ex libris reviews
1 January 1998
The Mathematics of Big Game Hunting: The Method of Parallels
Select a point in the desert and introduce a tame lion not passing through that point. There are three cases:
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! I've got mixed bag this month, including the omnipresent, some mysteries, some fantasies, and a few things that are harder to categorize. What with vacation days at Christmas and a case of the flu, I got a lot of reading done.
In addition to this month's reviews, I've updated the archives for the first time in several months. The big addition is a page listing the children's books we like or have reviewed.
This is the first issue to be written on my new toy, a Gateway 2000 laptop. No longer do I need to sequester myself in the study when writing reviews; instead, I can take my laptop anywhere and be anti-social in the bosom of my family!
-- Will Duquette
The Shortest Way to Hades
After a record three months, we've finally finished. This should not be held against the book, which is quite enjoyable. Rather, it's a mark of our adjustment to having a toddler in the house. Many of the situations in which I read to Jane in the past are no longer conducive to concentrated thought. On the other hand, Dave's now going to bed reliably between 7 and 7:30 PM, and I'm learning to read to Jane later in the evening.
Our liking for Sarah Caudwell is further evidenced by two facts. First, we distributed a total of two copies of each of her three books among our friends and family this Christmas; and second, having finished re-reading Thus was Adonis Murdered, we immediately commenced to re-read The Shortest Way to Hades. Unlike the previous book, which is about lawyers but has little to do with the law, this book is based on the complicated provisions of a will executed fifty years earlier. Like the previous book, however, it is witty, well-written, and fun.
This is the second of Barron's tales of Jane Austen, writer and amateur sleuth, and once again she pulls it off. This book takes Jane and her family to Lyme Regis, familiar to Austen fans from Austen's book Persuasion. As before, Barron skillfully weaves the tale around events from Austen's life and letters; footnotes galore make these connections clear even to the meanest understanding. All in all, it was an enjoyable thing for an Austen fan to read while in bed with the flu. I reviewed Barron's previous book, Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor, last January.
Fans will recognize this as a typically enjoyable Francis novel with a typical Francis hero: competent in his chosen field, tough enough to take physical and emotional punishment and bounce back, and utterly indomitable once angered. In fact, the novel begins a little more quickly than most; usually the hero doesn't get seriously beaten up until after he knows he's done something to invite it. Here, Alexander Kinloch is attacked by thugs just as the novel opens. Kinloch is a painter and bagpiper who lives in a crofter's cottage in the Scottish Highlands; he is also a man who is good at hiding things. During the course of the book he is asked to hide two family heirlooms and a race horse, to pull the family brewery out of bankruptcy, and to unmask the man who put it there. There's nothing earthshaking about To the Hilt--Francis has written more memorable novels--but fans and newcomers alike will enjoy it.
This is the first in a new series for Modesitt, entitled The Spellsong Cycle, which is to say that it's not yet another book about the land of Recluce. This is not to say that it's original, however; I'm not sure that there's a single original idea in the entire book. The sorceress of the title is an opera singer and music professor from Earth who is transported to the land of Erde: a place where magic works and is based on the ability to sing. Despite getting little training in magic, the heroine becomes an incredibly powerful sorceress by recycling the songs and lyrics she learned on earth. I believe Alan Dean Foster used much the same idea twenty years ago, and it may not have been original with him.
Other then the difference in magical systems, The Soprano Sorceress reads much like a Recluce book. There are a variety of scheming nations whose leaders we see in short interludes throughout the book; two are attacking the country in which the heroine finds herself, and of course she saves it at great personal expense and at the total ruin of one of the agressing nations. Modesitt loves stories about fairly normal people who become fabulously powerful...but they are never allowed to enjoy it. There are also a couple of obvious mistakes; in at least three different places, Modesitt has the heroine "orderspell" water to make it clean for drinking. The term "orderspell" is taken from the Recluce books, and has utterly no meaning in the world of Erde.
Despite its obvious flaws, The Soprano Sorceress is quite readable, and devoted fans will enjoy it; others should probably try The Magic of Recluce instead.
James P. Blaylock tends to write extremely odd novels about strange, mystical things which coexist with the utterly mundane. Many of his heroes are goofy incompetents with big plans that they can't quite carry out, though (to their credit) they usually do get beyond talking about them. In The Last Coin, for example, the hero wants to open a small diner. The most important things he needs are Wheatabix Cereal and special chef's hats for the fry cooks. The hats must have helium balloons in the floppy part so that they float above the cooks' heads. I sometimes find his heroes so copeless that I wonder why I bother reading his books.
All that to the side, Night Relics is rather a departure for Blaylock. Subtitled "a ghost story," it concerns a divorced man who has moved into a cabin in the Trabuco Canyon area of Orange County, California. (Like most of Blaylock's work, the setting appears to be entirely factual.) The cabin was once the home of a jealous young doctor and his straying wife. The hero and several other characters start to see the ghosts of the doctor's wife and son...and then, more disturbingly, to experience the tragic evens from the point of view of the doctor and his wife's lover. The story as a whole reminds of Stephen King more than anything else, particularly a chilling subplot about a fellow named Pomeroy, a used-car salesman, peeping tom, and stalker.
Fremont Jones is a young woman from a well-to-do family in Boston. In 1905, she scandalously leaves home and moves to San Francisco, there to make a career for herself as a free-lance typist. One of her first clients is the aptly named Edgar Allan Partridge, who leaves her with some disturbing gothic novelettes to type; sections from these novelettes are perhaps the most interesting part of the book. Naturally, this being a mystery novel, she becomes entangled in her clients' business and finds herself investigating lighthouse keepers and Chinese Tong leaders. I found it enjoyable enough, and pleasantly quirky, though perhaps a little too predictable; I had the good and bad guys pegged pretty early.
The only complaint I have about this book is that it's the first in a series...and that isn't made obvious until the final page. It's a sprawling tale of intrigue, treachery, and politics centered on the Starks of Winterfell, and set in an interesting world. Summer and winter aren't mere seasons; both last a variable length of time, ranging from a single year to many years. Winterfell, once the seat of the King in the North, is now the home of Lord Eddard Stark and his family, whose motto is Winter is Coming. Even in summer, it never really gets warm at Winterfell. North of Stark's domain is the Wall, where the Night's Watch guards the people to the south from the Others, mythic creatures of death. Mythic or not, the Others are coming. Meanwhile, King Robert, Eddard Stark's closest friend, has essentially given up the kingdom to his wife's family, the ambitious Lannisters. Will the kingdom recover from civil war before the Others come?
I first read this book on a trip to Monterey, California, where the real Cannery Row is located. I saw it in the bookstore, picked it up, read the first few lines, and fell in love with it, greatly to my surprise. My sole previous exposure to Steinbeck was The Grapes of Wrath, which I read in high school, and mostly did not enjoy. It's a dark book, and a depressing book, and I have rarely felt the need to look for depression. Somehow I had gotten the notion that Cannery Row was another such--that it concerned greed and graft and the exploitation of workers by the canneries. It's nothing of the kind; it's the story of a number of people who lived on Cannery Row even when the cannery workers weren't there: bums, homeless people, storekeepers, prostitutes, and one well-loved marine biologist named Doc. Nothing prepared me for the possibility that John Steinbeck could be funny. And yet funny he is, and serious too, and there are whole passages I'd love to quote in their entirety. The frog hunt, for example; but I suppose that would be illegal. Suffice it to say, had we read Cannery Row in my American Lit class I'd have felt rather differently about Steinbeck. Though I wonder--would I have found it as funny? I have a suspicion that in high school literature classes I expected the books to be alien and serious, and missed much of the humor. Ah, well.
Four Faultless Felons
These two books of stories were written early in Chesterton's career,
and reveal clearly his delight with Things that are Not as they Seem.
In The Club of Queer Trades we meet six men, each of
whom has invented a brand new trade, and is making his living at it.
Each is misunderstood, and even accused of criminal behavior, and yet
each is shown merely to be harmlessly and usefully pursuing their
The Far Side of the World
The Reverse of the Medal
The eighth through eleventh of O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels form a single extended sequence. Jack Aubrey commands a variety of ships in the Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea, Atlantic, and Pacific oceans; but all the while he has an enemy high up in the Admiralty, trying to bring him down. The same forces, working for the French, are attempting (with great success) to compromise British Intelligence, and to bring about the downfall of Stephen's intelligence chief, Joseph Blaine. They nearly succeed. Treason's Harbour is the slowest of the four, but even it has many excellent (and truly funny) passages. I'll say it again: go buy Master and Commander, and get to work.
This is a glorious, disorganized muddle of anecdotes and mathematical humor, with very little true mathematics at all. It was a gift; though I have a math degree, I would not have bought it for myself; and yet I've enjoyed it considerably. It's great for dipping into.
Sheep in a Jeep
Written by and illustrated by
This month I'll continue my survey of board books with two gems. As with previous entries, these are big on rhyme and rhythym, and low on sense. We're not trying to teach David anything with these, we're just trying to read him books he enjoys the sound of. These books are no deeper than Barnyard Dance, last month's entry, but they are simple, and fun to read, and we all like them. After all, who can resist the immortal lines, "Jeep in a heap. Sheep weep."?
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.