Home : Ex Libris : 1 May 1999

ex libris reviews

1 May 1999

There was a bower at the farther end, with honeysuckle, jessamine, and creeping plants--one of those sweet retreats which humane men erect for the accommodation of spiders.
Charles Dickens


In This Issue:

At the last minute, just as I was copying the 1 April 1999 Ex Libris to the web server, I added some hit counters. I'd have done it before, but my ISP doesn't let me run CGI scripts. My buddy Pat pointed out a website called "BeSeen.com" that provides free hit counters, and I decided to give it a try. To the extent that they mean anything, the results have been quite delightful: over 2000 hits on last month's issue alone (as of 4/24/99). The total number of hits doesn't equal the total number of readers, of course; some of those hits are from search engines, and if a reader goes from one page to another and back again, the counter is hit again. Still, I can draw several conclusions from the hit statistics: ex libris was read by at least a few hundred people during the month of April, perhaps more, and the author pages are roughly twice as popular as the monthly column. It's always seemed likely that most of my readers found Ex Libris through the author pages, so that doesn't surprise me.

On the other hand, it occurs to me that the whole thing might be a cruel joke. The April issue had links to exactly two author's pages in it. I have this vision of some search engine repeatedly accessing the current issue, finding the two author links, and accessing each of them in turn, over and over again, several hundred times a day. I certainly can't disprove this. Ah, well.

-- Will Duquette

Electronic Books:
A Dickens of a Time

The Pickwick Papers
By Charles Dickens

For the past several months I've had this book (or parts of it) loaded into my PalmPilot, for reading when I'm out and about, stuck in a line or otherwise waiting. Lo and behold, I've finally finished it.

Speaking of The Pickwick Papers just as a book, I enjoyed it. It concerns the adventures of Mr. Pickwick and his friends as they leave the safety of their London club to travel about England. As such, there is no single plot, but rather a collection of plots, some confined to a single chapter, some extending for many, and a few lasting for most of the book. And it is (mostly) funny. Frankly, I had no idea that Dickens knew how to be playful.

Due to its episodic nature, it worked fairly well as a book to pull out and read only occasionally. I'm sure there were some subtleties I missed, but on the whole it was a pleasant experience.

The Man Who Knew Too Much
By G.K. Chesterton

Having finished with Mr. Pickwick, I cast about for something new, and came across this work of Chesterton's. I rather like Chesterton, and had never heard of this book, so I grabbed it.

The book has nothing to do with the Hitchcock film of the same name, but rather is a series of short mystery tales concerning a man named Horne Fisher. It's something of a mixed blessing, both as a book and as a standing-in-line entertainment. On the plus side, it abounds with the kind of paradox Chesterton is known for. Crimes are committed, the obvious suspect is never guilty, and Horne Fisher determines who did it. Unlike most sleuths, Fisher rarely reveals his deductions to the authorities; on at least one occasion he leads them astray so that the blame falls on an innocent (but unobtainable) suspect rather than the true culprit. Why? Because he "knows too much", and is aware that the consequences of revealing all he knows would be worse than the injustice of not doing so.

The book was entertaining enough, but I'm afraid that I find Mr. Fisher much less amiable than Chesterton's Fr. Brown. In addition, while the episodic nature of Pickwick was a help, here it is a hindrance. I rarely had time to read an entire story at one sitting, and it's difficult to read a short mystery story any other way and still fully appreciate it.

Books to Read Aloud:
Back to the Future

by Will Duquette

The Long Hunt
By Debra Doyle and James D. MacDonald

Well, we started reading Shirley Jackson's book Raising Demons last month, and Jane got bored with it. (We may finish it later, so I won't go into detail about it now.) Instead, we returned to Doyle and Macdonald's Mageworlds series, skipping over the fourth book, The Gathering Flame, to the fifth book. (The fourth book is a prequel to the series as a whole; we'll get back to it later.)

The Long Hunt takes place about twenty years after the Second Magewar, and is the story of Jens Metadi-Jessan D'Rosselin and his cousin Faral Hyfid-Metadi, the children of the protagonists of the previous books. Both have been raised on the Selvaur world of Maraghai; Faral, like his father Ari Rosselin-Metadi, is a full-member of a Selvaur clan despite not being one of the saurian Selvaurs, and Jens has been raised in the same environment.

One of the rules on Maraghai is that young adults are kicked out. They must leave the planet, never to return until they have gained sufficient "fame". Although not Selvaurs, and although their parents don't particularly want to kick them out, Jens and Faral know what's proper, and arrange to kick themselves out at the proper time.

Jens' father Nyls Jessan is from the planet of Khesat, a Worthy member of a Worthy lineage (as someone puts it one of the earlier books, "Oh, he's one of those Jessans."). The ruler of Khesat, the "Highest", is know to be unwell; the new Highest will be chosen from among the Worthies. As son of Nyls Jessan and the last Domina of Lost Entibor, Jens is as Worthy as you can get...

As is usual in their works, this is only plot among several; perhaps the most amusing involves Mistress Klea Santreny, second of the Adepts' Guild, and Magelord Mael Taleion, Second of all the Circles, being forced to work together and trust each other.

I expect we will read the fourth book next; and there's a new Mageworlds book coming out in hardcover in June.

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Treason's Harbour
The Far Side of the World
The Reverse of the Medal
The Letter of Marque
By Patrick O'Brian

Having started O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series, one doesn't lightly stop. See last month's issue for my discussion of the series as a whole.

Mr. Midshipman Easy
By Frederick Marryat

Every so often I check out the Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.books. I don't contribute much, generally speaking, but occasionally I learn of a new book or author I might like. That's how I found Patrick O'Brian, for example. A few weeks ago, one of the regular contributors mentioned Frederick Marryat and this book. Marryat was a midshipman with Lord Cochrane (the prototype for Jack Aubrey) rose to captain's rank before retiring and embarking on a literary career. I gather that most or all of his books are sea-stories. I was tickled at the idea of reading such a book written by a man who was, roughly, a contemporary of the characters I so love, and so I bought it and read it.

It was interesting. I don't mean to damn it with faint praise--I enjoyed it, and yesterday I bought a couple more of his books--but it wasn't what I was expecting. O'Brian's novels are historicals. They are as much about the time in which they take place as they are about Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. Aubrey's beloved frigate H.M.S. Surprise is almost a character in her own right. Mr. Midshipman Easy, on the contrary, is not a historical novel. If the world it describes is not the England in which Marryat wrote it, it is at least the England of Marryat's youth. Moreover, the setting is incidental to Marryat's story; he merely drew on his experience, as every author does.

The book is intended to be nothing more nor less than a refutation of what Marryat would have called radical democracy--which we we would call communism (note the small "c")--and a defense of the English social hierarchy. Jack Easy is born and raised, much like Tristram Shandy, under his father's watchful eye. He is given no discipline, but rather is taught that all men are equal. His somewhat radical attempts to put this doctrine into practice lead him into trouble, and he decides to go to see; somehow he has gotten the absurd idea that the Royal Navy is a hotbed of democracy. The remainder of the book (and a funny book it is) sees his transformation from extreme radical to defender of the establishment as well. In its elucidation of a certain early-Victorian point-of-view, the book is in its own way more enlightening than O'Brian's.

The book does suffer from the prejudices of its day. There are a few anti-semitic remarks, though Marryat's real vitriol is saved for Roman Catholics, and especially for Roman Catholic clergy, who are portrayed as evil, money-loving blood-suckers. We don't often hear about anti-Catholicism anymore; I grew up Roman Catholic and I've certainly never felt discriminated against because of it. I suppose John Kennedy's election pretty much put paid to it here in the U.S.A. It's hard for me to remember that there was a time in England when Roman Catholics were despised and feared. And here I am, attending an Episcopal church every week. Go figure.

Against the religious prejudices, however, one must place Marryat's handling of Mesty, African prince, freed American slave, and seaman in the Royal Navy. He speaks in an outrageous dialect, of course, but otherwise is portrayed as an intelligent, stalwart, upstanding (if somewhat bloodthirsty) man. He quickly becomes Mr. Easy's right-hand man, and majordomo of his estate by land. True, he is not on the same social level as Easy himself, but the difference between them seems to be purely one of class, not one of race. This tallies with what I've read elsewhere about racism in the Royal Navy in the age of sail: hands were judged by their abilities, and not by the color of their skin. I expect English society of the time would have expressed rather more prejudice in this case that Marryat chose to portray.

Timediver's Dawn
The Timegod
By L.E. Modesitt, Jr

I was home, I had a cold (it's been a really bad year for colds), I wanted to read your basic "little kid becomes powerful superhero and kicks some serious butt" kind of book. Modesitt excels at them, and these two books, the second a sequel to the first, are excellent, fun examples. In these books, the gimmick is that certain people can, by the power of their mind, "dive" from one place to another and from one time to another, across interstellar distances. The heroes (Sammis and Loki, respectively), are, as usual, young, male, and incredibly talented. It's a pleasure to watch them at work. And, of course, there's Modesitt's usual subtext about the use of power. His heroes make terrible mistakes; they do horrible things to defend themselves and their loved ones; where there is great power, there is great power to destroy. But the constant is that they pay the price. They take responsibility, and they pay the price for what they do, necessary though it might be. Nor are they powerful only for destruction; another constant in Modesitt's books is craftsmanship. His heroes always know how to build something, whether it's machinery, cabinetry, or what-have-you.

The White Order
By L.E. Modesitt, Jr

Modesitt's best known books are his Recluce series, which puts a new spin on the hoary old fantasy concept of the balance between not good and evil but order and chaos. The series has been getting somewhat tiresome--there's a common formula that's become a little too familiar, and two or three of the books could probably have been omitted without harming the whole immoderately. With this book, though, Modesitt has injected new life.

The tendency in books that use the order/chaos paradigm is to treat the followers of order as good and the followers of chaos as bad. Michael Moorcock is probably the prototypical example, and to this extent Modesitt has followed in his footsteps. All of his heroes have been "black" order-masters, or at worst "gray", using both chaos and order. In this latest book, he turns his attention to novice white-mage named Cerryl, who lived during the last years of the city of Fairhaven. Cerryl is undeniably a chaos-mage, and yet has (so far) every bit as much integrity as Modesitt's other heroes. This book, which is followed by (I think) The Colors of Chaos, tells of his youth and his training in Fairhaven. It explains why order-masters mostly work alone, while chaos-wizards are all members of the ironically named White Order. And it explains how you train young chaos-wizards. Chaos magic is naturally fire-based, and the hallmark of chaos-wizardry is the ability to throw fireballs. Naturally, novices aren't very good at it, and it can be quite dangerous for innocent bystanders. Which is why you make them spend a few months cleaning the scum out of the sewers....

I don't buy Modesitt in hardcover, or I'd have already bought and read The Colors of Chaos; I'm very curious to see what comes of young Cerryl. I know in general what will happen; Cerryl is living in the era of the previous book The Magic Engineer, in which the white city of Fairhaven is melted to the ground. But will Cerryl survive the cataclysm? And, more interesting, will he retain his integrity? Modesitt has always portrayed the use of chaos as intrinsically corrupting, and I'm curious to see how Cerryl handles it.

The Runelords
By David Farland

When I first saw this book I said to myself, "Oh, good, yet another big bold epic fantasy with a Darrell K. Sweet cover. Probably yet another Robert Jordan wanna-be." But I picked it up anyway, and noted that a number of interesting people plugged it on the cover, including Orson Scott Card, and so I bought it.

I'm glad I did.

It's rare to find anything new and fresh in epic fantasy, but Farland has managed to do it. Moreover, in so doing he's punctured one of the greatest flaws with this kind of fiction: characters who are super-human. In Farland's world, a warrior might have the strength of ten, not because his heart is pure, but because nine other people chose to give him their strength. A king might take a hundred "endowments" of various kinds, strength, stamina, wit, sight, hearing, and so forth. His family and guard will take endowments as well, though fewer in number. In this way, every ruler becomes as wise, and as strong, as he can afford.

Those who give the endowments are known as Dedicates, and are protected with great care. If they die, or are killed, the one they endowed loses the gift they gave. Therefore, the heart of every great castle is not the ruler's keep, but rather the Dedicate's keep, and every war is heralded by a wave of assassins attempting to cripple an opponent by killing his Dedicates. It's an intriguing idea, and Farland has worked out the implications in great detail. But a gimmick is just a gimmick; the tale's the thing.

The northern kingdoms, disunited for over 1500 years, are being threatened by a new southern king, Raj Ahten. Raj Ahten has taken thousands of endowments. Such is his Glamour that he takes one city merely by asking the people to drop their weapons. Such is his Stamina that his wounds heal almost instantaneously. Yet he isn't infallible......

There's really more to this book than I can describe here. If this is a genre which appeals to you at all, go buy this book. It's as good as anything in recent memory, and better than many.

A Million Open Doors
Earth Made of Glass
By John Barnes

John Barnes is a remarkably gifted and versatile author; his fantasy One for the Morning Glory is a pearl of great price, a book that truly stands on its own, never to be duplicated or improved upon. These two science fiction novels, while not attaining quite the same pinnacle of perfection, are still quite good. They take place in the same world, about ten years apart.

The concept is this: over a period of time, Earth sent over a thousand colony ships out to populate the stars. Each ship was dedicated to a unique culture: ethnic, geographic, or--the most interesting--literary. Easily terraformed planets received two or three hundred cultures, each occupying its own region; more marginal planets received two or three or (rarely) only one. Space travel was quite slow; moreover, each culture was based around some thing it wished to preserve from extinction, and so discouraged contacts with other cultures. Even on a single planet, there was generally little contact.

Then came the invention of the "springer", a simple, easily built teleportation device. Using the springer, one can walk from one planet to another as easily as walking through a door. Any springer can address any other springer. As a result, the Thousand Cultures are being brought back into contact with each other, with all of the discomfort that that implies.

In fact, there is more discomfort than you might think, especially in the so-called "literary" cultures. The literary cultures were founded to preserve some idea or attitude of their founders, rather than to preserve an culture which actually existed on Old Earth. There was no anticipation of easy or frequent contact between the cultures, and so the designers of literary cultures joyfully rewrote the history books to support their particular points of view. Thus, Giraut Leones, of the romantic culture of Nou Occitan, grew up believing that Edgar Allen Poe died heroically in a duel in Paris; his wife, from the Rational Christian society of Caledon, grew up believing that Adam Smith and Milton Friedman were burned at the stake. Reconciling these revisionist histories is not easily done.

I am equally impressed and repelled by these books. Barnes' vision seems essentially cynical; moreover, the second book is dominated by the collapse of Giraut's marriage. I *hate* that. On the other hand, the quality (especially that of the first book) is undeniable.

If you like hard science-fiction with a socialogical turn, look them up.

The Practice of Programming
By Brian W. Kernighan and Rob Pike

Kernighan's name is familiar to every working C and C++ programming; many years ago, the duo wrote the seminal book The Unix Programming Environment.

This book is best viewed as an introductory text on writing software. As such, it picks up where the basic programming texts leave off. It doesn't describe how to use any particular language, but rather how to practice the craft of programing as a professional. It covers the waterfront, from coding style, to analysis of algorithms, to debugging, to testing. It does not cover any of these things in great detail, but in every case it highlights the important concepts and rules-of-thumb. I've been a working programmer for over a decade, and I found myself nodding in agreement quite frequently. Plus, the book contains quite a bit of carefully written, well-revised code--example code, solving toy problems, but written to production-quality standards. Kernighan and Pike are professional programmers with decades of experience, and it's well worth any software engineer's time to see what they have to say, in prose and code alike.

Oath of Swords
The War God's Own
By David Weber

I've reviewed many of Weber's books in the space previously, most of them from his Honor Harrington series; these are the first two books in a fantasy series (this seems to be a month for epic fantasy). At least, the second is a sequel to the first, and I wouldn't be surprised to see another book to follow.

Above, I lavished great praise on The Runelords as a big, bold, innovative epic fantasy; these are not nearly so big, bold, or innovative, yet they have an undeniable charm, and I recommend them. I found the second book to be more entertaining than the first, but that may be because I read the first book second, after I knew what happened in it.

At first glimpse, Weber's world is your typical post-Tolkien Dungeons&Dragons fantasy setting. You've got humans, dwarves, elves, half-elves, and halflings; you've also got hradani, a race of large, dangerous barbarians much feared and hated by the other races. It's not entirely their fault; during the Fall of Kontovar, the hradani were enslaved by the dark wizards and turned into raging, maddened berserkers. The Rage can still come upon a male hradani at any time, or so it is thought, and so they are shunned.

Our hero, Prince Bahdell of Hurgrum, is of the Horse Stealer hradani; he'd fit well into a Modesitt novel, as he's (loosely speaking) a man of integrity, courage, and great physical strength. He spends the first book rescuing maidens and being wooed by the Tomanak the War God, who wants to make him one of his Champions. Ultimately, of course, Bahdell goes along with it; he spends the second book finding out what being the War God's Champion entails, and incidentally bringing his people back into the community of nations.

The Sandman--Preludes & Nocturnes
By Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman has written several novels, including one collaboration with Terry Pratchett, but he's perhaps best known for a series of D.C. comic books about "The Sandman". The series is quite highly regarded. Now, you may say, "Highly regarded by who? People who read comic books?" Yes; but also by such worthies as Clive Barker, Lisa Goldstein, Barbara Hambly, Will Shetterly, Tad Williams, Gene Wolfe, Steven Brust, and, of all people, singer Tori Amos. Given that kind of good press, I decided that the Sandman was worth investigating.

It so happens that the complete set of Sandman comics is available as a set of ten collections, of which Preludes & Nocturnes is the first, and so that's where I started.

I'm intrigued. The stories in the first volume are baroque, weird, often gruesome, often funny in a grisly way, occasionally horrifying. I don't know whether to recommend them or not, but I do attend to pursue the series further, if only because the experience of reading a well-done comic book is so different than that of reading prose. It really is a whole different medium.

The Microcosmic God
By Theodore Sturgeon

Theodore Sturgeon was one of the premier science fiction writers of the middle part of this century, and one who earned the greatest respect of his peers. He was remarkably prolific, and one publishing company is in the process of releasing a ten-volume anthology of all of his short fiction. The present volume is the second of the set, and contains fiften or twenty stories, all written in a little over a year in the late 1940's. I bought it in the same spirit in which I bought the anthology of Cordwainer Smith's short fiction: to fill in the holes in my collection. But I bought it with even more reason, for I had already read most of Smith's output at one time or another. Of the stories in this volume, I was familiar only with the title story, which is justifiably famous; in the 1960's, the members of the Science Fiction Writers of America voted it one of the five best science fiction stories to date.

The remaining stories fall about equally in the science fiction and fantasy arenas; many of the latter are of the "average joe falls into inexplicable situation and must make the best of it" variety. Many of the stories feel rather dated (particularly the science fiction ones) but they remain quite enjoyable. It usually takes me a week or so to work through an anthology like this one, and I zipped through it over one busy weekend. I'll certainly be looking up the other books in the series.

The Topless Tulip Caper
By Lawrence Block

It would be an overstatement (or would it be an understatement?) to say that I've spent little time in topless bars and suchlike establishments. In fact, I've spent precisely no time in suchlike establishments. One gathers that Lawrence Block's life has been rather less sheltered.

By now I've read all of Block's books about detective Matthew Scudder, burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, and sleepless patron of lost causes Evan Tanner. Not to worry; he has another series as well, about young, good-looking, oversexed Chip Harrison, and The Topless Tulip Caper is one of these. The "Topless Tulip" of the title is an exotic dancer with the stage name "Tulip Willing". She hires Chip Harrison's boss, Leo Haig, to find out who killed one-hundred and twenty-five of her pet fish.

One can draw a line (I won't call it a fine line) between bawdy and pornography. Pornography intends to arouse; bawdy intends to amuse. In general, one doesn't find them in the same places. The jokes about what the Scotsman wears under his kilt are bawdy; most of the funnier English folksongs are bawdy as well. Pornography, well, I won't describe it, for as the Justice said, I'm sure you know when you see it. In this book, Block walks just this side of the line. I frankly can't think of when I've seen a book with so much sex and so little detail. I mean to say, while I wouldn't particularly want my little boy to read this, he wouldn't be learning much from it either.

So what can I say? It's got lots more sex in it than I'm comfortable with, it's not pornographic, and it's genuinely funny. It all leaves me feeling a tad ambivalent. But definitely amused.

Children's Books

Arthur's Baby
By Marc Brown

Last month I told how I was at the bookstore with Dave, and he announced that he needed a book too. I chose George Shrinks for him, and he loved it, but that's not all we got. No. No, Dave saw a box with Arthur on it, and just had to have an Arthur book. Not familiar with Arthur? He's a little boy with a mom and a dad and two little sisters and a bunch of school friends, all of whom happen to be different kinds of animals. I'm not sure what kind of animal Arthur is supposed to be, but he wears glasses and looks just like that kid that sat next to you in third grade.

Anyway, Arthur has a series of books, and a TV show on PBS that Dave loves, and when Dave saw Arthur on the he had to have an Arthur book. Jane is expecting our second child, so Arthur's Baby was a natural. It's about the arrival of Arthur's second sister, baby Katie. There's only one problem with this book: Dave's best friend has a little baby sister named Katie, and this has led Dave to two conclusions: 1) All babies are named Katie, and 2) The baby at Jonathon's house is really Arthur's little sister. I don't know what he's going to do when his new sibling is born.

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