Home : Ex Libris : 1 June 1999

ex libris reviews

1 June 1999

Good on yer, mate!
Any Australian


In This Issue:
Notes from Australia

Regular readers may have noticed that last month's issue was uploaded not on May 1st, but rather a few days earlier on April 28th. The fact is, I got on a plane on April 29th and spent the first two weeks of May in Australia on business. (Just for the record, you don't get to travel in Business Class just because you're travelling on business. More's the pity.) As a result of my travels, I've got some tales to tell and more books to discuss than you'd expect (and that's one of the tales). But first, I've got a couple of questions.

Opinions, Please!

I'm contemplating making a couple of changes to Ex Libris Reviews; it seems only fair to ask my readers whether they approve. The first involves e-mail. At present, if a reader of ex libris reviews wishes to comment on something I've said, they can send us e-mail. I always respond personally, unless the reply e-mail address doesn't work. Then, sometimes, I quote the letters in this column. I like reading the letters, but it hasn't fostered the kind of cross-communication between readers that I was hoping for.

I've found a website (the same that provides my hit-counters) that will provide a "Discussion Group" service. I can create an "Ex Libris" discussion group, which will allow ex libris readers to post their views, read what others have written and respond to it, and so forth. It would also allow me to respond publicly as well as privately. Most of all, it wouldn't be necessary to wait for the "Letters" column in the next issue to continue a discussion.

If I implement this kind of group--and it's easy to do--readers will have two ways to contact me: privately, via e-mail, and publicly, via the discussion group. The first topic I'd like opinions on is this: Should I create an Ex Libris Reviews discussion group? Would you read it? Would you post to it?

The second question involves money. I write ex libris reviews on my own time, at my own expense. I do not display advertisements, nor do I charge a fee, nor do I want to do either of those things. Still, whether you're rich or poor, it's nice to have money. Enter Amazon.com. I can sign ex libris reviews up as an "Amazon Associate". Essentially what this means is that I can place links from this page to Amazon.com; if enough of my readers follow the links and buy the books from Amazon.com, I get a small percentage. On the other hand, creating the links would be a pain in the neck. So, the second topic I'd like opinions on is this: Would you buy the books I review from Amazon.com? Note, I'm not asking you to change your buying habits; personally, I prefer to shop at local bookstores rather than buying on-line. But if enough of you would do so, I'll consider making it happen.

And Now, Back to Australia

I have a laptop computer that I usually take with me when I (infrequently) travel on business. I don't bring it for business reasons, mind you; I bring it so that I can write in the evenings (and play games, but that's a side point). My first thought was to take it with me to Australia. But then I considered: here I was, travelling to a strange, far-off land, a place I had never been; surely I could find better things to do with my evenings than sit in my hotel room? So I left the PC at home. But the joke was on me.

My business took me to the city of Canberra, which is the capital of Australia; a place less like Washington D.C. would be difficult to imagine. The fact is, there's very little to do in Canberra in the evening by one's self. One can watch American movies in the theaters; one can go out to restaurants; that's about it. The shops all close by 5:30 PM or so, except on Friday nights when they stay open until 9 PM. I'm not particularly interesting in night clubs, but even those aren't open most of the week. I suppose one could have some interesting experiences walking around downtown Canberra in the dark, but I'm not much of a thrillseeker.

So, except for the three nights when I went out with Australian friends, what did I do in the evening? I stayed in my hotel room, and read books. And more books. About half of the books in this issue I read on my way to Australia, while in Australia, or on my way home. And quite a few of them I bought there.

My impression of the book scene in Australia is that there are fewer large bookstores than in the U.S.A., and perhaps not nearly so many books published. Of those books that I did see, perhaps most of them are available here as well. There were a few science fiction and fantasy authors I didn't recognize; I left them alone, as most of their books seemed to be parts of large series. I'd have had to buy the entire series if I wanted to finish it.

But amidst the strange names and the all-too familiar names were a few gems, a few books that I'd been wanting that are hard to find in the States: the latest Terry Pratchett; a stray Lawrence Block; several history books; and, most especially, a whole bunch of books by Iain M. Banks. My acquisitions were limited by available funds, and even more by available space in my suitcase, but nevertheless I've got some interesting books to talk about.

-- Will Duquette

Electronic Books:
A Palm Reader of Zenda

Before leaving for Australia I loaded two books into my PalmPilot--for if I left my laptop at home, my PalmPilot was ever by my side. I loaded two books: The Mystery of Edwin Drood, by Charles Dickens, and the The Prisoner of Zenda. And both of them languished until I got home.

But if I didn't use my PalmPilot for reading, I certainly used it for writing. Usually I keep a list of all of the books I read during the month and write the reviews at the end of the month. Every book I finished in Australia, however, I reviewed immediately, typing the reviews right into my PalmPilot.

But wait! you cry. The PalmPilot doesn't have a keyboard! You write on it by hand with a stylus! Well, yes and no. When I realized that I would be leaving my laptop at home, I ordered a GoType! keyboard from LandWare. This is truly a neat implement. It's a small keyboard, about 8 inches by 4, with a clamshell lid and a plug onto which the PalmPilot snaps. It takes no batteries, and doesn't use much of the PalmPilot's power either. The keys are small, but I found I was able to touchtype quite nicely. I highly recommend it.

Back to the books. I tried reading Drood first, and found myself unable to get into it, at least at the moment; it might be quite a fine work, but if so I think it requires more attention than the twenty or so minutes a day I was able to give it.

The Prisoner of Zenda
By Anthony Hope

The Prisoner of Zenda, on the other hand, was a joy and delight. It's an old-fashioned swashbuckler, short on depth, perhaps, but long on adventure, romance, skullduggery, treachery, beautiful ladies, evil villains, you name it. Rudolf Rassendyll, English gentleman, travels on a whim to the small country of Ruritania, home of his ancestors...for if his family is an old English one, his red hair and facial features surely date from a visit paid by a future king of Ruritania to his great-grandmother. In him, the Elphberg features have run true--and therein hangs the tale, for he is the very image of the soon-to-be-crowned Prince Rudolf of Ruritania. I won't go into any further details about the plot, as I don't want to spoil it. Suffice it to say that it was a page turner.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the tale, upon reflection, is the hero's attitude towards his predicament; it is here that the book's age shows through most strongly. Rudolf Rassendyll is a man of honor, and a man who fears God. His situation forces him to lie for (as he sees it) the greater good--but he is distressed by the lies none the less. Moreover, the greatest battle in the book is not between Rudolf and his enemies, but between Rudolf and himself. He can selfishly betray the trust others have in him and set himself up for life, or he can be true to his commission in the face of great temptation. And this is partly a matter of honor, but much more a matter of morality: of doing the right thing before God. In our day we have sucked all of the blood out of the word morality; it's now a pale, pathetic thing of sex and foolishness.

I harp on this because the moral dimension is largely absent from adventure fiction in recent years, especially in the fantasy and science fiction genres. One often finds loyalty to friends; one finds a notion of honor and of loyalty to country; but one rarely finds honesty, which is the foundation of all morality. Your average hero now lies gleefully and thoroughly, well-aware that he's on the side of the angels and that the good end justifies his means. I tell you, it's refreshing to find a hero that feels shamed by his lies.

I found both The Mystery of Edwin Drood and The Prisoner of Zenda at http://www.memoware.com, which has recently consolidated several other e-book sites.

Books to Read Aloud:
A Land Down-Over

by Will Duquette

Obviously, I didn't read aloud to Jane while I was in Australia, and though we have made up for it since I got home, we haven't finished anything yet. We're in the middle of Terry Pratchett's almost-latest book, The Last Continent, which takes place on the Discworld continent of XXXX--a place almost entirely like Australia. It seems fitting, some how; but more on that next month.

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

It was indeed a fruitful month for reading, both in Australia and once I got home; let me tell you, jet lag is a pain. It was almost a full week before I was sleeping normally again. But in the meantime, I read a lot.

God Save The Queen
By Dorothy Cannell

I started this book on the bus on my way to the airport to catch the plane to Sydney, and finished it on the plane. It was light and tasty, rather like cotton candy, but not much of a mystery. If you've read any of Cannell's Ellie Haskell mysteries, you'll find this unrelated tale to be an agreeable way of spending the afternoon. If not, you could do much worse for airplane reading. It's no classic, though.

The Star King
The Killing Machine
The Palace of Love
The Face
The Book of Dreams
By Jack Vance

There are certain books one comes to know by reputation long before one ever sees them. I had heard from time-to-time of Vance's Demon Princes novels as being "really good" for probably twenty years, so when I saw a two-volume collection containing all five novels, I bought it immediately. I read the first one at home, the second and third in Australia, and the remaining two after my return.

I've read Jack Vance on and off for years. Some of his books I like, some I find impenetrable, and I have to be in the right mood to enjoy them. His books are always oddly, artificially polite: all characters, no matter their station in life, are always articulate; they utter threats with polite euphemism, evasion, circumlocution, and many large words. It's not believable, but it does give Vance's work a large measure of its charm.

The Demon Princes books are science-fiction, not fantasy, and have nothing to do with demons. The Demon Princes of the title are five lords of crime. The setting is our own Galaxy, which is divided into two regions: the civilized worlds of the Oikumene, and the lawless worlds of the Beyond. Kirth Gersen was a child when the five Demon Princes raided his world, taking almost the entire population away as slaves. Of his own village, only he and his grandfather survived. Because their world of Mount Pleasant lies in the Beyond, where there is no law by definition, there were no repercussions, no police action, no penalty for the Demon Princes. Consequently, Gersen's grandfather raised him to be their nemesis. In each of the five books, Gersen seeks out one of the Demon Princes, and ultimately brings about their downfall.

Of the five, I liked the fourth and fifth best; the third, The Palace of Love, I thought was rather long-winded and tedious. In all fairness, I must add that I was severely jet-lagged at the time. I finished the last chapter after a good, long night's sleep, and it went much easier (and faster). The ending of the fourth made me laugh out loud; the ending of the fifth was, predictably, a let down.

I might have enjoyed the first three books more if I had not read them back-to-back, as they do follow a certain formula. Each of the Demon Princes carefully preserves his anonymity, maintaining one or more aliases through which they do their work. In each book Gersen travels, studies, interrogates, and finally narrows down the possible suspects to two or three; then he determines which one it must be by some trick or other. Had I read them farther apart, the pattern would have been less jarring.

So, are they as good as I'd heard? I'll go so far as to say that they are good examples of Jack Vance's serious science fiction. I tend to prefer his fantasy and his more humorous work, notably The Eyes of the Overworld and Lyonesse.

N is for Novice
By Sue Grafton

I have a soft spot in my heart for Sue Grafton; I read mystery novels today because my friend Debbie was reading A is for Alibi when we visited her some years ago. I read a few chapters and bought my own copy when we got home. I believe Grafton had only gotten through E is for Evidence at that point. Anyway, that's when I started looking at the mystery stacks. Come to think of it, Debbie put me on to Dick Francis as well (Hot Money).

For those not in the know, Sue Grafton's sleuth is a private detective named Kinsey Milhone who lives in Santa Teresa--that is, Santa Barbara--California. The books are somewhat formulaic, in that they usually end with the killer trying to kill Kinsey and failing, but they are consistently entertaining. This is a worthy addition to the series.

A Station of the Cross
By anonymous

This is a little booklet I got at the Anglican Parish of All Saints, Ainslie, Australian Capital Territory, so don't bother going to look for it. All Saints, Ainslie, is a lovely little neo-gothic church with a fascinating history. In the 1860's, the Colonial Architect designed two mortuary train stations, one in Sydney, and one in the Sydney Necropolis about ten miles away. It become the custom for funeral processions to travel to the cemetary by train, ending in the mortuary station, and then to the grave side on foot.

After WWII the mortuary station in the cemetary was no longer used, and eventually lost its roof in a fire. In the 1950's it was purchased by the parish of All Saints for £100, transported stone by stone to Ainslie, and rebuilt as a parish church. It is a lovely, light, airy church, and I very much enjoyed the two services I attended there.

God was very good to me while I was in Australia; what could have been a time of tedium and boredom instead became a time of reading and contemplation and quiet joy. Odd though it may seem to non-Christians, the warm welcome I received from the parishioners of All Saint's, Ainslie was instrumental in that, and I'm glad that God led me there.

The Green Man
By Kingsley Amis

I bought this book because I was intrigued by the title, and because the blurb said that it was a splendid chiller and also extremely funny. I didn't like it very much.

At heart, it's not a bad ghost story; it reminded me strongly of H.P. Lovecraft's work, though it's considerably less purple. Alas, the ghost story is encumbered by a copious supply of tedious and dreary detail about the narrator's sex life. A summary: he seduces his friend's wife, then gets her to agree to a threesome with his wife, then gets his wife to agree, and then the two wives leave their husbands and run off together. I suppose that's what the blurb-writer found funny. I found it tiresome, on the whole. It's a first person narrative, and frankly I didn't enjoy spending that much time in the narrator's skull.

I doubt I'll be seeking out any more of Amis' work any time soon.

Carpe Jugulum
By Terry Pratchett

With this book I made the jump from books I'd brought with me to books I bought in Australia. For some reason, Pratchett's Discworld books are published much later in the U.S.A. than they are in England and the Commonwealth, and it was Pratchett I was mostly looking for when I ventured out to the bookstores the day I arrived. Carpe Jugulum is Pratchett's latest, following The Last Continent, and is yet another Granny Weatherwax tale.

It's time for the christening of King Verence and Queen Magrat's first child, and in a fit of statesmanship Verence has invited the Count of Magpyr and his family from the region of Überwald. Alas, the Count and his family are vampires, and everyone knows you shouldn't invite a vampire into your home.

The Count is a progressive vampire, who is confident that the vampire's traditional antipathy to garlic, sunlight, holy symbols, and so forth is mere cultural conditioning. He's also convinced that vampires are superior to mere humans, and his ability to cloud men's minds is certainly not based on cultural conditioning. Soon the Kingdom of Lancre has fallen entirely into his hands, and it's up to the witches--Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Agnes Nitt (with help from Queen Magrat) to save the day.

Carpe Jugulum was a very pleasant way to while away a dull evening, and a pleasant addition to the Discworld series, but not outstanding.

The Decipherment of Linear B
By John Chadwick

Cambridge University Press uses its "Canto" imprint to republish classic books, as well as new ones they feel are of general interest. I have bought several Canto texts here in the states, but they are hard to find. I found a little bookstore in downtown Canberra that not only had a large selection of them but had them on sale: buy two, get a third free. I couldn't say no to that, and came away with this book, among others.

Linear B is one of the scripts used in the Greek world before the invention of the classical Greek alphabet. It was used on Crete and on the Greek mainland at Pylos and Mycenae at the very least. The decipherment of Linear B is one of the great detective stories of archaeology. It eclipses the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics or Babylonian cuneiform, because both of those were deciphered with the aid of a "bilingual": a document written in two scripts, one known and the other unknown. For Egyptian, the bilingual is of course the famous Rosetta stone. No such bilingual exists for Mycenaen Greek, the language of Linear B; nor was it clear before the decipherment that the Linear B texts were a written form of Greek. The conventional (and unquestioned) wisdom was that Mycenaen or Minoan culture was pre-Greek not proto-Greek.

Michael Ventris, with help from the author, analyzed Linear B grammatically until he had a structure that made sense to him; he then started looking for well-known place names that looked to him like survivals into Greek of older place names. Somewhat to his surprise, he found them. Then, diffidently and more with the notion of proving conventional wisdom to be correct than otherwise, he tried to decipher several Linear B texts using ancient Greek, and it worked. Confirmation was swift, and in a handful of years (1952-1957) he had revolutionized Greek archaeology. Almost immediately after he was hit by a truck and killed. Go figure.

The book is interesting, though rather dry; and the last chapter, which contains deductions about the Mycenaen Greeks, is almost certainly woefully out of date (it was written in 1958). Those readers who are intrigued might be even more interested in Breaking the Maya Code by Michael D. Coe. It's similar tale, and I enjoyed it more.

Tanner on Ice
By Lawrence Block

Block had last written a book about Evan Michael Tanner, the man who can't sleep, in 1972. Bowing to popular demand, he has finally written another, and this is it. Writing it presented him with a dreadful problem, though, which he solved with boldness, panache, and the lack of plausibility we've come to expect from Evan Tanner.

The problem is this: like many mystery writers, Block's books take place in the present day. His characters age as we do, read the newspapers we do, watch the TV shows we do. His last book had left Tanner in the early 1970's; how to bring him into the late 1990's, twenty-five years later? Tanner would be in his 60s, which age doesn't lend itself to the kind of absurd goings on he gets involved with; more than that, how did he avoid being killed by some third-world government goon in all that time?

The answer, as I said, is both bold and deliciously silly. Tanner has, quite literally, been on ice for twenty-five years. It seems that he'd been supporting certain revolutionary groups in Sweden, and the Swedish government caught up with him. They were unwilling to kill him; Sweden, evidently, doesn't work that way. So they froze him, and put him in a hidden meat locker along with his clothes, an emergency power supply, and a note. He was found only when the house was remodeled, and was somehow revived; Block glosses right over that one. And get this: physically, he's no older. Voila, the rabbit out of the hat: a youthful, unspoiled Evan Tanner brought into the present day.

Once himself again, Tanner does what you'd expect. He studies up on the changes in the past twenty-five years, and then gets an assignment in Burma. It goes as unexpected, like always, and he finds a pretty female companion, like always, and succeeds in his mission while doing none of the things he was sent to do, like always, and in general provides a rousing good time for himself and the reader both. The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the French say.

The Ballad of Frankie Silver
By Sharyn McCrumb

This is the latest of McCrumb's Spencer Arrowood novels, set in the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee. Or, really, it's the true story of a young frontier woman named Frankie Silver who was hanged in the 1830's for the murder of her husband. McCrumb encountered Silver's story while researching a previous book, and this volume is the result. There's a modern component as well; a man Spencer Arrowood arrested for murder as a Deputy Sheriff is about to be executed after twenty years on Death Row. The case has certainly similarities with Frankie Silver's, and it provides some interesting moments, but the focus of the book is firmly in the 1830's.

It's a bold effort, this attempt to write a contemporary mystery story and a fictionalized history at the same time, and it works, mostly, just as did her similar book, Macpherson's Lament. But it's slow-moving. I read this in my hotel room in Australia, and it was so slow moving that I put it down and read two other books before picking it up again.

The Wasp Factory
By Iain Banks

Oh, my.

Banks writes under two names, science fiction under the name "Iain M. Banks" and mainstream fiction under the name "Iain Banks". His science fiction is mostly available in the United States, but his mainstream books are harder to find, mostly, I suspect, because American publishers don't generally know what to do with them. They are, in three words, odd and disturbing. The only two I've seen to date are Complicity, a straightforward thriller I didn't much like, and The Bridge, which was marketed alongside his science fiction. Enjoying his science fiction as I do, and being in Australia where his other books are available, I jumped at the chance to buy a few, including this one.

Oh, my.

The Wasp Factory is the story of a truly disturbed, mentally unbalanced individual. The individual's distressingly cruel actions are described with crystalline clarity. If Stephen King could write his horror as clearly and vividly as Iain Banks, no one would read him--they'd be afraid to. And yet, there's also a subtle disarmng humor that keeps it from being just an exercise in awfulness.

I dunno. It was compelling reading; perhaps the best thing I can do is pass along a review quote from inside the front cover: "...there is nothing to force you, having been warned, to read it; nor do I recommend it."

And yet the writing was so good.

Oh, my.

Walking On Glass
By Iain Banks

Except for the crystalline clarity of the writing, this book is almost entirely different than The Wasp Factory. I liked it; it was often intriguing, often funny, always well written, rarely (but occasionally) shocking. I did not understand it. It's clever and imaginative; that goes without saying. I'm just not at all sure what the point is, or what I'm supposed to take away from it.

The book follows three distinct threads: a young man in love; a paranoid; a prisoner held in a very odd, far future prison. There are certain links between the stories, certain hints I did not fully grasp. There are evocations of myriad other books, including The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Titus Groan, surely an odd combination.

But what it's all about, I don't know. It seems to be about the inevitable futility of life; then again, it might be about the need to stand up and carry on despite the inevitable futility of life. Either way, I find the theme uncongenial. But it kept me turning the pages.

Are you getting the idea that Banks' books are hard to be indifferent to?

The Great Wall of China
By Arthur Waldron

Everything you know about the Great Wall of China is wrong. As someone (Will Rogers?) said, it's not the things we don't know that are so harmful; it's the things we know that just ain't so.

Conventional wisdom, as described by Waldron and the Encycopedia Brittanica says that the Great Wall of China is over 4,000 miles long; that it was first built by Ch'in Shih Huang-Ti, the first emperor of unified China, over 2,000 years ago, to keep the barbarians out of China; that it has been rebuilt as necessary since then; that it is the only man-made object that can be seen from the moon (or, in some tellings, from space). It is seen by academics as a physical manifestation of the fundamental Chinese approach to foreign policy, the exclusion of the barbarian. It is seen as the natural boundary of China, established at the dawn of the Chinese state and maintained ever since. You may even have heard that the Huns invaded Rome because, ultimately, the Great Wall of China turned then back. And everyone has seen the pictures of the Wall snaking up and down hills like a stone dragon.

It ain't so, folks. The modern concept of the Great Wall and its role in Chinese history was invented by Western observers over the last two or three hundred years; only in this century has it been adopted as a national symbol by the Chinese themselves.

So, what is the truth about the Great Wall?

The sections of wall we have all seen pictures of were built in the sixteenth century, during the Ming dynasty. They were brand new at that time. Ch'in Shih Huang-Ti did indeed build walls, but in quite different places, for the frontier has shifted many times in China's history. Also, Ch'in's walls were made of pounded earth, and have long since eroded away.

The wall isn't X thousand miles long (pick your own X; many have been quoted); in fact, no one is sure how long it is, or even exactly where it runs. It has never been surveyed in modern times. All existing maps are based on previous maps and writings which can be shown to be inaccurate or made by people who had never actually seen it.

Exclusion of the barbarians by wall-building, was never the fundamental Chinese foreign policy. Many dynasties built no walls at all; of those that did, Waldron does an excellent job of showing that wall-building was rarely the first choice. Nomads have lived to the north and west of China for all of Chinese history. For all of that time, they have sought to trade with China for goods they could not make or grow themselves. When they could not trade (and sometimes when they could), they raided to get the things they could not buy. Historically, there have been many approaches to dealing with the problem of the nomads. Certain dynasties, notably the T'ang, the Yuan, and the Qing, have tried to control them by taking control of the steppes. Others have tried to work with them, trading more or less freely. At other times, notably during the Ming dynasty when most wall-building was done, the Chinese intelligentsia were very much against any dealings with the barbarians; they were in favor of conquest. More pragmatic souls were aware that conquest was impossible (for reasons I won't go into here), and favored compromise with the barbarians, including officially sanctioned trade. Typically, neither faction was powerful enough to get its own way. And yet, something had to be done. As is so often the case, when something must be done but nothing useful can be done, something useless is done. At such times, China started building walls.

So that's the Great Wall of China: a poorly mapped, poorly understand monument to diviseness, factionalism, and the disproportionate effect of internal palace politics on the realm as a whole.

You may ask, "How do you know Waldron is trustworthy? How do you know conventional wisdom isn't right?" I'm taking him on faith, of course; but I feel I'm right to do so. He began by trying to verify the conventional wisdom. He only came around to his current position as he become familiar with the historical sources, which he cites in great profusion. He's no madman waving assertions in the air; he supports everything he says. And yet the book is quite readable, and I recommend it.

Thrones, Dominations
By Dorothy Sayers and Jill Paton Walsh

Sayers, of course, is the much-loved creator of amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, whose career began with Whose Body? and ended (so we thought) with Busman's Honeymoon. Sayers began another Peter Wimsey novel, to follow directly upon Busman's Honeymoon, but became involved with other projects and never finished. Now, with permission from Sayer's estate and access to all drafts and working notes, Jill Paton Walsh has finished it.

I am deeply skeptical of such posthumous collaborations. Fictional characters cannot be murdered, but they can easily be spoiled; a bad pastiche of a well-loved character is likely to anger me at best and damage the character at worst. I therefore approached Thrones, Dominations with considerable reluctance. Indeed, I brought with me to Australia but didn't open it until I arrived at the airport to come home.

I enjoyed it. It isn't on the level of Sayer's best work, but it is passable, and Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane emerge unscathed. Sayers fans may read it without fear.

The Eleventh Commandment
By Jeffrey Archer

I read most of Archer's work while I was in college; since then, except for Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, which is a gem, I've rather ignored him. He was tending to long, involved social soap operas (Kane and Abel, The Prodigal Daughter) which, while entertaining, aren't really my cup of tea. I was looking for something light to read on the plane home, something rather lighter than Iain Banks, and correctly surmised that Archer would fill the bill.

The Eleventh Commandment is a spy thriller about CIA assassin Connor Fitzgerald. The CIA director is engaged in a power struggle with the President of the United States, and decides that Fitzgerald is expendable. But Fitzgerald has other ideas.

It kept me entertained through the middle part of the 13-hour flight home; but a number of plot holes kept it from being truly convincing. Perhaps the most amusing bit was when Fitzgerald boards United Airlines flight 816 from Sydney to Los Angeles--the self-same flight I was on.

Espedair Street
By Iain Banks

Unlike the other books of his that I've reviewed this month, Espedair Street contains no lunatics, no fantastic castles, no demented outlandish cruelty. Instead, it concerns the all-too-real lunacy of sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll. Daniel Weir (nickname Weird) was once the songwriter and bass player of the famous rock group Frozen Gold. Espedair Street is a retrospective of how he survived being a rock star--and then how he survived not being a rock star. It's a more straightforward tale than most of Banks'; its only complexity is that it uses what I think of as a "wedge" structure, in which the present day story and the back story are interleaved until eventually the back story reaches present day and the story concludes. I liked it, for the most part.

Aunt Dimity's Death
Aunt Dimity and the Duke
By Nancy Atherton

During my days of homecoming jet-lag I was looking for something light and pleasant to read, and came up with these mysteries. I first read them several years ago (not long before ex libris was born, I believe) at the suggestion of a good friend. Aunt Dimity is a unique character in my experience: she never really appears in the books that bear her name, and yet manages to dominate them.

Aunt Dimity's Death is a magical book, with a little mystery, a little romance, and no villains to speak of. It takes place entirely after Aunt Dimity's demise, and is really the tale of Lori Shepherd, daughter of Dimity's closest friend, as she struggles to fulfull the odd requirements of Dimity's will.

Aunt Dimity and the Duke, Atherton's second book, in fact precedes Aunt Dimity's Death (there are some spurious mentions of Aunt Dimity's ghost in the back cover blurb; ignore them, they are hogwash). This one is not quite as magical as the first, a little too heavy-handed, perhaps, but just as good a companion for a drowsy afternoon. I liked it rather more this time than I did the first time.

The Black Ship
By Dudley Pope

Dudley Pope is evidently best known as the author of a series of novels about a lieutenant in Nelson's Navy, one Nicholas Ramage. I say "evidently", because I have never read any of them, and in fact this book, which is not one of the the Ramage novels and indeed is not even fiction, served as my introduction to Mr. Pope. If his fiction is as good as his non-fiction, Nicholas Ramage's adventures should be interesting indeed.

The Black Ship is the true story of the mutiny on the frigate HMS Hermione, the bloodiest mutiny in the history of the Royal Navy. He describes the brutal Captain Hugh Pigot and his death at the hands of his men, the cowardice of the other officers, the subsequent actions of the mutineers, and their eventual capture. Everything is described from existing documents, in particular from the testimony given at the various court-martials, and yet it remains remarkably gripping. The mutineers gave the Hermione to the Spanish, and the tale ends with its recapture by the men of the frigate HMS Surprise, the very same Surprise that sailed into the pages of literature with Jack Aubrey at the helm.

I enjoyed reading it, and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the Age of Sail, and the Royal Navy in particular.

Dream Country
Season of Mist
By Neil Gaiman

Last month I reviewed the first of Gaiman's "Sandman" comic book collections, Preludes and Nocturnes. Shortly after I returned from Australia I hunted down the third and fourth collections (Borders didn't have the second one), and read them eagerly.

I dunno. I was somewhat disappointed.

Dream Country I thought was particularly lightweight. Instead of being an extended narrative like the first volume, it was more a collection of short stories. Some were interesting, some were not; it was interesting, but not particularly memorable. Had I started with this volume I probably wouldn't have bothered reading any others.

Season of Mist was better, but also more disturbing. Gaiman, you see, is fond of Hell. I don't mean to say that he's a satanist, but rather that he is fond of Hell as a setting and various demons (including Lucifer) as characters. As a Christian, this makes me uneasy, which is undoubtedly his goal. It helps that Gaiman's Lucifer is not the Father of Lies of Christian theology, but a much different (though thoroughly unsympathetic) character, but it's still unsettling. Other than that, though, it was an interesting tale.

The Ape Who Guards The Balance
By Elizabeth Peters

Yet another disappointment. This book is not truly wretched, but it isn't what I had hoped for either.

The Ape Who Guards The Balance is the latest in Peters' Amelia Peabody series of Egyptian mysteries. The series as a whole is great fun, and I highly recommend it. Like many long-running mystery series, the lives of the main characters are of as much interest to the reader as the plot, and therein lies the difficulty. The focus in this volume is mostly on the younger characters: Amelia's son Ramses, and her wards Nefret and David. Ramses is hopelessly in love with Nefret, but is afraid to show it; Nefret (it becomes clear) is simply waiting for him to get a clue; David is in love with Ramses' cousin Lia. The mystery proceeds apace, but the focus is on these relationships. As a result, the mystery is only so-so, unable to carry the book by itself--and then, against all of my expectations, Peters put off resolving the interpersonal details until at least the next book. As a result, it was disappointing on both fronts. I don't feel that I wasted my time, as it was a fun read anyway, but I was rather annoyed with the author when I turned the last page.

Dreamweaver's Dilemma
By Lois McMaster Bujold

I've been a fan of Ms. Bujold's for many years, and so it is somewhat inexplicable that this volume and essays remained on my to-be-read shelf for something over two years. I finally pulled it down this past week, and enjoyed it thoroughly.

It contains her previously uncollected short fiction include two which had never been published, one Miles Vorkosigan story ("The Mountains of Mourning"), a number of essays on the topic of writing science fiction, and an extended interview. It was published by the New England Science Fiction Association, primarily, I gather, for sale at the Boskone science fiction convention. It's not an essential volume; the only truly first rate work in it is "The Mountains of Mourning", which is readily available and well-known to Bujold fans (though I enjoyed re-reading it).

One of the essays made an interesting point. Some books, some TV shows, some movies have the ability to pull the reader/viewer in, to make them work at enjoying the story. They encourage the reader to fill in all of the gaps with their own imagination, creating a much richer experience than an objective observer would expect. Star Trek did it; Star Wars is doing it as I write. Bujold's work does it; so does that of L.E. Modesitt, Jr and Robert Jordan. J.R.R. Tolkien didn't invent it, but to hear some people talk you'd think he did.

That some stories can have this hold on us is self-evident, once it is pointed out. The more interesting point is that many stories do not. Many, perhaps most books that are touted as "literary" do not. It isn't dependent on style or skill or characterization; even poorly written stories can sometimes have it. Apparently there is more to literary merit than style or skill or characterization, but what it is I'm not quite sure. Perhaps it's merely a stirring tale, well-told? I dunno, but as an aspiring writer I'd like to find out.

Mr. Standfast
The Three Hostages
By John Buchan

Buchan is credited with inventing the modern spy thriller, and the book he invented it with, The Thirty-Nine Steps, is the immediate precursor of the three listed above. All were written between 1910 and 1920; The Thirty-Nine Steps involves the political maneuvering leading up to the Great War, and, if I recall correctly, is the first occurrence of the fiendishly smiling German villain with the fluffy white cat. Greenmantle and Mr. Standfast directly involve the war, and The Three Hostages takes place several years after. All are real page-turners, though I think I liked the last two best. All four involve Richard Hannay, British officer and sometime secret agent.

Like Buchan's successors (Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum, for example), his books are rooted firmly in the politics of the day. A later audience, unfamiliar with those politics, is in for some heavy going. Greenmantle is likely to be particularly difficult, as it concerns the Middle East, and Germany's efforts to stir up jihad among the Turks and Egyptians in an attempt to bring down the British Empire. Such things sound like the matter of a cheap thriller, and indeed they are the matter of Greenmantle, but Germany's efforts were real enough, as historian Peter Hopkirk has recounted. I'm not so familiar with the World War I era, and I had to keep reminding myself that the Germans were led by the Kaiser and the Russians by the Czar, not by Der Fuhrer and Stalin. If the reader can get past the political references, though (as any science fiction reader has learned to do), it's a thrilling tale, as Hannay and his crew attempt to find the secret of the Greenmantle and prevent the jihad.

Mr. Stand-fast is both better and worse. Better because the underlying politics are more familiar; worse because there are a number of extended battle sequences that I found rather tiresome. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it. Now a brigadier-general, Hannay goes undercover to find a masterspy in the world of English pacifists and labor agitators.

The Three Hostages is a different kettle of fish. It takes place after the war, and rather than involving the Germans, it involves a hunt for a master criminal and three innocent hostages. The plot turns rather absurdly on psychology and hypnotism and the strange powers of Eastern mystics, but that's natural for the post-war era in which it was written; I'm sure it was more convincing at the time. That given, it was once again a gripping yarn, perhaps the best of the four.

I have only two complaints about the Richard Hannay tales. As the other characters themselves remark, Hannay has a knack for finding clues. He discovers the important details, not through careful deduction or thorough footwork, but by accident. It makes an interesting tale, but it's rather unlikely to happen as often as it does here. The other complaint is another sign of the books' age, and that's the inherent racism. The term Jew is bandied about somewhat indiscriminately, and there's a fair amount of color prejudice as well. It's hard for me to know whether to be offended, or just to accept it as the way things were. It's also difficult to know whether Buchan held such views or not; the books are written in the first person, and Richard Hannay is from South Africa. One would expect him to look down on people of color, and so he does. As for the Jews, the few who actually appear in the books are as likely to be good guys as bad guys. I dunno. It's a pity that such things mar what are otherwise a great set of adventures.

Children's Books

Last month I reviewed one of Marc Brown's "Arthur" books, and said that "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." I have it on good authority that Arthur is an aardvark. He doesn't much look like an aardvark (he doesn't have a long pointy snout, to begin within), but apparently that's what he is. Just so you know.

Diggers and Dumptrucks
Published by Aladdin Books

Dave was given this book by the children of some good friends of ours while I was away in Australia. He's been requesting it twice-a-day ever since, and practically has the whole thing by heart. We took him to the zoo the other day, and one of his favorite parts was seeing the big excavators they were using to build a new area. We were at Home Depot yesterday, and what did he say as we left? "Bye, bye, forklift." Apparently there's a book in the same series about zoo animals; I think we may go looking for it.

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