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ex libris reviews

23 August 1997

I never play the television. It's a curse, you know, television.
ABC News anchor Peter Jennings


In This Issue

This is the first issue of ex libris reviews, the redesigned Will & Jane's Book Page. ex libris will appear approximately once a month, usually towards the end of the month, and will contain much the same things as it always has: what we've been reading aloud, what Will's been reading, and suggestions from our visitors. We will also be highlighting children's books.

We hope you like ex libris. Please be free with your comments!

-- Will Duquette

Books to Read Aloud

by Will Duquette

Exit the Milkman
By Charlotte MacLeod

We've read many of Charlotte MacLeod's offbeat mysteries aloud, and have enjoyed most of them. The last couple of books haven't been as good, on the whole: lots of padding, and what seem to be careless or poorly edited passages. This is rather noticeable when read aloud. It's too early to tell whether this book, a Peter Shandy mystery, continues the downward trend, as we've hardly had time to read it. Every time I try, our son David gets noisy. Given a choice between listening to me read over David's grumbling, or cooking in silence while I play with David in the next room, Jane usually chooses silence...and who can blame her? Certainly not I!

Cold Comfort Farm
By Stella Gibbons

I first read this book to myself, some short while before the movie came out, and enjoyed it thoroughly. I probably would have read it to Jane at the time, but we were in the middle of something else. Then we went and watched the movie, which Jane enjoyed thoroughly. Thus, Cold Comfort Farm seemed like an even better candidate, and so, in the fullness of time, it has proved to be. It is a remarkably funny book, and reminds me quite a lot of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. Both are satires of the popular novels of the day. In Gibbon's case, the novels were evidently full of purple prose about passionate, earthy people living on farms in Sussex. She adds in one Flora Poste, a no-nonsense modern girl who sees no reason why the world should contain any more angst than is strictly necessary, and the results are charming. Jane loved it thoroughly.

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

A Dance to the Music of Time, 1st Movement
By Anthony Powell

A Dance to the Music of Time is a series of twelve novels, recently reprinted in four volumes, of which this is the first. The books were recommended to me on the rec.arts.books news group; several people spoke well of them, and no one said, "Ugh! I tried to read that, and it was awful!", and I got curious. After the first three novels, I'm not sure what to make of it. I gather the twelve novels follow the narrator, Jenkins, and his acquaintances, from his schooldays to the end of his life. Some of the structure is obvious: four volumes, twelve novels, four seaons, twelve months, starting with spring. It's been called a "comic masterpiece"; if so, I haven't seen the comic side yet, but maybe I'm taking it too seriously.

For what it's worth, the writing is excellent; there are many scenes and characters that stick in my mind. But if the characters are memorable, I'm not sure I like any of them; and the narrator, Jenkins, seems so detached that he serves mostly as a mobile cameraman, recording the people who live their lives around him. As a result, he's hard to identify with.

I'm not yet sure whether I'll attempt the remaining volumes; A Dance to the Music of Time, 1st Movement may go on the shelf as a failed experiment (on my part, not necessarily on the author's).

By C.J. Cherryh

I read Foreigner on its initial paperback release, and found it tough-going but ultimately rewarding. Recently I acquired the two sequels, both in paperback, and read all three together. The sequels are as rewarding as the first, and are more enjoyable throughout, for reasons which make considerable sense given the premise. It seems that several hundred years before the main action of the series, a starship was sent out by Earth to open a new trading route.  There was some kind of navigation trouble, and the ship ended far from its expected destination, in a place where the stars had strange configurations. Eventually the ship found a system with an inhabitable world...an inhabited world. After a variety of political and ethical battles, a colony was founded on a large island, and the ship with its crew and remaining passengers left to look for Earth. The first encounters with the natives, the atevi, were deceptively successful. Humanoid, though taller than humans, the atevi seemed remarkably like humans: witty, friendly, intelligent, cultured. And so the humans thought until the War of the Landing began.

During that war, which the humans lost, it was discovered that atevi don't think like humans do...that their entire emotional hardwiring is different. Atevi have no words for the human concepts of trust, love, and loyalty; they are not capable of feeling them or understanding them. Similarly, humans have great difficulty understanding the atevi concepts of association and man'chi. The War of the Landing occurred because humans didn't understand the harm they were doing to atevi society by interacting them as they would other humans.

Out of the war came the Treaty. Humans were sequestered on their island, where no atevi was allowed to go; and only one human, the paidhi, would be allowed to come to the mainland and be the translator, the mediator between human and atevi. Meanwhile, human technology would be transferred to the mainland (the atevi had gotten as far as steam engines when the humans first came) at a slow, economically sustainable rate.

The main action of these three books begins about two hundred years after the War of the Landing. The main character is Bren Cameron, the young paidhi, the man who understands atevi better than any other--which, it develops, isn't saying very much. Things are proceeding well, Cameron is quite successful at his job...and then the ship returns, and the whole political situation goes to pieces. Cameron spends most of the first book as a pawn, kept completely in the dark about events, which is one of the reasons why it was slow going. Over time, things become more clear, and Cameron learns to understand the atevi very well indeed.

The three books cover the crisis of the ship's arrival from its beginning to its short-term conclusion, and form a solid, satisfactory unit; there's an opening for future books, but there's no sense of the story being unfinished. Highly recommended.

The Rendezvous
By Patrick O'Brian

So far, this book has been rather a disappointment. It's a collection of short stories; I gather they were written and published before O'Brian started his excellent Aubrey/Maturin series. The writing style is familiar, and wonderfully descriptive; the first story in the book describes an epic battle between a man and a salmon so well that I could see the whole thing in my head, which is not a usual experience for me. Someone O'Brian is able to describe a place, and action within that place, so well that every object and actor are clearly placed with respect to the other, without being tedious. On the other hand, well-written though the stories are, I'm not "getting" them. After I finish each one, my head is full of images...but I don't see the point of the story. They are like very clear snapshots of cluttered rooms: yes, the objects in the picture are somewhat interesting, by why this room in particular. I can't recommend the book; though maybe others will enjoy it.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
Life, the Universe, and Everything
By Douglas Adams

What can I say, I was home with a cold, and wanted something light to read. I re-read these three in a matter of hours. Alas, the books were hysterically funny when I first read them, but I'm afraid the humor has decayed into no more than a pleasant familiarity. I dunno, maybe I'm getting old and stodgy. Anyway, if you've read any science fiction and enjoyed it, and you like English humor, and you've not read these, do yourself a favor...you'll enjoy them, at least the first time.

Children's Books

Since we've been blessed with a son, we've been paying more attention to children's books than we had been. David is now six months old, and though he likes to be read to (he recently adored J.R.R. Tolkien's The Man in the Moon Stayed Up Too Late and The Stone Troll), he's not yet very discerning. Thus, for the time being, this section will reflect our tastes, rather than his.

A Boy, A Dog, and A Frog
Illustrated by Mercer Mayer

This is one of the most charming children's books we've encountered recently. It's a simple tale of boy and his dog who try to find a pet frog in a nearby stream. The frog outwits them time and again, until they leave for home, dejected. Taking pity, the frog hops after them, happy to have found new friends.

A simple story, it derives its charm from Mayer's excellent illustrations. In fact, there are no words at all; the pictures tell the story. We recently gave a copy of A Boy, A Dog, and A Frog to our godson, Adam, who is four years old. He refuses to let his mother read it to him; he says, "No, I can read it myself!"

Mayer has written a number of sequels, including Frog, Where Are You? and Jane's favorite, Frog Goes To Dinner.

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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