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ex libris reviews

1 December 2000

Juniors are impatient. In any movement, the second generation is likely to be dissatisfied with what it has inherited, including the confused state of affairs produced by the pioneers.
Jacques Barzun


In This Issue:
Four Glorious Years

It was just under four years ago--between Christmas and New Year's in 1996--that, armed with the Netscape 3.0 HTML editor, I produced the first pages of what is now ex libris reviews. It was a simple thing, a weblog-like listing of what I'd read and what I thought about it Since then, the site has undergone a change of name, a change of venue, and at least four major redesigns. Jane has played a larger role in the last year, as have a number of guest reviewers. What hasn't changed is my basic goal: to create a high-content, low-bandwidth site about books. I'm still reading lots of books, and I'm still writing about every book I finish.

What amazes me still is that we are attracting readers. Over a hundred people read each issue of ex libris as it comes out; others, drawn by our author pages come and find it through one of the older reviews. The site as a whole is now attracting over 10,000 page hits a month. That's remained rather constant over the last year, though October was our best to date, with over 12,000 page hits. It's all quite gratifying.

In next month's issue, the first of the 21st century and the 3rd millenium, I'll probably talk about where I expect ex libris to go in the coming year; for this month, I'll just say that we have reviews of books by Ngaio Marsh, Dick Francis, Lindsey Davis, Katharine Kerr, Jacques Barzun, Alexander Kent, C.S. Lewis, and Roald Dahl.

Thanks for joining us!

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Death in Ecstasy
Death in a White Tie
Died in the Wool
By Ngaio Marsh

Death in Ecstasy is the earliest of Marsh's books I've read, and also (not, I think, coincidentally) the weakest. That said, I enjoyed it. Died in the Wool, written just ten years later, is a better book in almost every way. At some point during those ten years, Marsh hit her stride--and along the way, learned that she didn't need to stick to a simple formula. Death in Ecstasy is a simple who-done-it in an exotic setting (the sanctuary of what we'd now call a New Age cult); Died in the Wool is also a who-done-it in an exotic setting (a New Zealand sheep ranch during WWII); but it's also a remarkable character study, in which Inspector Alleyn comes to see the murdered woman from every point of view.

Another interesting point is the disappearance of reporter Nigel Bathgate. In Death in Ecstasy, Bathgate is described in the Dramatis Personae as Alleyn's "Watson". It is he who discovers the murder and brings Alleyn in on it; he is present for most of the major scenes, acting young, eager, and naive--which is to say, like Watson. As the series progresses he moves to the background, and eventually isn't present at all. A variety of other characters take his place; indeed, sometimes Alleyn isn't brought in until over halfway through the book. It's just this willingness to experiment that endears Marsh's books to me.

Anyway, I repeat what I've said about Marsh for the last six months: go buy some and read it.

Second Wind
By Dick Francis

For a book about hurricanes, plane crashes, and organized crime, this book is remarkably dull. I had the sense that Francis, who usually writes incredible page-turners, wrote this one in his sleep. Francis is often unfairly accused of only having one hero, and this book proves this to be wrong; unlike Francis' other heroes, Perry Stuart is dull.

Even bad Dick Francis is better than certain other authors, but the book was nevertheless a disappointment.

Last Act in Palmyra
By Lindsey Davis

Like Steven Saylor, Lindsey Davis writes mystery novels set in Ancient Rome. I saw Davis' most recent in a display at our local bookstore, and decided I should give her a try. This is not her first book, but the earliest I could find on the shelf. Saylor's books, which I've reviewed frequently in the last six months, are set in the closing years of the Roman Republic; Davis' are set a century or so later, during the reign of Emperor Vespasian. This particular one is set in AD 72, just a couple of years after the emperor's son Titus put down an uprising in Judaea and destroyed Herod's Temple. (The Wailing Wall is what he left behind.)

Davis' character is one Marcus Didius Falco, informer. He's a low born gentleman, a hard-boiled shamus with a heart of gold, and he makes most of his money, what little he has, doing odd jobs of detection for the Emperor--and as the Emperor is notoriously stingy, it isn't much. He's the beloved of a senator's daughter, and mixes with an interesting group of people.

This book takes him off on a political mission to the Middle East, mostly because one of Vespasian's ministers hopes he'll get killed along the way. He ends up travelling over a sizeable portion of Jordan and Syria with a troop of actors, one of whom is murdered early in the book.

Davis has an engaging style, and Falco is a pleasant fellow to spend a few hours with. I wasn't impressed with it as a mystery, though, especially after reading Ngaio Marsh; in this book, at least, Falco belongs to the blunder-about-until-everything-becomes-clear school of detection. Also, I found the book had a tendency to put me to sleep. I can't put the blame entirely on Davis, but the pacing of the book suggests that Davis was trying to convey the slow-pace of a camel caravan. If so, she succeeded all too well.

Still, I gather from one of my correspondents that Davis' other novels are faster paced, and I'm looking forward to looking into them.

T'nT: Telzey & Trigger
By James H. Schmitz

Last May I reviewed Telzey Amberdon, the first release in a new edition of Schmitz' tales of the Federation of the Hub. Here's the second, which brings telepath Telzey Amberdon together with the clever and tough Trigger Argee. Like its predecessor, it's all classic science fiction; on top of that, it's good fun and just the thing for dessert.

The cover art, though, is the cheesiest thing I've seen in years, and has simply got to go.

The Red Wyvern
The Black Raven
By Katharine Kerr

These are the latest two offerings in Kerr's long-running Deverry series. Most unusually she's been able to maintain a high standard of quality from the earliest books to the latest (even given that she revised the first two books some time after they'd first been published). The books form an extended tapestry, or, as Kerr describes it, a Celtic knot. According to a note in The Black Raven, there are three more books expected; the last will tie off the series, leaving it a continuous, braided whole.

Many authors have tried their hands at Celtic fantasy over the last twenty years; Kerr is, in my opinion, the best of them, perhaps because she doesn't slavishly work over Celtic myth. Instead, she transplants a large group of Celts to another world, a world already populated by elves, dwarves, humans, and stranger creatures--and then waits for a considerable period of time before beginning her tales. The coming of the Celts to Deverry is matter of extremely distant legend to the people of Kerr's books, although the wisdom of the Greeks and Romans (Greggyns and Rhwmanes in Deverrian) is not entirely forgotten by the loremasters.

On top of the basic Celtic political framework, Kerr adds her own unique brand of pagan magic and the notion of reincarnation. The people of Deverry are as bound by the laws of Karma as any Hindu, and actions that one does in one life may have repercussions for centuries to come. And this is what makes the series so fascinating: we follow many of these characters through their many lives, not in strict chronological order but rather in a twisty convoluted fashion as events in various periods of time come into correspondence by the actions of the principals.

If that sounds confusing, it is, a bit, unless you've followed it from the beginning. For that reason, if you like epic fantasy I strongly suggest you start with the earliest book in the series, Darkspell, and start working your way forward.

From Dawn to Decadence
By Jacques Barzun

It's hard to know what to say about this book that will do it justice. Few would have the gall to attempt to a cultural history of the last 500 years; fewer would pull it off with such erudition and skill; perhaps no one else could make it so all-encompassing and yet so readable. I've read it through once; I expect to read it through several more times over the coming years. It is a rich trove of thought and observation, and I recommend to anyone with an interest in the history of culture and of ideas.

So far as I can encompass it in a few words, Barzun's thesis is that the last 500 years began with a revolution (the Protestant Reformation) which overthrew the decadent world that preceded it; and that now, 500 years later, our civilization is once again decadent and ripe for revolution--not necessarily the violent turmoil that the word usually conveys to us, but the shocking social change that happens whether we will or nil.

I don't know that I agree with him; his coverage of the last fifty years is remarkably slight, and I don't think he really understands the impact that the Internet will have. But if he's right, those reading this are probably, by that very fact, in a good position to face the brave new world that's coming.

But his thesis in no way warps the book as a whole. For a guided tour of the music, literature, philosophy, science, and the like of the last 500 years, you won't find a better tour guide.

The Inshore Squadron
By Alexander Kent

This is the thirteenth of Kent's long running saga of Royal Navy captain (and later, Admiral) Richard Bolitho. I've reviewed the previous twelve books, and I gather there are at least five more I've not yet read.

I read this with a certain amount of pleasure, and yet I'm somewhat at a loss to explain why. I guess it's simply that I'm comfortable with the setting and enjoy reading about it. The characters are memorable but cartoonish--well, not cartoonish (I like cartoons) but painted with broad sweeps of color. And Kent's handling of emotional situations, particularly of Bolitho's relationships with women, are laughable.

Why does one writer succeed in moving us to tears, when another, given the same material, succeeds in moving us only to embarassed laughter? First, I think the writer has to comfortable with the emotional situations. Kent is not. At least, whenever Bolitho falls in love he seems to do so in no more than two three extremely short contacts with his beloved--and she generally reciprocates in the same time. It's as if Kent isn't comfortable writing about women; he needs a love interest, but he gets her on and off stage as quickly as possible.

The second reason is more involve. Every beginning writer is told to "show, not tell." I have reservations about that statement, but there is at least one unusual case in which it is true. Richard Bolitho is supposed to be a brave man, good at his job, and beloved by his men. How can we, the readers, know this?

  1. Bolitho acts accordingly.
  2. His men act accordingly.
  3. The author tells us so.
  4. The other characters tell each other so.

If a character acts like a bounder and a cad, the author's protestations of his honor and bravery will ring rather hollow. Now, in all fairness to Kent, Bolitho is indeed seen to be brave, competent, beloved, and unconceited. But he so often tells us this, and the other characters so often comment on it, that one begins to wonder if it's really true.

But I'm still not entirely sure what keeps me reading.

Mere Christianity
By C.S. Lewis

My friend Rick Saenz has a page on his website about books that changed his life. If I had such a page, this book would top the list. I first read it when I was in high school, shortly after I decided that the faith I'd grown up with needed to be taken seriously, and I wanted to find out more about it. This is the book I was given, and I am still grateful.

If you are a Christian and want to understand your faith better--or if you're not a Christian, and you want to know what Christianity is really all about--then get a copy of this book and read it. You'll be surprised. It's a potent antidote to the portrayal of Christians in the media and to the behavior of certain high-ranking or high-profile looney-tunes who claim the name.

There are many Christian sects and denominations out in the world. Lewis' goal was to boil them down and extract the essence--the core of belief that all of them shared. Moreover, he wanted to present this core of belief to a non-Christian world. Consequently, he doesn't use the Bible to support the Christian faith; the Bible, in his view, is a book written to edify those who already believe. I'm not sure the Bible is quoted anywhere in Mere Christianity, but if it is, it is only in passing. Instead, he relies on rational argument, not to prove that Christianity is true, but to show that a belief in Christianity is not irrational. Along the way, he gives the best explanation of Christian doctrine that I know of.

When I first read Mere Christianity, it knocked my socks off. I love it. I quoted it to people. I took its ideas to heart. When I re-read it just this month, it knocked my socks off again. So many of the ideas I thought were my own, I had gotten originally from Lewis. And there were many things I'd missed or ignored the first time around, one of which was the depth of scholarship it represented. There is little that Lewis says in Mere Christianity that hadn't been said earlier and probably in greater detail by other great Christian thinkers. Lewis' gift is to present their arguments in a easily-read, easily-understood, yet completely faithful way.

My spiritual journey through the Christian life has had its twists and turns, but it rests on a solid intellectual foundation provided largely by Lewis. He died just a few months after I was born, but I like to think he's yet aware of esteem I have for him.

Children's Books

by Will Duquette

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Written by Roald Dahl and illustrated by Quentin Blake

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is, of course, a classic, as are so many other books by Roald Dahl. I've had it on my to-be-read shelf since my godson Adam's last birthday, when he told me that I'd given him the same book last year. I kept it, and a showing of the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory prompted me to read it--mostly because the movie wasn't nearly as good as I remembered, and because I remembered the book as being much better than the movie.

Well, you win some, you lose some. I read the book, I loved the book, but it wasn't quite as good as I remembered. Still, it's a true classic, and worthy of the name, and if you haven't read it to your children, you should. I'm just waiting until David is old enough.

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 December 2000
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