Home : Ex Libris : 1 February 1998

ex libris reviews

1 February 1998

Other books in the University's libraries had covers inlaid with rare jewels and fascinating wood, or bound with dragon skin. This one was just a rather tatty leather. It looked like the sort of book described in library catalogues as "slightly foxed," although it would be more honest to admit that it looked as though it had been badgered, wolved, and possibly beared as well.
Terry Pratchett, The Light Fantastic


In This Issue

I read in clusters this past month, a few books by this author, a few books by that author. I'll be talking about three by Patrick O'Brian, three by Tim Powers, Terry Pratchett's first two Discworld novels, and a number of other books...including several "e-texts" from Project Gutenberg.

You may have noticed that there hasn't been a single history book on the list for quite awhile. I haven't abandoned my interest in history, it just takes a long time. I'm currently slogging through a long (but marvelous) book on the Boer War, mostly while eating lunch. I've been working on it for probably six months now, because I don't read it every day. On the other hand, reading it that slowly I'm retaining remarkable quantities of the material. I've gotten a good bit of the way into the first volume of Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; I suspect that Gibbon will go to work with me when I finish The Boer War. Finally, I've started another book about the working sailor, circa 1700-1750, which would be considerably more interesting without the Marxist rhetoric. One of these days I'll finish one and say a little more about it.

In the meantime, there's so much fiction to read....

-- Will Duquette

Books to Read Aloud

by Will Duquette

The Shortest Way to Hades
By Sarah Caudwell

We started this last month, and it filled all of this month, too. The ending is a little tedious, at least at read-aloud speeds, though the mystery is both sufficiently intricate and sufficiently explained. We don't read Caudwell for the mystery, though, but for the characters: Prof. Hilary Tamar, the narrator, who never fails to speak snobbishly of the demands of scholarship while tacitly avoiding them whenever possible; Desmond Ragwort, the very model of honesty and propriety...so far as this is consistent with being a lawyer; Michael Cantrip, roguish Cambridge graduate, and antithesis of Ragwort; dreamy Julia, member of the Revenue bar, who can expound quite competently on the tax consequences of the latest Finance Act, but never relates them to her own income, and who leaves a trail of broken hearts, chairs, and glasses behind her; cool, controlled, witty Selena, equally competent before the bar and in her private life. It's the interplay between the characters and Hilary's snide remarks that make the books so enjoyable. Are the characters well-rounded, well-realized, three-dimensional individuals? Nah, but neither are Jeeves and Wooster.

In this book, the mystery concerns a decades-old will, the various potential inheritors of the trust laid out in it,and a good deal of sailing among the Greek isles by Selena and her beau, classical scholar Simon Verity. As in the previous book, Thus was Adonis Murdered, much of the story is in the form of letters home, in this case from Selena. The alteration between Hilary's voice and Selena's is remarkably well-done.

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Letter of Marque
The Thirteen Gun Salute
The Nutmeg of Consolation
By Patrick O'Brian

Clearly I'm still making way through O'Brian's saga. Jack Aubrey had been struck off of the Navy List at the end of the previous volume, having been convicted--framed, rather--of defrauding the stock market. In the course of these three books he makes yet another fortune in prize-money (but will he keep it?) regains his commission, takes a royal envoy to the East Indies, is shipwrecked, and visits the penal colony in New South Wales. His friend Stephen Maturin is more in the forefront, however, and among other achievments finally manages to see the platypus. (A lesson: never disturb a male platypus during its courtship ritual.)

The Napoleon of Notting Hill
By G.K. Chesterton

This is the last of the three Chesterton books I bought recently; I reviewed the other two last month. Those were books of short stories; this one is Chesteron's first published novel. It concerns a future time when life in England is quiet, well-managed, efficient, and dull. Or so thinks office worker Auberon Quin. When Quin is selected to be King of England (it's a rotating position, rather like jury duty, but lasts longer), he decides to stir things up. He invents long, noble, chivalric histories for humdrum London suburbs like North and South Kensington and Notting Hill. He designs uniforms and banners for each suburb, appoints a provost in each, and requires that the provosts visit the king dressed in ceremonial robe and accompanied by a squad of pikeman. Of course, he never dreamed anyone would take it seriously.... This was a somewhat amusing novel, with some serious points to make, but I don't know that I'd rush out and buy it again.

Last Call
Expiration Date
Earthquake Weather
By Tim Powers

Powers has been a favorite of mine for many years; he has an amazing way of combining real history with a variety of decidedly odd goings on to form a coherent, sensible whole. Provided, of course, that you buy the premise of all of the odd goings on. So, when Earthquake Weather appeared on the bookstore shelves just before Christmas, I snapped it right up, and then Jane wrapped it right up, and I didn't get back to it until early in January. After a couple of pages I discovered that it was the sequel not just to Powers' previous book, Expiration Date, but also to the book before that, Last Call. It hadn't previously been obvious that the two earlier books were related, and both had stood alone quite well. I also discovered after those same pages that I had better go back and re-read the earlier books, or I'd be hopelessly lost.

The premise of Last Call is that the American West has a spiritual, mystical king, closely akin to the legends of the Fisher-King in Europe. If the king is healthy, the land is healthy, and so forth. The kingship (held by Bugsy Siegel, of all people, among others) confers a variety of powers and responsibilities. The kingship has usually been held by men desirous of the powers but less scrupulous about the responsibilities, with the result that the role, and the realm, have become steadily more twisted. The hero is Scott Crane, son of the current king, who seeks to take the kingship before his father takes over his mind. Plus, there's quite a bit about poker. It's a wild ride, and well worth the trip; and anyway, how else can you possibly explain Las Vegas?

Expiration Date moves the action to Los Angeles and the illicit trade in ghosts. When people die, their essence, their soul, goes elsewhere, but shells of their personality often get left behind. Those who know how can ingest these shells, or ghosts, and experience their lives. It's quite the fashionable addiction. More powerful ghosts are more desirable, of course. Then, a young boy whose parents are training him to be a great guru (i.e., the Fisher-King) finds a stoppered vial in his home which turns out to contain the last breath (and ghost) of Thomas Alva Edison. Edison became sensitized to ghosts early in his life, when a close friend died. (All of those inventions? Ways to get the ghosts to leave him alone.) Edison's ghost had been carefully hidden ("masked") before Kootie found it; afterward, every ghost hunter in Los Angeles is after him. Another wild ride ensues.

Part of the action takes place in a beat-up apartment building on 21st Place in Long Beach, just off Ocean Avenue near Bluff Park. I've spent quite a lot of time in Long Beach over the years, and I've driven past that exact spot probably hundreds of times. Or almost. On my last trip to Long Beach, a couple of weeks ago, I was careful to keep an eye out. Bluff Park, which runs along the bluff overlooking the beach on the south side of Ocean Avenue, runs begins at 20th Place and runs to 36th Place. There is no 21st Place, and hasn't been in my memory. I mention this because the building, if it exists, would be right next door to the Long Beach Museum of Art. I find this amusing.

Expiration Date is not obviously connected with Last Call, except for one mobster named Neal Obstadt who appears in both. That name's a joke, as the Roman Catholics out there will appreciate. Books published with the blessing of the Roman Catholic Church must be certified as doctrinally sound. These certificates are the Nihil Obstat and the Imprimatur.

On attaining the kingship, Scott Crane vowed to be a proper king, rather than an exploiter of the mystical office. He didn't get it quite right, though, not surprisingly; there was no one to train him. Earthquake Weather brings a few of the characters from Last Call together with most of the characters from Expiration Date to explore a few of the ramifications of the kingship that Scott hadn't considered.

Earthquake Weather was certainly worth reading, but does not stand on its own as the other two did; and I didn't enjoy it as well. On the other hand, I enjoyed Expiration Date rather more this time around, so I might like Earthquake Weather better next time. Last Call is definitely the best of the three, though.

The Colour of Magic
The Light Fantastic
By Terry Pratchett

These are Terry Pratchett's first two books in the Discworld series, which started out as a straightforward send-up of sword-and-sorcery fantasy novels, a la Douglas Adams. Much of the action takes place in the Disc's largest city, Anhk-Morpork, which bears a passing resemblance to Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar, and various characters are instantly recognizable: Cohen the Barbarian, Braavd and the Weasel, and so on. Like many an opening book of a series, they aren't entirely consistent with the books that come later, and aren't quite as well written; it's like re-reading the early days of any comic strip: it takes a year or so before the characters really look like themselves.

Nevertheless, the books are well worth reading. Rincewind, failed wizard and drop-out from Unseen University, is scratching a living as a translator and interpreter in Ankh-Morpork when he is approached by Twoflower, a tourist from the farside of the Disc...the Disc's first tourist in fact. Like any tourist, Twoflower wears loud clothing, carries something resembling a camera, and has a quantity of luggage (and what luggage!) and the belief that he's safe no matter where he goes, because after all, he's not involved...he's just a tourist. It doesn't help that he carries the equivalent in gold of the net worth of all Ankh-Morpork in his luggage. Unlike many tourists, though, his luggage is entirely capable of taking care of itself, and is never, ever, sent to the wrong destination. Not for long, at any rate. Rincewind is dragooned into being Twoflower's guide and interpreter, Ankh-Morpork burns to the ground, and the adventures continue from there.

If you like fantasy, and you like a good laugh, give them a try.

Heirs of Empire
By David Weber

This is the sequel to Mutineer's Moon and The Armageddon Inheritance, which I discussed last November. Like its predecessors, it is utterly absurd, completely unbelievable, and a rousing good time. Recent discussions on the rec.arts.sf.written newsgroup reveal that many readers find Weber to be heavy handed, clumsy at world-building, a creator of cardboard characters, definitely a second or third-tier author; but gosh, he's good at light entertainment, and I'm not at all sure he's trying to build convincing worlds. But back to this particular book.

Like his Honor Harrington novels, the Mutineer's Moon books have been heavy on descriptions of space combat and space naval tactics. In Heirs of Empire, Weber turns his hand to ground combat. Due to a fiendish plot, the Crown Prince, heir to the Fifth Empire, his sister, and three friends, all new officers in Battle Fleet, are stranded on a remote, uncharted planet. The Fourth Empire consisted of many, many planets, most of which were completely stripped of life by a terrible bioweapon. The newly created Fifth Empire has not yet had the luxury of surveying all of the old homeworlds; the planet on which our heroes land is one of the few to survive. The tech level is low; water wheels and animal transport are the (rigorously enforced) norm, and while guns of a sort are available, most battles are fought by pikemen. The whole planet is governed by the Temple, an anti-technology religion established thousands of years earlier as part of the quarantine. While the planet is lowtech, the planetary quarantine is enforced by a space-based planetary defense system, and as a result the space-based shipyards our heroes need to get home are still in excellent shape. They are also programmed to destroy any interlopers, and the controlling computer is in the hands of the Temple. To get to it, our heroes will need to raise an army....

The Thirty-Nine Steps
By John Buchan

John Buchan wrote prolifically during the early part of this century, so I'm told, and among many other things created the spy novel as a kind of a lark. The Thirty-Nine Steps is the first of four novels about a man named Richard Hannay. Hannay doesn't set out to be a spy, but gets involved in a plot involving naval dispositions and the start of World War I, and is soon running for his life, dodging both the British police and a variety of enemy agents.

Buchan's works are now in the public domain, and I read The Thirty-Nine Steps in electronic form while eating lunch a couple of weeks ago. There are a number of organizations involved in creating high-quality "e-texts" of public domain literature, of which Project Gutenberg is the best known. My favorite place to look for e-texts is the The On-Line Books Page, which catalogs e-texts from many different sources. I read The Thirty-Nine Steps because I'd run into Buchan's name in a number of history books; I believe Greenmantle, the second Hannay book, was the one most frequently mentioned.

Anyway, I liked it enough to buy a book containing all four Hannay novels; reading a book on the computer screen is fine at lunch-time, but on the whole I prefer printed books.

Children's Books

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
The Marvelous Land of Oz
Ozma of Oz
By L. Frank Baum

Buchan is not the only author I've been reading on-line. I recently had a hankering to revisit the Oz books, and in the last few weeks have read the first three. I'd read the first two many times as a child; this was my first time through the third.

Frankly, I was quite surprised at how sloppily written they are for such popular books. Inventive, yes, enjoyable, yes, and after praising David Weber I can't very well fault the ridiculous plot twists. Nevertheless, consistency was no interest of Baum's. It's not often that I read a book these days and say, "I could write a better book than that." Do kids still read and enjoy the Oz books these days? Or are they too sophisticated?


Early in the month we got a letter from a fellow named Scott Weeks:

I just ran across your site in re Hornblower and Forester. I have just finished the whole Hornblower series myself, having read some of them twice or even three times!! Now I find myself barely starting Aubrey/Maturin, and of course there is a world of difference.

Anyway, I find myself writing you this note, because I have the idea that perhaps in some way Forester was writing the Hornblower books to illustrate uses of sea-power. I only started to realize this when I read Forester's work "The Age of Fighting Sail" about the War of 1812--which I must recommend as an excellent history of that war. Forester very much demonstrates in this book that he is a student of sea-power, and when he describes the cruise of Essex under the command of David Porter (with a certain Midshipman Farragut on board), echoes of Lydia under Hornblower. More demonstrations of sea power in the Hornblower series occur in "Ship of the Line" and "Commodore Hornblower." Please forgive me if I have given you information you already have, I merely wished to send you my thoughts.

I tried to write back to Scott, but the e-mail address he gave me bounced. Scott, if you're out there, try again, OK?

Mark Mandel had this to say:

I enjoyed your book reviews. You may enjoy my Dragaera site, Cracks and Shards (http://world.std.com/~mam/Cracks-and-Shards/). Come visit.

I checked it out, and indeed I did enjoy it. If you're a Stephen Brust fan, you'll probably enjoy it, too. There are links to a number of other pages, including Brust's own page.

Finally, Rick Saenz contributed this suggestion:

Hey, I'm actually reading a secular book at the moment! It's Great Books by David Denby, which you've probably heard about. I'm enjoying it pretty well, partly because I identify with the amateur-reader-meets-the-classics approach, and partly because going back to school to read the classics is a fantasy of mine (although I would go to St. John's in Santa Fe for their four-year workout). Some reviewers have griped about Denby's lack of interest in critical approaches to literature; that is a lack of interest I share. Others have griped about Denby's guiding principle, namely pleasure; he emphasizes that pleasure is his number one concern in life, and that he judges literature by how much he enjoys reading it. Actually, I think that he is not as focused on pleasure in practice as he is in theory; but I agree that this is a weakness in his approach. Still, pleasure is good too, and I get a lot of it from reading his book.

I had indeed heard of Denby's book. Denby is a film reviewer for the New Yorker magazine who went back to Columbia University at the age of 48 and took their core humanities curriculum (the "Great Books" of the title) all over again. His book tells the story of what he read, how it was taught, and how he reacted to it. Largely as the result of Rick's suggestion, I got a copy (just today, in fact), and it looks quite interesting. I'll be writing more about it later on.

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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