Home : Ex Libris : 1 June 2000

ex libris reviews

1 June 2000

"The sun is up, and the trees are crying!"


In This Issue:
Just a Lot of Books

I looked in vain for a theme for this month's collection of books, but was unable to find one. I read some new books, and re-read a number of old books; some of those are old favorites and some aren't as favorite as I remembered. The focus toward older books is natural, given what I've been doing this past month, which was far too much. I'm working on a novel, attending a writer's workshop on Tuesday nights, going to my day job, playing with my kids, and playing with a new camera; sometimes Jane and I get to talk about the pictures.

You may ask, "So how do you find time to read?" If I don't read, I start to go slowly bonkers. Reading is my natural base state; if I'm not doing anything else, and I'm not asleep, I'm reading a book. The real question is, how am I finding time for everything else I mentioned, plus doing laundry, washing dishes, and so on and so forth.

Easy Free Webspace

If you clicked on the link to my pictures a moment ago, you probably noticed that they aren't here at wjduquette.com. Instead, I created a site called "Foothills" at a free website provider called EditThisPage.com.

Actually, I created Foothills out of curiosity. My friend Rick has a page there, and the things he said about it intrigued me. As the name "EditThisPage" implies, you create your pages on-line, through your web browser. It's a simple process; you don't need to know anything about HTML or web pages to get the job done.

Now, creation of wjduquette.com is a heavily automated process. I've got it set up so that I just write new content each month, and all of the boilerplate is produced automatically. But at present there's no part of wjduquette.com that's really set up for daily updates. More than that, I write wjduquette.com on my laptop, which is only rarely connected to the 'Net; I do image editing and 'Net access on our family desktop machine. The upshot is that posting pictures every day or so is a pain if I do it as part of wjduquette.com, but trivially easy if I do it on EditThisPage.com.

If you've had any interest in creating a website, and no idea how to go about it, you might consider taking a look there.

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Some Days You Get The Bear
By Lawrence Block

Block is a novelist by nature, by he does write the occasional short story; this is a collection of twenty-one of them, and a fine time it is. Matt Scudder is present in a couple of stories, one of which grew into When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, as are Bernie Rhodenbarr the thief and Keller the hitman. Also present is a character who has appeared only in Block's short stories, Ehrengraf the defense attorney. Ehrengraf will always win you an acquittal, and his methods bring new meaning to the phrase "criminal lawyer".

But most of the stories in the book have no relation to any of Block's other work, and some of those are delightful indeed. I particularly liked the title story, "Some Days You Get The Bear," and "The Tulsa Experience" was simply chilling.

There's crime here, and suspense, and also a little humor; I enjoyed it thoroughly.

The Burglar in the Rye
By Lawrence Block

About this book, however, I have mixed emotions. On the one hand, I think it's one of the better Bernie Rhodenbarrs; on the other hand, a lot of it went over my head, starting with the title.

The set-up is typical Bernie: he's been hired by beautiful Alice Cottrell to steal some letters written by reclusive author Gulliver Fairborn to his New York agent, Anthea Landau. It seems that Landau has threatened to publish the letters, outraging Fairborn. Cottrell wants the letters, so she says, so that she can return them to Fairborn. She's not alone; a fair crew of people, from Fairborn scholars to collectors, want to get a line on those letters. Why do they care?

For those who have read J.D. Salinger's famous book, no doubt the title of Block's latest outing brought The Catcher in the Rye immediately to mind. Now me, I've never read it; my closest exposure to it came on one family vacation when I was maybe seven, when my older siblings spent what seemed like a considerable amount of time reviling it. Still, I can see stars when whacked with a two-by-four. It soon became clear, even to me, that Gulliver Fairborn is a stand-in for Salinger, and that Fairborn's first book, the book that apparently changed the life of everyone in Bernie's world from Bernie on down, is a stand-in for The Catcher in the Rye. But, as I say, I've never read it. It didn't change my life. I have no baggage associated with it or its author, and so this book lacked much of the resonance it might otherwise have had.

That said, it was an enjoyable read, and I particularly liked the ending.

Pride and Prejudice
By Jane Austen

When I'm feeling stressed and busy, I reach for the familiar and comforting...and once you've been properly introduced there's little as familiar and comforting as Jane Austen at her best. Austen had a remarkable eye for character, and an equal skill at getting characters down on paper. Eliza Bennett, FitzWilliam Darcy, Mrs. Bennett, and the whole grand crew would be immediately recognizeable if met at a party today; and yet, it is a measure of Austen's skill that she never tells us what any of them look like.

Anyway, better men and women than I have praised Austen's work; I'll simply say that Pride and Prejudice is a wonderful, delightful novel; more, if you've dismissed it as a dreary old classic, or as "one of those romance novels," I suggest you give it a try. And remember, humor is in the eye of the beholder: if you expect it to be strange and dreary, it will be.

By P.G. Wodehouse

Wodehouse has long been a favorite of mine; long enough that most of his work remains unreviewed in this pages. I hope to rectify that with this book. Cocktail Time is one of Wodehouse's best outings, a tale of his sparkling, dangerous, whimsical, utterly wonderful (if you're reading about him rather than living with him) Uncle Fred, the Earl of Ickenham.

First introduced in the Drones Club story "Uncle Fred Flits By", the good Earl delights in spreading "sweetness and light" where ever he goes. This, in itself, is laudable. Add to this a penchant for imposture, cheap theatrics, creative lying, and a complete disregard for the consequences, and you have the makings of a good time indeed.

If you've read and enjoyed Wodehouse, I've already said enough; if you haven't, I can't do justice to him in this space. Go thou, and buy (or borrow) this book; you won't regret it.

Johnny and the Bomb
By Terry Pratchett

This is the third of Pratchett's juvenile novels about English schoolboy Johnny Maxwell and his friends. It is Johnny's fate to get mixed up in utterly inexplicable events and muddle through as best he can. The Johnny Maxwell books are as well-written as one would expect from Pratchett; they are also slightly more serious in tone than his Discworld books, as well as being more English in language.

The "bomb" of the current outing isn't the A-bomb or H-bomb one usually thinks of, but rather a bomb dropped on an obscure suburb of London by mistake during World War II. The local air raid siren malfunctioned, and consequently many people were killed. Johnny's been writing a paper on the attack for one of his classes. And then he and his friends find old Mrs. Tachyon, the baglady who's been part of the local scenery for as long as anyone can remember, lying in the street with severe injuries, rather as if she's lived through a bomb blast. They report the injury, and Johnny takes the shopping cart and its contents home so it won't be stolen. And therein lies the tale.

The Past Through Tomorrow
By Robert A. Heinlein

This is a grand anthology of Heinlein's best work: all of his Future History stories from his earliest days as a writer up to the publication of his magnum opus, Time Enough For Love. I don't think the book is in print any longer, which is a pity, as it is the equivalent of three other titles. I believe all three of those titles are in print, however, or soon will be; there's a lot more Heinlein on the bookstore shelves at the moment than there has been in quite a while; and at least two publishers, Baen and Del Ray, are involved. The titles titles are The Green Hills of Earth, Revolt in 2100, and Methuselah's Children. There's also at least one story from The Menace From Earth, which is well worth buying in its own right.

The Past Through Tomorrow, in whatever form you read it, isn't 24 karat gold all of the way through; some of the earlier stories, in particular, are extremely dated. Nevertheless, the book as a whole is classic science fiction at its best. His fans call him the Master for a reason.

Assignment in Eternity
By Robert A. Heinlein

Even Jove sometimes nods, so they say. I read this for the first time this month, having bought it in latest incarnation. It's a collection of two novellas and two short stories, and while I'm not sorry I read it, it is by no means Heinlein's best work. If you're a Heinlein fan, you might wish to find it and read it; if you're not familiar with Heinlein, there are much better places to begin. See our Robert A. Heinlein page for suggestions.

The Puppet Masters
By Robert A. Heinlein

Now this book, while again not one of Heinlein's best, is written with considerably more style and panache than Assignment in Eternity. The plot is pure 1950's B-movie: the United States is faced with an invasion of body-snatchers from outer space. The invaders are small, disgusting slug-like creatures. If one of them makes contact with your skin, they've got you. They've got your memories, your skills, and most importantly, your face. People who know you will gladly let you come to their homes and slip them a slug. The whole thing is so Cold-War that it's hard to take it seriously.

But that's OK, sometimes. If you used to like B-movies, you'll like this; and the writing's a lot better.

Bridge of Birds
The Story of the Stone
Eight Skilled Gentlemen
By Barry Hughart

Barry Hughart hasn't written anything, to my knowledge, in quite a long while. The rumor is that he had a falling-out with his publisher and was so soured by it thathe threw over publishing completely. Whatever the true reason is, I'm sorry he's no longer writing, and I'm glad he managed to write these three books before he stopped.

Bridge of Birds is a witty, outrageous fairy tale of a novel set in (if I recall correctly) Sung Dynasty China. The children in a small village have been afflicted with a loathsome disease; Number Ten Ox (so called because he is his parent's tenth child and is also enormous in both size and strength) is sent to Peking to find a wise man. He returns with the only wise man he can afford, the incorrigible Li Kao. Master Li is extremely wise, having scored first place in China's top academic exam; he is also an old trouble-maker and reprobate. As he introduces himself, "My surname is Li and my personal name is Kao, and I have a slight flaw in my character."

Soon Ox and Master Li are roaming all over China, seeking the parts of the Great Root of Power, the only substance that might save the village children. They meet the unspeakably evil Duke of Chin, the abominable Ancestress, the aptly named Key Rabbit, and a woman whose smile makes strong men spend their way into bankruptcy. And yet, thinks Master Li, they seem to be in the wrong story. Along the way, it becomes clear that the emperor of heaven, the August Personage of Jade, is taking a personal hand in their quest: why?

I can't recommend this book highly enough. It's a true classic, it's hilarious, and it reads really well aloud.

The Story of the Stone and Eight Skilled Gentleman contain further adventures of Master Li and Number Ten Ox; although they contain supernatural elements (and would not be the same without them), they are cast less as fairy tales and more as mysteries. They suffer somewhat by this, and they aren't as fun to read aloud, so I can't recommend them quite as whole-heartedly. If you like Bridge of Birds, though, you'll probably like them as well.

By Tom Dietz

I first encountered these books back in 1993 or 1994; I read them, I enjoyed them, and I went looking for all of Dietz' other books. At that time he had one other series, a kind of "Celtic dieties migrated to America" series that falls pretty well into Emma Bull and Charles de Lint territory. As I recall, I liked those books well enough, but these three, written later, were much better but a little frustrating. And so, having read them once, they sat on the shelf until this past month, when I picked up the first one with great anticipation. There was a lot I had forgotten, but what I remembered was tantalizing.

Having re-read them with somewhat older eyes--I hadn't started this website back then, and dissecting everything you read every month will have its effect--I now see why I found them frustrating. And I'm frustrated enough by it that I got ninety-six pages into the third volume and then quit.

On the surface, the books are about the fortunes of the Welch family of Welch County, Georgia. The Welches were the first settlers in the area; the head of the family is still referred to as the Master of Cardalba, after the family plantation, and is an important person in Welch County. In fact, the entire family has a variety of magical gifts, though only the Master has the strength to make great use of them; it is through the tacit exercise of these powers that the prosperity of Welch County and the preeminence of the Welch family is maintained.

Soulsmith concerns a crisis within the Welch family itself. Inheritance of the Mastership has typically gone from uncle to sister's son. The current Master wants to leave the Mastership to his illegitimate son, a local bullyboy who (at first, anyway) is unaware of his parentage. The rightful heir, teenager Lewis Welch, has been kept in the dark about the family history by his mother, who would just as soon see the Mastership cease. Into this mix comes Ronnie Dillon, who proves to be Lewis' own twin brother, hidden from the Welch family since birth. The fireworks are spectacular, and the book as a whole is entertaining, if a tad sordid in spots.

As I say, that's the surface impression. The books are really about Ronnie Dillon, and his development as an artist and mechanic. In the first book, Ronnie proves to be skilled at metalwork, and apprentices himself to an odd travelling preacher-tinker called the Road Man--the "Soulsmith" of the title.

So far, so good. The second book, Dreambuilder, takes place four or five years later, on Ronnie's graduation from college. He has a girlfriend, and would gladly never go back to Welch Country. He's called there at the need of his brother Lewis, now Master of Cardalba, and once he gets there finds himself strangely unable to leave. He meets Brandy Wallace, a rather eccentric woman attempting to build a castle on a hill near town, and a builder named Van Vannister, the Dreambuilder of the title. The Welch family follies take back seat to Ronnie and Brandy's story, and the steps Van Vannister takes to bring them together. Vannister is an odd customer, and to the reader it's obvious that he's another incarnation of the Road Man. There's evidently some deep, serious reason why Ronnie and Brandy have to fall in love and be a couple, but what that reason is remains extremely opaque.

Finally comes the third book, and all of the things that bothered me in the first two books become unavoidable. To wit: all of the main characters are testy, difficult people. Conflict is the essence of plot, I'll grant you...but I get sick of reading about people who are simply incapable of exchanging more than three sentences without blowing up. When all of the characters are like this--when Lewis Welch is mysterious and closemouthed for no good reason but stupidity, when Brandy insists on taking courses of action that she knows will irritate Ronnie, when every one of them gets angry every time they talk to any of the others for any length of time--well, it begins to all seem a little contrived. And then comes the realization, "I Don't Want To Read About These People".

On top of that, I can remember enough of the ending to be relatively sure that the motive force behind the Road Man and Van Vannister's efforts is never adequately explained.

So the books I remembered with great fondness failed me this time. I hate it when that happens.

The Cockatrice Boys
By Joan Aiken

Here's a surreal little book for you. Joan Aiken is (according to the list of books on the frontispiece) a remarkably prolific author, but only a few of her books, so far as I can tell, have ever been published in the United States. I've got three juveniles of hers, starting with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and two anthologies of macabre fantasy stories, and in general I like what I've read. For some reason, though, when I first saw The Cockatrice Boys on the bookstore shelf, shortly after it was first published, I didn't buy it. (It might have been in hardcover.) And after that, I had never reconsidered the decision until one night this past month, when it struck me that I'd seen the book at various bookstores pretty much continuously in the years since it had first been published, and that this spoke well for it. So I bought it, and brought it home, and read it.

It's a whimsical little fantasy. It seems that, over night, England suffers from a plague of "cockatrices". There are many different kinds, but all of them are deadly to mankind, and in a matter of months human civilization in Britain has literally been driven underground. But the British fighting spirit has not vanished, no! An armored train is built, and a special fighting force, the Cockatrice Corps, is raised to take the battle to the enemy. They are equipped with snark masks, and a wide variety of peculiar weapons suited to the weaknesses of each kind of creature.

I enjoyed this book, which is written with humor and imagination and whimsy, right up until the ending. The ending was just plain silly, and a complete disappointment; I had expected better. But don't let that put you off, if you like the occasional offbeat fantasy.

How to Read a Poem
By Burton Raffel

My friend Rick recommended this book to me, after reading in last month's issue that I was trying to educate myself with respect to poetry. I sought it out, and devoured it, and I recommend it highly. The book is refreshingly down-to-earth and lucid; it is Raffel's desire to teach us what poetry is about, through a judicious and expansive use of examples. He had my complete attention from the first page, where he first gives a definition of poetry and then, as a test, tests it against my own favorite poem, Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky". As he says, any definition of poetry that excludes "Jabberwocky" is clearly mistaken. From that moment on I knew I was in good hands.

That impression was strengthened about halfway through the book, when Raffel attacks the notion that poetry is obscure. He gives an example of a poem that one might reasonably think is obscure, and then shows how, with a little thought, one can actually make a fair amount of sense out of it. And then, to show what true obscurity is, he presents another poem that is utterly opaque, and written to be so, and expresses his decidely negative opinion on it. There will be no more poems of this ilk in this book, he declares, and he keeps his promise.

If you've wondered about poetry, buy this book.

The Falcon at the Portal
By Elizabeth Peters

Ms. Peters has a lot to answer for.

As I've commented many times before, a series mystery novel is about two things at once: the mystery, of course, but also the continuing lives of the main characters. For some time, the primary attraction of Peter's Amelia Peabody Emerson series has not been the mysteries themselves, but the ongoing saga of the Emerson clan.

This book began in an extremely promising way. A motif in the last couple of books has been the increasing maturity of the younger members of the cast, and the refusal by the older members to treat them as adults. With this book, that era is in the past--an extremely pleasant change. The mystery, for once, doesn't involve Sethos the Master Criminal or any other enemy from Amelia's past. There were even signs that the long-awaited romance between Ramses and Nefret might actually flower.

And then Ms. Peters made me extremely angry. I can't tell you how, because that would spoil it. She partially redeems herself by the end of the book, but only partially.

And it was still worth reading, damn it.

And now I have to wait until the next volume comes out in paperback.

Damn it.

Knights of Madness
Edited by Peter Haining

This book, an anthology of humorous stories from several genres, makes promises it can't deliver. With such luminaries as Terry Pratchett, A.A. Milne, Mark Twain, G.K. Chesterton, and Gene Wolfe, it should be an excellent read from start to finish, with laughs aplenty. It isn't. There are a few notable stories, including a wicked little crime tale by L. Frank Baum, of all people, and another by Ray Bradbury, but many of the stories simply fall flat for me. Even Terry Pratchett's tale isn't up to his usual standard. Sigh.

The People's Doonesbury
By Garry Trudeau

Yet another of Trudeau's Doonesbury collections, picked up one evening when I simply couldn't relax. 'Twas wonderful.

Jane's Recent Reading

by Jane Duquette

How I Gave Up My Low Fat Diet and Lost Forty Pounds
By Dana Carpender

Here's a book that has all of the low-carbohydrate diet tricks, options, and varieties all in one place. Dana has been a bit obsessive on low-carbohydrate diets, and she tells everything she knows in this book. It's a must-read if you are considering such a diet and don't know which one is best for you: Atkin's, Carbohydrate Addict's, the Zone, etc. It is also helpful if you have plateaued, or just need some encouragement. She shows which diet will let you eat all you want, which will let you eat fruit, which will let you eat a regular dessert, which will let you eat ice cream, and still lose weight.

I have only a few complaints about the book: 1) The picture inside the cover is much better than the picture on the cover, and 2) she sprinkles interesting information and tips throughout the book so that if you just read the chapters on the individual diets you will miss something. It could benefit from a good index.

The book is loaded with information. I appreciate her advice on how and when to switch between the various diets based on what is happening in your life. I recommend this book, and also her web site, http://www.HoldTheToast.com. She writes a free e-mail newsletter that will give you a taste of her writing and advice style; subscribe at the web site. For information that you can refer to whenever you want, buy the book.

Steve's Recent Reading

by Steve Martin

The Great Book of Amber
By Roger Zelazny

Well, dear readers, I only got through one book that I'm going to review this month. Just so you don't think I'm slacking, it was a ten book anthology (a mere 1258 pages). I ran across this gem while looking for ways to use my $50 gift certification from Borders Books (payment for my band playing in their coffee shop).

Subtitled "The Complete Amber Chronicles, 1-10", this book follows the family of Oberon, who is King of Amber. As the series begins, Oberon has gone missing, and one of his sons, Corwin, wakes up in a mental hospital on Earth, without his memory. As he starts to regain his memory, he meets some of his siblings and realizes that he can't trust them. Not only that, he suspects that it was one of them (there are about a dozen) who stuck him "in hospital" as the British would say. Oh, did I mention that the realm is under assault from unknown forces as well? Thus begins an epic that is one part fantasy and one part mystery.

The second half of the chronicles (books 6-10) follow Corwin's son Merlin. He was born out of a union with a denizen of the Courts of Chaos (Amber's opposite number) and as such is also a sorceror. Surprise! Someone is trying Merlin too.

Well, I really enjoyed this series overall. I thought it was all pretty good until the end when it seemed like Zelazny didn't know how to wrap the story up. Alas, since he died in 1995 there will be no more sequels to clear things up. From this and other spots in the series, I got the impression that Zelazny was just putting pen to paper to see what plot sprung out without thinking too far in advance. Even with this, I thought it was a good read. I also learned where a reference in my favorite computer game, Nethack, came from--Grayswandir was Corwin's sword.

Next month I'll be reviewing and doing a comparison between Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman's The Forever War.

Children's Books

by Jane Duquette

Just For You
Just Go To Bed
By Mercer Mayer

David picked Just For You out for me to read to him right before Mother's Day. It is the story of a small boy who wants to do something special for his Mom, but things keep going wrong. It is a sweet, lovely book that will amuse any child and parent who have lived through the disasters than occur when a small child tries to "help". It was a lovely Mother's Day give to both of us.

As good as Just For You is, Just Go To Bed is even better. The entire bed time routine is outlined, along with the imaginary life (and stalling tactics) lived by the little boy. It is easy and fun to read--a fabulous book. Look at this one even if you don't have a child to read it to.

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 2000
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