Home : Ex Libris : 1 August 1999

ex libris reviews

1 August 1999

Poor Bertha is thought of as the ultimate ugly name, calling to mind a pasty complexion, orthopedic shoes, and mounds of ungainly flesh.
The Last Word on First Names


In This Issue:
The Countdown Begins

Things are in a bit of a tizzy here at Will and Jane's house; as some of you are aware, we've been expecting a blessed event for nigh on nine months now. I've been semi-consciously cutting back on projects and obligations, and consequently have had that much more time to read and play computer games as I anticipate the interesting lack of time to come. Fortunately for my conscience, however, our new child has elected to wait until after the 1st of the month, allowing me to get this month's ex libris out on time. I've managed to get ex libris out each month, come rain, sleet, hail, or trips to Australia, and while a new baby is a better excuse than most I'm glad I won't be having to use it. Anyway, the new arrival will be here by this time next month, so I'll have more to say then.

As far as reading goes, it's been an interesting month, with a little bit of everything...a little cosmic horror, a little science fiction, a few mysteries, a sea-story...something for everyone. Enjoy!

-- Will Duquette

Electronic Books:
Second Thoughts

Second Thoughts of an Idle Fellow
By Jerome K. Jerome

Last March, I reviewed Jerome's remarkably funny book, Three Men in a Boat. While browsing around http://www.memoware.com a month or so ago, I found another of Jerome's books as a Project Gutenberg e-text, formatted for the PalmPilot. I've been reading it at odd moments ever since, and while I'm not quite done I'm close enough to it to come to a conclusion.

This book is halfway good. Or, rather, half of this book is good. It is a series of short essays on a variety of topics. Each essay consists of several observational anecdotes, relating the odd, irrational, behavior of dogs, women, or, more often, of Jerome himself, accompanied with a fair amount of related or unrelated philosophizing and moralizing on the futility of it all. It's a tired book, written (evidently) late in Jerome's life, and betrays a real "vanity of vanities, all is vanity" mindset. The observational bits often had me laughing out loud; the philosophizing is at worst tedious and at best merely wrong.

So...go read Three Men in a Boat. You won't regret it.

Books to Read Aloud:
Return to Mageworlds

by Will Duquette

The Gathering Flame
By Debra Doyle and James D. MacDonald

In May I recovered from my trip to Australia; in June we read Terry Pratchett; in July we finally got back to Doyle and MacDonald's wonderful Mageworlds series. The Gathering Flame is the fourth book in the series, and proved to be just as enjoyable aloud as the others. For those who have been following along, this book is a prequel to the first three; it concerns how Domina Perada Rosselin met and married privateer Captain Jos Metadi, and how the Mages destroyed the Domina's homeworld, Entibor.

A sixth book, The Stars Asunder, was released last month as well; we started reading it aloud but are finishing it silently, mostly because (what with the impending infant and the tireless toddler) we haven't been able to find time to read it aloud in the last couple of weeks. More on that next month.

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Last Word on First Names
By Linda Rosenkrantz and Pamela Redmond Satran

Naturally, under the circumstances, we've been thinking about baby names. I won't see this book helped us make a decision, but I certainly enjoyed reading it. Unlike the authors' earlier book, Beyond Jennifer and Jason, this one is an alphabetical list of girl's and boy's first names, with a reasonably lengthy disquisition on each one. In other words, you aren't simply told that "William" means "determined protector" or some such rot; you're told how popular "William" is these days, how popular it's been, what famous people have been called "William", whether the name has bad associations, and whether there are interesting alternatives. For the record, they like "William", but reject "Wilbur", "Wilbert", and "Wilfred" for today's babies.

The Doll's House
A Game of You
By Neil Gaiman

I continued my perusal of Gaiman's "Sandman" comic books/graphic novels this month; these two are the second and the fifth in the series. Oddly, they go very well together; the fifth book continues the threads begun in the second. I enjoyed them well enough, though they were frequently rather gruesome; definite winners, but definitely not for everybody.

Of Tangible Ghosts
The Ghost of the Revelator
By L.E. Modesitt, Jr

I like almost everything Modesitt's written, and I jumped on Of Tangible Ghosts when it first came out. I didn't like it much. It was bone-dry, and seemed to throw off my attention, rather like a curve that's graded the wrong way will throw a car into the ditch. Still, I'm a glutton for punishment, and when the sequel came out, I couldn't help myself; I bought it, and re-read its predecessor. Alas, Of Tangible Ghosts still has that repellent quality, though, I have to admit, it improves toward the end. The Ghost of the Revelator is better in almost every way, though still flawed. Nevertheless, the two books have much to offer.

Both books are set in an alternate world in which ghosts are an objective phenomenon. It is similar to ours, but with many differences. The Dutch never sold New York to the English; the nation of Columbia, the alternate to our U.S.A., is half-Dutch, half-English. The Speaker of the House of Representatives rules the country; the President is a mere figurehead (there is no Senate). The Mormon country of Deseret is sovereign in Utah. What we call Mexico is now New France, since the Austro-Hungarians have taken over most of Europe. The Chinese are extremely powerful. And ghosts are real. Large wars are uncommon; the ghosts they create make the disputed lands uninhabitable for many, many years.

The hero of the pair of books is one Doktor Johan Eschbach, a college professor, ex-government minister, and ex-spy. The first book is driven by some unknown person's attempts to kill/disgrace/implicate Eschbach, and his attempts to protect himself; gripping, eventually, but not particularly believable. We're never given a satisfactory reason for the enemy's hatred of our hero. The second is rather better, involving a trip to the Saints of Desert, there to invoke the ghost of Joseph Smith.

Quite A Year For Plums
By Bailey White

I first encountered Bailey White when she was a weekly commentator on NPR's Morning Edition radio show (which she may still be, for all I know; I'm not listening at the right hour, because my commute time shifted). Her lively stories of life in the South were invariably witty and amusing, told in a soft, old lady voice which was completely belied by the words it spoke. When her first book, Mama Makes Up Her Mind was published, I jumped at it, and was glad I had. I especially liked her stories of teaching reading (she is, or was, an elementary school teacher) through the medium of maritime disaster: to wit, Robert Ballard's book on the H.M.S. Titanic. And then there was the story of the malevolent murphy bed....

Quite A Year For Plums is White's latest book, and her first novel, and I don't quite know what to say about it. It isn't a story, so much as a sequence of character sketches with a little action thrown in; the plot, so far as there is one, is this: boy meets girl; boy loses girl; a variety of things go on in the meantime that have little relation to the plot.

I had originally intended to read this book aloud to Jane, but now I'm glad I didn't. She would have enjoyed parts of it, as it really is rather funny, but I had no urge to find out what happens next. It's a book to pick, read when you have time, and put down without regret until next time. For us to make time to read a book aloud, it really needs to have a little more driving force, to keep us going. Otherwise, it sits on the shelf while we're going on about other things, and we lose the thread.

But I liked it, and recommend it.

The First Eagle
By Tony Hillerman

This is Hillerman's latest (or, perhaps, next-to-latest; I don't pay so much attention to the hardcover section) Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn mysteries, set on the Navajo reservation in the American Southwest. I hadn't read any of Hillerman's work in the last couple of years, but one of my readers brought him back to my attention; and as I was looking for some light reading I picked this one up. I'm glad I did.

Hillerman is synonymous in my mind with blue skies, wide open spaces, a dry climate, and dry, sun-hardened, solid people, and his writing has much the same quality. If you like mysteries and haven't read any of his, go pick up Talking God or Listening Woman or Coyote Waits; you'll get to this one in due course.

This book is particularly notable in that officer Jim Chee, whom I have never cordially liked, thinking him a bit of an idiot, finally Gets A Clue. I'm not going to explain that; readers of the series will know what I mean.

Frank Mildmay
By Frederick Marryat

Several months ago I read and reviewed Captain Marryat's best known novel, Mr. Midshipman Easy. I enjoyed it, with reservations. It seemed to me to be a story that took place at sea, rather than a story of life at sea, which is what I was looking for. I'm pleased to say that this volume, subtitled The Naval Officer, rectifies that problem. Frank Mildway is Marryat's first novel, begun while he was still in command of a ship of the Royal Navy. It concerns the life and development of one Frank Mildmay, a courageous but remarkably wicked young fellow, whose naval career (but not, Marryat claimed, habits ashore) clearly mirrors Marryat's own. As such, it gains a verisimilitude that is lacking in the later book. In addition, there is considerably less anti-papist rhetoric. On the whole, I enjoyed it rather more.

Perseus Spur
By Julian May

Julian May is best known as the author of the Pliocene Exile and Galactic Milieu books, deep, serious adventure novels much concerned with personal responsibility, the evolution of the human soul, and the effect of power on the human psyche.

This book is not like those books. It's as though May switched to an entirely different brain before starting. It's an enjoyable enough book; it is chock-full of so many absurdities that I can't take it at all seriously, though. And the problem is, it isn't clear how many of the absurdities were meant to be taken seriously, if any. At one point, for example, our hero is stranded on a comet. As it is warmed by the sun, hard radiation is released, making him quite ill. A comet is mostly rock and frozen gas...why would it release ionizing radiation? But as I say, it was enjoyable enough, a pleasantly forgettable little space opera. It reminded me somewhat of Jack Vance's Demon Princes novels.

The Many-Colored Land
The Golden Torc
By Julian May

Having read some puzzling new science fiction by Julian May, I elected to go back and read some excellent old science fiction by the same author. These are the first two books in May's outstanding Saga of Pliocene Exile; I'll be reading the third and fourth in the coming month, most likely. If you've not read these and you're a science fiction fan, put them on your list. Must reads.

One professor Theo Guderian discovers how to build a time machine. There are a few difficulties: he can only make it work in one location, it will transport things back about 6 million years, no more and no less, and it's a one-way trip for anything remotely perishable; anything coming back ages 6 million years along the way, which is generally fatal. As such it was no more than an idle curiousity, until, one day shortly after Guderian's death, a man approached his widow with a curious proposition. Tired of the modern world, the man wished to go into voluntary exile in the Pliocene era, well aware that it was a one-way trip. He offered her quite a lot of money. As research had shown that it was impossible to change the future by travelling into the past (the "If you were going to do it, you already did it" theory), she acquiesced, and over time, Guderian's time gate became a common way for misfits of all kinds to be humanely disposed off.

What no one knew was that Pliocene Earth was already inhabited by an intelligent species....

Track of the Cat
By Nevada Barr

Nevada Barr was recommended to me by one of our readers, with the comment that if I like Sue Grafton I'll probably like Nevada Barr. So I bought the first book, and read it, and, well, it's OK. It concerns one Anna Pigeon, National Park Service law enforcement ranger, and is set in a national park in western Texas. It wasn't an outstanding read; among other things, I picked out the murderer less than halfway through the book, which is something that almost never happens, especially as I read mysteries for the action and characters, not for the puzzle. On the other hand, it was competent, well-written first novel, good light-reading, and as I'll be needing a lot of that in the next few months I'll be reading more of her books.

Cthulhu 2000
Edited by Jim Turner

OK, I'm a fan of H.P. Lovecraft. I admit it. Lots of authors are, too, and this is a collection of the best Lovecraftian stories of the last decade or so. It's an interesting selection. Some of the stories attempt to duplicate Lovecraft's tone of cosmic horror; most of these are less successful. Others, especially Gahan Wilson's "H.P.L." and Esther Friesner's "Love's Eldritch Ichor", ring amusing and playful changes on Lovecraft and his writings, and these are generally quite good.

This is a must read for any Lovecraft fan.

Children's Books

The Hollyhonk Gardens of Gneedle and Gnibb
Written by Michael P. Waite and illustrated by Jill Colbert Trousdale

I was recently asked to read a story to the elementary school children of my church's Sunday School. As I love books, and want to promote reading, and like reading aloud, I said, "Sure!" Alas, I didn't get to pick my own story, but had to read this one instead.

For a Sunday School class, it's an appropriate book; it deals with issues of Christian forgiveness and reconciliation, and these are important issues in Sunday School. But the manner in which it's written!

Has any one else here (show of hands, please) read J.R.R. Tolkien's story, Smith of Wooton Major? Smith is a young man who travels widely in the Land of Faery, experiencing first hand its perils, its beauties, its dangers. There's another character in the book, Old Noakes, who thinks fairies are pretty little things, childish fancies only, and the cuter the better.

Old Noakes could have written The Hollyhonk Gardens of Gneedle and Gnibb. It concerns two little fairies who have gardens of magical flowers. They wear mushroom caps on their heads, and are just so cute and roly-poly I could just about spit. And their magical plants have such cutesy-wootsy names, oh, it is just too precious for words, I could just die, oh the little kiddies will just love it! (Big gasp).

Ugh. The first graders liked it OK, I think, but I could tell that everyone older than that were thinking, "Oh, please." It got the desired point across, I guess, but gosh it could have been better done.

Have any comments? Want to recommend a book or two? Think Will's seriously missed the point and needs to be corrected? Like to correspond with one of the reviewers? Write to us and let us know what you think! You can find the e-mail addresses of most of our reviewers on our Ex Libris Staff page.

Home : Ex Libris : 1 August 1999
Copyright © 1999, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
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