Home : Ex Libris : 1 April 2000

ex libris reviews

1 April 2000

Several centuries (or so) ago, in a country whose name doesn't matter, there was a tall, skinny, straggly-bearded old wizard named Prospero, and not the one you are thinking of, either.
John Bellairs


In This Issue:
No Fooling!

It gives me great pleasure, this month, to announce that at long last ex libris has found its first guest reviewer. Stuart McAra has boldly stepped forward, and hopes to contribute a review every other month or so. You can read his first review below; in the meantime, here's how he describes himself:

My name is Stuart McAra, I am 24, single and work as an Electronics Design Engineer for a Design Services company in Livingston, Scotland. I live in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland. I am very envious of the amount of time Will gets to read, I don't know where he gets it from. I am heavily involved in organising concerts and other events for a group of Edinburgh churches. My other interests include music, I play the guitar and sing in a choir, going to the cinema and sailing, for which I have even less time than for reading.

When I get time to read I have quite similar tastes to Will though I have very little tolerance for the more fanciful types of Fantasy writing where all the names are full of Z's, X's and Q's. The Lord of the Rings is one of my favourite books and I also like Terry Pratchett. I like books that are set now with realistic characters and plots, as well as books with very strongly researched scientific premises. I tend not to enjoy historical books.

Living in the UK I will obviously be reviewing books which are available to buy here, a number of which may not be available in the US. I make no apology for this, a number of the books Will reviews are not available here, but with online bookstores there is no reason not to be able to buy a particular book no matter where you live.

The next books I intend to review for you are two by Christopher Brookmyre, which are political murder mysteries set in modern day Scotland, and two by Philip Kerr, which are thrillers with a very strong scientific premise.

You can contact me on email at stuart@carrubbers.org

As Stuart notes, many of the books reviewed in ex libris aren't in print in the UK, or anywhere else for that matter. That's the meaning of the name ex libris reviews: books from the library. That's why I don't bother listing ISBN numbers or publishers or page counts or prices like many other reviewers do; the information I have on hand may be many years (or decades!) out of date. What's important isn't the edition but the story. Stuart intends to review whatever he likes whether it's in print here in the USA or not, and I say "Hear, hear!"

A Few Words About The Recent Changes

I'd like to thank all of my readers who wrote me during the last month to tell me of some error in the form or content of our website. We've made quite a few changes, and about halfway through March I made a few more; I think that by now it should be fairly legible to everyone. If you see any problems, please don't hesitate to speak up!

More Authors

From early on, ex libris has included extensive author archives. Recently, though, it's become clear to me that most readers come to ex libris by way of our author pages. Consequently, I made a list of authors who are represented one way or another in our collection but haven't for one reason or another received much space in ex libris to date; it came to about 120 authors. Clearly I can't do decent write-ups for 120 authors all at once, so this month we've added Douglas Adams, Richard Adams, Lloyd Alexander, Poul Anderson, Piers Anthony, Jeffrey Archer and Roger Zelazny. Look for more authors next month.

-- Will Duquette

Stuart's Recent Reading

by Stuart McAra

The Day After Tomorrow
By Allan Folsom

This wasn't the first book I intended to review for Ex Libris; the two books I meant to re-read to get me started on this page were loaned to a friend over 6 months ago and haven't come back yet.

I bought this book about a year ago, solely because the cover looked intriguing. Many of my reviews will begin with some of the reasons I bought the book. Often this is based solely on the look of the cover and sometimes because I know the author or the book has been recommended. In this case the cover had the look of burnt paper with embossed gold writing (there is a different cover in America) and the blurb on the back was very eye catching:

Today: He catches a glimpse of his father's killer. Tomorrow: He is drawn into the web of a vast international conspiracy. The Day After Tomorrow: He confronts a terrifying future which threatens us all...

This is one of those books that starts out with several seemingly unrelated storylines. An American surgeon on a trip to Paris catches sight of the man who murdered his father back in the '60's. Police across Europe discover a number of decapitated corpses and one head which doesn't match any of them. An old man recovers from a stroke in a New Mexico nursing home. And there are others.

On the whole the book is very well written for this type of book and once the plot gets going it is very hard to put it down. Folsom has obviously done his research, he's checked out a lot of the medical details (including pharmacology and cryosurgery) involved and visited many of his European locations, a number of which I have visited and his descriptions very accurately match my memories. His explanations of recent European history are accurate but perhaps a bit simplified.

The characters are very well drawn which helps to make their circumstances more enthralling as you genuinely care about what happens to them. The dialogue is also very natural and doesn't seem clumsy or awkward. He even throws in a smattering of French and German as the action crosses the continent.

The plan which ties these seemingly unrelated events together is suitably far fetched and maniacal, involving 50 years worth of plotting, scientific research, murder and political intrigue working towards the standard goal of world domination. At the same time there is enough basis in fact to make you feel that it might just be possible.

Having said that I have a number of grievances with the book, all of which stem from one major fault. It is obvious throughout the book that one of Folsom's primary concerns was that he would be able to sell the film rights. The doctor is an American in Europe. Interpol calls in an American detective to lead up the investigation into the bodies. There are a number of quite gratuitous sex scenes which add nothing to the plot but would certainly help sell more cinema tickets.

Throughout the book, the reader, following all of the plots as they converge, knows more than any of the main characters and so can figure out what is going to happen long before we are told. There is still enough suspense in there to pull you through at a fair pace, and it is quite satisfying to find out that you've drawn the correct conclusion from the facts. Unfortunately the same can't be said of the last 100 pages or so, when everything becomes just a bit too farfetched as the action reaches its peak (in more ways than one, the book finishes high in the Alps). We have to presume that the action of the final page was meant to be shocking perhaps even sickening, but it comes across as an anti-climax as you've seen it coming for so long.

This is by no means a great work of fiction, but it is still gripping and exciting so that with a bit of suspension of disbelief it would make a worthwhile companion on a long flight or a rainy afternoon.

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Princess and the Goblin
The Princess and Curdie
By George MacDonald

Generally speaking, I wait until the end of the month to write the reviews for the books I've read during the month. This usually works OK, but in this case I think I've done myself a disservice. I had lots of neat observations to make, and now I don't remember what they were. Alas.

If I don't remember my own cleverness, then at least I remember what the books are about. Both are children's fantasy novels of the fairy tale variety. They have considerably more action than At the Back of the North Wind; and both are clearly precursors to C.S. Lewis's Narnia books. In the former, a young princess and her household are threatened by the goblins who live in a nearby mountain; this one, at times, almost reminded of the Oz books: the goblins, while being evil creatures, are also remarkably foolish and have extremely tender feet, a fact which brave Curdie, the miner's son, puts to good use. The latter is a darker book, in which Curdie must go into grave danger to save the Princess, her father the King, and indeed the entire Kingdom from ruin--and that danger lies in the very Palace itself.

Both of these have a bit of that condescension towards their young audience that I disliked in At the Back of the North Wind; beyond that, I liked them very much.

If You Want To Write
By Brenda Ueland

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street
By Helene Hanff

I put these two books together, not because the two authors had any connection one with the other, but because they seem to go together. Brenda Ueland wrote her book in the 1930's; it was the result of a lecture on writing that she gave at a conference, and was based on many years of teaching writing classes at the Minneapolis YWCA. The lecture was wildly applauded, and the book was written in due course. Sixty-some years later, I attended a workshop on novel writing given by two other Minneapolis authors, Will Shetterly and Emma Bull. They recommended a number of books on writing; this one was prominent among them. I found it at a bookstore a few days ago, and devoured it. Or, at least, I read through the whole thing at breakneck speed; only time will tell whether anything stuck.

Anyway, Ueland strives to make several points in her book, of which these are the most important: everyone has something worth saying, and we write best when we write truthfully. By writing truthfully she means writing what we really think, what we really see, what we really feel; if we do this, our work will be interesting and engaging. If we don't, it will be turgid and dull. Even if we are writing fiction, we must picture the story clearly, and write it down as we see it if we want it to ring true.

The book has its share of mystical and philosophical hogwash, but it also contains a great deal of wisdom and truth. This is evidenced by how much fun it is to read--Ueland practices what she preaches--but also by the book I've chosen to pair with Ueland's.

I read and reviewed two of Helene Hanff's other books last month; I enjoyed them, but I was at a loss to explain why. The one was just the correspondence between Hanff and several workers at an English bookshop. The other was the story of Hanff's second trip to England, and all of the people she met and the things she did. This book is a record of her first trip to England, and it is just as enjoyable as the other two; indeed, perhaps more so. And what makes it so much fun, I've determined, is that Hanff is also practicing what Ueland preaches. She tells what she sees. She describes her emotions with what would seem brutal honesty if she weren't so refreshingly open about it. She describes the people she meets with a keen eye and a flowing pen; her book is interesting because these people interested her.

If you have any interest in writing, I'd suggest buying both of these books, and reading them back to back. You can read 84, Charing Cross Road first, if you like.

E is for Evidence
F is for Fugitive
By Sue Grafton

Sleuth Kinsey Millhone is hired by the insurance company from which she rents her office to investigate a possible case of arson at a local industrial firm. Before she knows what's happening, she's being accused of conspiring with the president of the firm to defraud the insurance company...and there's a suspicious deposit of $5,000 to her bank account.

I've been slowly working my way back through the files of Kinsey Millhone, and I've found it heavier going than I expected. I generally read mysteries for the characters and situations as much as for the suspense, but I'm finding that in many of Grafton's novels the suspense is required if I'm to stay interested. Consequently, E is for Evidence was a pleasant and delightful surprise. I liked it better this time than I did the previous times I read it.

Alas, I cannot say the same for F is for Fugitive. I didn't like this one much the first time I read it, and this time, knowing the ending, knowing why the murder was committed, well...I put it down after reading the first third or so, and haven't bothered to pick it up again. I think I'll just skip it and go on to G is for Gumshoe, which I don't remember so well.

By Dick Francis

Early this month I got an e-mail letter from a woman who wanted to know if we'd ever reviewed this particular book. I recognized the title, but couldn't remember which of Francis' books it was, or when I'd read it, but a quick search of our past reviews made it clear that it hadn't been in the last three years. Curious, I dug through our shelves until I found it, read the cover blurb, and immediately decided to re-read it. I'm glad I did.

It's been said that Dick Francis has only one main character: male, intelligent, gifted, friendly, incredibly stubborn when his mind is made up, and physically tough. The latter is especially important, as he usually gets beaten up by the bad guys, as a warning to leave well enough alone. He doesn't, of course, and therein hangs the tale. This particular tale doesn't entirely dispel the myth, but it is refreshingly different.

Peter Darwin is, like his step-father, a career diplomat in the British Foreign Service. He's just been rotated home for a stint in Whitehall, and in the weeks before he needs to report in finds his life entangled with that of a young vet in Gloucestershire: the very place Darwin had lived as a small boy, before his mother remarried and changed his last name. The vet's patients, expensive race horses, have begun to die recently; someone is doubtless trying to collect on the insurance, and ruin the vet's reputation at the same time. Darwin finds that he needs all of his diplomat's skills, combined with the knowledge of local history that no one else in the vicinity realizes he has, to solve the mystery. And he doesn't get knocked around too badly, either, all things considered.

If you've read any Dick Francis and enjoyed it, you'll like this one. And if you haven't, this one wouldn't be a bad place to start.

Fortress in the Eye of Time
Fortress of Eagles
Fortress of Owls
By C.J. Cherryh

I've written about two of these books before, when Fortress of Eagles came out in paperback. I liked them then, and I still do; this series is one of the best high fantasy series of the 1990's. But it was only with the new volume that I really understood what Cherryh was doing. I think.

To recap: in the first volume, wizard Mauryl Gestaurien is old and tired, wearied by a very long life of opposition to a creature of great evil. He summons one of the great heroes of antiquity for the express purpose of defeating that evil--but while doing the summons, he flinches. He fears that the hero may be more difficult to control than his ancient enemy, and so he attempts to reshape his summoning. The result is a seemingly witless young man he names Tristen. Tristen is not the ancient hero Mauryl had in mind, being wholly innocent and untutored, but nor is he an idiot: as time goes on, Words and deeds Unfold to him, giving him instant understanding as he has need and skill. He is not the ancient hero, and yet it becomes clear that he has access to the ancient hero's skills knowledge. And he succeeds where Mauryl has failed; he puts the evil enemy to flight, perhaps destroying it utterly. And thus ends the first book.

And so begins the second book, and the third, answering the remarkable question: when you've raised up a hero to defeat the Dark Lord, and the hero wins, then what do you do with him? How do you reward him, knowing that the powers that be in your kingdom will think he is a heretic, and a dabbler in evil magics? Will the kingdom survive its savior? It's an interesting idea, and one that I've not noticed before in fantasy, and I'm eagerly looking forward to the next (and final?) book to find out the answer.

Oh, and Cherryh gets major restraint points for setting up a potential Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot triangle, and then refusing to exploit it. It would just be annoying to see that again, especially in this context, and yet, the unexploited potential adds more to the book than a full-fledged affair would have.

The Doonesbury Chronicles
Doonesbury's Greatest Hits
By Gary Trudeau

I like comic strips. I love comic strips. I think the comic strip is one of the two great art forms of the 20th century (cinema is the other). And when the complete history of the comic strip is written, Gary Trudeau's Doonesbury will have a prominent place.

But that's not important just now. What is important is that I was sick yet again this month (got a different kind of antibiotic this time; let's hope April will be better), and was home, and tired, and needed something light and playful and interesting to read. And joy of joys, I remembered my old friend Mike Doonesbury. The above two books are the first two treasury collections of the strip; they cover the years in which the strip was molded and shaped into the form it's retained to this day. These books have the first appearances of Mike, B.D., Zonker, Marvelous Mark Slackmeyer, Joanie Caucus, Bernie, Boopsie, and Uncle Duke, and Duke's Chinese sidekick Honey Yuan. (He met her while he was the U.S. Ambassador to China. This was just after his stint as Governor of American Samoa.) There's Lacey Davenport and her first election to Congress. There's Phred the Terrorist, now Viet Nam's ambassador to the United Nations. There's the eternal naif, newsman Roland Hedley Jr. We even get to see Mike Doonesbury's second wife, Kim, as a baby; she was a war orphan adopted by American parents. Perhaps the best laugh I got out of it, though, was when Mike and his buddies boo Alan Greenspan for his "Nixonomics"; who knew that Greenspan would still head the Federal Reserve after all these years? If we have any one individual to thank for the current state of our economy, it isn't the President (any of them), or any member of Congress; it's Alan Greenspan.

But anyway, if you like the comics, and you like Doonesbury, and you haven't seen these old strips since they were first published...do yourself a favor and get reacquainted. It's more than just a comic strip, it's a walk down memory lane.

Hoka Hoka Hoka!
Hokas Pokas!
By Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson

Back in the 1950's, Poul Anderson and Gordon Dickson got together and wrote some tongue-in-cheek stories about a race of incredibly imitative teddy bears. The bears were called Hokas, and the stories were published as the wonderfully titled Earthman's Burden. Hokas like playing roles even more than eating and drinking, and when exposed to Earth's literature went seriously to town. Alas for his digestion, ambassador Alexander Brathwaite Jones, the only earthman on the planet, gets cast as the hero in most of the Hoka's little reality plays. He gets to be the Stranger who saves the Town from the Indians, operatic lover Don Giovanni, a pirate captain, Dr. Watson, and a member of the French Foreign Legion, among many other roles, most of them unpleasant (and hilarious).

In the 1970's, the duo wrote a novel, Star Prince Charlie, in which a Hoka was a major character. Unlike the short stories, it's not nearly as tongue-in-cheek; the Hoka is a plot-driver, but he's no longer a gimmick.

Finally, the duo returned in the 1980's to write a few more stories about Alexander Jones and the Hokas; these were published in book form under the name Hoka!.

Now, today, with great good sense, these wonderful stories have are back in print. And for no particularly good reason they've chosen to repackage them under the asinine titles listed above. Hoka Hoka Hoka comprises all of Earthman's Burden (was that title considered politically incorrect?) and a bit of Hoka!; Hokas Pokas! comprises the rest of Hoka! and the stand-alone novel Star Prince Charlie.

I go into all of these tedious details so that if you've read some or all of the Hoka stories in the past, you'll know what's what. If you've not read any of them, life is simpler. Go buy the two new editions, and read them.

Midshipman Bolitho
Stand Into Danger
By Alexander Kent

These are the first two in a series of thirteen novels about Royal Navy office Richard Bolitho. As such they are thoroughly in C.S. Forester and Patrick O'Brian's territory, although they begin rather earlier: just before the American Revolution, rather than at the turn of the century. I turned my Dad on to Patrick O'Brian some years ago, and so when my uncle suggested these, Dad jumped right in and thoroughly enjoyed them and passed them along to my brother, who also enjoyed them, so now I'm reading them. I wish I could be as positive.

Let me be clear: if you like tales of the sea, of tall ships and sails and cannon and derring-do, you'll like these. They move right along with all dispatch. But based on these two books, in any race with Forester and O'Brian our man Alexander Kent would come in third. Some particular annoyances: Bolitho is supposed to be an officer; he has men under his command. Yet we almost never hear him give an order; one would assume that the working of the ship all takes place without Lieutenant Bolitho ever having to open his mouth. And then the second book enmeshes him in a wholly absurd love affair which has "unconvincing plot contrivance" written all over it.

I'll continue to read these; I inherited all of the books from Dad, and they are OK as light entertainment if nothing else. And perhaps they will get better.

The Face in the Frost
By John Bellairs

Now here we have a true classic. This is the kind of book that relatively few people have read that nevertheless comes up regularly in science fiction and fantasy discussions. I read it many years ago, once, and put on my shelf; it's been sitting there (give or take any number of moves) ever since, unread, until this month. I have no idea why I'd ignored for so long, but I'm grateful to have remade its acquaintance.

The Face in the Frost is a story about two wizards, Prospero and Roger Bacon. And the neat thing about these wizards is, they aren't magical in and of themselves like Gandalf or Merlin or many other fantasy wizards; they're just these guys who know a lot about certain arcane subjects. Roger Bacon is paying a visit to his old pal Prospero when weird, threatening things start to appear in and around Prospero's house. Someone wants to scare Prospero, and perhaps even do him harm. Why? Together they go search out the reasons.

There's so much to like about this book. It's written with whimsey and charm; moreover, it's a delightful instance of the small story. Prospero and his buddy aren't trying to prevent the Dark Lord from conquering the whole world; they are trying to find out who's trying to kill them, and stop him. The enemy's actions do cause serious political repercussions, but that's a side point: no one other than our two heroes ever really knows who the enemy is, or even that there is one. Not even Prospero and Bacon understand everything that goes on; they're just happy when it's over.

So far as I know, this is the only adult novel Bellairs has written. Many years ago I saw a number of children's books with his name on them, and I'm rather sorry I didn't buy them; I bet they were a treat.

Be that as it may, keep an eye out for this book in used bookstores and libraries; if you find it, get it and read it.

The Fifth Elephant
By Terry Pratchett

This is the latest in Pratchett's ever expanding Discworld Saga; it's one of the best to date, and certainly the best since Hogfather. If you've never heard of the Discworld, click on Pratchett's name, above, and go read our author page; you may wish to read some of the previous reviews as well. Suffice it to say he's been the most popular author in Great Britain for quite some time--and wonder of wonders, he deserves to be.

Now, for those of you who are familiar with the Discworld, and haven't already rushed out and bought this (any hands? I thought not), this is the next story in the Ankh-Morpork City Watch subseries. Commander Sir Samuel Vimes has been appointed Ankh-Morpork's ambassador to the shadowy region known as Uberwald, home of vampires, werewolves, and the universally acknowledged head of dwarvish culture, the Low King. It's got thrills, chills, witty dialog, occasional belly laughs, and is, all around, a thoroughly good time.

Jane's Recent Reading:
The Two Barbaras

by Jane Duquette

Those Who Hunt the Night
By Barbara Hambly

It's tax season. Looking for a good escape from the very bad writing of the US Federal Tax laws, I looked for a horror/mystery novel and found this one. The story takes place in the England of a hundred years ago, when an Oxford don (a former British agent) is forced to help a very old vampire discover who is murdering the vampires of England. I'd read this book before, but still found it suspenseful. The story moves quickly and the characters are fascinating. I did start the book and then put it down for a few days because the weather was stormy; with an active imagination, horror/mystery novels can interfere with my sleep.

This would probably be a good novel for reading aloud.

A Woman's Place
By Barbara Delinsky

More reading in the "things could be worse" category. I originally thought this would be a light romance. Wrong. This is the story of a professional woman who returns from a long business trip to find her husband has a court order requiring her to leave the house and giving him custody of their children. She is in shock. The rest is the story of the divorce and custody battles, and the heroine's eventual survival of everything that is trying to destroy her. The heroine does a lot of self-discovery but at a very high price emotionally and financially. This is well written, but very uncomfortable: riveting, in a train wreck sort of way. It leaves the reader with the question "Will I ever be assaulted by those who say they love me?" Save this book for an "All men are scum" pity party, or skip it entirely.

Children's Books

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie
If You Give a Moose a Muffin
If You Give a Pig and Pancake
Written by Laura Numeroff and illustrated by Felicia Bond

"If you give a moose a muffin, he'll want some jam to go with it." So begins a wonderful romp as the moose goes by free association from jam to sweaters to sock puppets to laundry and ultimately back to muffins again. Each step in the process makes perfect sense; the whole thing has a delightful lunacy. The other two books are identical in concept and structure while differing in the particular details, and all three have many excellent pictures. The drawing of the moose happily remembering how wonderful your mother's jam is, is worth the price of admission all by itself.

Because the three books are very similar, you may not wish to buy all three--because your child will want you to read all three in sequence. If you do skip one, skip If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, as it's the weakest of the three. Numeroff and Bond hadn't quite gotten their whimsy into gear yet.

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 April 2000
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