Home : Ex Libris : 1 May 2001

ex libris reviews

1 May 2001

...I have been motivated to publish the following compilation of field-tested tips on how to get lost. I have also included information on how to survive, and, of equal interest, how to pass the time if you don't.
Patrick F. McManus


In This Issue:
More Health, Less Reading

Unlike the last several months, I was in pretty good health this month; the upshot is that I spent more time working and less time reading. Nevertheless, we've got some good stuff this month, including books by Dorothy Dunnett, Patrick O'Brian, Donald Westlake, and Elizabeth Peters, among others.


-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The AB Guide to Music Theory, Part I
By Eric Taylor

I began playing the recorder (a precursor to the modern transverse flute, for those who are unfamiliar with it) a year or so ago, and for the last few months I've been playing regularly with a group of like-minded people. We're playing mostly for fun rather than for performance. As a side effect, I've become more interested in how music works, and as I'm mostly self-taught I went out in search of relevant books. This is one of the first I found.

This book provides a concise overview of the basics of music theory; I gather it's intended as a study guide for the "Associated Board" music exams in Great Britain, something I'm not at all familiar with. Since it's intended for review it's rather on the terse side; and it uses British terms (e.g., "minim" for "half note", "crotchet" for "quarter note") which may not be familiar to the American reader.

As a brief, readable introduction to the general geography of music theory, however, I found that it worked fairly well.

King Hereafter
By Dorothy Dunnett

As her fans know, Dunnett is one of the best writers of historical fiction we've ever had. Her books are bristling with authentic detail on almost every aspect of life, and one gathers that they are astoundingly well researched. They are, however, not light reading; one does not so much read a Dunnett book as engage it. The effort is amply repaid; but on the other hand one has to be in the proper mood.

In my study I have a book case of books I've purchased but not yet read. I've begun to regard it as a kind of fruit tree: books grow there until they are ripe and ready to be read. Some of them have waited for many years.

At the end of the last month, having frequently been sick at home, I had devoured all of the low-hanging fruit; and at long last it seemed that King Hereafter had ripened and was ready for plucking. The eating took over a week, but it was well worth it.

King Hereafter is Dunnett's retelling of the story of MacBeth, the Scottish nobleman who murdered his king and usurped the throne, and shortly thereafter died at the hands of his outraged people, as Shakespeare has told us. Except that the story Dunnett tells is rather different (and considerably more complicated) than Shakespeare's.

The Scotland of MacBeth's day had little in common with our notion of Scotland. In the decades leading up to the Norman Conquest (1066 AD), England was largely Anglo-Saxon, but was not yet English; in MacBeth's childhood, England was but one territory ruled by Canute, King of Denmark. Northern Scotland (Caithness and the Orkney Islands) was largely Scandinavian in population, owing fealty to the King of Norway. Scotland itself was a mishmash of peoples and tongues living in isolated farmsteads; there were no villages, no towns, and no roads.

The tell encompasses MacBeth's entire life, from his youth in the Orkney Islands, where he learned the viking life, to his young manhood when he learned to defend his fiefs of Orkney and Caithness from the political maneuverings of the powers of Europe, to his ascension to the throne of Scotland and eventual death. Many of the details, particularly of his youth, are suspect, but it is clear that he ruled Scotland for upward of fifteen years.

I enjoyed the book thoroughly; and I recommend it highly not only to fans of historical fiction, but also to all those who enjoy (or aspire to writing) "medieval" fantasy novels. Dunnett will give them a much needed lesson in medieval politics and the interdependence of countries.

By Patrick O'Brian

Last month I reviewed Master and Commander, the first of O'Brian's novels of Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend, physician and naturalist Stephen Maturin. As promised, I am confining myself to reading just one book a month in this series; and Post-Captain is the next

When I first read Post-Captain, I was rather perplexed. I was expecting Jack Aubrey to be given a ship, in which he would go out and harry the enemy, winning glory, honor, and vast quantities of prize money, much as he did in the first book. O'Brian had other plans; it is in this book, I have heard it said, that O'Brian set out to compete not only with C.S. Forrester but also with Jane Austen.

As the book begins, the Treaty of Amiens has (temporarily) brought peace between England and France. "Thrown on the beach," as navy officers said, Jack uses his prize money to lease a country home, Melbury Lodge, staffing it with his most loyal seamen. Stephen joins him, and for a time the two settle into local society, becoming acquainted in particular with two eligible young women, the sweet and sensible Sophia Williams, and her cousin, the fiery and unconvential Diana Villiers. What follows, through bankruptcy, official rebuffs, and appointments to command very peculiar ships, is a love quadrangle of sorts.

Stephen Maturin comes into his own in this book; in the previous, he was primarily an observer, giving us his insights into Jack Aubrey and his lieutenant James Dillon. His role as observer continues, but also shifts and broadens; he is thrown into direct conflict with Jack, and is also revealed to be an unpaid agent of the Royal Navy's intelligence bureau.

Neither this book nor its predecessor are perfect; Master and Commander pays perhaps a little too much attention to the proper naming of parts of the ship (as O'Brian later said, having learned his lesson, you must always include the "cross-catharpin", but you must never, ever explain it); Post-Captain seems to spend quite a lot of time footling about before settling down to the real story--and it does this several times. But if the journey is a bit twisted, the scenery is well-worth studying...and next month's book, H.M.S. Surprise, is perhaps my favorite in the whole series. Don't give up yet!

The Bear Went Over The Mountain
By William Kotzwinkle

This is an extremely silly book, and one I wouldn't likely have purchased for myself, but I enjoyed it; it made me laugh out loud more than once. I found it in a box of left-over children's books my father brought over from his house; I think the title misled him, because this is by no means a children's book.

It's the tale of two individuals, a college professor and a bear. The professor has exiled himself to the Maine woods on a sabbatical, there to write the Great American Novel, and after a failed attempt, he in fact does so. Alas for him, the bear finds his briefcase, and opens it, looking for goodies. There are no goodies, but there is a novel, and by golly, the bear decides, it's not a bad one, either. So the bear breaks into the local clothing store, finds a suit that fits him, and takes the manuscript off to New York.

The book is a wild success, of course, and so is the bear, who becomes more and more comfortable living in the world of Men. Back in the woods, of course, the professor is letting his hair grow, giving up on personal hygiene, and, in general, well....that would be telling.

I suppose the book is a fable of sorts, though if so I've no idea what the moral is; but it's undeniably funny.

The Incomplete Nifft
The A'Rak
By Michael Shea

I found these books at our local Supercrown, about a month after it was announced that it was closing for good and about two days before the doors were finally shut. After that length of time, I suppose it's remarkable that anything remotely readable remained on the shelves.

I bought them because I remembered having read and enjoyed several books by Shea at some time in the past, and because I recognized the name "Nifft". Some years ago, Shea had written a book called Nifft the Lean, which I remembered as being reminiscent of both Jack Vance's tales of Cugel of the Clever and of Fritz Leiber's tales of Fafhrd the Grey Mouser. On inspection, The Incomplete Nifft turned out to contain the complete text of not only Nifft the Lean but also its sequel, The Mines of Behemoth, which I'd never read. Nearby I found a new book about Nifft, The A'Rak, and bought it as well, pleased to have the complete set.

Imagine my surprise when I got the books home and realized that I had, in fact, never read Nifft the Lean. My impressions about its contents had evidently come from reading the back cover--after which I had evidently returned it to the bookstore shelf.

Ah, well, I said. I haven't read any good sword & sorcery in a while; I'll give them a try anyway. And so I did, and the verdict is that they aren't bad.

The first half of The Incomplete Nifft, corresponding to the original book Nifft the Lean, is a collection of unrelated short stories about Nifft, thief extraordinaire, and his partner Barnar Hammber-Hand. He travels to a number of interesting places, including the Land of the Dead and the Primary Subworld (land of the demons), steals some remarkable things, and all-in-all has some fun, colorful adventures. I particularly liked the way the two of them stole the pearls of Queen Vulvula. The second half is a single, novel-length tale involving a fantastic caper gone wrong.

So far as these go, the comparisons with Vance and Leiber are reasonable, if not entirely convincing. Shea shows the same kind of whimsy, which is good thing...but he shows it in a singularly humorless way. The books are somehow whimsical and yet too serious for the whimsy to have a leavening effect. I dunno, maybe I was just in a bad mood.

As for the new book, The A'Rak, well...I read it; I was indeed curious to find out how it ended; but it took a while to get into it, and once there I found my suspension of disbelief straining a bit. I don't mind an essentially silly tale if it's handled gently, but The A'Rak is infused with just a little too much gravity.

Bottom line: Not bad, if you like this kind of thing. I'll keep them around, and will likely re-read them at some later date...but classics they aren't.

The Samurai's Wife
By Laura Joh Rowland

The Samurai's Wife is a mystery novel set in 17th Century Japan, in the days when the divine Emperor dwelt in near-imprisonment in the Imperial Palace in Kyoto and the Tokugawa Shogun ruled absolutely in Edo. The hero is one Sano Ichiro, the Shogun's Most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations, and People.

I ran into Rowland's latest title in hardcover, and intrigued by the premise went to look for the earlier volumes in paperback. After all, I like historical fiction, and I like mysteries set in historical times. Robert van Gulik's Judge Dee mysteries are set in China, Steven Saylor's and Lindsey Davis' in ancient Rome; why not Japan?

Why not indeed; I found a lot of things not to like in this book. To begin with, it was tedious. Only my innate dislike of not finishing a book once begun got me through it. So far from painting a picture of Japan at that time, Rowland's tale seems to take place on an empty stage from which the characters come and go.

As is usual in mystery series these days, the book is divided between the sleuth's personal story and the investigation he is conducting. It is the personal story I found most cliched. Honorable Sano is a Samurai; wives of Samurai are little better than property, and know their place. Sano's wife, naturally, is a strong, intelligent woman who would undoubtedly prefer life in present day America. Please understand--it is not strong, intelligent women characters that I object to, but rather the fact that it's both anachronistic and a cliche. Let her be strong--but let her be strong as strong women actually were in that time and place.

Rowland compounds this further in her attempts to bring a little romance to the novel. It's the typical pattern: two characters in a mystery series fall in love and are married. Hitherto, their romantic entanglements have provided a certain amount of the interest; so what does the author do in the next book? Contrive a little marital discord! Is it likely? Oh, possibly. But it's also a cheap fix, and it's been overdone. C'mon, folks, we've been there; we've done that. Introduce some new characters to be the love interest, and pick on them instead.

But really, my main complaint is that (except just at the end), the book drags, drags, drags.

At present, I've no particular interest in pursuing this series further, based on what I've read so far; if anyone has read the other books and feels that this particular one isn't representative, please drop me a line.

He Shall Thunder In The Sky
By Elizabeth Peters

This is the latest in Peter's long-running Amelia Peabody series, and the first in quite a while that didn't annoy me. For the past six or seven books, the primary mystery in each volume is what the various members of Amelia's family are all up to behind each other's backs, and how long it will take them to learn to pull together. There's also a more typical mystery embedded in each one, but it's mostly there to given the various continuing characters reasons to do things behind each other's backs. The setting, Egypt in the early 20th Century, is lovingly portrayed, but the books were beginning to have a depressing sameness.

I shall now give three cheers; the mystery has finally been solved. It's in this book that the characters learn to pull together and trust each other (and yes, if you've read the previous few volumes, that romance is finally resolved). Along with that, a couple of long-running subplots are completely wound up, to the extent that I can only wonder what her next book (and I gather there is one) will be about.

But anyway...if you're a fan, you've probably read this one anyway. If not, our Elizabeth Peters page has the complete list. Start at the beginning.

The Hook
By Donald Westlake

Now here's a grisly little bit of mayhem. Two authors meet in a library. The one has been a megastar in the publishing world, but he's been blocked for the last year thanks to his pending divorce. The other has been mildly successful but has never broken out of the midlist, and the publisher's computers are tired of waiting for him to make the big time. He's got a manuscript he can't sell.

The first author has a proposition for the second: He'll take the other guy's manuscript and sell it as his own. The other guy will get half of the million-dollar advance--provided that he kills the first author's ex-wife.

It's grisly, and darkly funny, and the ending was not all what I expected. I'm still trying to decide whether I like it or not.

The Hub: Dangerous Territory
By James H. Schmitz

This is the last of the books in Baen Books' reissue of Schmitz' Complete Tales of the Federation of the Hub; I've reviewed the previous three volumes over the last six months or so.

The previous books focussed on stories related to particular characters; this book collects all of the remaining ones. As such, it's a bit of mixed bag, quality-wise...but the last two stories more than make up for it, providing a fitting end for both the book and the series.

It's classic science fiction; it's fun; I'd buy it again. And in fact, the previous books have done well enough that Baen is going to reissue all of Schmitz' other work as well. I'm looking forward to it.

A Fine and Pleasant Misery
By Patrick F. McManus

McManus is a humorist of the outdoors; I'd not heard of him until my friend Dave recommended him, but I gather he was a staple in Field and Stream for many years. The book at hand is the one I happened to pick up with his name on it; and it happens to be an anthology of pieces from over the years.

The best thing I can say about it is that it made me laugh out loud, and this despite my tendency to avoid the outdoors as much as possible. It's not a "read-straight-through" book, but it's a dandy "pick-up-and-read-a-few-pages" book.

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