place by his grandfather, King Shrewd. Shrewd makes a deal with the young boy: he will provide FitzChivalry with food, clothing, training, and a life of relative comfort; in return, FitzChivalry will pledge his complete loyalty and discretion. And then begins his training as King Shrewd's back-up assassin.

It's a time of troubles for the Six Duchies; red ships from the Out Islands have begun raiding the coastal regions in earnest. Out Island raiders are not uncommon--the ruling Farseer line was founded by a successful raider--but now there's a difference. The raiders are not carrying off goods or slaves. Instead they are destroying entire villages. Those they do not kill are carried away and held for a very unusual kind of ransom. If the ransom is paid, the captives are killed. Otherwise, the captives are returned to their devastated homes--returned, alive and physically unharmed, but with all humanity stripped from them. The Forged, as they come to be known, are rather like locusts, eating anything that comes to hand with no thought for the morrow, and killing anyone who has anything they might want. The Forged must be put down, and a lot of that work goes to the unfortunate Fitz.

That's just the beginning. There's a lot to like in these books: magic (two distinct kinds), intrigue, interesting good guys, horrendously evil bad guys, a touch of mystery, and even a somewhat happy ending. There's a certain amount to dislike, as well. Fitz goes through so much, and so much that's awful, that reading about it can be an ordeal. Also, I think the books are rather longer than was really necessary, and would benefit from some judicious trimming.

I liked them better this time than the first time, though. I read them more slowly, which helped, and though I'd forgotten most of the details I had a vague notion of where the plot was going, and that helped too.

I can't recommend these unequivocally; but on the other hand, I stopped at a bookstore yesterday and picked up some more of Hobb's books. So I guess I can recommend them equivocally.

Good Morning Midnight
By Reginald Hill

This is the latest in Hill's long-running Dalziel/Pascoe series of police procedurals, and it's pretty well par for the course: twists, turns, odd relationships, Andy Dalziel being coarse but effective and Peter Pascoe being uptight and thorough. Hill always surprises, and this book is no exception.

More I won't say, mostly because I read this sufficiently long ago that the plot is murky; suffice to say that Hill (almost) always does a good job; if you like this sort of thing, you'll like the book.

1634: The Galileo Affair
Ring of Fire
By Eric Flint

I have to admire Eric Flint; 1632 exemplifies the rule that if you can't make something plausible, make it as fun as you can. Flint wanted to see what would happen if you magically moved a West Virginian mining town (Grantville, by name) from the present day United States to Germany, specifically Thuringia, smack-dab in the middle of the 30 Years War: 1632. One day in 2000, during a wedding reception, Grantville experienced a sudden earthquake and power failure. Citizens who were outside reported seeing a "ring of fire" in all directions. And when they went to investigate, there they were--in Germany, at a very bad time.

What caused the Grantville Disaster, as it came to be known back in 2000? It seems a bit of cosmic debris, remnant of the production of a piece of performance art by a super-advanced yet highly irresponsible race called the Assisti, struck the Earth just so...

As I say, if you can't come up with anything plausible, let your imagination go to work and have as much fun as you can.

So what happens when American values meet religious intolerance, rapine, and royalty? Therein hangs the tale related in these books. 1632 details the arrival of Grantville in Thuringia and their initial attempts to survive and thrive in an immediately hostile environment. By 1633 the local threat has mostly been dealt with, but the great powers, notably France and Austria, are getting involved. Grantville has to step up war production, and support their allies with everything they have, plus they must send out envoys seeking new allies. By 1634 the situation has ramified considerably, so much so that a single book is no longer sufficient to cover their entire year. There are ultimately going to be at least three books (if I recall correctly) covering 1634; 1634: The Galileo Affair is simply the first. Although, "first" only in the sense that it's the first to be written and published; the books will take place concurrently. This reflect's Flint's view of history--the world's a big place, and everything more or less happens at once, and develops in ways you wouldn't expect. And this, in turn, has drive Flint's use of collaborators.

Flint has always enjoyed working with collaborators; most of his books are collaborations. 1633 was written with David Weber, for example, and 1634: The Galileo Affair was written with Andrew Dennis. In this case, though, he's a man with a method. If history is messy, with all sorts of unpredictable things going on, and if you want to produce a series based on an alternate history, what better way to simulate it than to allow other authors to play in your world--and then embrace their creations and allow them to influence your own work?

That's the story behind Ring of Fire, which is an anthology of short stories and novellas set in Flint's world. It's a neat collection; I have only one criticism of it, which is that it was published in paperback after the publication of 1632 and 1634: The Galileo Affair, despite being published earlier in hardcover. As many of the characters in the later two books stem from stories in this anthology, there was an annoying sense of already knowing how the story was going to turn out.

Anyway, this is all good stuff; both Jane and I are eagerly looking forward to future volumes, of which there are going to be many: in addition to the direct sequels, Flint's evidently planning a couple of spin-off series. One will involve yet another community transplanted from one time and place to another (though not from present day); the other will take place in the far future, and will involve the Assisti getting their comeuppance. Taken all together, it ought to keep him busy for a while.

Flint is a history buff; he's also fond of working with collaborators, and this extended series

Fancy Nancy
By Jane O'Connor

Fancy Nancy is a picture book I picked up for my four-and-a-half-year-old daughter the other day. It's illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser. The cover illustration shows a little girl with poofed-up hair wearing a tiara and a hair ribbon, high-heeled shoes with lacy socks, a lacy dress with a long train (really, a bedsheet tucked into a ribbon), and cat's-eye sunglasses. She's carrying an umbrella and a large feather. Let me be perfectly clear--this is not a too-little girl dressed up to be sexy for a beauty contest; this is a little girl who has dressed up to be "fancy" by her own lights, using the materials at hand.

I took one look, and said, "Good grief, that's Anne!"

It turns out that Nancy has a problem. She loves to be fancy: to dress in fancy clothes, with fancy accessories, to do fancy things, and to use fancy words. Her family, alas (a mother, a father, and a sister) are not fancy; in fact, they tend to the plain. It's a distressing situation, and so she arranges to give her family lessons in being fancy, culminating in the entire family going out to dinner dressed as fancy as they can (by Nancy's lights), calling each other "Darling" and extending their pinkies while eating their pizza. All eyes are upon them from the moment they enter the pizza parlor, and Nancy is sure that everything thinks they must be movie stars.

Allow me to describe the father's fancy attire. He's wearing one of his own pin-stripe suits, some kind of scarf tied around his neck sort like a cravat, and a top hat, and he's carrying a cane. Well, really, the top hot is a prop from Nancy's magic kit, meaning that it's far too small, and the cane is the magician's wand. He wears them with a certain flair and panache, and with oceans of good humor. (Good humor which I intend to lack, utterly lack, if push ever comes to shove. I am Not Fancy, and I intend to stay that way.)

Anne loves the book, not at all to my surprise. Jane captured her feelings about it, thus:

Well, you see, I really like it because it is lovely and so beautiful. It is my favorite book in the world. I have a chair like her and I do fancy just like her. I do it all the time. She makes her family so beautiful.

The chair Anne mentions is one of those bent-wire chairs with a heart-shaped back and little round black seat, the kind that's supposed to go with a vanity table. It used to be my mother-in-law's, but somehow Anne inherited during Mom's recent move. And indeed, Fancy Nancy has one just like it, except that Nancy's is pink and Anne's is brass. That only makes Nancy's chair better, of course.

Having gotten Anne's opinion, Jane went on to get David's; he's my eldest at going-on-nine. Here's what he had to say:

It wasn't really a good book for boys because mostly it is all about a girl. It is not very interesting but TOO fancy. She did not have any brothers so they wouldn't have to dress up. I do not like to dress up. I would recommend this book for girls ONLY.

Do you detect a certain lack of enthusiasm? I have to admit, I'd agree with him completely, except that I now have a fancy daughter. Anne sometimes leaves Jane and I at a loss--Jane's no more fancy than I am--but I'm really very sorry that my own mother didn't live long enough to know Anne. I think they'd have understood each other.

Fool's Errand
By Robin Hobb

FitzChivalry Farseer has spent the fifteen years since Assassin's Quest rusticating in a small cottage far from the Queen's court under the name of "Tom Badgerlock". Almost everyone who knew him thinks him dead, and after the tumultuous and agonizing events of the Farseer trilogy one imagines that he and his wolf companion needed the rest.

Much has changed in the fifteen years since the end of the Red Ship war. Chade Fallstar, FitzChivalry's old teacher, is now Queen Kettricken's chief advisor. Prince Dutiful, the heir to the throne, is in his teens and will soon be betrothed to a lady of the Outislands. And FitzChivalry's unique talents will soon be required by his Queen.

There are two major kinds of magic in Hobb's world: the Wit and the Skill. The Skill allows the one Skilled to communicate telepathically with others who are Skilled, to see things that are far off, and to mentally influence the lesser or un-Skilled. In recent years, training in the Skill has been the purview of the royal family; it is consequently highly regarded. The Wit, by comparison, is the subject of many a gruesome legend. Those afflicted with the Wit, it is said, may talk to beasts and command them to do their bidding--and in time they become beasts in human form. It is the Wit that creates the bond between Fitz and his companion wolf. There are many with the Wit in the Six Duchies, but few speak of it openly; the Witted have often been persecuted, most recently during the reign of the usurper King Regal. Feelings against the Witted run high.

So it has often been--but there are two new developments. First, a secret society known only as the Piebalds is agitating, so they claim, for full acceptance of the Witted in society; and one of their tactics is to publically denounce those Witted who will not help them. And second, Prince Dutiful has been gifted with both the Wit and the Skill. Things are going to become very interesting....

Hobbs is frequently a little too mean to her characters, in my view, but she has restrained herself somewhat in this case; as a result, I enjoyed reading the book more than some of its predecessors. On the other hand, the major conflicts are less interesting. You win some, you lose some. Anyway, I enjoyed it enough to go looking for the sequel, Golden Fool, which I'm reading now.

Photographic Composition
By Tom Grill & Mark Scanlon

As has no doubt been abundantly clear over the last week, I've got a new camera, and I've aspirations to learn how to use it properly. One of my friends at work is seriously into photography--which is to say, he's utterly nuts--and he's going to be helping me along. In the meantime, of course, any new hobby is a good excuse to go shopping for books. Unfortunately, finding good books on photographic techniques proved difficult.

The Photography section at the first store I went to (a Borders) consisted mostly of large expensive "art" books and coffee table books containing beautiful pictures from various cities and countries. While a careful study of many of these would undoubtedly benefit a serious student of photography, I'm hardly at that level. This particular store also had a "Digital Photography" section, grouped with the computer books. It consisted almost entirely of books which show you how to use Photoshop to overcome your non-existent photography skills. I saw nothing with an emphasis on how to take a good picture.

I went from there to a large independent bookstore. It has a large section on the arts, including architecture and photography, and I had high hopes. The situation was indeed somewhat better: the books were at least organized by type. There was a large section of books collecting photos by one or another photographer; a second of monographs by photographers; and a third consisting mostly of fashion photography with two whole shelves of books on photographic techniques. I didn't see anything I liked, though.

A couple of days later I went to a third bookstore, another Borders. They had a relatively small photography section, but--wonder of wonders--they had many books on photographic technique. There were a few that were specifically aimed at digital photography; most of those were, again, more about Photoshop than about taking good pictures. But I did find one book that appeared to be exactly what I was looking for: Photographic Composition, subtitled "Guidelines for Total Image Control through Effective Design". Published by Amphoto, it covers all aspects of photographic composition, with lots and lots of example photographs.

I've since read the book cover-to-cover, and anticipate reading through it once or twice more, a little bit at a time--it's a difficult book, but the subject is sufficiently complex that it will take time and repetition to fully digest it. I'm glad I bought it, and expect to learn quite a bit from it.

The book is not perfect, however. The authors take their subject (and, I suspect, their photographs) a little too seriously. Every Photograph Must Make A Statement, and every aspect of the photo's composition must contribute to that Statement. They give some examples towards the end of the book; taken after one of the authors returned from serving with the Peace Corps in Brazil during the 1960's, they are all about his alienation with America as he found it on his return.

Gag me.

On top of that, the authors appear to prefer pictures with a lot of soft focus and without a lot of clear, crisp detail; which I suppose is natural if photography is about making statements rather than taking compelling pictures of interesting subjects. In their defense, of course, they were trying to choose images that illustrated their points without a lot of distracting elements. Possibly, the simplicity of the images stems from their pedagogical style rather than their preferences. Nevertheless, the whole book is weighed down by their serious, portentous attitude. There might be some fun in photography, but you'd never know it from this book.

All that said, Grill and Scanlon manage to explain a variety of basic concepts in reasonable detail, well enough that there are a number of obvious mistakes I hope I won't be making again.

If anyone has a better book to recommend, of course, I'd love to hear about it.

Understanding Digital Photography
By Bryan Peterson

The reviews at Amazon didn't lie; this is a fabulous book. Whereas most books I've seen on digital photography are mostly about using Photoshop, Peterson's book is mostly about how to take good pictures. There's a slim section on using Photoshop at the back, 40 pages out of 160 total: the basic clean-up steps Peterson does with most photos, and a few advanced techniques for composing multiple photos into a single image.

Other than that, the book is all about taking pictures with digital cameras--that is, on the photographic aspects of taking pictures with digital cameras. Peterson assumes the reader is both reasonably serious about photography and capable of reading an owner's manual. He doesn't tell you how to set the aperture using your particular camera's controls; instead he tells you why and to what, depending on what you're looking to accomplish. On the way he covers issues of exposure, composition, depth-of-field and the like; how to stop motion and how to emphasize it; how to shoot vast landscapes and intimate portraits; when the light is best and how to make the best use of it; what to do when conditions are just wrong; shooting at night and during the day; and on and on. He has a boundless and infectious enthusiasm for his subject, and the book is filled with gorgeous pictures, tips, tricks, and suggestions.

Peterson generally assumes the reader will be using a Digital SLR with multiple interchangeable lenses and an external flash, and consequently some of the things he discusses don't apply in my case. I won't be switching between a wide-angle and telephoto lens, for example. Most of what he has to say applies in either case, though, and where there are important differences--e.g., the effect of specific apertures on depth-of-field--he's careful to explain how it works in both cases.

In short, this is a fun book to read, and useful as well; and Peterson's enthusiasm is infectious as to be a real inspiration. It's not all pie-in-the-sky, either; I'm already taking better pictures than I was. Highly recommended.

Craig's Recent Reading

by Craig Clarke

Dark Trail
By Ed Gorman

Ed Gorman continues his Leo Guild series (see also Death Ground) with another corker (the last in the series to date). Guild's ex-wife Sarah left him for Frank Evans, a gunfighter of some reputation. Lately, she's been getting a taste of her own medicine since Frank left her to take up with Beth, the girlfriend of Ben Rittenauer, a gunfighter of even better reputation.

Word, of course, gets around in a small town, and the local rich man offers the two pistoliers an opportunity to earn ten thousand dollars; all they have to do is meet at his ranch during an upcoming party, and duel to the death. Sarah wants Leo to talk some sense into Frank before he gets himself killed. She obviously still loves him, but Leo still loves Sarah and he doesn't see why it would be to his benefit to get involved in someone else's business.

Gorman writes the most human characters in Westerns, and by "human" I mean believably flawed. In addition, they don't always say everything they feel, which gives the reader an opportunity to read between the lines, an extra layer I thoroughly enjoy. Written in a terse style reminiscent of classic crime novels, Gorman's Westerns enable him to fit the storyline of an epic novel with the pages of a slim paperback.

So far, I've read over half a dozen Gorman novels and haven't come across a dud yet. This gives him a singular status, even among my favorite authors, the rest of whom have disappointed me at least once.

Midnight Haul
By Max Allan Collins

Midnight Haul was just a disappointment all around. The title led me to believe that it was a nighttime bank heist novel when what actually lay between the covers was a sociological, environmental, activist novel about the dumping of toxic waste. This was probably groundbreaking news in 1986, when it was published (the same year as Collins' much better Nathan Heller novel, The Million-Dollar Wound) but it doesn't have enough else going for it to be anything other than a passable time filler.

When Crane's fiancee Mary Beth commits suicide, a door opens involving the local Kemco factory and four other suicides in the same town that year (we are told repeatedly that this is ten times the national average) and how they were all Kemco employees. Soon, Crane meets Boone, whose husband works at the plant, and who is writing a book on the environmental dangers being perpetrated by Kemco.

Conspiracy theories abound and a thin plot is stretched to novel length. Collins does manage to create some believable characters, but his "fact-based" original storyline does not compare to the more realistic historical fiction he has done. Perhaps if Nate Heller had investigated Love Canal....

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 February 2006
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