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ex libris reviews

1 August 1998

What an imagination I've got!
John Brunner


In This Issue:
Technical Difficulties

On July 12th my PC decided to go belly up, greatly to my dismay. It was in the shop for a couple of weeks, and I finally have it back; it's looking like I'm going to need to send it in again. Before I do, I'm making a valiant effort to get this month's issue out the door. If you're reading this anywhere near August 1st, then I evidently succeeded.

It was a busy month for reading; I was home sick for a few days, and we spent a week on vacation. All in all, I count twenty-six books on the stack, by twelve different authors, including John D. MacDonald, Elizabeth Peters, Sharyn McCrumb, Gregory McDonald, P.G. Wodehouse, and C.J. Cherryh.

In Times to Come

Books on the soon-to-be-read stack include more by Dorothy Dunnett, Bernard Cornwell, and Anthony Powell.

-- Will Duquette

Books to Read Aloud

by Will Duquette

Oddly, I read aloud to Jane quite a bit this month, but I have no books to review. It so happens that I've started writing a book of my own (12 chapters so far), and I've been reading that to her. It's a fun book, and it reads well aloud, but that's of no use to anyone but us.

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Quick Red Fox
A Deadly Shade of Gold
Bright Orange for the Shroud
By John D. MacDonald

I reviewed the first three Travis McGee novels in previous issues; these are more of the same. Fast-paced and enjoyable, they take Travis from California to Mexico and finally back to Florida again, in search of a blackmailer, stolen gold antiquities, and a ring of conmen, generally as favors to his friends. Some how he's supposed to make money at this, but frankly I can't see it.

Seeing a Large Cat
By Elizabeth Peters

This is the latest of Peter's wonderful Amelia Peabody Emerson novels. Amelia Peabody is a Englishwoman, born in but not of the Victorian era. On her father's death she takes a pleasure trip to Egypt and conceives a life-long love of Egyptology--and of Radcliffe Emerson, noted Egyptologist. Equipped with a sturdy parasol and rational dress (e.g., baggy trousers rather than a full dress with bustle), she and her family become fixtures on the Egyptian scene for nine books so far. Peters herself was trained as an Egyptologist, so the books are accurate as well; or, at least, Peters knows where she is lying to us. If you haven't read any of these, go find a copy of Crocodile on the Sandbank. It's well worth it.

Silhouette in Scarlet
Trojan Gold
Night Train to Memphis
By Elizabeth Peters

These are the most recent three books of Peters' Vicky Bliss series. Bliss is a historian of medieval art, based at the National Museum in Munich. Like the Amelia Peabody books, Bliss's adventures involve antiquities of various kinds, and the people who steal them, but they are set in the present day. I enjoyed these as well, though Silhouette in Scarlet was perhaps a little too light. I'd advise starting with the first book in the series, Borrower of the Night.

Summer of the Dragon
By Elizabeth Peters

Most mystery authors fall into one of two groups: the writers of series and the writers of singletons. Peters is interesting in that she has three well-developed series and ten or so excellent singletons as well (not to mention the books she has written under the name Barbara Michaels. Summer of the Dragon concerns a graduate student in archaeology who is hired by eccentric millionaire named Hank Hunnicutt. Hunnicutt lives in the American southwest, and has drawn to himself all manner of archaeological crackpots: believers in Atlantis, Lemuria, channeling, ancient astronauts, and so forth. He's hired D.J Abbott because he thinks he's found something really great. The crackpots are afraid Abbott will persuade Hunnicutt to shut down the gravy train; the serious scholars are afraid Abbott will get to further her own career at their expense. The book is filled with humor, adventure, and romance, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I would probably have stopped after a chapter or so and read it aloud to Jane, but I wanted to see how it came out. Look for it under Books to Read Aloud some time in the future.

Twelve Fair Kingdoms
The Grand Jubilee
And Then There'll Be Fireworks
By Suzette Haden Elgin

This is one of the more eccentric, original works of fantasy I know. The planet Ozark was settled in the early 21st century by people from the Ozark Mountains of Earth. Sick of what was happening to Earth, and sick of government interference, they built a space ship in secret, and left. On Ozark they built a new society based on minimal government, limited technology, and magic. The books are the story of a teenaged girl named Responsible of Brightwater, and her attempts to keep what little government there is from fragmenting; if it does, the inhabitants of the Garnet Ring are ready to step in and take over. Why is it on her shoulders? Because she's Responsible. (Hope you never meet her sister, Troublesome.)

Yonder Comes the Other End of Time
By Suzette Haden Elgin

This book is related to the Ozark books, but I list it separately for two reasons. First, because it really joins two separate series, and second, it was a disappointment. In this book, set about ten years after the other three books, Earth rediscovers Ozark with disastrous effects. It is frequently interesting to see what happens, but the ending is lacking, many threads are not tied off, and the overall tone is a problem. It's possible that Elgin intended to write one or more additional books, but to date I've not seen them.

Skylar in Yankeeland
By Gregory McDonald

In the first Skylar book, Skylar Whitfield's cousin Jonathon comes to Greendowns County, Tennessee, for some serious culture shock. In this second book, Skylar heads north to Jonathon's home of Boston to attend the Knightsbridge Conservatory of Music. His culture shock is just as intense, though he handles it rather better than Jonathon did.

I enjoyed this book better than the first one, but it's missing something. Part of the problem is that Skylar is mostly an observer; many things are going on, but Skylar's own story seems rather detached from the rest.

Foggy Mountain Breakdown
By Sharyn McCrumb

This book collects all of McCrumb's short fiction. I approached it with some trepidation--short story collections can be deadly--but I needn't have worried. I enjoyed almost every story, some of them quite a lot. If you've read and enjoyed any of McCrumb's Elizabeth MacPherson or Spencer Arrowood books, buy this and enjoy.

Peter Piper's Practical Principles of Plain and Perfect Pronunciation
By Anonymous

This little book, first published in 1830, is evidently the source of the famous tongue-twister, "Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers", though it includes many others of the same kind: not quite one for each letter of the alphabet. For example,

Humphrey Hunchback Had a Hundred Hedgehogs:
Did Humphrey Hunchback Had a Hundred Hedgehogs?
If Humphrey Hunchback Had a Hundred Hedgehogs,
Where's the Hundred Hedgehogs Humphrey Hunchback had?

Money for Nothing
The Adventures of Sally
Do Butlers Burgle Banks?
By P.G. Wodehouse

These are three of Wodehouse's lesser known novels--lesser known in part because they feature none of his standard cast of characters, and in part, I'm afraid, deservedly. I'd rank them in the order listed above. Money for Nothing was quite good, The Adventures of Sally was adequate, and Do Butlers Burgle Banks? was something of a loss, I'm afraid. All three are worth it for the devoted Wodehouse fan; those not yet acquainted with Wodehouse would do better to look for The World of Jeeves.

The Burglar in the Closet
The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling
The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams
By Lawrence Block

I read these on the advice of my buddy and co-worker Pat Olguin, and I enjoyed them. These are three of the stories of Bernie Rhodenbarr, New York cat-burglar and bookshop owner. Bernie's a nice guy, really; he just likes to burgle. It's the thrill he's after, not the money. Not that he dislikes money, he'll happily take any he finds lying around. Around the freezer, around the bedroom, around the kitchen, you name it. The books are lightweight and formulaic, but witty for all that. The typical plot seems to be this: Bernie burgles an apartment, Bernie gets accused of some crime involving the apartment (e.g., a murder) that he is not responsible for, Bernie figures it all out and apprehends the murderer while his paid New York copy waits in another room. On the whole, these are good, light, vacation fare.

The Family Tree
By Sheri S. Tepper

Sheri Tepper has a real problem with men, and a real problem with religion. It seems like most of her books are picking on one or the other or both, and this one is no exception. I keep reading because, darn it, she can spin a tale like few others. I ended up enjoying this one much more than I expected to.

Half of the story concerns Dora Henry, her eccentric husband, and an odd weed that sprouts by the front of their house. The other half concerns a quest made by a group of people in the far future. It's hard to see at first how the two stories relate (if they relate at all). I don't want to say too much more about it, as I don't want to spoil it. Go ahead and buy it, and let me know what you think.

Stand on Zanzibar
By John Brunner

I mentioned this book in my review of Greg Bear's Slant last month; I couldn't find my own copy and ultimately bought a new one.

This is a classic of science fiction, and a challenging read. It concerns a short period of time early in the 21st century, in a world where over-population is a reality. As such, it attempts to extrapolate the trends of the 1960's, when it was written, and as such it is rather dated. It's still a much better book than Slant, though.

It is also quite a strange book to read. It isn't particularly linear; rather, it's written in something Brunner calls the "Innis mode". It's unlike anything else I've read, though I understand that John Dos Passos' USA trilogy is similar.

The book's chapters are divided into four categories: Context, The Happening World, Tracking With Closeups, and Continuity. The Context chapters are "non-fiction" writings about Brunner's world, written by various "authorities". The Happening World chapters are a montage of clips from the media of the 21st century. Tracking With Closeups chapters provide a detailed look at minor characters. Continuity chapters carry the story forward. When you put them all together, you get a remarkably detailed picture of the world. It took me several readings to really figure it all out. Not an easy read, but a good one. Highly recommended.

Finity's End
By C.J. Cherryh

The latest of Cherryh's "Union/Alliance" novels, Finity's End is the closest thing we've had so far to a direct sequel to Downbelow Station. Seventeen years after the Battle of Pell, the merchant ship Finity's End returns to Pell Station. For seventeen years, the ship has been fighting a battle against the Maziani pirates. Merchant ships are family ships; on Finity's End, every member of the crew is of the Neihart family. For seventeen years the ship has been constantly in harm's way; for seventeen years station liberty has been sharply curtailed; for seventeen years no new Neiharts have been born. In this book, Finity's End returns--somewhat--to normal trading, in the attempt to rebuild their crew before it is too late.

I've enjoyed most of Cherryh's books; this one stands out as one of the best.

Cloud's Rider
By C.J. Cherryh

This is the sequel to Cherryh's excellent Rider at the Gate, and is better than its predecessor. I'm not sure how Cherryh came to write these books, but I imagine she pondered Anne McCaffrey's Pern books a little too long: what would a society of people and telepathic familiars really be like? Highly recommended.

Children's Books

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
Written by Judith Viorst and illustrated by Ray Cruz

I bought this one out of nostalgia; I first read it when I was in elementary school and had more than my fair share of Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Days. My mom cut it out of a magazine for me. I didn't find it particularly consoling...but I did enjoy it quite a bit then, and just as much now.


If you sent me a letter this month, forgive me for not responding here; as I noted up top, things are a little helter-skelter this month. With luck, things will be back to normal next month.

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 August 1998
Copyright © 1998, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
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