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ex libris reviews

1 September 2000

What were we thinking?
Will and Jane


In This Issue:
On the Road/Potter's Field

As I write these words we're cruising down Interstate 40 between Flagstaff, Arizona and Gallup, New Mexico. It's not raining at the moment, but it's been pouring for the last fifteen. Lightning, too. And I'm sitting in the front passenger seat of our minivan because ex libris reviews is on vacation!

Oh, and we're all (Will, Jane, David, and James) listening to the soundtrack from the movie Singing in the Rain on the CD player.

I always write ex libris on my laptop computer, so the posture isn't unusual; nevertheless, there's something extremely surreal about this whole experience.

I titled this issue "On the Road/Potter's Field"; the "On the Road" part is obvious; the rest is because this issue is dominated by Harry Potter and related books. We've got the entire Potter saga to date, a somewhat similar book by Jane Yolen, and some equally fantastic tales by Daniel Pinkwater. On top of that we've got some old stalwarts, including George MacDonald Fraser, L.E. Modesitt, Jr, and Rex Stout.

Partially due to our migratory ways, there won't be any guest reviewers this month. But it's still an eclectic collection, as always, and we hope you'll enjoy it. Meanwhile, the Duquette family will be on the road, enjoying our vacation and observing the Code of the Outdoors: Take only pictures, buy only books.

P.S. For those of you who are seriously worrying about me, the answer is no--I didn't write the whole month's issue while we were on the road.

-- Will Duquette

Books to Read Aloud

by Will Duquette

The Sibyl in Her Grave
By Sarah Caudwell

I began reviewing this book last month; began, only, because we weren't quite finished with it, but it was too good not to write about immediately. I said I'd finish the review this month, once I found out how it ended.

I'm glad to say that the ending was just dandy. For more information about the book see last month's review; here, all I want is to say, with Winnie-the-Pooh, that it's "honey all the way down."

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Wizard's Hall
By Jane Yolen

This is the story of how a slender, unruly-haired young lad named Henry gets shipped off to a school for wizards, has some adventures, and manages to save the world by Being Himself and by Trying Really Hard. If that precis hasn't reminded you of a series of books in which a slender, unruly-haired young lad named Harry gets shipped of to a school for wizards, has some adventures, and manages to save the world by Being Himself and by Trying Really Hard, you've simply not been paying attention to the recent flurry of Potter-mania.

Having grown tired of waiting for the paperbacks, I recently had occasion to pick up the three newest Harry Potter books at our local bookstore. Like most other bookstores this month, Vroman's has a "What To Read When You Have Re-Read Harry Potter Umpty Times" table. I gave it the once over, and among the books I expected--C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, Susan Cooper's "The Dark is Rising" Sequence and a few others, found this one. Yolen's is an author whose name I recognize, though I've read little of her work, so I picked it up, read the back cover, and decided it would make an interesting counterpoint to my looming stack of Harry Potter novels.

Although the similarities with the Harry Potter series are numerous and obvious (for the curious, Yolen's book is copyright 1991), the tone is almost entirely different. The Potter books are novels which work on a number of levels. Wizard's Hall is a moral fable about perseverance. In it, Henry (now called Thornmallow) helps defeat the evil Master (a disgruntled former instructor) and his fearsome Quilted Beast mostly by virtue of Not Giving Up.

There are some genuinely good things in this book. Wizard's Hall is in many ways a more believably magical place than Hogwarts School. The magic curriculum, quickly drawn though it is, seems to have some kind of thought and rationale behind it; the curriculum at Hogwarts is mostly irrelevant to the plot and (despite the fulminations of various of my co-religionists) is hardly described at all. The Quilted Beast is a truly nifty creation. Overall, Yolen has an excellent fairy tale teller's voice, and a neat turn of phrase. I enjoyed reading the book well-enough.

In the back of my mind, though, I knew I was being preached at. I hate that. Also, I never really identified with Henry; In fact, I never got a really good handle on Henry's personality; it seemed to me that he spinelessly did whatever the plot required of him. And his eventual victory contained a little too much pop-psychology and fortuitous happenstance for my taste.

On the other hand, after reading about Harry, it's kind of refreshing to come across a book in which the hero doesn't succeed at everything he tries.

5 Novels
By Daniel Pinkwater

I first became aware of Daniel Pinkwater through his occasional witty, offbeat commentary pieces on NPR's All Things Considered. Later I discovered that he was an author of children's books; later still that he was really an author of young adult fiction. I made this discovery the day I bought the books 2 through 4 of the Harry Potter saga, mostly because 5 Novels was shelved in the same section of the store. I opened the book, read a few lines, and decided to take it home. I was not disappointed. Moreover, serendipity reigns supreme; three of the five novels are, to some extent, school stories, providing yet another counterpoint to Potter-mania.

The five novels collected in this volume are unrelated to each other, and have been sold each under its own name, so I'm reviewing them below as stand-alone works.

Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars
By Daniel Pinkwater

This beautifully constructed tale concerns one Leonard Neeble, a new student at Bat Masterson Junior High, and a pronounced misfit. The other kids are tall, well-dressed, athletic; Leonard is short, stout, and invariably rumpled. None of the other kids will talk to him, until the day Alan Mendelsohn shows up. Alan is also a misfit, but he's agressively non-conformist, and considerably more outgoing. Alan Mendelsohn likes to learn more about each school subject than the teacher, so as to ask difficult questions backed by scholarly authority. He likes to trip people, sometimes just by sticking a foot out, but more often by distracting them with a "missile whistle" at just the right moment. Leonard and Alan are soon bosom buddies.

So far so good; seems like just another school story. Then the duo go off looking for a comic book store in an old part of town, and while there they happen into an occult bookstore. The owner, Samuel Klugarsh, sells them his Klugarsh Mind Control kit. If they can manage to use the kit to bring their minds to State 26 at will, he tells them, they will be able to control the actions of others, travel to Ancient Civilizations like Atlantis, Mu, and Waka-Waka, and many other interesting things.

Now, to the discerning reader--heck, to the naive reader--Klugarsh comes off as a phony. The two boys buy the kit out of curiousity, mostly expecting that they've been gypped. But they give it a serious try, and to their amazement it works. When they return to Klugarsh's store for the next kit, he's astonished--he really is a phony--but happily sells them the next kit.

And so the story goes...and gets weirder and wilder with every chapter. And of course, being a school story, it ends satisfyingly with Leonard making a place for himself at Bat Masterson Junior High. But what a long strange trip it is.

Slaves of Spiegel
By Daniel Pinkwater

This is a short one, and the least satisfying of the five. It's the tale of the gluttonous space pirates of the planet Spiegel, and of how the three greatest fry cooks in the galaxy (including one from Earth) are kidnapped and taken to Spiegel for a cook-off. It's mildly amusing, and worth reading if you buy the entire 5 Novels, but otherwise I'd give it a miss. On the other hand, it may play well with the younger children.

The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death
By Daniel Pinkwater

Like Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars, this novel starts out by establishing a fairly concrete, mostly normal world--and then kicks the weirdness into high gear. It concerns Walter Galt and Winston Bongo, two students at an educational warehouse called Genghis Khan High School. Like Alan Mendelsohn and Leonard Neeble, our heroes are bored with the low quality instruction they are getting; unlike them, they confine their rebellion to after hours.

Well after hours, like after midnight. Snarking out, it develops, involves getting up around 1 AM, sneaking out of your apartment building, catching the Snark Avenue bus to the Snark Avenue theater, and there watching old movies for several hours.

And so it goes, until, while solo-snarking one night, Walter meets a bohemian young lady named Bentley Saunders Harrison Matthews (Rat-face to her friends). And then Bentley's eccentric Uncle Flipping disappears--and he's an old friend of Walter's father, and one of the few men in the world who's really sound on the subject of avocados. And...

But that would be telling. Suffice it to say that you'll like it if you read it.

The Last Guru
By Daniel Pinkwater

Twelve-year-old Harold Blatz persuades his disreputable Uncle Roy to bet his (Harold's) life savings of $638.04 at the horse races, on a single horse, a long shot of 90 to 1. He wins. He has Uncle Roy invest the money, through a broker, in MacTavish's fast food restaurants, a healthfood chain specializing in pickle-patty sandwiches. MacTavish's immediately takes off. They invest the profits in other ways. They don't pull any money out; neither of them can really conceive of the money being real. Finally, before Harold's thirteenth birthday he has the fifth largest private fortune in the world, and his parents still don't know about it.

And then, predictably, all hell breaks loose.

I found this one interesting and amusing, and also somewhat troubling. It was written in 1978, and was clearly intended to satirize the increasing interest at time in in Eastern wisdom and holy men. Indeed, he skewers many of the leading figures in that movement quite nicely. But while goring the ox of pop-spirituality, he doesn't leave much room for the oxen of more serious faiths.

It's also an interesting sermon on the value of money.

Young Adult Novel
By Daniel Pinkwater

Judging from the title, I expected this to be a parody or satire of the entire genre...rather like the Generic Sci-Fi Novel I picked up when I was in college (I believe I've since disposed of it). And bits of it are...but not really.

This is yet another school story, and perhaps the most interesting one in the bunch. There's weirdness aplenty, but it's human weirdness, not fantastic weirdness.

The action takes place at Himmler High School, where a group of students have formed themselves into an Artistic Movement. They call themselves the Wild Dada Ducks, and they follow the precepts of the Dada movement as typified by the artist Marcel Duchamp. As such, their goal is to perpetrate various works of Dadaist art around the school, which they do with wit and panache. Eventually they go too far...and receive an entirely appropriate, funny comeuppence.

The thing that impressed me most about this story is that I recognized the people in it. I told Jane, "I know people like this." I couldn't help thinking of my college friends who engineered the election of one the custodians for student body president. None of the genuine candidates got the required majority vote, and so a new election had to be held. I won't name the culprits, but They Know Who They Are. And at least one of them reads ex libris.

Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
By J.K. Rowling

Superficially, Harry Potter rather resembles Jane Yolen's Thornmallow: a young, tousle-headed boy with no thought of magic who find himself a student at a premier school of magic--and the most famous student at the school to boot, all because the evil wizard Voldemort failed to kill him when he was a baby. When he reaches a certain age, he is invited to come to Hogwarts School of Wizardry. The first book covers the time from Harry's birth to the end of his first year at Hogwarts; the succeeding three years are the topics of each of the next three books. As the series progresses, we see the evolution of Harry's relationship with his unspeakable Muggle guardians, the Dursleys; his increasing rivalry with the unpleasant Draco Malfoy and his bully-buddies; and accumulating revelations about his parents and the events surrounding his birth.

It's pointless to go into the plot of each book; each builds on the previous ones and I don't want to give anything away. Instead, I'm going to simply say that if you like fantasy you should give the books a try. They are fun. You've got your basic English "public" school story, with prefects and houses and so forth. You've got Harry learning magic with his friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. You've got racial/class discrimination (the old line magical families, like the Malfoys, think Muggles--non-magicians--are scum). You've got Harry learning about his parents and the events surrounding their deaths. You've got imposters and skullduggery and people falsely accused and good guys who are really bad guys and bad guys who are really good guys and all manner of nifty things.

More than that, the quality of the books is increasing, not decreasing. As she gains experience, Rowling is doing a better job. And though the latest is by far the thickest, it isn't all fluff and padding.

So if you've been tempted by Harry Potter, but have been put off by the hype, relax. Go buy 'em, and read 'em.

That said, I do have a few critical comments.

For a series of books about life at a school of magic, there's an amazing lack of detail about magic. Even given its small scope, Wizard's Hall presents a simple philosophy of magic; this series does not. All of those parents who were afraid that their children would learn witchcraft from the Harry Potter books should take heart. There's precious little of ritual magick in these books; even the most complicated spells seem to involve a wave of a wand and a spoken word.

On the whole, this is a good thing, rather than a bad thing--but the point is, the books really aren't about magic at all.

The second point is the relationship between the wizard folk and the Muggles. The notion is that the wizard folk go to great lengths to prevent the Muggles from learning about them. Wizardly society and locales see to be embedded in Muggle society; to catch the train to Hogwarts, for example, one most go to Victoria Station. It would seem that wizardfolk would have to learn quite a lot about Muggles in order to apply the proper protective coloration.

But it doesn't seem to work that way. Ron Weasley's father is fascinated by Muggle technology and ways....and, despite his government position and high education, knows really very little about it. And while wizardfolk try to keep Muggles ignorant of their presence, there are many students at Hogwarts whose parents are Muggles. Harry's guardians, the Dursleys, are terrified that someone will find out that they have a wizard in the family. All in all, the interface between the Muggles and the wizards doesn't work for me.

But these are minor quibbles, on a par with complaining about Harry's skill at quidditch; he's the hero, after all. Some of these things just go with the genre.

The Silent Speaker
Death of a Doxy
By Rex Stout

These are two more of Stout's delightful Nero Wolfe novels. I won't say much about them, except that I liked them; the fact that they are about Nero Wolfe and his sidekick Archie Goodwin is enough reason to go out and buy them. If you're unfamiliar with Nero Wolfe, check out last month's reviews and our Rex Stout page.

A Short History of Byzantium
By John Julius Norwich

I once had dinner at a micro-brewery in San Diego where they made a dark brown ale that the menu described as "surprisingly drinkable." I found that a surprising thing to find on a menu, and I was sufficiently intrigued to order some. And they were right: without being in any sense bland, it was the smoothest beer I've ever tasted.

On that note, I'd like to describe A Short History of Byzantium as being "surprisingly readable." I'm a history buff, and I like reading about history; but the average history book is rather dry and stuffy, and does take some fairly serious effort to get through, no matter how well it's written. I usually find it necessary to take any number of novel-breaks before I actually finish a history book of any size.

Norwich's book, on the other hand, kept jumping into my hand. I won't say I read it cover to cover without taking any breaks to read other books...but given a choice between starting a tempting novel and continuing to read about Byzantium, I generally picked Byzantium.

The book, for those who are still interested, covers the history of the Eastern Roman Empire from its founding by Constantine the Great in the 4th century until its final demise at the hands of the Turks over a thousand years later. By the nature of the task it concentrates on the emperors and the foreign and domestic problems they had to solve, and on the inevitable palace intrigues, coups, usurpations, and succession squabbles. The second focus is on Byzantium's place in the world; through Byzantine eyes we see the squabbles with the Pope, the attempts to gain control of the western empire, the rise of Islam, the growth of the Holy Roman Empire in Germany, and the beginnings of European nationalism.

What's not here is much detail about the emperor's personal lives, the lives of the citizenry, or the overall organization of the empire, for this book is an abbreviation--a self-abridgement--of Norwich's massive three-volume history of Byzantium. I've eyed those three volumes with some trepidation in many a bookstore, invariably leaving them on the shelf, and was quite glad to find the current work as a substitute; now I'm thinking that I'll eventually want to go buy and read them.

I would not recommend this book to anyone without some grounding in the Ancient World; it would be better in that case to start with either a much more general survey, say Will Durant's Caesar and Christ. But if you know a little about history, and have any curiousity about the Byzantines, this is an interesting book to read.

The Flag Captain
Signal--Close Action
By Alexander Kent

These are the twelfth and thirteenth volumes in Kent's Captain Richard Bolitho series of nautical adventures; see our Alexander Kent page for an index of previous reviews.

I don't have much to say about these. They were enjoyable reads, and were marginally better than most of the earlier books; but they suffer from all of the predecessors' flaws.

I understand that there's one more; I'll have to look it up, and then I'll be done.

Flashman and the Tiger
By George MacDonald Fraser

A new Harry Flashman novel is always a treat, and I rather jumped on this one when I saw it in the bookstore; I hadn't been expecting it. Alas, it isn't really a novel. Rather, it's a collection of three shorter works now published in book form for the first time; they take an aging Flashy from London to Central Europe and South Africa. The best I can say about it is that it's OK; if you're a Flashman fan, it's well-worth it.

I will add, though, that the ending of the final section of the book is as funny as anything in the entire series. I can't say more; that would be telling.

The New Knighthood
By Malcolm Barber

Last month I reviewed The Temple and the Lodge by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, beginning under the illusion that they were serious scholars. I've since discovered that they've also written a book called Holy Blood, Holy Grail, in which they argue that (among other things) Jesus Christ did not die on the Cross, but in fact married, had children, and in general lived quite a bit longer than any of the Gospels would suggest. You may tell me I have a closed mind, as I've not read the book in question, but frankly the whole premise is utter hogwash. I consistently find this book shelved in the "History of Christianity" section in bookstores, and I have to wonder what people think of it when they come across it unawares.

But be that as it may...it's because of pseudo-scholars like Baigent and Leigh that I sought out books like Malcolm Barber's The New Knighthood and its predecessor, The Trial of the Templars--I wanted a real scholar's take on the Knights Templar and their history. I was entirely satisfied.

Barber's earlier book focusses entirely on the suppression of the Order of the Temple that was instigated by the King of France at the beginning of the 14th century. The reaction to that book was quite positive, and so Barber went on to write this book, a history of the Templars from their creation to their demise.

Like its predecessor, this is a scholarly book; Barber backs up his conclusions not with surmises and long, complex chains of reasoning, but with matter-of-fact humdrum records. It means his work is well-founded, but it also makes for a rather dry reading experience if you haven't developed the knack of reading such things. The knack is easy to acquire: don't get bogged down in the details. They are important only insofar as they support his argument and give you a sense that the author knows his subject. They are certainly not worth remembering or brooding on, unless one is a fellow scholar.

Instead, try to pay attention to the main stream of his argument. It's interesting to note, for example, that the Order of the Templars became one of the largest landholders in the Holy Land, not out of some master plan, but because many secular lords elected to abandon their fiefdoms and return to Europe. The departing lords, in order to salve their consciences, often donated their lands to the Church to support the defense of the Holy Land, and that effectively meant donating their lands to the Templars or to their brother order, the Hospitalers. The names of the many domains that were transferred in this way, many of which are recorded her, are mostly immaterial.

Given all of this, this work is both more general and more readable than its predecessor, and I recommend it to any one with an interest in the Knights Templar or in the Crusades.

Most of the Most of S.J. Perelman
By S.J. Perelman

S.J. Perelman was one of the great American humorists of the 20th century, so I'm told. In past years I'd read his Swiss Family Perelman (one of this few book-length works) with great enjoyment; I'd also read Acres and Pains, a set of bits about the hazards of home ownership in the country, with some amusement; so when I found this one at the bookstore I grabbed it.

Having read it, I don't entirely wish I'd left it on the shelf.

Perelman can be genuinely funny. But a good bit of his humor is a kind of verbal-slapstick: referring to things in odd, elliptical ways, gross exagerations not meant to be taken seriously even in the context of the tale, and massive doses of (now dated) cultural references.

Some of the bits in the book are excellent. Some are funny if you're willing to take the time to puzzle them out. Others are just plain mystifying. Be warned. All in all, should you buy this book, buy it with the intent of picking it up occasionally and dipping in. If you try to read it straight through, you'll regret it.

Death Train to Boston
By Dianne Day

This book was very disappointing.

Day's first novel, The Strange Files of Fremont Jones, was a delight, and quite reasonably won the Macavity Award for Best First Novel. I liked it. It brought Fremont Jones, an intellectual, spunky, independent young woman of Boston to San Francisco in the early years of the 20th century. Jones attempts to make a living as a "typewriter" (or, as we would say, a "typist"). In the course of serving her clients she encounters a number of mysteries which she (with help) proceeds to solve.

Alas, none of the succeeding four books have reached the same pinnacle. This is one of the series that I keep buying in hopes that it will improve; alas, this is Fremont's worst outing yet.

Fremont and her lover, Michael Kossoff, now have their own detective agency (typing went by the board several books ago). They are on a train passing through Utah, investigating a series of "accidents" for the railroad, when there is an explosion and the train de-rails. Michael escapes with a broken collar-bone; Fremont is rescued by a Mormon extremist looking for a sixth wife, and is taken away to his home. As far as Michael is concerned, Fremont has disappeared.

Now, the setup isn't too bad. The Mormon angle has been overdone, but let that slide. Dianne Day has here the opportunity to really put some pressure on Fremont through her captor, Father Pratt. Michael can get to do some really good sleuthing, something he's supposedly good at. Alas, Day's execution of the tale is amazingly, remarkably, astonishingly tedious.

Fremont spends almost all of the book in bed, unable to walk. Her captor, religious zealot though he is, is remarkably merciful. He's convinced, because an angel told him so, that when she is well she will marry him; he's quite willing to let her recover completely from her head wound and broken legs, and even fetches the doctor a couple of times (a two-day round trip). He is never physically or emotionally abusive to her; except for his extreme beliefs, he's a reasonably decent guy. In short, the only tension that arises in Fremont's half of the tale is boredom--that and wondering when the axe is going to fall, and it never does. Eventually she manages to get free without her lover's help.

Michael spents almost all of the book on a train from San Francisco to Utah with Fremont's Chinese friend Mei-ling, arguing with her about whether it's too dangerous for her to be coming along to look for Fremont--when he's not pining for Fremont or noticing how cute Mei-ling is. Other than bringing Mei-ling on the train to go to Utah, he doesn't manage to take a single constructive step in the entire book. He suffers from what I call "romance novel disease", from an example of that genre that Jane handed to me once. In it there are two mothers, both top scientists, practically Nobel-prize-winners; we know this because we are told at once. But we see no evidence of it in their lives. All the two can think of to do is scheme to get their son and daughter married to each other. Michael suffers from the same problem. He's supposedly a skilled secret agent and detective, but you'd never know it from how he acts.

All in all, the whole thing is a fiasco in slow motion. If you're looking for the spunky liberated woman in a historical setting, go get Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody novels, or Laurie R. King's Mary Russell novels. Both are head-and-shoulders over this mess.

Calvin and Hobbes
By Bill Watterson

Remember these guys? The comic strip that was so popular that it displaced Peanuts as the lead strip in the Sunday Los Angeles Times? I'm a big fan of the daily comic strip, as long time readers of ex libris reviews should be well aware, and Calvin and Hobbes was long my favorite strip. Since its untimely demise some years ago, though, it had pretty well drifted out of my sphere of consciousness.

And then I got sick, again (it's been a bad year for that; I suppose it comes from having two small boys in the house), and I was looking for something fun, light, familiar, and comforting to read. I settled on this, the first Calvin and Hobbes collection, and was delighted all over again.

It was amazing to me how many of the things that made the strip what it was were present in this first collection, indeed, in the first few weeks of the strip's life. (Given that, it's more amazing to me how Watterson managed to keep the strip fresh for as long as he did. Perhaps he quit while he was ahead.) For example, the following elements appear in just the first few weeks:

  • Calvin, of course.
  • Hobbes, in both his stuffed animal and real animal guises.
  • Calvin's parents.
  • Calvin's teacher, Miss Wormwood.
  • Susie Derkin, the little girl who lives near by.
  • Moe, the playground bully.
  • Spaceman Spiff, one of Calvin's alter egos
  • The monsters under Calvin's bed.
  • Philosophical dialogs with Hobbes while riding a red wagon down a steep and dangerous hill.
  • Father-popularity polls.
  • Assorted household destruction, actual or surmised.

Also, I couldn't help noticing the rules that make it all work, and that Watterson stuck to religiously.

Rule 1: Hobbes is a stuffed animal if anyone but Calvin is looking at him. Hobbes may be a real animal in the same frame as someone other than Calvin, but only if they are looking away from him.

Rule 2: Hobbes never appears in any of Calvin's daydreams, although his (suitably transformed) teacher, parents, and other people often do. Calvin really does know the difference between imagination and real life...it's just that, as far as Calvin's concerned, Hobbes really is a real tiger. Calvin can see Miss Wormwood as a loathsome monster, but he cannot see Hobbes as a stuffed animal. So, when Calvin's indulging in flights of fancy Hobbes stays home.

Rule 3: This is Calvin's world, seen from his point of view. Calvin has no last name; his parents are identified only as Mom and Dad. In one of the later books Calvin's uncle briefly appears; the presence of an adult who has a relationship with Calvin's parents that doesn't involve Calvin stretches this rule, and in fact the uncle was never seen again.

I like Foxtrot. I like Doonesbury. I like a lot of comic strips. But gosh it would be nice if Watterson went back to drawing Calvin and Hobbes.

Darwin's Radio
By Greg Bear

Darwin's Radio begins with an interesting premise and has many interesting bits, but on the whole it fails to satisfy. It's basically one more world-wide catastrophe novel, on the order of David Brin's Earth or John Barnes' Mother of Storms. The gimmick this time involves the long sequences of apparently garbage DNA in the Human Genome. There's some thought that these sequences might the fossils of ancient retroviruses that once invaded our ancestor's sperm or eggs. Bear takes it one step further: what if the human species had developed a form of adaptive evolution, in which, under appropriate kinds of environmental stress, the race could take on radically new characteristics in a single generation? What if the garbage DNA was a library of traits this mechanism could use? What if this is what happened to the Neanderthals? And what if it's starting to happen to us, now?

It's an intriguing idea, and Bear has you believing it. For the rest, though, the novel is over long, and the climax had me wondering what I'd been waiting for. Give it miss, and re-read Blood Music instead.

Gravity Dreams
By L.E. Modesitt, Jr

Modesitt has a certain gift, that his books drag me in and don't let go until I've finished them. And that's so even when they don't quite work, which is unfortunately the case with this one.

Like most of Modesitt's novels, this one is a meditation on the relation between ethics and high-technology, nanotechnology in this case. It is the story of a man named Tyndel, a member of a static, mid-tech culture based on the teachings of a Zen-like philosophy called "Dzin". Tyndel is a Dzin-master, but he is cast out (and nearly executed) because he becomes infected with nano-machines (nanites) that will make him superhuman. He flees to the high-tech country to the north and rebuilds his life.

A lot happens in the course of this book; Tyndel learns quite a bit, becomes a starship pilot, and falls in love. But at the end of the book I was left wondering where the bang was. There's no indication that this is the first in a series, but it sure has that feel.

Black as He's Painted
By Ngaio Marsh

One of my recent correspondents recommended Marsh to me; she was surprised to see no mention of her mysteries on ex libris, as it seemed like they would be right up our alley. Usually I wait for two or three recommendations before I check out an author, but I had heard of Marsh before, and anyway we're on vacation. We stopped at a Barnes & Noble in Flagstaff, Arizona, and I arbitrarily picked this book out of the many I saw on the shelf.

I enjoyed it. Marsh's writing (for the record, Ngaio is apparently pronounced "Nye-oh") reminds me of a cross between Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers; her sleuth, Superintendant Roderick Alleyn of the CID, seems rather like Lord Peter Wimsey, stripped of his peerage and moved to a later age where a gentleman actually could be a detective.

This particular tale involves the new president of a former African colony...an African chief who, it so happens, was in public school with Alleyn. There are plots galore, a murder at the embassy, and a variety of unsavory people. I can't say I found it gripping...but under the circumstances (driving around the American Southwest with a wife and two children, lots of scenery, and rarely any piece) I had fairly little opportunity to be gripped. I did most definitely enjoy it, and have already bought two more of her books.

Children's Books

by Will Duquette

Stop That Ball

This is the timeless tale of a little boy who hits his big red ball right out of his yard, and all the adventures he has trying to catch up to it. It falls down a manhole, rides on a dumptruck, gets kicked off of a tall building, is blown up along with a hill top, and lands in a fat band member's tuba.

I have fond memories of this book as a child; I demanded it often, and I'm told it's the book my Mom used when I was being potty-trained. Needless to say I remember no such sordid details, but I have certainly been enjoying reading it to Dave.

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 September 2000
Copyright © 2000, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
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