Home : Ex Libris : 1 November 2000

ex libris reviews

1 November 2000

Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls.
Mervyn Peake


In This Issue:
In a Brown Study

As I write these words, I am engulfed in a brown study. But don't feel sorry for me; I'm not in the least bit depressed. It so happens that after thirteen years of sharing a den/study/office with my wife, I'm getting a study of my own. And it happens to be panelled in beautiful tongue-in-groove knotty pine with a deep reddish-brown stain. It's a beautiful room, and it's all mine.

It isn't all decorated yet; there are some old pieces of furniture we're getting rid of, and boxes of this and that piled about; this room became the junk room when we moved in almost four years ago, and we're just now getting around to fixing it up. Most of my files and accoutrements are still scattered about the house. There's a lot of work to be done. But my laptop lives up here now, and there's a bookcase for my reference books and the ever-increasing To Be Read pile. There's an old hand-cranked wall phone (disconnected). My grandfather's old GE console radio with beautiful wood inlay stands nearby; it's turned off, as it only gets AM. Instead, I'm listening to the local rock oldies station on a tiny transistor radio. Plus, I've got my big overstuffed chair and footstool.

Light, books, a chair--what more do I need?

It's been a good month for reading; there's lots more Ngaio Marsh, some long awaited George R. R. Martin, some vintage Poul Anderson, a touch of Edward Gorey, and even a little Terry Pratchett and Stephen King.

Welcome name deleted!

And on top of that, we have a new guest reviewer, name deleted. Here's what she says about herself:

description deleted at reviewer's request.

You'll find out what she's been reading below.

-- Will Duquette

name deleted's Recent Reading

by name deleted

Titus Groan
By Mervyn Peake

From the moment you lift the cover of Titus Groan and meet, headlong, a page full of words, there's a little feeling that you get. It's nothing particularly deep, really, but all the same, it is particularly difficult to describe. I might call it anticipation, I might call it excitement--and you, the reader of this review, would be none the wiser. I'd heard a good deal about Mervyn Peake and his trilogy before beginning to read it, and when I saw that it had been re-released in the United States in one book, I decided to make a sort of gamble: pitch in the nearly thirty dollars that it cost (hard-earned babysitting money--excuse the cliche) and purchase it, hoping it was worth the money. I can swear to you now that I have not regretted my decision once.

The tale opens describing the castle of Gormenghast, and those who make their homes outside its walls. The reader learns that an heir has finally been born to the 76th Earl; the major characters are introduced, each one of them startlingly strange, unique, eccentric (they've been dubbed grotesques, I hear), encased in a world of ritual and tradition. Things move at a perfect pace. Look closely, it's not slow at all--the stage is being set. Ever word is pure vision, and nearly every sentence rambles--the prose is delicious. Peake is bolder than J.R.R. Tolkien, unafraid to tackle subjects the latter would have found disturbing and somewhat embarrassing. The transformation of a character (I'll not tell which) is fascinating to follow. The "villain" would give Shakespeare's Richard III a run for his money. To say too much more would be a sort of betrayal, and I will not.

I enjoyed Titus Groan immensely; finishing it, I followed the words with my fingers, opening my eyes wide. It left a little ache in my chest--left me in a state of wonder. The drawings of Peake's that accompany the text are absolutely amazing. I gazed at the one at the end of the final page for a span of minutes, maybe, then shut the book. It took a while for me to recover enough to begin the sequel, Gormenghast.

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Science of Discworld
By Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen

Being a devoted Pratchett fan, I snapped this one up the moment I saw it. I expected it to be a thoroughly silly book, and it was, but not in the way that I expected it to be. I was expecting a book, written mostly by a couple of Discworld fans with a little input from Pterry himself, about how the Discworld "works". Instead, the book might aptly be titled A Brief History of Time, with Wizards.

The conceit is that an accident in the High Energy Magic Building at Unseen University has caused the creation of a small, bizarre universe--one completely without magic. The wizards are baffled as they watch it evolve. Suns and planets form, and eventually life forms appear on one planet (not) surprisingly like our own.

The chapters with the wizards alternate with chapters on the current state of scientific knowledge here in our world. I kid you not; this book appears to be a serious attempt to answer the question of "How we got here", with the Discworld wizards thrown in as windowdressing. It does an adequate (if blatantly anti-religious) job of it--but I have to wonder what kind of audience they expect for it. It is, as the King of Siam was wont to say, a puzzlement.

A Game of Thrones
A Clash of Kings
By George R. R. Martin

I first read A Game of Thrones almost two years ago, and liked it very much. It's a sprawling tale of political intrigue and civil war set in a world where summers and winters can last for years. A Clash of Kings carries on the tale, as the kingdom splinters into first two, then three, then four, then five (or is it six) different factions, each with its own aspiring king.

Martin's world is well within standard fantasy territory, with kings, queens, knights in armor, and so forth, and yet there is a difference. The fantastic is suppressed; although magic and evil supernatural creatures exist, few of the characters have ever encountered such and consequently don't believe in them. There are many viewpoint characters, and all of them are finely and realistically drawn. Finally, the passions and dramas are human-scale. There is no dark lord, and no superhuman heroes or villains; the people are simply people.

The result is that other recent epic fantasies, such as Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series or David Farland's "Runelords", look like animated cartoons next to the reality of Martin's characters. I'll go farther than that: if Martin carries on as he's begun, "A Song of Ice and Fire" (the series name) will be the best epic fantasy in years.

My one wish is that he'd lighten up a bit. These are long books, 807 and 969 pages respectively, and very little that's pleasant happens to anyone in either of them. I wasn't able to read either of them straight through; I needed to read something else in the middle, just as a break.

Colour Scheme
Death at the Bar
Death and the Dancing Footman
Death of a Peer
A Wreath for Rivera
Death of a Fool
By Ngaio Marsh

Good old Ngaio Marsh! Good old Chief Inspector Alleyn! My respect for Dame Ngaio increases with each volume; her prose gives an aspiring writer something to aspire to. See the reviews in the last couple of issues for more information about Marsh and her novels--or just go buy a handful of them. If you like mysteries at all, you won't be disappointed.

On Writing
By Stephen King

It's rare that I see reviews of any book I read anywhere but here at ex libris. I suppose other reviews are written, but I don't see them. Here's an exception; I've seen at least two other reviews of King's book on writing. Indeed, I could hardly miss them.

It's fashionable to ooh and ah over the number of books King sells while deprecating both their contents and their readers, but still-- King knows how to tell a story. As an aspiring teller-of-tales, I bought this book on sight.

I wish I could recommend it more highly. King loves writing fiction, but as he says in the book, writing seriously about writing was considerably more difficult for him, and I'm afraid it shows.

The book begins and ends with extended autobiographical sections. The beginning is about King's early life, and how he came to be a successful writer. The end is about his near-fatal accident (he got hit by a camper while walking along the road) and his recovery. These sections are interesting, and well-enough told, but have little to do with writing as such. The middle part, which really is about writing, makes many valuable points--but, unfortunately, there's not much original about them.

But the overriding problem with this book is its tone: slangy and profane. King has always written colorfully, but in his normal books the slang and profanity are placed in the mouths of his characters; the description and exposition are written in beautiful clear prose. This book, on the other hand, is like an extended monologue, and the slang and the four-letter words grate after the first few pages.

Simple & Direct
By Jacques Barzun

I've mentioned Barzun before. As an academic, he is frequently called upon to review the papers and books of his colleagues. Barzun cares greatly about the English language, and this book was motivated by the hash so many of his colleagues make of it in their writing. I found it on the shelf at my friend Rick Saenz' house, and being an aspiring writer later bought my own copy.

The emphasis of the book is on using the correct words, and on using them in logical sequence. Much writing, in novels, newspapers, and non-fiction works of all kinds, uses words improperly and in illogical ways. Just because a sentence makes sense to its readers doesn't mean that it is sensical; how many times have you said, "I could care less!" when in fact you couldn't?

More than that, Barzun is in favor of a style he calls the "simple and direct". When choosing a word, choose the simplest word that conveys your meaning. When conveying an idea, choose the most direct way. The book is chock full of examples of bad writing, all apparently culled from Barzun's extensive reading; consider, for example, this tidbit:

We are both speaking from different frames of reference and it is not surprising that we are far apart in terms of agreement.

There are many ways to recast this sentence; here's my effort:

We have different concerns, and naturally we disagree.

That's eight words in place of twenty-three, with no violence to the meaning. "Having concerns" sounds less impressive than "speaking from different frames of reference", but try to define "frames of reference." It's a metaphorical borrowing from Einsteinian physics, and I am quite unable to state its precise meaning in any other context. There's perhaps a hint that each party's views are due to the circumstances in which they find themselves; in colloquial terms, they are "coming from different places". It could be restated yet again, if this shade of meaning is necessary.

I found the book useful and enjoyable, though it was an effort to work through it. At any number of points, I wished I had a better memory for the grammar lessons in my high-school English classes. And this is the first of my two complaints about the book: Barzun uses many terms of grammar without defining them; he assumes we remember. And second, although he provides many pages of bad examples, nicely packaged and numbered as exercises, his good examples are buried in his prose. It is consequently difficult to use the book as a reference.

Nevertheless, since reading Simple & Direct I have found myself being more careful in my choice of words, and more willing to criticize and improve my own writing.

The Gashlycrumb Tinies
By Edward Gorey

Many readers of ex libris are no doubt unfamiliar with Gorey's work, but I rather expect that most of them have seen some of it. Gorey was a cartoonist and illustrator with an instantly recognizeable style. He drew the animations used at the beginning and the end of PBS's "Mystery" show. He drew the cover art for all of Sarah Caudwell's books. He drew the sets for a stage version of Dracula. And, among many other small and peculiar books, he wrote and illustrated The Gashlycrumb Tinies.

Like most of Gorey's work, it is both gruesome and funny. It is an ABC book on the order of "A is for Apple, B is for Ball", with one page and picture for each letter. Except, in this book, "A is for AMY who fell down the stairs. B is for BASIL assaulted by bears." The words are carefully chosen so that the whole reads pleasantly aloud, and the pictures are seldom grisly, despite the obvious fact that none of the twenty-six youngsters survive.

I suspect it takes a certain kind of person to find The Gashlycrumb Tinies funny, and I foresee dozens of readers shutting down their browsers in disgust; I can even understand why, having two small boys of my own. And yet the fact remains, the darn thing is funny.

Aunt Dimity's Christmas
By Nancy Atherton

If you've not read any of Atherton's "Aunt Dimity" mysteries, and if you like something sweet and maybe a little sappy once in a while, I suggest you go buy the first one, Aunt Dimity's Death. It's a lot of fun, and is by far the best of the lot.

This current volume, the most recent in the series, is as sweet and sentimental and sappy and tear-jerking as usual. I read it, I enjoyed it, and as usual felt a little disgusted with myself afterwards--rather the way one would feel after eating a box of Hostess Cupcakes.

By Steven Saylor

This is the most recent paperback in Saylor's wonderful "Roma Sub Rosa" series of mysteries. While Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great square off against each other for control of Rome, a much-loved relative of Pompey's is found dead in the garden of Gordianus' house. Pompey orders Gordianus, now an old and weary man, to find out who the murderer is.

Saylor is a good storyteller--but his dependence on the actual events of Roman History has badly torqued his stories before, and does so again in this case. In order to have a story worth telling, Saylor is forced into numerous and manifest absurdities, not the least of which is Gordianus' own survival.

If you've been following the career of Gordianus the Finder, by all means buy this book; you'll want to know what the old fellow has been up to. If the idea of a mystery set in ancient Rome intrigues you, by all means buy the first book in the series, Roman Blood. Don't start here.

Three Hearts and Three Lions
By Poul Anderson

This is a charming little book, a sterling example of non-epic fantasy. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and the whole is encompassed in just 167 pages. If you like fantasy, and you've not read it, you should.

Three Hearts and Three Lions was published in 1953, and takes place during World War II. It is the tale of a Danish-American engineer named Holger Carlsen who goes back to Denmark to join the Danish resistance. He ends up on a Danish beach, fighting to cover a getaway in a small boat, and takes a bullet. He is knocked unconscious, and when he awakes he is...where?

He is stark naked, in the woods. He feels fine. Nearby is a powerful warhorse bearing clothes and armor, and a shield which carries the device of three hearts and three lions. The clothes and armor fit him. He finds himself in a kind of medieval Europe fighting for its life against the evil powers of Faerie. Whereever he goes, he hears legends of Charlemagne and his knights...and he begins to fear that some of the legends are about himself.

I won't give any more away, except that I understand the tale of Holger Carlsen influenced Michael Moorcock's later tales of Erekose, the Eternal Champion.

The High Crusade
By Poul Anderson

This book is one of the great comic masterpieces of science fiction. It's a farce, as light and airy as angelfood cake, and just as tasty, and the manifest improbabilities are all part of the fun.

It is 1345, and troops are gathering in the little town of Ansby, shortly to march off to the wars in France under the command of Ansby's lord, Sir Roger de Tourneville. And then a spaceship lands in the middle of the village. The hatch opens, and a bluish humanoid steps out. The alien fires a gun, and a villager dies. Seconds later, the humanoid is pierced by a clothyard shaft from Red John's bow, and crumples. And that's all it takes: the troops swarm into the ship, wreaking hand-to-hand havoc with axes, knives, and swords, until only one of the aliens is left alive.

Overjoyed by their easy victory, and well aware of how much damage the ship could have done, Sir Roger determines to take it to France, end the war in England's favor, and then go on to the Holy Land to free it from the Paynim. The remaining alien doublecrosses him, and before the people of Ansby know what's happening, the entire village, men, women, children, pigs, cows, sheep, and all are flying through space to the nearest alien world.

And that's just the set-up; the tale lies in what happens after they get there.

Find a copy of this one.

Children's Books

by Jane Duquette and Will Duquette

The Beginner's Bible: Timeless Children's Stories
Written by Karyn Henley and illustrated by Dennis Davis

We have several children's Bibles in our house, but when David requests a story from "God's Book," this is the one he means. (Suitably, it was presented to him by our church at his Baptism; as he was approximately 47 days old, it languished on the shelf for a while.)

The book begins with Creation and ends with Revelations. Most stories are five pages or less in length, in large type. Each one is complete by itself, but they are told so that two, three, or more consecutive stories form a complete tale; this makes it easy to tell a story just long enough for your audience. For example, you can read just about David and Goliath, or add the annointing of David by Samuel to the beginning and the friendship of David and Jonathon to end to have a longer story. (David's best friend is named Johnathon...)

This is a very readable book. It doesn't assume that the child already knows the story, nor does it bore the adult reader by being too simplistic. Anyone looking for a child's version of the Christmas story, for instance, would do well to try this one. Highly recommended.

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 November 2000
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