Home : Ex Libris : 1 November 1998

ex libris reviews

1 November 1998

I couldn't go home, and I couldn't go back to England. I couldn't go to Kabul because the spies would tear me apart. I couldn't go to India or Pakistan because it would cost too much...I couldn't go to Iran because the only direct flights went through either Athens or Istanbul, and I couldn't go to Athens or Istanbul for political reasons. I probably could have gone to Baghdad, but I wasn't sure how seriously the Iraqis took my involvement with the Kurdish rebels. I probably could have gone to Amman, unless the Jordanians knew me as a member of the Stern Gang.

I felt like Philip Nolan, the man without a country. I felt like a displaced person, a refugee, homeless, unwanted--

So where I went was Tel Aviv.

Lawrence Block


In This Issue:
A Little Bit of This

...a little bit of that. This month's issue is shorter than usual, for a variety of reasons. Last month's page was late, meaning that a few of this month's books were reviewed last month, and then I was busier this month. On the other hand, it means I don't need to rush quite so much, and can take the time to write a better page. I'll leave it up to my readers to decide whether there's any improvement or not.

The offerings this month include some old favorites, a new book by a favorite author, and some new favorites as well, including books by Katherine Kerr, Stephen King, Lawrence Block (two more Evan Tanner thrillers), Robert Graves, and Robert van Gulik.

In Times to Come

Books on the soon-to-be-read stack include more by Bernard Cornwell, Anthony Powell, and David Weber. Of course, these are the same ones that were on the stack last month at this time, but perhaps I'll get to them.

-- Will Duquette

Books to Read Aloud

by Will Duquette

I've now written 30 chapters (approximately 65,000 words) of my novel; I estimate that I'm about halfway done. I could be mistaken, of course, as the characters have a habit of going off in odd directions. It's taken me four months to get this far; I suspect it will take me at least another four months to get finished. On the other hand, maybe I'll put on a burst of speed during the holidays, and get it out by New Years. We'll see.

Until then, I fear I've nothing to report, except that Jane's still enjoying the story, and still encouraging me to keep on writing.

Electronic Books:
Project Gutenberg

This month, the electronic book I've been reading is The White Company, by Arthur Conan Doyle. I've not quite finished it yet; I've been reading it for ten or fifteen minutes at lunchtime, or while walking to my car after work, and other little bits and pieces of time where ever I find myself, so I make progress rather slowly. It's a delightful book, and the best knights-in-armor book I've yet encountered. It rings truer than any fantasy I've read in the last twenty years. However, I'll reserve detailed comment for next month, by which time I should have finished it and moved on to a different e-book. Instead, I'd like to describe how I went about loading it onto my Palm III. Those of you who have no interest, just shuffle along to the next section.

An early Pilot developer named Rick Bram defined a compressed text format called "DOC" format; it has become the standard for e-books on the PalmPilot, and also on the new Windows CE handheld computers. There are a number of programs available for reading DOCs on the pilot; the front runners are AportisDoc and TealDoc, both of which are available from PalmPilot Gear Headquarters. I use AportisDoc, but both are good.

So, the first step in finding an e-book to read on your PalmPilot is locating a DOC version of it. There are several websites that specialize in electronic books for the PalmPilot; this is how I found G.K. Chesterton's books Heresy and Orthodoxy, which I read previously. Some of these websites have new works of fiction by unknown (and unpaid) authors, but most of what is available is in the public domain. Time to start reading the classics!

It may so happen, and likely will, that the book you're looking for has not yet been converted. This was the case with The White Company. Not to worry; there are a number of utilities available that convert text or HTML documents to DOC format. I've been using QEX, a free utility for Windows 95, which is available from http://www.visionary2000.com. All of the tools will do an adequate job, though you may need to fiddle with the input text a little to make it look its best on the Pilot. To get the best paragraph filling on the Pilot, you should have a blank line between paragraphs, and each paragraph should be one single line of text, without any carriage returns. If you're just converting it for your own use, though, it probably doesn't matter.

All this is academic, though, if you don't happen to have a text file of the book you want to read. Here's where the power of the net comes through. There are many sites on the web with text files of various classic works; the best known, and largest, is Project Gutenberg. For many years, the folks at Project Gutenberg have worked to identify works in the public domain and convert them into text files. That's where I found The White Company: I went to Yahoo, searched on "Project Gutenberg", and then searched looked up "Arthur Conan Doyle". I downloaded the file, and soon had it converted and ready to read.

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Best of Bizarro
By Dan Piraro

I like cartoons. I like odd cartoons. I remember when The Farside first appeared in our local paper; it was one of three panel comics that all seemed to be slightly askew. The other two were Guindon, by Guindon, and The Neighborhood, by Jerry van Amerongen. The Farside is gone now, and Guindon, although arguably a better strip, vanished before I got out of college. Jerry van Amerongen is still plugging along, though his panel is now called Ballard Street, and is no longer funny. A few years after these three got started, Bizarro came along. It took me a while to realize that it wasn't just another Farside clone, of which there are many these days. Dan Piraro is a better draughtsman than the others, and frequently much funnier. This particular collection invariably has me laughing out loud whenever I dip into it. There are many claimants to Gary Larson's mantle, but few equals; Dan Piraro is one of them.

Skeleton Crew
By Stephen King

Emboldened by my go-round with Nightmares & Dreamscapes last month, I pulled his previous collection of short stories off of the shelf this month. Alas, I haven't as many good things to say. Skeleton Crew hasn't aged well; many of the stories were good the first time, but become tedious on re-reading. There were a few that I remembered fondly, and that lived up to my expectations. "The Raft" is a wonderful little tale that would have made a great B-movie if you could have gotten the effects past the censors. "The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet" is an intriguing tale of madness. And "Gramma" is just plain spooky.

The Red Wyvern
By Katherine Kerr

This is billed as the first book of a new series, "The Dragon Mage", but that's just a publishing gimmick. It is, in fact, the 9th book of Kerr's series of Celtic fantasies set in and around the land of Deverry, and follows directly after the 8th book. It's a worthy successor to an outstanding series, but I'm not sure it's intelligible on its own. You'd do better to start with Darkspell, which is the first book in the series. I re-read the whole shebang around the time my son was born; you'll find the reviews in the earliest issues of this page. For those familiar with the series, it spends a little time on the "present-day" story of Rhodry Maelwedd, Dallandra, Evandar, Jahdo, et al, but mostly concerns events at the time of the Civil Wars, as Prince Maryn takes the throne with the help of the silver daggers.

Go find Darkspell. If you buy it used, make sure you get the second edition; it was one of her earliest books, and she later revised it and the second book, Daggerspell. Go read it. Enjoy.

Miss Pym Disposes
By Josephine Tey

I read and reviewed all of Tey's mysteries last spring, with the exception of this one. It escape only through being unavailable; when I found a copy, I pounced on it at once. It was as enjoyable and unusual as the rest. There's a murder, but this is not a who-dunnit; it's more of a why-dunnit. It takes place in an English women's college called Leys, which specializes in physical education, dancing, and the like. Graduates are highly sought after as teachers; other schools send requests to the head of the college, who bestows the positions on the best seniors at the end of the term. It is a stressful, hothouse environment, and when postings are not given where expected, ambition and resentment rear their ugly heads. The story is told from the point of view of Miss Lucy Pym, a visitor to the college, who comes to lecture to the girls and ends up staying over until graduation. As always, it is beautifully written, and the setting is entirely exotic to this Southern California native.

I, Claudius
Claudius the God
By Robert Graves

I, ClaudiusThis is the first historical novel I ever tried to read, and I've probably started it and put it down unfinished more than any other book. I need to be in the right mood. Contemplating it this time, I find that it isn't so much a novel as 432 pages of occasionally tedious gossip. For those who have somehow missed the Masterpiece Theater series of the same name, Tiberius Claudius Nero Drusus Germanicus, better known as the Emperor Claudius, was the fourth Roman Emperor. He was also, history tells us, a stammering idiot who was placed on the throne by the Praetorian Guard. Robert Graves sees it differently. In his view, any member of the royal family who managed to survive the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, and the infamous Caligula without getting poisoned, executed, or forced to commit suicide is no fool. Further, after becoming emperor Claudius embarked on many useful reforms and engineering projects, and succeeded in conquering Britain where even Julius Caesar had failed.

As such, I, Claudius and its sequel are an entertaining introduction to Roman history. Entertaining, but not necessarily truthful. Graves claims in the forward to Claudius the God that every incident is attested in some ancient writing; however, not every writer is trustworthy. Suetonius, author of The Twelve Caesars, is clearly a prime source. I've read Suetonius; you might call him the tabloid historian of the Roman Empire. He had an axe to grind, and he ground it sensationally well. It makes for interesting reading, though.

10 Lb. Penalty
By Dick Francis

A talented 17-year old comes of age while helping his widowed father become Prime Minister of England. Ben Juliard is a typical Dick Francis hero, competent, talented, tough, well able to deal with people. Not Francis' best work, but as always a reliably pleasant afternoon's entertainment. If you like Dick Francis, you'll like it; if you haven't read Dick Francis, it's a decent introduction.

The Chinese Maze Murders
The Chinese Bell Murders
The Chinese Gold Murders
By Robert van Gulik

Now we get to the meat of this issue. Last month I received a letter from a reader (see Letters, below) recommending the "Judge Dee" novels of Robert van Gulik. I'd heard them mentioned before, but had not read them, so I did a web search and found a fan page about van Gulik and Judge Dee. I was sufficiently intrigued to by these three books, the first three in the series, and I was not disappointed.

Robert van Gulik was a Dutch diplomat and a student of China. In 1949 he translated an old Chinese book called "Dee Goong An" into English; it is a detective novel about the legendary Judge Dee. Dee is an historical figure, a magistrate and government official who lived during the Tang dynasty. When detective novels became popular in China during the Ming dynasty, Judge Dee became a popular hero, like a Chinese Sherlock Holmes. Van Gulik's translation was well-received, and he considered translating additional Chinese mysteries; he then discovered that "Dee Goong An" was exceptional in its appeal to Westerners, or indeed to modern Chinese. On the other hand, the Chinese and especially the Japanese of that time were devouring cheap Western mystery novels by the boatload. Van Gulik decided to prove that a mystery with a traditional Chinese setting could still be popular with modern readers of both east and west, and wrote the first two of the books listed above, with Judge Dee as the hero. Originally the English originals were intended only as drafts for Chinese and Japanese language versions; van Gulik showed them to friends, however, and the rest is history. He wrote over a dozen more books about Judge Dee, all of which are now in print by University of Chicago Press.

Although not translations, all three of these books follow the traditional pattern of the Chinese mystery. The hero of a Chinese mystery is invariably the district magistrate. The magistrate was judge and jury, head of the police force and representative of the Emperor. He was responsible for gathering taxes and for the well-being of the people in his district. Traditionally, the magistracy was also the first step on the road to high office in the imperial beauracracy. Magistrates were busy men; they could not pursue a single investigation to the exclusion of other business. Thus, each novel generally involves three separate cases, which might or might not prove to be related. The magistrate must not only determine who is guilty, but also persuade them to confess, for it is against the law to convict anyone who has not confessed. Torture was freely used for this purpose, but the magistrate had to take care; if a suspect died of the torture without confessing, the magistrate was likely to be executed himself. Finally, the guilty must receive their punishment and the good their reward onstage.

While Van Gulik derived his plots from classic sources, he was careful to update them to western tastes. In the original texts, mysteries were often solved by a dream, or some other supernatural occurrence. Van Gulik strives to make Judge Dee solve his cases rationally. As such, these are primarily novels of detection; character development is manifestly not the focus. Judge Dee's family life, for example, remains resolutely off-stage, at least in these books, although he has several wives and children. Each of the three books begins with Judge Dee being transferred to a new district; typically this happened every three years, though Dee seems to have moved around rather more often than that. He deals will all classes of people, from butchers to scholars to lusty Buddhist monks.

The books evoke the China of old very well, though it is Ming China, not the Tang China of the real Dee's life. In this he follows the convention; the Ming detective novels were frequently set in the Tang and Sung dynasties, but the culture presented in them was (at the time of writing) thoroughly modern, and thoroughly un-Western. This is clearest in two ways: the class structure, and the attitudes toward sex. Wealthy men abase themselves before the magistrate in a way that is profoundly alien to us, and sex, to be blunt, did not have the same moral freight. These books are in no way graphic, but the attitude toward sex is quite matter-of-fact. Wealthy men have multiple wives and concubines; prostitution, while not respected, is nevertheless a recognized trade.

I enjoyed these books, on the whole, and I'm looking forward to reading more of them.

Here Comes a Hero
Me Tanner, You Jane
By Lawrence Block

These are the last two of "classic" Evan Michael Tanner series that I began last month. If you missed it, I suggest you go back and read last month's issue, as Tanner is far too complicated to go into twice in two months. Half-revolutionary, half-spy, he's a sort of human tomcat with a deep and abiding love for lost causes and pretty much no morals whatsoever, at least in sexual matters. Of course, the books were written in the late sixties, which is probably sufficient explanation.

In Here Comes a Hero, Tanner travels by a typically circuitous route to Afghanistan, to rescue a girlfriend from white slavers. As usual, his path is marked by political unrest and revolution. In Me Tanner, You Jane, he travels on the orders of his Chief to the African country of Modonoland, there to discover what befell agent Sam Bowman, his charge the previous dictator of Modonoland, and most importantly the treasure amassed by said dictator. The joke is that Tanner, for one reason and another, and entirely unbeknownst to anyone else, is pretty much singlehandedly responsible for the political developments in Modonoland over the previous few years. It sounds absurd, and it is, and in the context of the series it all makes sense.

There's a new Tanner book out, Tanner on Ice, which I have not yet read; I'm looking forward to the paperback.

Children's Books

Dave is at the age where he likes repetition. New books are OK once in a while, but mostly he calls for the same old round over and over again. Alas, I've already written about most of them, and the few that remain I'm not particularly impressed with. Consequently, I've elected to give some space to several books I think you should avoid. Derrydale Books has published four of Beatrix Potter's books as what they call "Shaped Board Books". We are in favor of board books for children Dave's edge, as they hold up better than regular books, and we have some wonderful books in that format. Alas, Derrydale didn't simply package The Tale of Peter Rabbit and its siblings in board book form; they also abridged and simplified the text. The result is singularly unsatisfying, both me as an adult listener, and to Dave. Potter was a consummate story teller, and her prose is a delight to read aloud. Children Dave's age won't be able to follow the story as such, but can certainly delight in the sound of it. By comparison, the text of these "Shaped Board Books" is a travesty, that neither tells the story well, nor musically. Alas.


I had two letters this month, one from John Pheterson who said, simply, that he loved Josephine Tey, and that I might like Robert van Gulik. Thanks, John!

The other was from Trisha Bunye in New Zealand, who mostly wanted my thoughts on buying a PalmPilot vs. a Windows CE handheld computer. I voted for the PalmPilot, naturally. She was also nice enough to say that she reads and enjoys ex libris every month.

My thanks go out to both of them; it's nice to know I'm not shouting into a vacuum!

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