Home : Ex Libris : 1 March 1999

ex libris reviews

1 March 1999

On the morning of December 1, a man named Theodore Bellamy went swimming in the Atlantic Ocean off South Florida. Bellamy was a poor swimmer, but he was a good real-estate man and a loyal Shriner.
Carl Hiaasen


In This Issue:

It has, as usual, been a wild and eclectic month of reading...and as I had a cold at both ends and two 15% off coupons for Borders Books, I had both plenty of time and plenty of fodder. The books I'll discuss this month include range from the Victorian era to the far future (and perhaps the distant path), and from history to humor and back again.

First though, I'd like to talk about letters. There is no "Letters" section this month. Not that I got no letters relating to ex libris; far from it. There was the woman who told me how much she likes Jan Karon's Mitford books, and the woman who wanted help identifying an early English translation of Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo. I even got a letter from someone in France, expressing--in French, mind you--either sorrow that Dumas is so badly translated into English, or sorrow that my archive page on Dumas is so badly translated in French. My high school French is too rusty to be sure. In any event, I can't judge the former, and I can't be held responsible for the latter. I don't read French, and I write in English. If some automatic translator has mangled my words, there's little I can do. And I would have told the fellow so, but his return address didn't work. Perhaps he has a "spam blocker" in his address, which I didn't know to delete because it's in French.

All interesting letters, the French one not least of the group, and I'm glad to have gotten all of them. However, they were all of them written to me, rather than to the editor and readers of ex libris. I dream of having a vibrant letters column, in which readers argue with my reviews, and with each other--the kind of letters column a print magazine has. Alas, that's not the kind of mail I got this month. Perhaps next month will be different. In the meantime, please write; whether just to me or for the benefit of other readers of ex libris makes no difference.

In Times to Come

Books on the soon-to-be-read stack include novels by Anthony Powell, Shirley Jackson, Terry Pratchett, and C.J. Cherryh.

-- Will Duquette

Books to Read Aloud:
I've Created A Monster

by Will Duquette

The Price of the Stars
By Debra Doyle and James D. MacDonald

Early this month I was looking for a book to read to Jane and had no obvious candidates; no new Terry Pratchett for example. So I pulled down a book that I had several times considered reading to her in the past; one I thought she might like, if she gave it a fair chance, if she let me get a little ways into it. I expected it to go back on the shelf in short order.

Jane loved it. Jane was hooked after just a couple of pages. She practically tied me down and forced me to read it to her for an hour or more every night until it was done. So what's my problem? It's the first in a series. It's the first in a series of five fairly thick books. Jane will want to hear all of them. And in the meanwhile, a new Terry Pratchett Discworld novel has come out and is languishing on the shelf. Oh, the horror!

Ah, well. The book in question is The Price of the Stars by Debra Doyle and James D. MacDonald, and it's the first book in the authors' Mageworlds series. What it is, is darn good space opera. You've got spaceships, murders, assassinations, revenge, capers, brawls, heroics, derring-do, a secret asteroid base, mysterious strangers, evil villains.... Really, what more can you ask for?

It's not particularly literary, but it's good storytelling. The authors write nice dialog, with a touch of wit--and, let me tell you, I have personally spoken every word of it and can vouch that it isn't stilted. Also, they have a knack for knowing what not to tell us. This isn't hard science fiction, where any technological trick has to have some marginally convincing explanation; this is a straightforward adventure novel. The story needs faster-than-light spacecraft? Fine, we've got hyperspace. The story needs faster-than-light communication? Fine, we've got hyperspace comms. Null gravity? You got it. These things simply exist; they are conventional devices in this sort of book; the authors wisely just use them without commenting on them. Similarly, they are also really good at glossing over anything that might be considered highly improbable without a lengthy explanation. I noticed some of these improbabilities on this go around--it's had to miss such things at read-aloud speed--but I hadn't noticed them before, and I've read the book to myself several times.

So what's it about, really?

Beka Rosselin-Metadi is the daughter of the Domina of Lost Entibor, Perada Rosselin, and her consort, Commanding General Jos Metadi. Entibor was one of the leading worlds of the Republic until the height of the Magewar, some two or three decades or so earlier, when the Magelords slagged it. The Domina was still a power in the Republic, until an assassin killed her during a Council meeting just before the opening of the book. Her daughter Beka, rebelling against a childhood as Domina-in-waiting to a throne that no longer exists, has spent the last seven years roaming the galaxy as a star pilot. After the assassination, her father the Commanding General tracks her down--but not to persuade her to come home and be the Domina, as she fears. Before Perada Rosselin recruited him to fight on the side of the Republic, Jos Metadi was a privateer, with a privateer's habits and a privateer's friends. Metadi makes his daughter an offer: he'll give her his armored freighter, the legendary Warhammer, provided she'll find out who ordered the Domina's death. It's an offer she's not slow to accept.

That's the premise as you'll see it written in the cover blurb, and it's accurate so far as it goes. But it's also the story of Ari Rosselin-Metadi, Beka's oldest brother, the Space Force medic who was raised as a hunter by Ferdacorr, Jos Metadi's old Selvauran sidekick. Ari stands seven feet tall, and bears many scars, the legacy of the Long Hunt that earned him the right to be treated as an equal by the Selvauran Forest Lords. And it's the story of her brother Owen, apprentice to Jos Metadi's old sidekick Errec Ransome, then an Adept and now Master of the Adept's guild.

It's a fun roller-coaster ride, and I recommend it.

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Flashman and the Redskins
By George MacDonald Fraser

I read two of Fraser's tales of Harry Flashman last month; this one concern's Harry's adventures with the Apaches, Sioux, and other tribes on two of his trips to the United States. The first part of the book begins in 1849. Flashy travels to New Mexico with the '49ers, gets caught by the Apaches, gets married--illegally, as he was already married in England--twice, and betrays a number of people, including both wives, and his Apache best man, Geronimo, before returning to England. In the second part of the book he returns just in time to participate (much against his will) in Custer's Last Stand. All-in-all it's the usual blend of solid history and reprehensible behavior that we've come to expect from Harry Flashman.

The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian
By Lawrence Block

Yet another of Block's witty Bernie Rhodenbarr mysteries, and one of the best, I'd say. I've written quite a lot about Bernie in the past year, so I won't go into detail; look Block up in archives and you'll get the whole story. Definitely recommended.

Three Men in a Boat
Three Men on the Bummel
By Jerome K. Jerome

Last month I read Connie Willis' book To Say Nothing of the Dog, the title of which is the subtitle of Jerome K. Jerome's wonderful book Three Men in a Boat. Not only are the men and their boat mentioned numerous times in Willis' novel, but they men themselves make a brief appearance--to say nothing of the dog. My curiousity was piqued, and I went hunting at our local bookstore.

Three Men in a Boat was written in 1889, and is ostensibly the story of a vacation trip by boat up and down the river Thames by narrator J., his friends Harris and George, and their dog, Montmorency. By 1889 the railroad had mostly replaced the barge as the cargo hauler of choice, and the Thames, once the highway of commerce, had become the playground of society. Yet this deeply humorous book uses the river only as the source of digressions and anecdotes on every subject under the sun, with particular emphasis on the Essential Perversity of Inanimate Objects. It is, in fact, perhaps the first known instance of observational humor.

Ten years later, the same three men (minus the dog) took a bicycle tour through the Black Forest in Bavaria; the result was a second book, Three Men on the Bummel. The men are older, and married, thus modifying their outlook somewhat, but the book is recognizably of a piece with its predecessor.

Twice now I've read something like the following on the 'Net: "You're reading so-and-so? Isn't it great? Don't you love the part where--oh, you've not read that part yet? You've never read the book before? Oh, you're so lucky! I envy you being able to read it for the first time!" The first time was for Patrick O'Brian; the second time was for Three Men in a Boat. More I cannot say. Go buy them (my Oxford World's Classics edition has both books in one volume) and enjoy.

By Cordwainer Smith

This is a minor classic of science fiction: the story of a boy from the planet of Old North Australia who bought the earth and lived to tell about it; Smith's only novel, it is part of Smith's future history, the Instrumentality of Mankind.

The New England Science Fiction Association (NESFA) has begun to republish high-quality hardcovers of classic science fiction not otherwise in print in good quality editions. I'd seen their edition of Norstrilia in the past, along with their anthology of all of Smith's short fiction, and had always said, "You know, I should buy that. Maybe later." This month, armed with a 15%-off coupon, I did the deed. You'll be hearing about the short fiction next month. In the meantime, if you like vintage science fiction and haven't read Norstrilia, I suggest you seek it out.

By Dava Sobel

The primary problem faced by deep sea navigators through history (other than staying afloat) has been finding out where they are. It is remarkably hard to do.

The lines of latitude and longitude were drawn by Ptolemy in AD 150. Determining one's latitude is relatively easy to do. Latitude is an absolute measure of one's distance from the equator; longitude is a relative measure of one's angular distance from some arbitrary point. The sun and stars will tell you your latitude with great accuracy; they are powerless to tell you your longitude. All arbitrary points on the earth are the same to them. And yet, accurate knowledge of one's longitude is essential for safe seafaring. In this day of Global Positioning Systems, perhaps this cannot be overemphasized. As recently as 1707, four British warships, homeward bound after a long voyage, ran aground because they didn't know their longitude. Over 2000 men died. In 1741, Commodore Anson spent weeks sailing west to weather Cape Horn; because he couldn't determine his longitude, he was unaware that he was making no headway against the current in all of that time. Suffice it to say that the Royal Navy, the British East India Company, the British Crown, all wished a speedy solution to the problem of finding one's longitude.

On the face of it, it's an easy problem. The earth rotates 360 degrees in 24 hours. 15 degrees of longitudes corresponds to one hour of time. It is easy to determine local noon; if one knew the exact time at some other point, Greenwich, England, say, one could compute the time difference between the two points, and from that the difference in degrees, minutes, and seconds. One has only to carry an accurate clock, set to Greenwich time, on your voyage, and you'll never be lost. Until recent times, however, no clock existed which was accurate enough for the job. Indeed, in the 18th century it was widely thought that no such clock could be built, and attention was focussed once more on the heavens. Surely there was some phenomenon in the heavens from which one could determine the time? Yes: the eclipses of the moons of Jupiter.

While the learned men of science strove to tabulate the eclipses of the moons of Jupiter, and to tabulate the calculations necessary to derive longitude from such observations, John Harrison spent most of his life, and most of the 18th century, trying to build such a clock. He succeeded, and this book is his story. Ironically, he solved the problem just as the Jupiter approach became feasible; after decades of friction between the two camps, it became commonplace for ship's masters to take sightings of Jupiter every few weeks, so as to check the accuracy of their chronometers.

The Victorian Underground
By Donald Thomas

I found this interesting and somewhat tawdry history book misfiled in the Science Fiction section, and having some interest in the Victorian Era, bought it. It was entertaining. If you ever wish to know the truth about the so-called "criminal classes" in Victorian England, this is the book to read. (As such, it is an interesting companion to the following book.) Some of the best moments come courtesy of a man named Henry Mayhew, a Studs Terkel-like reported who interviewed hundreds lower-class costers, thieves, protitutes, and the like.

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew
By Daniel Pool

This is a history book for readers of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, the Brontes, and so on. It attempts to explain matters taken for granted by Victorian readers, such as the importance of calling cards, and precedence at table, and why the family estate will go to a distant relative on Daddy's death. It's well-written and informative, and I recommend it to those with an interest in such things.

By Neil Gaiman

Gaiman is perhaps best known for his "Sandman" comic book series; a series I have never read (or seen) but which I continually hear about...from the likes of Terry Pratchett and Stephen Brust. This is one of his first novels, and it is dynamite. It's what they call urban fantasy, a la Charles de Lint, but I'd put it ahead of anything de Lint's written. A young man, engaged to be married, encounters a battered young girl on a London sidewalk. He determines to help her, and finds himself drawn into the world of London Below. London Below is a shadowy city somewhat coterminous with the sewers and subway tunnels beneath the London streets, and yet it is a magical place where the Black Friars have their monastery and the Earl's Court is held on a special underground train. I was really very impressed, and I'll be looking for more of Gaiman's work.

Tourist Season
By Carl Hiaasen

Yet another of Hiaasen's wickedly funny tales of Florida. It's one of his earlier books, I believe, and is played somewhat straighter than Strip Tease or Stormy Weather, both of which I've reviewed in the past. I won't describe it, but I will recommend it.

By Connie Willis

Like To Say Nothing of the Dog, this is a serious novel wrapped up in a farce. It's a book about fads: clothing fads, health fads, management fads, food fads; it's also a book about chaos. And, really, it's a book about the Essential Perversity of Certain People--certain Very Important People. I won't call it a science fiction classic, but I liked it.

By Connie Willis

Turning away from the farcical, this is Willis' tale of the movie business of the next century. There are no more actors; it's all done with computer graphics. And what's mostly being made are remakes: much-loved classic films remade by digitally replacing the original actors with computer models of other actors. Picture Gone with the Wind with Leonardo DiCaprio and Alicia Silverstone. Enter a young woman who just wants to dance in the movies....

Fire Watch
By Connie Willis

This is a collection of Willis' short fiction. It's good; she's a good writer, and can tell a gripping tale. But she makes you work, and while I enjoyed the stories, they didn't really fit my mood.

Bag of Bones
By Stephen King

I've not been buying Stephen King for the last several years; after Insomnia I decided that he was just getting silly. I may need to reconsider, for Bag of Bones (which I received as a Christmas present) is a remarkably wonderful ghost story. It's familiar King territory in many ways. It's set in Maine, the protagonist is a writer, and the emphasis is on generational evil--not only the sins of the fathers being visited upon their children, but also the sins of the fathers being commited by their children. For all the familiarity, though, I enjoyed it thoroughly.

The Ecologic Envoy
By L.E. Modesitt, Jr

One of Modesitt's earliest books, this is the immediate predecessor of The Ecolitan Enigma, which I reviewed shortly after it came out in paperback last September. It's your basic "special agent takes on the world and by dint of neat tricks and good character manages not only to survive multiple assassination attempts but also accomplishes his mission" kind of book. It was fun, but not particularly believable.

By Steven Gould

I bought this with some trepidation. Gould's first book, Jumper, was a flawed gem; his second, Wildside, had all of the flaws but little of the glitter. This one, miracle of miracles, has lost most of the flaws and has quite a bit of glitter of its own.

The premise is remarkably silly. A global conflict extinguishes life on earth. There are about 6000 people, mostly refugees, living in a base on the Moon, and a space ship ready to take a colony to a newly terraformed world of Epsilon Eridani. If they send the colonists with enough equipment to sustain a high-tech culture, there will still be too many people to survive in the cramped quarters of the moonbase. If they keep the equipment on the moon, they can send enough refugees away to keep the moon habitable, but the colonists will rapidly regress when they arrive. To give the colonists the best possible chance, they use a device called the "impresser" to give them a new religion: one that emphasizes cleanliness, diet, and literacy. Now, what do things look like after 500 years?

As an exercise in world-building, the book is a joke. (One of the few signs of the original religion that we see, other than regular washing and a respect for learning, is a formal dance called "The Balanced Diet".) As an adventure, and as a coming-of-age wish-fulfillment story, however, it was quite good. I was rather reminded of L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

Acres and Pains
By S.J. Perelman

About a year ago, while home with the flu, I discovered my dad's old copy of Swiss Family Perelman, which I quite enjoyed. Since then, while not actually searching, I've been keeping an eye out for other books by Perelman, and recently I found this one. I enjoyed, but it's not as good. Swiss Family Perelman was conceived and written as a book; Acres and Pains is a collection of short pieces Perelman wrote for magazines like the Saturday Evening Post on the topic of owning an old farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania. Each of the pieces is amusing enough, but since they were conceived and written independently, they don't hang together particularly well. It's like sitting down for a meal of cocktail wieners when what you wanted was a juicy steak.

Virtual Unrealities
By Alfred Bester

Bester is the author of two recognized classics of science fiction, The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination. Having enjoyed both, I eagerly grabbed this anthology of his short fiction. It had some good stories, some of which I'll probably want to read again someday; I doubt I'll bother rereading the whole collection. Sigh.

Children's Books

The Original Mother Goose
By Anonymous

Recently we acquired a board book version of the book of nursery rhymes I (and I suspect many of my readers) grew up with. It's a small sampling, of course, but you get Humpty Dumpty, and Hey Diddle Diddle, and Four-And-Twenty Blackbirds, and Hickory Dickory Dock, and Mary Had A Little Lamb, and so on. Rather to my surprise, Dave is having a ball with it; I figure we will soon have to get the regular edition as well. It never pays to underestimate the classics.

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 March 1999
Copyright © 1999, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
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