Home : Ex Libris : 1 January 2001

ex libris reviews

1 January 2001

I take it there's no qualifying exam to be a dad.


In This Issue:
The Third Millenium Dawns

With this issue we are celebrating two anniversaries: the beginning of the Third Millenium since Christ's birth, and the beginning of the fifth year of ex libris reviews. I find that the former topic is too big for me to encompass in this space, so I'll confine my remarks to the latter.

I started ex libris as an experiment, a simple list of what I was reading, with starting and finishing dates and a few words about the books I had finished. I quickly added pages dedicated to our favorite authors and to particular categories of books, and soon went to a monthly format. In the past year I've added the occasional guest review (and my thanks to all of you who have contributed!) Throughout I have striven to link the whole thing together in an intelligible way while keeping the focus on content rather than on presentation. There are many pretty websites that have no content of their own; ex libris will never be one of them.

Given that, the question remains--how should ex libris evolve over the next few years? I intend to keep writing it each month, and to continue adding new author pages, just as I intend to keep adding to the rest of the wjduquette.com site. At present I don't envisage any major structural or schedule changes; if I were to try to publish ex libris more than once a month, it would be to the detriment of other projects.

But let me ask you, my readers. What changes or additions would you like to see made? Would you like to see an index of all books reviewed to date? Would you like to see a list of the books reviewed in each issue at the top of the issue? Would you like an indication--iconic or textual--of the genre of each book? Would you like to see ratings? Would you like to see publication information--publisher, number of pages, price, ISBN number? Would you like to be able buy books through this page?

I don't promise to do any of these things, mind you, but if there's sufficient demand I'll certainly consider them.

Meanwhile, a Happy New Year and God's blessing to you and your families!

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Enter a Murderer
False Scent
Final Curtain
By Ngaio Marsh

Purely by chance, all three of this month's Ngaio Marsh selections involve the world of the stage. In False Scent, an aging and temperamental actress fails to deal with her advancing years and a nasty dose of poison, in that order. In Final Curtain, Inspector Alleyn's wife, Troy, is asked to paint a retired thespian and then has to help Alleyn determine which of his numerous and eccentric family did him in. Both of these are quite good.

Enter a Murderer, on the other hand, is fascinating on a number of fronts, at least to an aspiring author. It's her only her second book, and while the plot is suitably twisted and the denouement suitably unexpected, more of the bones of the plot are visible than usual. On top of that, none of the continuing characters have really yet reached their final forms; for example, Alleyn says a variety of things that I can't imagine him saying in later books. One day, some years from now, I'll make a point of reading straight through the entire set, from earliest to latest, just so I can watch Alleyn become fully himself.

Shadows in Bronze
By Lindsey Davis

Last month I read and reviewed Davis' Last Act in Palmyra, a mystery tale taking place around AD 72 and the nth of many concerning one Marcus Didius Falco. I said that it was well-written but extremely slow-paced. Upon finishing it I wasn't sure whether I'd want to read any more of Davis' work; so happens, I got some e-mail recommending her stuff. A further exchange of e-mail established that Last Act in Palmyra was slower than usual, and that I should try again.

So I did, and I'm not sorry.

Shadows in Bronze is the third in the series, the earliest I've yet been able to find. Falco has just taken a job working for the new emperor, Vespasian, and is running a variety of unpleasant errands for him. Most involve tracing a number of prominent citizens who are suspected of conspiring against the emperor; they take him from Rome to a variety of scenic spots around the Bay of Naples.

I found Shadows in Bronze to be a little slow; Falco seemed to spend a lot of time just footling about. And then I realized the reason. Though a Roman citizen, Falco is low-born; and as a paid informer, his social status is, to be blunt, in the Cloaca Maxima. His in with the Emperor gives him a certain amount of pull, but it's remarkably small.

The fact is, a Mike Hammer kind of private eye would get nowhere in the Ancient World, except perhaps into an unmarked grave. Falco has essentially no way to coerce anyone of any importance into telling him anything. Trying it would just get him killed. So he has to be sneaky, and careful, and plodding.

It's only natural to compare Davis' novels with Steven Saylor's tales of Gordianus the Finder, set in the last days of the Roman Republic a hundred or so year earlier. The primary difference is that Saylor's focus is the history of the time; Gordianus is an eye-witness to that history, providing context. All of the major characters outside of Gordianus' own family are real people. Davis, on the other hand, is simply telling enjoyable tales within the historical setting. It's possible that some of the principle conspirators she has Falco encounter are historical, but it doesn't really matter.

The secondary difference is perhaps more important from the reader's point of view--Gordianus is more gritty, Falco is more fun.

Household Gods
By Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove

I bought this book in paperback, without reading the cover blurb, on the strength of Turtledove's name and a vague sense of having been intrigued by the hardcover edition. I wish I'd read the cover blurb, because I could have saved myself eight bucks.

Fair disclaimer: I didn't finish this book. Perhaps after the first twenty or so pages, it improves. If, after reading this review, one of you kind people can honestly say, "Yes, the first bit was extremely dire...but once you get past that it's outstanding," please write me and let me know and maybe I'll give it another try.

Household Gods is the story of a young lawyer named Nicole Gunther-Perrin. She is divorced, with two very young children who are too much for her to handle. As the book begins, she is having the worst morning of her life. Her children make a big mess; thus, she's late out the door. Her daycare provider is half-an-hour in the wrong direction (right on the way to her ex-husband's workplace), and traffic is awful. When she gets there, her daycare provider announces that she can't take care of the children the next day (or, perhaps, ever again); she's returning to Mexico to take care of her elderly mother. When she gets to work, a male co-worker has just been made partner on the strength of some work they did together; as it was really her project, she not unreasonably expects that she will be made a partner as well. Instead, she's told (though not in so many words) that she will never make partner.

It was at this point, in the middle of a fulmination about sexism and glass ceilings, that I put down the book. After thirty pages, I was sick of watching Nicole's life slam to a halt in slow motion. Sure, it's well-written; sure, it's plausible; fun reading it ain't. If the authors had passed over the various problems more quickly, or better yet, if they'd given the reader a chance to bond with the character before putting her through hell, then maybe her whining would be less obnoxious. As it is, I just didn't have time for it. I listen to enough whining on the average day as it is.

The Inshore Squadron
By Alexander Kent

Yet another tale of Richard Bolitho, this one concerning the Battle of Copenhagen. Peanuts, that's what it is. You write one, and then you write another, and then you just can't stop. This one was a fair example of the species.

If you're new to ex libris, and you like nautical adventure, you might like this; look at our Alexander Kent page for past reviews and more information. Look at our Patrick O'Brian page as well.

Yukon Ho!
Weirdos From Another Planet!
By Bill Watterson

The third and fourth Calvin and Hobbes collections. Damn, Watterson's good at what he does.

A Fire Upon the Deep
By Vernor Vinge

This is the book that occupied me for most of the month of December. It's a Hugo award winner, and much to my surprise I liked it. I don't usually care for Vinge's work much, but this one was truly amazing. If you're a science fiction fan, and you've not read it, go grab a copy.

It's a sprawling book; I'll try to convey the flavor of it as best I can. For reasons no one is sure of, physical laws in Vinge's universe become progressively looser the farther one is from the center of the galaxy. Earth lies within the Slow Zone, a region in which the speed of light is the maximum speed limit and in which only limited computers are possible. Further in lie the Unthinking Depths, in which even human mentation is impossible; further out lies the Beyond, and then the Transcend. The nature of the Beyond is superscience: faster than light travel and communications, incredibly powerful computers, and such-like. The Transcend is the home of the Powers, artificial intelligences and transcended races that are inconceivably more intelligent than mere mortals.

Civilized races arise in the Slow Zone, where it's hard for more advanced races to bother them. In time, if they survive long enough, they colonize into the Beyond and join the Known Net--a network of FTL communication links similar to Usenet ('net newsgroups). And then, in time, some fragment of the race might Transcend and join the Powers. Thus, the zones provide a kind of incubator: races dependent on the technology of the Beyond can't disturb young races in the Slow Zone. The Powers of the Transcend can't do much to the races in the Beyond: they simply can't exist there.

So much for the background. A group of human researchers, exploring a lost data archive in the Low Transcend, awaken a rather twisted Power that wishes to take over the entire Beyond--and has a workable plan to do so. It was beaten once before, millions of years ago; a ship containing the only possible countermeasure escapes to a previously undiscovered planet in the Low Beyond, almost into the Slow Zone. The residents of that planet...well, I've said enough.

The only complaint I have about the book is that it is long and slow. Convincing...but slow. It really did take me two or two-and-a-half weeks to read it; most novels take me at most a few days.

Between Planets
By Robert A. Heinlein

I tried reading this book when I was in grade school--it's one of Heinlein's juveniles, after all--and couldn't get into it at all. The main character is a young boy on his own who gets caught up in unpleasant adventures beyond his control. I identified a little too strongly, and couldn't bear it. The experience completely put me off of Heinlein's other juveniles for well over twenty years. Recently, though, they've all come back in print, and I've been reading them one at a time. One of my co-workers told me I should really give Between Planets a try, and so finally I did.

It's not bad. Vintage Heinlein, an interesting story, and so forth. I wouldn't call it a masterpiece, but it was a good short read.

The Witches of Karres
By James Schmitz

This is one of those books that I picked up after years of hearing about it--not so much by word-of-mouth as by word-of-print. The first time I read it, I thought it was outstanding. Now, I dunno. I didn't enjoy it nearly as much this time around. It seemed a little too lightweight.

Now, the book is intended to be a light-hearted romp. It's about a space-freighter captain named Pausert who, moved by all-around decency, buys a trio of young sisters out of slavery. It soon becomes clear that the sisters aren't your normal, run-of-the-mill little girls, and that getting them home won't necessarily be as easy as he'd like. Soon he's hip-deep in the business of the Witches of Karres and on the deep-six list of pretty much every major power in the galaxy.

I dunno. It's not a bad book, and I got a few chuckles from it. But it didn't strike me as being the classic I remembered it to be. On the other hand, I mostly got to read it while watching my little boys, with all of the frequent interruptions that that entails. There are certain books that are like frothy desserts--they must be read quickly and lightly, or they fall flat. Perhaps this is one of them.

The Longest Day
By Cornelius Ryan

The Longest Day is a true classic. On June 6th, 1944, the Allied Forces hit the beach in Normandy and established the bridgehead that eventually lead to the destruction of Nazi Germany. This book is the story of that day, and of the night that preceded it. Ryan interviewed a thousand different eye-witnesses on both sides, and consulted the written record, and wove all of these threads together into an amazing and riveting document.

What stands out for me, in particular, are the Germans. The generals of the high command, who would not believe that a few paratroopers in Normandy could possible presage the long-awaited invasion; vitriolic squadron command Priller who, left with only two planes by his superiors, strafed the invading forces anyway (he went on to run a brewery in Germany after the war); Pluskat, who couldn't believe his eyes as the fog parted and thousands of ships appeared before his eyes; Rommel, who (to the Allies' great good fortune) wasn't informed of the invasion until far too late.

And then there are the thousands of American and British soldiers who hit the beach, knowing that someone had to be first, knowing that in all likelihood they were going to die there, and counting it worth the cost to end the Nazi menace. It's an odd flavor to one who was a child during the war in Viet Nam. What was called cowardice in 1944 is now usually called good sense; what is now called courage seems, in the light of D-Day, to be little more than old-fashioned perseverance.

I had the good fortune to catch the movie version of The Longest Day on cable a few months ago. The movie follows the book closely, ignoring many obscure details but providing unforgettable images. Having seen it, I found that the book read like a personalized edition of the movie, adding relevant and interesting detail to a story already familiar. In addition, by giving faces to various minor characters who come and go, it made the book easier to follow. If this book intrigues you, and you've not seen the movie, consider renting it first.

Reflections on the Psalms
By C.S. Lewis

This is a fascinating book, and a rarity in that it's one of the few books by Lewis that I hadn't already read. In this book, unlike Mere Christianity, Lewis is writing to a Christian audience. Moreover he isn't speaking as any kind of an expert; instead, he's simply sharing the fruits of his own reflections about the Psalms with the reader. But Lewis was gifted with wit, intelligence, and a keen analytical skill, and I found his reflections quite illuminating. I recommend this book highly.

Children's Books

by Will Duquette

The Paper Bag Princess
Written by Robert N. Munsch and illustrated by Michael Martchenko

For Christmas this year, our friends the Saenz family sent us three volumes of the collected stories of Robert N. Munsch. (We reviewed his story Mud Puddle last October.) No sooner had we received them than I sat down and read David and James the two stories listed above.

The first is the epic story of a princess who saves her prince from a dragon; the latter is about a girl who discovers that pigs are smarter than you think. They aren't long stories, and I hesitate to say much about them for fear of saying too much. They are written with the same wit as Mud Puddle, and the illustrations are good too.

I haven't yet delved further into our new Munsch collections, but I'm looking forward to it.

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 January 2001
Copyright © 2001, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
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