Home : Ex Libris : 1 June 2001

ex libris reviews

1 June 2001

Time was something that largely happened to other people; he viewed it in the same way that people on the shore viewed the sea. It was big and it was out there, and sometimes it was an invigorating thing to dip a toe into, but you couldn't live in it all the time. Besides, it always made his skin wrinkle.
Terry Pratchett


In This Issue:

Long time readers of ex libris reviews will remember that some years ago, encouraged by various technophile buddies, I bought myself a Palm III PDA, and immediately fell in love with it. At the time, I described it as electronic backpack: a place the size of a deck of cards that held my calendar, my address book, my notes to myself, a book or two to read, games to play, even stories in progress. I've been carrying the thing daily ever since.

In the last couple of months, though, the digitizing screen on my trusty Palm III PDA has been getting less and less healthy, and so I replaced it last week with one of its competitors, the Handspring Visor Deluxe. The Visor is almost a PalmPilot; it's the same size, and runs the same operating system and the same software. But at the same time it's head and shoulders over the Palm III. It's got a vastly improved screen, four times as much memory (eight megabytes, which is now standard on most PalmOS PDAs), all of which features are available on a real PalmPilot; but it also has Handspring's claim to fame, an expansion slot. And in my expansion slot, I've got something called a backup module.

You see, the way you use these things is you carry them about, and enter data and phone numbers, and who knows what all, and then eventually you "sync" it with your desktop computer. That's how you back it up. The trouble is, until you synch it, your data is in peril. It doesn't happen often, but if you should drop the unit, or if a piece of rogue software should cause a reset, you might lose everything you've entered since the last sync. It's hard to put much effort into writing anything you care about (like a novel) when you know that your deathless prose is on thin ice.

And that's where the backup module comes in. It's eight megabytes of memory in a little square chip that slides in the slot on the back of the unit. It doesn't add any size...but it means that whenever I feel like it I can back up the unit completely and safely. The backup module contains non-volatile storage, so even if the unit resets, I lose nothing, even if I haven't synced in weeks. Now this is freedom.

And then there's the Stowaway Keyboard. Usually you enter data into the Visor using a stylus, but you can also use an aftermarket keyboard. This particular keyboard is a marvel. It collapses into a package just a little bigger than the Visor itself; it fits in my trouser pocket. But it unfolds into a keyboard with a full-size layout of keys.

Put together, this all becomes extremely nice, and on the way to being a laptop replacement. In fact, I wrote most of this month's issue on my Visor using the Stowaway Keyboard. Freedom has never felt so good.

Oh, and I did some reading this month. Stuff by Terry Pratchett, Patrick O'Brian, Iain M. Banks, Elizabeth Peters, Charlotte MacLeod, and others.


-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

H.M.S. Surprise
By Patrick O'Brian

Each month I'm reading and reviewing one book from O'Brian's justly acclaimed Aubrey/Maturin series. This is the third in the series; if you are new to ex libris, you may wish to jump back to the April Issue.

I've always regarded this volume as my favorite in the series, probably because of the good ship Surprise herself, and because, for me, this is the book where O'Brian really hits his stride. Master and Commander is a delightful book, but it was intended as a one-off thing; O'Brian hadn't intended to turn it into a series. In Post-Captain, O'Brian was wrestling with a number of competing needs. To begin with, he discovered that he'd unwittingly set the first book in his saga of naval warfare immediately before the Peace of Amiens, which he somehow had to get through. Not much goes on at sea during peacetime. And then, once the war resumed, he had to avoid the trap of embargo duty. During the Napoleonic wars, most of the British ships and captains spent most of their time making sure that the French fleet never made it out of the harbor. Given his success in Master and Commander, Aubrey deserved to get his promotion to post-captain and command of a fine frigate--that likely would have done nothing of interest for the next five years.

O'Brian solves these problems handily, and in surprising ways, but while the book is eminently readable it's also somewhat frustrating. One wants Jack to settle down to his business, with a ship of his own, and he never quite manages to.

Until H.M.S. Surprise begins. The joyful Surprise is his first love; he was a midshipman on her and spent many happy hours studying at her masthead. It was also on the Surprise that Jack was turned before the mast as a common seaman for a period of time, as a punishment for hiding a girl in the cable tier.

So Jack comes to the Surprise with a history and with great joy, and many of the happier scenes in the series take place on her deck. Jack commands many other ships during the course of the long series, but he spends more time in command of the Surprise than any of them; like a bad penny, she keeps coming back.

Interestingly, though Jack is fictional, Surprise is not; see my review of Dudley Pope's The Black Ship.

The main action in H.M.S. Surprise involves a voyage to the vicinity of Indonesia and Malaysia; Jack is transporting an envoy to the court of a native ruler. It is this book, then, that first brings Jack and his friend, physician, naturalist, and spy Stephen Maturin, into the tropics and therefore into a naturalist's paradise--to South America, home of vampire bats and a debauched sloth; to a bird covered rock near the equator; to the slums and temples and palaces of Old Bombay. Perhaps the most moving sequence takes place there in Bombay, where Maturin is befriended by, and endeavours to save, an orphaned girl. The book climaxes with a skirmish between several French ships commanded by Admiral Linois, the Surprise, and a large fleet of East Indiamen bound for England with their holds full of valuable cargo.

I've begun classifying books by how I visualize them in my head. Some are comic books, some are movies, some are watercolors, but O'Brian looks like reality in my mind's eye.

Next month: The Mauritius Command.

By Iain M. Banks

A Culture GSV (General Services Vehicle) is big. It can house millions of people--in comfort. Its massive bays can contain thousands of smaller ships. It is commanded by (indeed, is the body of) a Mind: an Artificial Intelligence so advanced it makes you look about as smart as the computer you're reading this on. Or maybe even like the modem you're connecting to the Internet on. Or maybe like your toaster.

Minds play a variety of important roles in Banks' novels of the Culture, but they are seldom center-stage. His previous books have been human scale, focussing on people more or less like you or me.

This book takes them out of the closet and gives you an idea of just how long and deeply plans can be laid when you've got a life span of hundreds of years and more intelligence than has ever been seen on our entire planet to date.

It seems that an unusual, impossible, highly dangerous object has just appeared in Culture Space. Immediately, the nearby ship Minds begin to ponder what to do. But over time it becomes clear that some subset of them have something else in mind. See, there's this obnoxious, expansionist race, the Affront, and they need taking down a peg or two....

This is not an easy book to read, but I found it made much more sense on this, my second reading.

By Iain M. Banks

Banks is always hard to classify, and it's difficult to say whether this one is fantasy or science fiction. It's clearly taking place in a different world than ours, with many of the standard trappings of medieval/renaissance fantasy...but there's no magic to speak of, and the evidence suggests rather that this is a low-technology planet recently contacted by a spacefaring civilization rather than a more typical fantasy world.

The story involves two adjoining nations, and more specifically the rulers of those nations, King Quience and Protector UrLeyn, and more specifically two people close to these rulers, Vosill, the King's physician, and DeWar, the Protector's bodyguard. It soon becomes clear that both Vosill and DeWar are strangers to the countries in which they live; indeed, there are tantalizing hints that at an earlier time, in some far off place, they were lovers.

It also becomes clear that both are trying to influence the course of history. A great empire has collapsed, and a myriad of small kingdoms--and one republic, UrLeyn's Protectorate of Tassassen--have sprung up in its place. Both are trying to preserve the nation in which they now live, in hopes that the societal gains being made there will be passed on.

And their methods? One is a bodyguard, after all, and one is a doctor...but remember the title of the book. Little works out as one might expect.

Inversions is not identified as a novel of the "Culture", nor is there anything in that explicitly ties it in wih that series...but if you ask me, both Vosill and DeWar are Special Circumstances operatives. If you're read Use of Weapons, you'll know what I mean.

Beneath the Vaulted Hills
The Compass of the Soul
By Sean Russell

These two books, taken together (Russell is the only author I know who writes two-volume novels) comprise the single tale The River Into Darkness. As such, they are a prequel to Russell's earlier duology, Moontide and Magic Rise, which I reviewed in the April issue.

The earlier work work spoke of a world in which there had once been mages, the last of whom, Lord Eldritch, had died (or vanished) many decades before. Some were trying to bring back the days of the mages, while others were endeavouring to stop them. This work goes back to the last days of Lord Eldritch, and describes his attempts to stamp out the use of magery for ever.

On the whole, I enjoyed the pair; there was still a considerable amount of obscure to-ing and fro-ing, but overall things made rather more sense than the second half of Moontide and Magic Rise did. My one complaint is that both volumes seem to run long. I think a judicious amount of cutting would improve them both considerably.

The Love Talker
By Elizabeth Peters

This is one of Peters' older books, recently re-released in paperback. I'd not read it before, and I confess I found most of it less than satisfying (although the ending wasn't bad). It seems that Laurie's Aunt Lizzie has been seeing faeries in the wood (a la Arthur Conan Doyle). She and her half-brother Doug are summoned by Aunt Ida and Uncle Ned to help out--and to figure out whether Lizzie has finally, after years upon years of peculiar enthusiasms, wigged out for good. But Laurie and Doug have a more serious concern, for Laurie hears the music in the woods as well...

What can I say? It's an OK book. I don't regret having read it. But Peters is capable of much better.

The Family Vault
The Withdrawing Room
The Palace Guards
By Charlotte MacLeod

Macleod wrote two delightful series of goofy, oddball mysteries, both set in Massachusetts--one rural, about professor of agriculture Peter Shandy, and one set in Boston, about Boston Brahmin Sarah Kelling and her large, varied, and frequently demented family (not to forget her friend and eventual husband, Max Bittersohn).

These are the first three of the Sarah Kelling mysteries; I'd read all three of them several times before, and I'm sure I'll get back to both of them again in future years. If you like oddball mysteries, be sure to check them out.

Fair warning, though. Although the bulk of both series are quite good, the last one or two of each are distinctly subpar.

Magi'i of Cyador
By L.E. Modesitt, Jr

Also somewhat subpar is this, the latest paperback in Modesitt's Recluce series. Modesitt usually has the ability to keep me turning pages avidly, even when I know that what I'm reading is pretty much a rehash of the books I've read before. A good bit of this is Modesitt's ability to help you identify with the main character. This one had interesting things in it, but the hero is much less likable, partially because he hides his plans not only from those around him but also from us, and partially because compared to Modesitt's other heroes he seems to be completely unprincipled. I'll go on with the series, but I admit I was disappointed.

But take heart-- if you've not read any of Modesitt's Recluce books, this isn't the one to start with, anyway. Take a look at The Magic of Recluce, and have fun.

Thief of Time
By Terry Pratchett

This is the latest of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels; in particular, it's the latest in the Death subseries, continuing on from Hogfather. While this one doesn't quite reach those exalted heights (Hogfather is one of Pratchett's best to date), it's still a quite delightful mixture of satire, wit, fantasy, and all-around good fun. In addition to our old friends Death, his assistant the Death of Rats, and his granddaughter, Susan Sto Helit (that's Miss Susan to you), Pratchett also brings back History Monk Lu-Tze (previously seen in Small Gods). Not only is Lu-Tze the world's greatest cultivator of Bonsai Mountains, he is also a deadly practitioner of that most esoteric of martial arts, Deja Fu (which, so far as I can tell, means "You're already history").

But if you've read Ex Libris for even a few minutes, you already know how much I like Terry Pratchett. Go read him.

The Desert Road to Turkestan
By Owen Lattimore

In 1927, an American named Owen Lattimore undertook an amazing journey, something very, very few had ever done, either before or since: He took a pleasure trip by camel caravan from China to Chinese Turkestan (north of Tibet). He didn't go for scientific reasons; he didn't go as a missionary; he went simply because he was simply enthralled by the notion of the fabled Silk Road of history, and by the thought that with the coming of the railroad the days of the camel caravan were numbered.

It's a fascinating tale, rife with color and incident, and I enjoyed it even more this time than I did the first time I read it. Of course, in writing it Lattimore was aware that he was following in the footsteps of the great explorers of the 19th century, and so there's a little more about the geography and topography than there really needs to be...but the dry bits are easily skimmed.

So what happened when he arrive in Turkestan? He meets his new bride (they had been married for only five months when he began his trek); she has just travelled (by herself!) from Russia to meet him so that they can travel the rest of the way to India together. But that's another story--or two, actually, one of hers and one of his--and I expect to get to both of them in the next couple of months.

A Deepness in the Sky
By Vernor Vinge

If you like hard science fiction, go buy this. It's nominally a prequel to Vinge's award-winning A Fire on the Deep, but the only important connection is the quality of the writing--and of the story itself.

Far in the future, mankind has spread itself over a wide area--by no means the whole galaxy, or anything like it, but a space perhaps thousands of light years across. No government is capable of administering such a large expanse, and so the various planetary civilizations mostly go there own way, linked only by the trading ships that periodically come to call.

As a young boy, Pham Nuwen is adopted by a member of a trading group called the Qeng Ho. He has a bright idea. Due to time dilation effects, planetary civilizations are short lived by Qeng Ho standards; even the most successful lasts no more than a thousand years or so before it collapses and has to build itself back up from savagery. Even Old Earth has been completely depopulated numerous times. But the Qeng Ho goes on and on. What can the Qeng Ho do to foster civilization in the galaxy? How can it provide standards of language and of engineering, so that when a civilization rises again after the inevitable collapse it will not only rise more quickly (barbarians living in huts have little worth trading for) but will develop so as to need the things the Qeng Ho provides? More than that--perhaps the Qeng Ho can even become the core of a human Empire....

Now brace yourself; that's just the backstory. The main action concerns a pair of expeditions to the OnOff star, a peculiar sun that blazes for perhaps fifty years and then goes dark for two-hundred in a reliable cycle. One expedition is sponsored by the Qeng Ho; Pham Nuwen, now an old man, is along for the ride under an assumed name. The other expedition is sponsored by a young civilization that calls itself the Emergency (and between you and me, this is one of the most nasty groups of people I've read about). Both are trying to discern the mysteries of the OnOff star...and of the intelligent race that lives on its single planet.

There's lots here to remember, and even more to like. The book should have a big sign on it: "This is how it's done." 'nuff said.

Pride and Prejudice
By Jane Austen

I've reviewed this book more than once since the inauguration of ex libris, so I'm not going to say much about the plot. Suffice it say that I like it very much.

Instead, I'm going to ramble on a bit.

For many years the thought of reading anything by Jane Austen simply didn't enter my mind. First of all, there were the titles. Pride and Prejudice sounds like a sociology text, and Sense and Sensibility sounds like epistomology. And then, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, I thought of Jane Austen as one of those "girlie authors", like the Bronte sisters. I'd not read anything by the Brontes, but I'd heard a little about Wuthering Heights. From what I gathered (and my wife assures me that it's true), so far from sympathizing with Heathcliff and Cathy and so on I'd be more likely to think them a couple of ridiculous twits.

And that's what I like about Jane Austen. Her books are filled with ridiculous twits--but they are recognized for what they are. No one is expected to sympathize with them; instead, we're supposed to sympathize with the few characters who exhibit a modicum of sense. The twits are there, on the other hand, for us to laugh at.

Or perhaps it's only half true that I like Austen's writing for the fools. Pride and Prejudice was and remains a tale of romance, not merely a collection of character portraits. Perhaps I like Austen because Eliza Bennett and Mr. Darcy are not fools, but rather individuals (as Austen would put it) of good understanding, who not only fall in love but actually have a reasonable chance of living "happily ever after."

The Pragmatic Programmer
By Andrew Hunt and David Thomas

I don't often review technical books in this space, not because I don't read them, but because I don't usually read them cover to cover. This one's different. And all I have to say is, if you're a programmer who aspires to excellence, go buy this book. And if you're the manager of programmers, buy a copy for each of them. Time after time, in reading this book, I came across some hardwon technique or rule of thumb that I'd evolved on my own over years of work. I felt good about myself as a result...but I also took notice of the tricks and techniques I hadn't run into before.

Children's Books

by Jane Duquette

What Do You Say, Dear? A book of manners for all occasions
Written by Sesyle Joslin and illustrated by Maurice Sendak

This is a delightfully silly older book that playfully and gently teaches the proper thing to say if you should happen to back up into an alligator on the street while walking backwards, or fly your plane through a friend's roof, or receive an offer to be a bear's dinner.

It's just fortuitous that the same polite words come in handy on other occasions as well. David has had fun figuring out what the right thing to say is, and all of us have had a few giggles over the pictures. It's also been a useful reminder of what phrase David should use when he needs to be more polite.

Highly recommended, if you have children and can find it; and it's worth paging through in the store even if you don't have children.

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