Home : Ex Libris : 1 April 2001

ex libris reviews

1 April 2001

He led and inspired the nation,
This praiseworthy Son of Creation,
But though we'll all miss him,
It's time to off-kiss him,
In the int'rests of good sanitation!

Brian Daley


In This Issue:

I spent a fair amount more time sick at home this month, which meant I had a lot of time to read and a lot of time to ponder what I'd read. It helped that I had three meaty fantasy epics on my to-be-read stack, courtesy of my brother, seven thick books in all; and top of those I got through a fair number of other books as well. Thus, this month we've got a couple more by Ngaio Marsh, new books by Katharine Kerr and Julian May, old favorites by Patrick O'Brian, C.S. Lewis, and Brian Daley, and the aforementioned epics, one by Robin Hobb and two by Sean Russell.

And as if this weren't enough material for one month, we have two (count 'em, two) guest reviewers this month. Stuart McAra returns for his first anniversary with a whole slew of reviews, and RC reviews the latest John Grisham. Here's what RC has to say for himself:

R. T. Cuttler is a 29-year old resident of Central Florida, who loves to read, and has dabbled now and then with writing.  At one point in his self-proclaimed "troubled youth," he managed to write over two hundred songs and poems over a 4 year period.  Still, he is relatively unpublished, excepting a few school projects, and has given up his dreams of rock stardom in exchange for a rather sedate, boring life.  But he likes it, which is all that matters.


-- Will Duquette

RC's Recent Reading

by RC

A Painted House
By John Grisham

Before trying John Grisham's A Painted House I read a review of the novel which complained that the narrator, a 7-year old boy, waffled between innocence and a too-precocious insight.  So, before I begin my critique, I'll address that issue by using a three-word phrase, the meaning of which is essential for any determined and, more importantly, happy reader:  suspension of disbelief.  Simply put, this means that one lay aside--within reason--any minor inconsistancies for the sake of enjoying the work.

Now, to the book:  A Painted House tells the story of a summer in the life of an Arkansas farm boy, Luke Chandler, who lives in a small house, situated on a cotton field on which his family are tenant farmers.  He lives with his parents and his father's parents, and as the book begins, the elder Chandlers hire a family of "hill people" from the Ozarks and a truckload of Mexicans to help pick cotton for the season.

I loved this book, and despite its being a different sort of novel than Grisham usually writes, an experiment in "literature," I believe that if it's not his best work, it's at least his best since The Rainmaker of several years ago.  I actually regretted finishing it, which says a lot.

Its charming, innocent observations of Luke's life and new experiences were captivating, and it really was a sort of thriller, filled with the suspense of this boy who, in the course of the story, acquires dreadful secret after secret he must not tell (for fear of his life in at least two cases).  There are a few shockingly brutal acts of violence in the tale, which only served to draw me in further.  The problem of the secrets are resolved, for the most part, by the end of the book.

To sum up, if you're not too fussy, and are the sort of reader who simply wants a good story, you'll find it in A Painted House.

Stuart's Recent Reading

by Stuart McAra

A number of things have happened recently which have increased my reading rate considerably, I am in the midst of a trial separation from my television and like Will have spent some time ill at home. 6 of these books I have read over a period of months and am reviewing all together now that the series is half way through. The others I have all read recently.

Left Behind
Tribulation Force
Soul Harvest
By Tim La Haye and Jerry Jenkins

These books have sold in huge numbers over the last few years. Parts 7 and 8 are already out in hard back, and I'm just waiting for the paper backs to come out in the UK. Allegedly there will be 12 in all.

The books deal with the end of the world, basing the chain of events on Biblical prophecy while being grounded in the present or near future. La Haye is a well renowned Biblical scholar and Jenkins a writer who together have produced a surprisingly realistic and believable tale of "the end times". There are as many opinions about what the Biblical prophecies mean as there are Christians, but the books stick to a fairly solid evangelical position, not saying this is exactly how it will happen, but putting names and faces to how the Bible describes it all.

Anyway, the books. Left Behind starts on a transatlantic flight, when suddenly on the plane and across the whole world, a vast number of people disappear without trace. Panic ensues, as you might expect. The captain of the plane gets home to discover that his wife and son are among the missing and one of the passengers on the plane, an investigative reporter, tries to piece together what has happened.

I don't want to give too much away, but the 6 books cover the period of the next 3 1/2 years as those left behind seek to find out what happened. The world tries to get back together, and unites behind a one world government. A number of new catastrophes befall the earth. Israel flourishes, the antichrist comes to power...

Christian fiction can often be a bit on the shaky side, but these books are very well written. A number of plot twists seem a bit contrived, but then I suppose that's what you get for trying to write fiction around prophecy, when let's be honest we don't really know how God intends for this all to play out. Books 2 and 4 are a little bit weak compared to the others but they all kept me gripped and turning the pages as fast as I could.

I'm certainly looking forward to the next 6. I suppose your opinion will be tainted by your views on the Bible, prophecy, the end of the world, etc., but don't let that stop you from at least having a look.

The Lord of the Rings
By J.R.R. Tolkien

Brilliant. What more can be said? I confess that I still tend to jump over a lot of the songs and poems, though I'm determined to read them all one day. Can't wait for the film later this year.

(Two thumbs up! -- Will)

Personal Injuries
By Scott Turow

This was a Christmas present that hadn't really grabbed me at the time, but when you're ill, whatever comes to hand is fine. I was very pleasantly surprised. I'd expected a kind of Grisham-like courtroom drama, but this legal thriller rarely even goes into the courtroom. The story centres around Robbie Feaver, a personal injuries lawyer who spends his time getting insurance companies to pay huge sums of money to folk who've had accidents of one form or another. And he's surprisingly good at it. The story is narrated in the first person by Feaver's attorney after Feaver is indicted by the IRS and offered a deal whereby he will help the DA root out a small group of corrupt judges and public officials who have been running the county Mafia style for years. Part of Feaver's success is suspected as being attributable to his paying off these judges.

The story is gripping, with plenty of detail about the legal side of things, the FBI operation to uncover the corruption, and a fascinating side story about a crippling illness that Feaver's wife is suffering from. The characters here are more three-dimensional than in many books of this type; we see the lawyers' whole lives, not just the speeches they make to juries. Certainly worth seeking out.

The Hunt for Red October
By Tom Clancy

Read it before, fairly good airport-thriller-type book. Everyone's seen the film, which actually tends to diminish the book somewhat. The plot in the film is very much simplified from the book and it tends to jar a bit when some scenes you can visualise with Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, James Earl Jones, et cetera, and some you can't because the characters and situations all ended up on the cutting room floor. This is the film's fault not the book's and it's a fun read nonetheless. If you don't know it's about a new Russian nuclear submarine that disappears, causing havoc in Russia and the US, and about the race to figure out what's happening and find the submarine. Real Boy's Own type of stuff, manly heroics and the like.

(Two thumbs--well, OK, maybe one-and-a-half thumbs up here, too! -- Will)

The Carpet People
By Terry Pratchett

One of the few Pratchett books that aren't part of his Discworld series. This book is based on something he wrote as a teenager and then revisited when he was much older and becoming established as a writer.

It has the usual Terry Pratchett sense of humour and the same slant on the fantasy genre in which kings and battles and "The Big Story" that Will referred to last month are much less important than "The Small Story" of the folk who're left to clean up the mess afterwards.

As the name suggests the story is set in a carpet. The main characters are all members of the Munrung tribe who live normal everyday lives in a land made of giant blue, green and red hairs. Numerous household objects which are dropped onto the carpet form massive landmarks in the form of pieces of grit or salt, a woodwall which takes a day to walk the length of which has been burnt beyond recognition at one end, the giant chairleg where varnish is quarried and the dangerous hot country of Hearth.

In this land of the carpet a typical fantasy story is played out with an evil tribe rampaging across the carpet having seemingly harnessed the destructive power of Fray, and only by banding together can the different tribes and nationalities defeat the wicked foe.

This only takes a couple of hours to read, and if you like his other stuff you won't be disappointed. On the whole I thought it was very funny, but not his best work.

As a side note, a few months ago I reviewed The Day After Tomorrow by Allan Folsom and said that I thought that the ending was fairly predictable and could have been handled better. I lent this book to my younger brother recently to take away on a trip and he came back raving about it. Had been totally surprised by the ending and was very impressed with the book as a whole.

(Go figure. -- Will)

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Scales of Justice
Night at the Vulcan
By Ngaio Marsh

For those who came in late, I've been devouring Ngaio Marsh's complete body of mystery novels over the last five or six months, and the only disappointment has been that I'm almost done. Sigh.

I thoroughly enjoyed these, as per usual.

Sagittarius Whorl
By Julian May

This is the third volume (and, I believe, the climax) of May's "Rampart Worlds" series, which began with Perseus Spur and Orion Arm. I found Perseus Spur to be fun, if a little goofy, and Orion Arm to be less goofy, less fun, and somewhat tedious--as middle volumes of trilogies so often are.

The series is the story of the Rampart starcorp as it competes for its existence against the commercial power of the Hundred Concerns which dominate the known galaxy. It is also the story of Asahel Frost, member of the family that owns Rampart starcorp, and his rather motley career. And finally, it is the story of Frost's attempt to prevent the evil Haluk from taking over the galaxy. It's space opera, pure and simple.

Sagittarius Whorl picks up some time after Orion Arm; Rampart has survived its attempted takeover by Galapharma and is trying to assimilate its former rival. The Haluk have been accepted as trading partners by many of the Hundred Concerns. And only Asahel Frost believes them to be the threat they are.

Sagittarius Whorl is less goofy than Perseus Spur and less tedious than Orion Arm; it does an adequate job of pulling the series together. At the same time, there's an uncomfortable shift of focus that occurs, rather like in Tim Cockey's The Hearse You Came In On, which I reviewed last month--the story becomes too big for the main character, who consequently becomes more of an observer than a major actor. In Cockey's book it was simply unpleasant; here it smacks of deus ex machina as well.

The Fire Dragon
By Katharine Kerr

I was very surprised to find this at the bookstore recently, as it's been only four months or so since its predecessor, The Black Raven, had its massmarket release. Pleased, though...and as pleased when I finished it as when I bought it.

This is the latest in Kerr's many-volumed saga of the land of Deverry; according to the author's notes there are precisely two more volumes to go, at which time the series will form a unified whole, like a braid of Celtic knotwork. This is a particularly evocative image, as the distinguishing feature of Kerr's novels is the combination of Celtic culture with the idea of karma and personal reincarnation. As we read through the series we encounter the same souls over and over again, in different lives, lives which nevertheless are influenced by the soul's actions in previous lives. And we don't encounter them sequentially; each book in the series takes place in two or more different time periods, so that only with the final volumes will the whole design become plain. I admit, I'm rather looking forward to it.

That said, the conclusion of The Fire Dragon left me absolutely flabbergasted. I genuinely have no idea where she's going from here.

And that, in such a long-running series, has to be taken as a good thing, I suppose.

Trigger & Friends
By James H. Schmitz

This is the third book in the current reprint of Schmitz' tales of the Hub, following on Telzey Amberdon and Telzey and Trigger. It concerns operative Trigger Argee and her acquaintances, unsurprisingly, and like the previous volumes is light, entertaining, and not to be taken too seriously. There's nothing terribly classic in this book, but it made for a pleasant few hours.

The Farseer Trilogy:
Assassin's Apprentice
Royal Assassin
Assassin's Quest
By Robin Hobb

Now here's a fantasy trilogy in which there is simply Far Too Much going on--so much that even trying to convey the enormity of the thing will be extremely difficult. But I'll try.

The Farseer Trilogy is the story of a kingdom under attack. Sea-raiders are attacking the coasts, carrying off the population--and returning them later, physically alive but morally and emotionally dead. It is also the story of FitzChivalry Farseer, the bastard son by an unknown mother of the one-time heir to the throne. As an acknowledged royal bastard, Fitz is brought to Buckkeep, the King's chief seat, to be raised. His upbringing is an odd combination of neglect and great care: he spends most of his time working in the stables with the horses and dogs; and yet he is being groomed as a royal diplomat. More than that--he is being trained to be a royal assassin, to carry out the King's policies by "quiet work".

So far, so good. Let's add a few more things into the mix.

Fitz has something called the Wit, which allows him to communicate with animals in a limited way, and to bond tightly to particular individual animals. He is raised to believe that this is a perversion.

Members of the Royal Family, along with others in the Kingdom, can be trained to use the Skill. The Skill includes telepathy, clairvoyance, psychic coercion, and a nasty form of vampirism. Fitz is, of course, partially capable of the Skill as well.

The King and his heir, Prince Verity, are highly-Skilled--but the Kingdom's Skillmaster supports Verity's evil brother, Prince Regal.

There are old stories about the White Prophets who prophecy of the times that will change the world--and of the catalysts who change them. The King has a Fool (known only as "The Fool") who is an albino and speaks of Fitz as "the Catalyst".

And then, on top of all of this, there are the Elderlings--legendary beings who have come to save the Kingdom from the searaiders in the past.

What I'm getting at here is that good sir Hobb has no restraint. Any one of these elements would be enough to hang a trilogy on; there was no need for all of them.

But wait--there's more! Not only is the Farseer Trilogy an instance of The Big Story--for if the searaiders are not defeated, the entire world will be shifted down a track of darkness--, it's also just about the most amazing instance I've ever encountered of another kind of plot. I call it, "Let's Test The Hero To Destruction Over And Over Again, Repeatedly." The previous winner was David Weber's Honor Harrington Series, but Hobbs tops Weber easily. During the course of the trilogy Fitz is beaten (repeatedly), tortured (both physically and psychologically, repeatedly), nearly killed in battle (repeatedly), falls seriously ill (repeatedly), loses two of his wit-bound animal companions (which some with the Wit don't survive), reverts, thanks to his Wit, to a near animal state (repeatedly)...oh, and comes back from the dead. At least he does that only once.

I'm grateful to my brother for loaning me these three books; they helped fill a large fraction of a tremendously dreary week, and I enjoyed reading them well enough. But there was so much pain and angst in them, and so little joy or comic relief, that I've little interest in looking for Hobb's later books.

The Initiate Brother
Gatherer of Clouds
By Sean Russell

If I was disappointed by Robin Hobb, Sean Russell more than made up for it.

These two volumes form one single massive novel, and like Hobb's Farseer Trilogy belong to a particular type: in this case, the Fantasy Novel of China. The geography of the Empire of Wa is not precisely like China's, and the names of people and places have a Japanese rather than a Chinese flavor, but the archetype is plain. There is the Emperor, mostly all-powerful provided he retains the Mandate of Heaven. There are the Great Houses, each of which might be happy to become the next Imperial Dynasty. There are the northern barbarians, ever-threatening invasion. In fact, the primary divergence with historical China is the religion of the land--instead of Confucianism, the chief religion is a fantasy variant of Buddhism.

Into this rich background, Russell stirs a number of elements. The current Imperial Dynasty has not been long on the throne; the current Emperor is still consolidating his position. At present, he is bending his will against the Shonto, one of the most powerful Great Houses and one with a strong claim to the throne. Lord Shonto, master of chess, is more than adequate for the struggle.

Through the conflict wanders Botahist Brother Shu-yun, a young man of great spiritual gifts, sent by the Botahist Order to be Lord Shonto's spiritual advisor. And following him are rumors that the Enlightened One, great Botahara's successor, might even now be walking the land.

As one would expect, it's a novel of politics, intrigue, battles, and treachery, all of which Russell delivers competently and well. And beyond these things there are many other things to like.

Unlike Hobb's work, Russell knows the value of restraint. Whereas the Farseer Trilogy is painted in big, bold, violent swashes of color, Russell's tale is finely drawn in pen-and-ink, and then painstakingly colored in subdued pastels. An example of the eye to detail is the large role poetry plays in the story--as it would have in Russell's historical model. And an example of Russell's restraint is the limited role magic plays: Brother Shu-yun is capable of amazing feats, but the plot does not turn on them--rather, it turns on his kindess and compassion.

And so far as it goes, I suppose it's possible that Shu-yun's gifts wouldn't seem particularly fantastic to a devout Buddhist.

Anyway, this is good stuff. Go read it.

Moontide and Magic Rise:
World Without End
Sea Without a Shore
By Sean Russell

Having enjoyed The Initiate Brother so much, I was pleased that my brother had loaned Russell's subsequent effort as well. As before, the two volumes form a single extremely long novel, and should be read together.

If The Initiate Brother was the Fantasy Novel of China, this is the Fantasy Novel of Nineteenth Century Europe. Like its predecessor, the historical setting is immediately recognizable despite altered names and geography; and as before the world and people are drawn finely and precisely and with great restraint.

Moontide and Magic Rise is the tale of a young naturalist named Tristam Flattery. The King of Farrland dispatches a scientific expedition to a South Seas Island reminiscent of Tahiti, and orders Flattery to go along. It seems that previous expeditions had returned with a tropical plant called Kingfoil; a medicine made from the plant's seeds is all that is keeping King Wilam alive, and the plants in the King's garden are failing to bear.

It seems a simple task, but Tristram finds himself in the center of a whirlpool of intrigue, death, and downright strange events, for Kingfoil is not only a Physic; it is also the key to the powers of the Mages, a mysterious order of men and women who had vanished generations before.

I didn't enjoy Moontide and Magic Rise quite as much as I enjoyed The Initiate Brother; it has some flaws, and I think it could stand a fair amount of trimming. But it is still very much worth reading. I was particularly taken with the shipboard scenes; long-time-readers of ex libris will know that I enjoy nautical fiction of the Age of Sail anyway; Russell's evocation of it surpasses that of some who have specialized it in.

I can happily say that I'll be looking for more books from Mr. Russell.

Requiem for a Ruler of Worlds
Jinx on a Terran Inheritance
Fall of the White Ship Avatar
By Brian Daley

When you're sick, there's nothing like old favorites, and I was sick for a good bit of the month of March. If you're look for gosh wow, gee whiz, good old fashioned space opera, look no further.

It's been two hundred years since the Human-Srillan War, and though Earth is still a reclusive, totalitarian backwater the Galaxy is experiencing the rushing, vibrant, chaotic growth of the Third Breath of Humanity. One of the leaders of the Third Breath is dictator Caspahr Weir, ruler of twenty planets--until his murder. And one of his heirs is Earth Service Functionary Third Class Hobart Floyt, a minor bureaucrat. The Earth Service frames a visiting off-worlder, the aptly named Alacrity Fitzhugh, and coerces him into sheperding Floyt from Earth to Weir's planet of Epiphany, site of the funeral and subsequent will-reading. The Earth Service is eager to find out what Floyt has been willed, and to claim it, whatever it is....and therein hangs a tale that fills the first two Floyt & Fitzhugh books to capacity.

Alas, the third book falls rather short of the mark, and perhaps it's just as well that Daley didn't write any more books about the intrepid duo...but I just can't help wishing that he had.

By C.S. Lewis

This is the middle volume of Lewis' so-called "Space Trilogy", which is a most misleading title. Among other things, a trilogy proper is three books that tell a single story; essentially, a novel in three volumes. I don't believe I've ever read all three books of this "trilogy" straight through in sequence. Though they are closely related, each is so different in tone from the others that I enjoy them in quite different moods.

As always with Lewis' writing, Christianity is central. If Narnia was an attempt to speculate about how Christ might appear in a different world than our own, the "Space Trilogy" is an attempt to write science fiction about a world in which Christianity is literally, palpably true, and in which the battle between St. Michael and Lucifer is still being fought. Our planet is held by the demons, and is beseiged by Deep Heaven. The other planets still know the wonder and glory of the angels. But the end of the seige is drawing nigh.

My feelings about these books have changed remarkably over time; at one point I loved the first book, Out of the Silent Planet, disliked the second, and could not read the third, That Hideous Strength. Nowadays it's Out of the Silent Planet I find unreadable, and That Hideous Strength strikes me as the best of the lot.

Either way, Perelandra is caught short; it doesn't really fit with the other two, being more a kind of fable. We've all heard the question, "If you could go back in time and shoot Hitler before he came to power, would you?" Lewis asks a scarier one: if you were present when the Serpent was tempting Eve, what would you do?

Lewis' fable is set on Venus, the Serpent is a physicist named Weston who has invented a spaceship, and the hero is an Oxford philologist (a nod to Lewis' friend J.R.R. Tolkien) named Elwin Ransom.

If the whole thing sounds silly, it is, a bit...but it makes me think, as well, and there's a certain amount of wisdom in it, too. And that, of course, is why I read C.S. Lewis.

Master and Commander
By Patrick O'Brian

Last year saw the paperback publication of O'Brian's final novel, Blue at the Mizzen, the de facto conclusion of his massive Aubrey/Maturin series. If you've been reading ex libris for any length of time, O'Brian's name should not be unknown to you.

Surprising, I didn't dive right into Blue at the Mizzen, as one might have expected; I held on to it. I saved it for later, for a rainy day when I needed a lift. And then, on a recent rainy day when I needed a lift, I had a better idea. I'd start right back at the beginning of the series. Moreover, I'd read no more than one Aubrey/Maturin book a month. At that rate it will take almost two years to finish, but that's fine with me. O'Brian's work is like a fine wine, it needs to be savored. And better still, this will let me devote a fair amount of space to each individual book.

The Aubrey/Maturin series is set at the beginning of the 19th Century, and is the story of Captain Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy and of his particular and unlikely friend, physician and naturalist Stephen Maturin, who accompanies him as ship's surgeon.

It's not at all clear that when O'Brian wrote Master and Commander that he intended to make a series of it; many of the familiar elements from the later books mark their beginning in the second volume, Post-Captain. Certainly, the Stephen Maturin of Post-Captain is a deeper, more complex man than his predecessor in this volume.

More than that--although the two friends are the focus of the series, Master and Commander is, in fact, a tale of three men: Jack Aubrey, Stephen Maturin, and Jack's lieutenant, James Dillon.

Jack, called "Goldilocks" by his men, is a young, lusty sea captain with a mane of yellow hair and a knack for finding and taking enemy ships. A shrewd hand at sea, on land he spends far too much time in the wrong arms for his own good.

Lt. Dillon is an Irishman with a deadly secret. Just a few years before an Irish rebellion was put down with force; not only is Dillon a secret papist, he was a member of United Irishmen during the uprising. He did not favor the rebellion, and was in fact at sea while it went on, but if his association with it were known, he might hang. While recognizing Jack Aubrey's excellent seamanship, Dillon is jealous of his prizes, of his position...--and of his freedom from fear of exposure.

Stephen Maturin is the link between them. Also a one-time member of the United Irishmen, he and James have known each other since they were children. He shares James' secret...but he also Jack Aubrey's particular friend. He sees the conflict between them, but is unable to do anything about it; the relationship between a captain and his lieutenant is not one even a friend can meddle in.

I've spoken elsewhere about the excellence of O'Brian's prose (the best I know), and of his remarkable skill at describing people, places, and things; he can transport me like no other author. And there's something more...the opening pages of this book never fail to make me happy, indeed to make me bubble over with joy. It's hard to explain, but there it is; I can't deny it.

I hope you won't be able to either.

Children's Books

by Jane Duquette

Art Dog
By Thatcher Hurd

David was given this book by his grandfather, who is a lover of art. It is the tale of a mild-mannered guard dog at the Dogopolis Museum of Art, who leads a very quiet life except on nights when the moon is full. Under the full moon he dons a mask and a beret, takes up a brush, and becomes ART DOG! The story is fun and the illustrations are wonderful. I'm afraid that David will know some of the classic paintings by their Art Dog parodies. Highly recommended for the children of any art lovers you know--or for the art lovers themselves.

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