Home : Ex Libris : 1 May 2000

ex libris reviews

1 May 2000

The author asserts the moral right to totally dissociate herself from anything written in these pages. Any factual errors or offensive materials contained herein are the deliberate products of over-paid volunteer editors, and were manually inserted by a malicious publisher after final authorial review of the proofs.
Susan Wenger


In This Issue:
Bull and Shetterly

Back in March I went to an all-day novel-writing workshop with authors Emma Bull and Will Shetterly. I liked them both very much, enjoyed myself immensely, and learned quite a bit from them. Many of the books I'll be reviewing this month can be related, directly or indirectly, to that class: a book on writing that they recommended, along with two others I found myself; a book they used as an example, and another by the same author; and then one book by each of them. It feels very odd to be reviewing books by people that I've actually met. On top of that, we've got a Patrick O'Brian parody by Susan Wenger, some classic science fiction, and one or two other choice tidbits, including yet another guest reviewer!

Meet Steve Martin

Our second guest reviewer is named Steve Martin; here's what he has to say about himself. You can find his first review below.

My name is Steve Martin (not THE Steve Martin, just A Steve Martin...) and I'm 30 years old. I'm married (Kim) and have 2 kids (Kyle and Alex). By day I'm a Software Developer at Powerway, Inc. in Indianapolis, Indiana and by night I play in a promising local band. When I'm trying to avoid doing my household chores I read (I read a lot). Some of my favorites are Brian Daley, Lois McMaster Bujold, Adrian Plass, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Robert A. Heinlein, Joe Haldeman, and Lawrence Watt-Evans. I especially like good space opera. I also use my children as an excuse to succumb to my acute weakness for Legos. If you want to reach me to tell me how good/lousy my reviews are, you can send email to martinsa@mail.com.

-- Will Duquette

Steve's Recent Reading

by Steve Martin

The Doomfarers of Coramonde
The Starfollowers of Coramonde
By Brian Daley

This being my first review I'd thought that I'd start with one of my favorite and, as far as I'm concerned, most under-appreciated authors. I started reading Daley when I was in 4th grade because he wrote the first set of Han Solo adventures. From there I went on to these other early works of his.

The Doomfarers of Coramonde is Brian Daley's first work, and pretty good at that. The protagonist, Prince Springbuck, has been set up by his step-mother and the court magician and must flee for his life. Along the way he throws in his lot with an outlander from another dimension (ours) and a brother/sister team of local wizards. In order to defend themselves against a dragon summoned to destroy them, the wizards summon an armored personal carrier (APC) from our dimension. And so set up the rest of the book.

This book has a pretty good plot, and is a fun read. It starts out Daley's tradition of creating a huge backdrop to place his story and characters in by continually hinting at parts of it without actually spending a lot of text actually describing it in full details (something J.R.R. Tolkien was great at also). This (in my not-so-humble-opinion) is a great way to create a universe without getting bogged down.

In The Starfollowers of Coramonde, we are reunited with all our main characters and pursue the battle to the shadowy characters behind the evil in the first book. It's another find read.

These two books are like great improvisations during a well-known jazz standard. Lots of interesting variations on standard themes make them well worth investigating.

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Writing Down the Bones
By Natalie Goldberg

Bird by Bird
By Anne Lamott

Telling Lies for Fun and Profit
By Lawrence Block

During that novel-writing workshop, Will Shetterly and Emma Bull named Writing Down the Bones as their favorite book about writing. And there is much to like in it. Like Brenda Ueland, whom I reviewed last month, Goldberg is in favor of wild, free, unfettered writing--of writing your first thoughts rather than your last. She speaks in particular of "writing practice," in which you write on any desired topic (or none) for a set period of time, trying always to keep the pen moving and never succumbing to the internal editor. This leads to fresh, insightful, and above all honest writing. There's something in that. But there's also much about the book that irks me.

To begin with, Goldberg is a Buddhist. I don't fault her for this, or for bringing it up quite so often; if she feels her beliefs have a bearing on the process of creation, then it's only reasonable for her to share them with us. At the same time, I don't find Buddhism to be a particularly good model of the world. An example: she compares writing with sitting zazen, a process in which we should empty ourselves, so that instead of "Will is writing," one would say "Writing is writing." Her extended descriptions of this verge dangerously close to suggesting that writing should be a mindless, unthinking process. She might not mean this, but it's a valid reading of her words. She says that you can't write to order; when you sit down to write, you never know what will come out. It seems to me, on the other hand, that when I sit down to write a book review, I write a book review.

I'd like to interject here that Goldberg is a poet; apparently, her normal mode of operations is to write as much and as fast as she can, and then go back later and see if any of it was worth keeping. This may have some value for poetry, but I claim it has less value for fiction, and little if any for the writing of book reviews.

At the same time, she's right about the importance of writing unselfconsciously and honestly. C.S. Lewis said that we are most truly ourselves when we are so involved in what we are doing that we aren't thinking of ourselves at all; this he called humility. I find this view to be far more in line with my own experience as a computer programmer. At times, when deeply involved in my work, I will enter a state the psychologists call "flow". In this state I'm very little aware of myself, but I am anything but mindless. Instead, I'm directly manipulating a problem, and effortlessly translating what I'm thinking into code. My mind, my eyes, my fingers all work together seamlessly. An interesting point about flow is that you're only aware of it when it's over. But this, I submit, is the state Goldberg is speaking of--and I also submit that her Buddhist notions cause her to misunderstand it.

Anne Lamott's book Bird by Bird I found for myself. Lamott is a published novelist, and this book is what she knows about writing. I got a lot of useful ideas out of this book; in particular, I like her notion of "short assignments": break any writing project down into small pieces. Worry about the next piece, only. It works for me, certainly. Lamott has an engaging style, and a whimsical, rather gruesome sense of humor that appeals to me.

On another level, Lamott strikes me as even more looney-tunes than Goldberg. Natalie Goldberg, it seems to me, spends a lot of time playing mind games to help herself sit down and write. When writing is all you do, and you're writing something as nebulous and hard to plan as poetry, it may take quite a few mind games to keep yourself going. Lamott, on the other hand, seems to be completely neurotic. Every stage of the writing process, for her, has its share of psychic torture. She seems to be convinced (at least, she says it over and over again) that everyone's life is full of pain and turmoil and awful happenings. And any number of times she states, humorously, her distaste for people who write easily. The first time it was funny; by the tenth I was starting to believe her, despite the veneer of humor.

I'll recommend this book to anyone who wants to write...but I'll also recommend the following book as an antidote.

Some time ago, I read and reviewed Spider Spin Me a Web, an excellent book on the business and craft of writing compiled from a series of columns Lawrence Block wrote for Writer's Digest magazine. Telling Lies for Fun and Profit is its predecessor. I enjoyed it, though not quite as much as the later book. But let me not damn it with faint praise, either. I found it both informative and inspiring, and had I read it first I might have gotten the opposite impression. It's the nature of the thing that a columnist must repeat himself now and again, if only for the benefit of those who came in late, and the two books have quite a bit of overlap. But not entirely; and I have no qualms about recommending both of them. And the delightful thing is that Block comes across as refreshingly rational, pragmatic, and practical. For example, he has a simple rule for ensuring productivity: he writes five pages a day. When he's finished those five pages, he can go do anything else he likes. If things are going well, he will sometimes write more; but he always fills five pages if he has to fill them with garbage. Plus, he says quite a lot about novel and short-story writing techniques that Goldberg and Lamott don't even bring up.

I'll put it this way: if you feel you need to sweat blood to write, read Goldberg and Lamott. If you want to know what to do with your blood once you've shed it, read Block.

The Oxford Book of English Verse
Edited by Christopher Ricks

Usually I only review a book when I've read it cover to cover. I don't want anyone to think that I've read this book cover to cover; at best I've flipped through the pages, dipping in here, skimming there, occasionally reading something all of the way through.

It's like this: I don't much like poetry. There are a few rare exceptions; I've had "Jabberwocky" memorized since I was nine. But in general poetry leaves me cold. I regard this as, if not a defect, at least a deficiency in my character; a symptom of impatience, most likely. So, on the spur of the moment, I decided that I needed to try a little harder. That meant spending time with poetry, and that meant having some poetry to spend some time with. And so as to use my time fruitfully, it seemed wise to have some poetry that was widely esteemed. If other people can see something in it, then perhaps there is really something there. So I'm embarking on an adventure. We'll see where it ends.

By Will Shetterly

I'm having a hard time writing about this book, as I read it a month after spending about nine consecutive hours in the author's company listening to he and his wife talk about the writing of novels. It's much easier to be objective when I know nothing of the author. As it is, I rather liked Will Shetterly, and don't want to hurt his feelings. He, on the other hand, would no doubt say that the book is what it is, and that I should write what I think; so I will.

Dogland is a remarkably vivid tale; the scenes and the images they evoke will stay with me for a long time. It is sold as a fantasy, but it's a magical realism sort of fantasy; indeed, it would be possible to read it as a mainstream novel in which nothing fantastic happens at all. It is the late 1950's, and Luke Nix is opening a tourist attraction in Florida--Dogland. It's a place where over a hundred different breeds of dog may be seen in one place. It is also a place where feelings about the place of the Negro in society run high. Luke Nix is a northerner, and his insistence on treating the local colored people as his equals causes no end of trouble.

This main narrative current is shot through with various odd magical goings on. Pan and Demeter attend at the birth of Luke's youngest son during the carnival in New Orleans. His daughter knows odd things about people. His oldest son (still quite a young boy) sees many things that he doesn't understand...but we do. The grim tourist with the eye patch and his boisterous redheaded friend are never explicitly identified as Thor and Odin; but that's clearly who they are. Local powerbroker Nick Lumiere is never formally identified as...but do I really need to tell you?

The problem for me was that the magical bits seem to be grafted on to the non-magical story. They were fun, but ultimately didn't seem to matter; I couldn't add them up and make them come out to anything. Perhaps Shetterly's intention was just too subtle for me, but I came out of it thinking, "OK. So?"

War for the Oaks
By Emma Bull

Dogland being one of Shetterly's latest efforts, I suppose I should have read one of Emma Bull's latest efforts as well. Instead, I chose her first book, and the one that introduced me to her work. War for the Oaks is one of those books that I kept hearing good things about long before I ever saw a copy. And they were all true. This is a dynamite book.

War for the Oaks is an urban fantasy which takes place in Bull's home of Minneapolis. The armies of Faerie--the hosts of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts--are massing to contest ownership of the city. If the Seelie Court wins, all will go on as before. If the Unseelie Court wins, Minneapolis will become a city of dangerous city parks, trash-strewn streets, and inner city tenements. New York isn't mentioned by name, but one gets the idea. The thing is, any battle between the courts will be inconclusive unless a mortal--a human--takes part. Elves can die, and battles can be lost or won when a human takes part.

The emissaries of the Seelie Court settle on a young woman named Eddi, lead guitarist with a bad local band. They expert her to be easily frightened, biddable, easily molded into what they need. What they get is considerably more. I won't spoil the rest of the book--but if you like this kind of thing at all, you owe it to yourself to find it and read it.

The Raphael Affair
By Iain Pears

Pears' novel An Instance of the Fingerpost was used as an example at that novel-writing workshop; I was sufficiently intrigued to go look for it. The first store I went to didn't have it, but did have a series of "Art History mysteries" by the same author, of which this is the first. I found it to be somewhat clumsy, but interesting enough that I expect to look for some of the later books in the series.

What do I mean by clumsy? He's got interesting characters, but they don't entirely convince. There's a contrived love affair. The main character is supposed to be both feckless and authoritative at the same time. Another, minor character is much more interesting. Still, there's a freshness that I liked.

An art-student from England thinks he's found a long-lost Raphael. Before he can recover it, an art dealer beats him to it, and it is sold to an Italian museum for megabucks. And then it is destroyed while a reception is going on nearby. Was it genuine? A fake? Who knows. I liked the setting and the subject, and have every expectation that Pears' writing will improve as the series goes on.

An Instance of the Fingerpost
By Iain Pears

This is a much more ambitious (and better written) novel than The Raphael Affair. It's a historical novel, taking place in Restoration England. For those unfamiliar with the English Civil War, King Charles I managed to offend pretty much everybody in England by trying to rule as an absolute monarch. Parliament raised an army, and there was war between the Cavaliers, supporting the King, and the Roundheads, supporting Parliament. The Roundheads won, largely due to Oliver Cromwell's innovative "New Model Army". The trouble was, after the war was won (and Charles I was executed), Parliament thought the Army would just disperse. The Army, a largely Puritan outfit, had other ideas. Cromwell managed to ride the Army's wave to absolute control of England for himself. After his death, it was clear that Puritan absolutism was no better than Royal absolutism, and Charles' son was invited, with Parliamentary controls firmly in place, to resume the throne as King Charles II.

Within this milieu, Pears has set an intricate murder mystery: an Oxford don is murdered and a young woman, his housekeeper, is charged with the murder. The gimmick (and the reason Bull and Shetterly used this novel as an example) is that book consists of four distinct narratives, all dealing with the same period of time. Each narrator has his own biases, foibles, blind spots, and secrets, and only by reading all four can we have any appreciation for what really happened. We see things first with an outsider's eye, from the narrative of an Italian medical student temporarily residing in Oxford. Then, there's a young man who wants to clear his father's name of charges of treachery; a bitter aging spymaster; and finally an Oxford historian who, from his own experience and the other three narratives, reveals the truth to us...or does he?

It's a fascinating, meticulously researched, well-written piece of work. The characters are three-dimensional and the background is extremely well-done. The only problem is that I didn't like any of them very much, which made it all a little tedious.

At Home in Mitford
A Light in the Window
These High, Green Hills
Out to Canaan
A New Song
By Jan Karon

I'd been waiting for quite some time for Karon's latest tale in the Mitford series, A New Song, to come out in paperback, yet when it arrived I was oddly reluctant to read it, or to re-read the earlier books. I was beginning to have doubts. Hadn't they been awfully sentimental? Did I really want to read them again? Eventually I took the plunge, and the unequivocal answer was, "Absolutely." Emotional, heartwarming, lovely--the Mitford books are all of those things. Sentimental in the negative sense--not at all.

For those who are unfamiliar with them, the Mitford books are the story of Father Tim Kavanagh, an Episcopal priest from the small town of Mitford, North Carolina. As the series begins he's 60, never married, and too busy taking care of his flock to take care of himself. As the series progresses he learns about marriage, how to raise a teenager, and many other things; and we learn why his parishioners love him so much.

These are mainstream novels about Christian people, and I don't believe I've encountered a better literary evocation of what it means to live as a Christian in today's world. If you've wondered what Christians are supposed to be like, I can't imagine a better place for you to start than here.

In Gallant Company
Sloop of War
To Glory We Steer
Command a King's Ship
By Alexander Kent

Last month I reviewed the first two of Kent's Richard Bolitho series, two tales of life at sea in the Royal Navy in the years approaching the American revolution. I enjoyed them, but I complained about the characterization of Bolitho as a midshipman and young lieutenant; he seemed to be only an observer rather than one responsible for the actions of other men. He never seemed to give any orders, yet in his position he must have. At the time, I attributed this to Kent's inexperience as a writer; having read the next four books, and having discovered that the fifth of them was the first one written, I now know that he was suffering from Prequel Literality Syndrome. C.S. Forester's Hornblower novels follow the same pattern; the novels about Hornblower's early career were written after those they immediatley precede chronologically. Forester, though, did not let himself be too bound by the little details about Hornblower's past that he'd already let drop. This gave him the freedom to write fresh, engaging books about young Hornblower. Kent, I believe, has done the opposite. In his attempt to be true to all the detail he let slip in the first few books he wrote, these later books about Bolitho's early career become stilted.

But be that as it may; these four volumes are at least as enjoyable as the first two, if no more memorable. Surprisingly, To Glory We Steer, Kent's first, may be the best of the lot. It's undeniably clumsy in plotting and characterization, but it's written with considerably more passion than the others.

So my previous diagnosis mostly stands. If you like nautical fiction from the age of sail, these books are reasonably entertaining. Otherwise, give them a miss.

The Port-Wine Sea
By Susan Wenger

Now this book is an extremely odd addition to the annals of nautical fiction from the age of sail, and yet a welcome one. Subtitled "A Parody," it is nothing more nor less than a book-length parody of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series, of which I've had so much to say. It's a fairly new book, and the author contacted me to see if I'd list it on my O'Brian web page; I agreed happily, and promised her that if she would have her publisher send me a copy I'd review it tout de suite.

Once it arrived, though, I began to have mixed emotions. Parody is by nature the mockery of something--in this case something I love very much. Would I be amused, or irritated? Would I find it to be kind-hearted, the sincerest form of flattery, or would I find it to be hateful, unreadable? I opened the book with great trepidation coupled with great anticipation, and my eyes immediately fell upon the disclaimer that I've quoted at the top of this month's issue, and I was startled into laughing out loud. (Go look; I'll wait.) Then I turned to the frontispiece, and the drawing of the many sails on a ship of war, and laughed out loud for the second time. And I hadn't even gotten to the text yet.

The book, I must say, is not perfect, but I think Wenger must be congratulated anyway. It is difficult to write parody without becoming sophomoric, and still more difficult to maintain it for the length of a full novel. And still more difficult to do so without alienating the very people who are most likely to want to buy your book. Wenger has managed all of these things. The lead characters, Jack Audibly and Stephen Nattering, are reasonable caricatures of their prototypes, vices and virtues suitably exaggerated or negated to comic effect. The book has gags aplenty, some broad, some whimsical, some subtle, some downright obscure, and doubtless some that passed right over my head. I'd love to share them, but they aren't mine; and to share them would be to spoil them. Instead, I'm going to pick a few nits.

Although the principals, Audibly and Nattering, are quite well drawn, the supporting characters are much less so; most seem little more than puppets. Only Audibly's steward, Pressured Quillick, manages to the source of much humor. And except for Quillick, few of the other names are particularly interesting, either--neither funny in their own right or funny when taken with the character from which they were drawn. (Oh, yes, and Molly Tarte. She was well-done, too.) There was one spot where Wenger refers to someone yawning in technicolor; the anachronism at that spot was rather jolting. And finally, she occasionally threw in an extremely obscure sesequipedalian (i.e., long) word. I rather suspect she did this on purpose, in the tradition of O'Brian's cross-catharpins and marthambles, but except where the narrative was from Dr. Nattering's point of view (he being a learned man, as likely to say "diaphoresis" as "sweat") I found it irksome.

But none of that matters much. If you're read O'Brian, and you have a sense of humor, you might very well enjoy The Port-Wine Sea. I did...in fact, come to think of it, I enjoyed it rather more than Alexander Kent's more serious works.

Telzey Amberdon
By James H. Schmitz

In the mid-60's, so I am told, Schmitz was one of the most popular science fiction writers around. He had more than his fair share of magazine covers, and everyone knew his name. These days, his work is largely forgotten, except by those who read it in the magazines the first time around. The only thing of his that I'd ever read is his novel The Witches of Karres. It came highly recommended, and once I found it I was glad I had. But I'd read nothing else, largely because nothing else was in print. Now, thanks to an editor named Eric Flint, all of Schmidt's tales of the Federation of the Hub are being republished in four paperback volumes. The first, the only one I've read so far, is the above listed Telzey Amberdon. Telzey is a young woman of fifteen years, a law student, intelligent, attractive, and (unbeknownst to most people) a powerful telepath. The tales in this book cover the span of time from Telzey's first realization of her powers until her sixteenth birthday; during this time she prevents an intelligent species' extermination, saves a psychotic telepath from himself, and saves the Federation from invasion--all without cloying.

The book isn't a deathless classic, nor is it as special as The Witches of Karres. It's light, it's interesting, it's old-fashioned adventure-oriented science fiction, and sometimes it's just right. I'm looking forward to the second volume, Telzey and Trigger.

Farnham's Freehold
By Robert A. Heinlein

And while we're on the subject of classic science fiction, I'd like to point out that Baen Books is reprinting many of Heinlein's older older books, including this one, which I'd never before read. Somehow, I'd gotten the idea that Farnham's Freehold was one of his juveniles, of which only The Rolling Stones has ever really grabbed me, and I'd never gotten a copy. My mistake; this one's anything but juvenile. It was written in the '50's, but it seems to me to belong to the era of Stranger in a Stranger Land and Time Enough For Love; Hugh Farnham, the protagonist, is clearly a precursor of Lazarus Long.

The book was extremely controversial in its day, and likely would be now if anybody was paying attention. It's a nuclear holocaust story, with the usual survival aspects to it, but it's mostly about race. The nuclear war wiped out the northern hemisphere, and the dark-skinned peoples came into their own. In the world of the far future, in which Farnham and his family find themselves, the dark-skinned Chosen rule the land; the light-skinned are, by definition, servants, with no rights whatsoever. I didn't find the idea particularly shocking, but things were different forty years ago.

Be that as it may: if you're a Heinlein fan and you haven't read it, do. It's a page turner. If you've not read any Heinlein, seek out a copy of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress; that will get you started.

A History of the English Speaking Peoples, Volume I
A History of the English Speaking Peoples, Volume II
By Winston Churchill

Our guest reviewer Steve Martin may not be The Steve Martin, but this Winston Churchill is indeed The Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of England during World War II, and these are the first two volumes of the four-volume history he began between the wars and completed in the 1950's. I first read the set about seven or eight years ago, and was drawn back to it by Iain Pears book An Instance of the Fingerpost; I wanted to read up on Oliver Cromwell.

These two volumes, both of which are quite readable if you do it properly, cover the history of Britain from ancient times up through the Restoration of Charles II. In keeping with Churchill's interests, they can be viewed as a history, not of the English Speaking Peoples, but rather of the Rights of Englishmen, of the Common Law, and of Parliament. I've found them an excellent tool for acquiring the broad sweep of English history.

The trick to reading history is to start with what you already know, and pick a book that amplifies on what you already know without going to far beyond it. Then, as you read, remember the big things, the major events, and fit them into your previous acquired knowledge. Don't worry about the little things for which you have no referents. Ignore them. You'll come away knowing more than you did previously, and should you ever return to the same book you'll be able to read it more deeply than before. When I read these books the first time, I came away remembering a few kings and some events in their reigns, but forgetting most of the other monarchs. This time through, a little more of it stuck, and more of it made sense. It's rather like drawing a map: first you try to get the major rivers, and block out the mountain ranges, and the coastlines. Later you add the streams and the woods and the towns. Later still, you add street maps for those areas of particular interest. Don't worry if the book you're reading is talking about fighting in the streets when you're still not sure where the country is; it will come in time.

Children's Books

The Emperor's New Clothes
Written by the Starlight Foundation and illustrated by Lots of People

The attributions for this book may seem a bit obscure, but that's how it is. The book is a retelling of the classic fairy tale, and it's told in an ingenious way: each page is told by a different character, from his or her or its own point of view, and illustrated by a different artist. It's not clear who actually wrote the prose, but each character is ascribed to a different celebrity, each of whom reads that page aloud on the CD that accompanies the book. The text is uniformly good; good enough and uniform enough that I can't believe that the celebrities each wrote own parts.

Anyway, I liked it well enough, though it's a little too old for Dave yet. And it's to benefit the Starlight Foundation, so what have you got to lose?

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 2000
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