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ex libris reviews

1 October 2001

It is difficult to sound artless twice in quick succession.
Patrick O'Brian


In This Issue:

We all know what happened on September 11 of this year, and we've all heard sundry commentators telling us what to think about it, and I'm going to firmly resist the temptation to add my two bits--this is a book review, not a bully pulpit. I will say this: if any of you suffered a personal loss during the attacks, may God bless you and comfort you in your grief.

Meanwhile, here's my bit to help life go on.

-- Will Duquette

Books to Read Aloud

by Will Duquette

The Curse of Chalion
By Lois McMaster Bujold

Bujold has long been on the short list of authors I buy in hardcover; she's also one of the few authors I invariably read aloud to Jane when each new book comes out. (For the record, the others are Stephen Brust, Sarah Caudwell (of late and lamented memory) and (depending on Jane's mood) Terry Pratchett. We like Ms. Bujold a lot.

After her previous novel, the truly outstanding A Civil Campaign, Bujold announced that her next novel, rather than being a new entry in her Vorkosigan series, would instead be a fantasy novel. I confess, I was disappointed. Her Vorkosigan novels are always so much fun that I want more in the same vein; and then, her only previous published fantasy, The Spirit Ring, was nothing special. At least, though I still have a copy, I haven't had any interest in re-reading it. So it was with mixed joy and apprehension that I found The Curse of Chalion at the bookstore and brought it home.

And there, most uncharacteristically, it sat on the shelf for several weeks before Jane and I could get started on it. First there was the new baby...and then we all caught colds, and it was quite a while before I was willing to read anything aloud, no matter how delightful. But finally we were ready, and we began the book, and what we found in it leaves me with a real dilemma: how to explain why we liked it so much without spoiling anything.

It is primarily the story of a young man named Cazaril, and is told entirely from his point of view.

It involves diverse and sundry intrigues in the rarefied and deadly atmosphere of a king's court, and so falls into roughly the same genre as recent works by C.J. Cherryh, George R.R. Martin and David Farland.

It is set in a land vaguely reminiscent of medieval Spain before the unification of Aragon and Castile and the expulsion of the Moors--and as one would suspect in such a milieu religion and religious discord plays a role. The religion of Aragon and Castile was, of course, the Roman Catholicism of the day; the religion of Chalion and the surrounding kingdoms is theologically quite distinct from Christianity, and from any other historical faith I'm aware of, but Bujold has accomplished a quite astonishing thing, the likes of which I've seldom met with in fantasy fiction: she's invented a religion, a theology, and a piety that have the flavor of the real thing.

There is so much more I could say, so many scenes I'd like to describe, but I'd be wrong to do so. I'll end with this: this is a story about how the Divine makes use of the merely Human to its own ends.

Oh, and it reads aloud really well, too--with suspense, adventure, neat turns and twists, memorable scenes, and like that. If it were my choice, I'd give it this year's Hugo award.

Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

Dead Men Don't Ski
Down Among the Dead Men
Death on the Agenda
Murder a la Mode
By Patricia Moyes

I picked up the first couple in this series while browsing the used book store. Browsing is what I call scanning the shelves for something that looks good because I am currently bereft of a favorite author to read and am looking around for something new. From my initial, quick reading of covers and reviews on the back, they seemed to fit my basic, initial criteria for a good mystery: no gore, no unnecessary nudity and no foul language. I like the emphasis on the detection and not the grisly details of the crime. Cover reading, however, is always a risky way to choose a book. In this instance, it paid off.

The detective in these novels is Chief Inspector Henry Tibbett. He's middle aged, mild mannered and deceptively boring. His wife Emmy is good humored, attractive in a plump middle-aged way and endlessly supportive of him. The first four books in the series all have the same basic plot devices, with variations by locale and, of course, by crime. First, there is always a group of possible suspects with tensions between them to explain several possible motives. About two-thirds of the way through the book, Henry has figured out who did it and is working on how to prove it. The reader has all the same clues but the final resolution isn't fully described until the very end. The writing is just descriptive enough to give you a sense of who's who and what the locale looks like without going on for long passages that have nothing to do with the mystery. The plots are complex enough to keep you guessing without pivoting around information you don't have. And because these four, at least, were all written in the early 60's they almost feel like period pieces that somehow dimly seem familiar.

The first of the series, Dead Men Don't Ski, takes place in a small alpine ski resort in Italy. Henry and Emmy are on a ski holiday when a mysterious German fellow guest at the lodge falls dead off the ski lift into the snow. Since the ski lift is the only way up to the resort hotel and all the guests have varying skill on skis for the trip down, the puzzle hinges on the timing and motive. A local policeman only seems to be getting in Henry's way and there are some amusing heated exchanges between Henry and the locals on the methods of policework. The novel was published in 1959 and has interesting though dated references to WWII and the recovery of Europe from the war.

The second of the series, Down Among the Dead Men, takes place in a small sailing village on the coast of England where Henry and Emmy have gone to enjoy a two week sailing holiday with friends. There are already underlying tensions between the weekend sailors and the locals when the murder happens. Henry has to find his way through sailing lore, tide tables and long established relationships among the group of suspects to solve this one.

Death on the Agenda is the third in the series. This one takes place in Geneva, Switzerland where Henry and Emmy have gone to attend an international conference on the drug traffic and smuggling. Two things set this one off from the first two. One is that Henry is the most obvious suspect for the crime and he spends his time not only trying to solve the crime but also fending off the local police. The second is that he falls for one of the suspects and has an illicit, though not physical, affair. This book deepens the depiction of Henry and I actually liked him more for having very real frailties.

Murder a la Mode is set in London at the publishing establishment of a high fashion magazine. Emmy's niece just happens to be a fashion model doing the modeling for the Paris edition of the magazine when the most obvious successor to the brilliant editor dies. The question of suicide or murder is one Henry has to answer while interviewing a group of brilliant and difficult photographers and writers. Emmy's niece makes the process more difficult for Henry since he must protect her while trying to do his detection work.

I have more from this author sitting on my bookshelf. After reading these, I went back to the used bookstore to snap up the remaining titles on their shelves. I am saving them to slowly savor and enjoy when I need something light and engaging at the same time. Definitely books I would recommend to someone who likes mysteries.

A Mischief in the Snow
By Margaret Miles

This is actually the fourth in a series of colonial mysteries set in a small town in Massachusetts. A couple of years ago I picked the first one up at the pharmacy while waiting for a prescription to be filled. The plot held my interest and when I was done, I passed it on to a friend with instructions to not return it.

This one, A Mischief in the Snow, was essentially the same. The main character is Charlotte Willett, a young widow who lives in a small New England town called Bracebridge. She is completely sensible and independent, not to mention pretty and available for marriage. She employs a teenage boy, Lem Wainwright, to help her with the heavier farm and dairy chores; he lives with her and always seems to have his nose stuck in a book. Her neighbor, Richard Longfellow, is a farmer/scientist who dabbles in biology and lives with his freed slave/companion Cicero. The story takes place in 1766, before the revolution but after the Stamp Act, and political unrest and dislike for the redcoats is a given. Charlotte has gone skating on the river and falls through thin ice. To dry herself and stave off freezing to death she is compelled to visit a house on an island inhabited by two reclusive old maids. Only one quite disliked person from the village visits them to do chores and bring supplies. He, then, is murdered after the annual village ice cutting on the river and it's up to Charlotte and Richard to figure out who murdered him and why and how that related to the old ladies in the house on the island.

This is a light and easy to read mystery that I actually enjoyed. I have no idea how historically accurate the details of Charlotte's life are but they certainly seem quaint enough to be true. If you are looking for something fun and entertaining or you like colonial mysteries, check out this author at the library. I don't think she's worth buying unless you can get them cheap at a used book store.

Detecting Women, 3rd edition
By Willetta L. Heising

This is a reference book of women mystery writers. While all the authors in this volume are female, Heising has also published a companion volume called Detecting Men. It's fairly expensive at $34.95 but being an avid mystery reader who tends to read whole series by authors, I found the expense worthwhile.

The book is essentially a series of lists: author, titles, settings, characters, etc. All are cross referenced and brief descriptions of each author and a list of her other noms de plume is included. While I admit I haven't read every single word in this book, I have spent a fair amount of time browsing it for ideas on authors or titles that I haven't read. My copy is full of post it notes marking authors I want to look for next time I'm at the library or bookstore. It's been useful so far.

Ice Bound
By Jerri Nielsen and Maryanne Vollers

One of the things I love most about living in the country in a rackety old farmhouse is being snowed in during the winter. Usually once or twice, often more, the weather is so bad that school is closed, the plow doesn't come through until the next morning and I get to spend an unplanned day at home. The kids go outside and slide and build snow forts and I drink coffee and curl up with my latest knitting project or a good book. As long as we have enough toilet paper, a small reserve of edibles in the fridge and coffee in the freezer, things are snug and cozy. But stories of those who live on the edge, who are cut off from power lines, EMT's and the local Stop'N'Go down the road still intrigue me. Snow days on the farm are enjoyable because they are temporary. They're a little reminder that my daily routine is subject to conditions which I sometimes cannot control and which will fall apart with a mere change in weather.

I picked up this book, which is subtitled "A Doctor's Incredible Battle For Survival At The South Pole", at the local library while waiting for my son to pillage the sci fi racks for books he hadn't read. I had read the newspaper accounts of her story and seen something on the TV and was interested in finding out more. The author, Jerri Nielson, goes to spend the winter at the South Pole as the station's lone doctor only to find a month after the last plane has left for the winter that she has a lump in her breast. That's the basic premise anyway. The rest of the story is how she and her fellow "Polies" figure out how to treat her, arrange a drop of medical supplies to keep her alive until the planes can land and most importantly, how she survives the fear, uncertainty and doubt of living with what she perceives as a terminal illness at the South Pole. This is not a book to read if you're looking for luminous prose or taut storycraft. She relies fairly extensively on reprinting emails she had sent and received during the time on the Ice and at times the sequence of events is slightly confusing. However, it is still a good read--fast paced and even funny at times. It's certainly a tribute to how people can pull together and work for a common good under the most difficult of circumstances. Definitely worth checking out from the library.

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Surgeon's Mate
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 seventh in the series; if you are new to ex libris, you may wish to jump back to the April Issue.

The Surgeon's Mate continues directly from last month's The Fortune of War. HMS Shannon proceeds from its victory over the Chesapeake to Halifax in Nova Scotia and a hero's welcome; and eventually Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin take ship for England and a dangerous mission into the Baltic sea. But there's a complication, and her name is Diana Villiers.

I've not written much about Diana Villiers in the reviews I've written this year, but she has been constantly present, in mind if not actually on-stage, for most of the series. In the second book, Post-Captain, Jack and Stephen are thrown on the shore by the Peace of Amiens, and make the acquaintance of both Diana and her cousin, Sophia Williams. Sophia is a beautiful, intelligent, but dutiful young woman; Jack is much attracted to her, but the collapse of his fortunes and the renewal of war prevent him from seeking her hand; his suit and eventual marriage provides matter for the next several books.

Diana, on the other hand, is a young widow, just home from India where she had lived with her husband, an officer in the Royal Army. She is nearly as good looking as Sophia, though she is much more fiery, and a freer spirit altogether, and Stephen falls for her at once. But Stephen is never a prepossessing figure at any time. He is small, scrawny even, and is prematurely aged and soured by his secret profession; he is seldom careful of his personal appearance, and has an unpleasant croaking laugh. Diana grows fond of him for his intelligence, wit, and discretion, but not more than that; and she uses him abominably. He has been pining for her ever since, as she moves from country to country and into the keeping of one "protector" after another.

Several books ago, under (undeserved) suspicion of spying for the United States, Diana fled to Boston under the protection of an American named Johnson. Johnson is not only a wealthy ship-owner, he is also the head of America's fledgling spy network, as Stephen is well aware. The Fortune of War brings Stephen and Jack to Boston, and back into contact with Johnson, who wants to recruit Stephen as a spy, and Diana, who has come to loathe Johnson and simply wants to flee. Toward the end of The Fortune of War Jack and Stephen escape, bringing Diana with them--Diana, and a great mass of Johnson's notes on the workings of the American spy network.

In the present volume, while attempting to serve England in the in the course of the war against Napoleon, Jack and Stephen must also deal with the consequences of their past actions. Johnson must retrieve those notes if at all possible; and even having succeeded or failed at that, he is a jealous man, and will stop at nothing to punish Diana for leaving him. And indeed, his vengeance pursues our heroes across the Atlantic, into the Baltic sea, and even to the very heart of France.

Next month: The Ionian Mission.

The Last Templar
By Michael Jecks

Last month I read The Boy-Bishop's Glovemaker, the latest novel in Jeck's historical mystery series about one-time Knight Templar Sir Baldwin Furnshill. It was an adequate novel, and I thought that perhaps I might have enjoyed it more if I'd been more familiar with the characters. Consequently I bought this, the first in the series.

Ah, well. The historical detail is not bad, especially as it touches on the suppression of the order of the Knights Templar, a truly contentious subject; the tale is adequately well told; but all-in-all it failed to grab me.

If I were about to go on a trip involving, say, a long plane flight, and there was nothing more promising at hand, I'd quite willingly pick up another volume or two of Jecks' series, but probably not otherwise.

Swords against the Shadowland
By Robin Wayne Bailey

What we have here is a fiasco.

Supposedly Robin Wayne Bailey met with Fritz Leiber before his death, and the author was sufficiently impressed by Bailey to give his blessing to a new set of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser tales written by Bailey from Leiber's own notes. Swords against the Shadowland is the first of these.

I usually avoid this kind of dredging of a dead author's mind; in this case, having recently re-read all of Leiber's own tales about the pair of heroes and presented them for your delectation, I thought I should give this one a try so as to be able to make a complete report.


Had Bailey chosen to tell the same tale in a world of his own devising, he might have succeeded. But there are two scales upon which a pastiche of this kind must be rated: "Does it respect the body of work upon which it is based?" and "Is it a well-told tale in its own right?" Swords against the Shadowland fails resoundingly on the first count, and that failure prevents it from succeeding on the second.

Bailey's sins against Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are too numerous to list in their entirety. There is a complete failure to capture Leiber's style, though it possible that Bailey, wisely, didn't try. More serious are a vast number of contradictions to things clearly stated in the earlier books; they could easily have been caught and fixed. More distressing is a complete personality change on the part of one of the continuing characters: Sheelba of the Eyeless Face never uses two words where one will do, but in this book the wizard is positively loquacious.

My recommendation: don't go there.

Spinsters in Jeopardy
By Ngaio Marsh

Part of the fun of finding a new author is making the rounds of the bookstores looking for the books you've missed, especially the last one or two. Sure, you can order them, but then you lose out on the thrill of the hunt. I had the good fortune to discover Ngaio Marsh when her books had all just come back in print, and for a number of months was able to return from the bookstore with three or four little gems. But one last book eluded me, to the point that I was on the verge of going to Amazon.com, when I stumbled across it at the local bookstore. And this is it.

There's a feel about Marsh's work, and after so many months it was a joy to let myself sink back into it. This is not her best, but it was still a remarkably pleasant interlude.

If you're not familiar with Marsh's Inspector Roderick Alleyn, click on her name, above, and you'll find a general description and a list of all of my previous reviews.

The Bernini Bust
Death and Restoration
By Iain Pears

More good fun with art dealer Stephen Argyll and his main squeeze Flavia the Roman Art cop; I enjoyed both books, and I'll be looking for the rest of series.

I especially like Pear's evocation of the city of Rome, and so I was slightly nonplussed to discover that The Bernini Bust mostly takes place in Los Angeles. But then, it takes place on the West Side; and as anyone from my part of town will tell you, that's a whole 'nother world over there. If I have a criticism, it's that Pears' depiction of Los Angeles is limited to a street name or two, the weather, and some palm trees; his Rome is much better.

The PMS Outlaws
By Sharyn McCrumb

At its beginning, McCrumb's series of Elizabeth MacPherson mysteries was noted for its wit and humor; I began to read them because they reminded me of Elizabeth Peters and Charlotte MacLeod. And then, two books and some years ago, the series took a dark turn with MacPherson's Lament. Elizabeth's beloved husband Cameron, a marine biologist, was missing at sea, and presumed dead. I don't remember the plot, particularly; but the whole thing was the opposite of light and humorous, and not at all what I'd been especting.

The next book came out a couple of years ago, and the title, If I'd Killed Him When I Met Him..., seemed to promise a return to the Elizabeth MacPherson of yesteryear. No such luck. Cameron was still missing, presumed dead, and Elizabeth was still in denial and despair.

In sum, the only good thing about these two books was the increased role of Elizabeth's brother Bill and his partner, lawyer and Civil War-reenactor A.P. "Don't Call Me Amy" Hill.

With The PMS Outlaws, though, McCrumb seems to be back in business. It is now two months (!) since Cameron's disappearance, and Elizabeth checks herself into a mental hospital to be treated for depression; here she finds how liberating it is to be mildly crazy. Meanwhile, her brother's partner is chasing down a pair of feminist outlaws who seduce men in bars, rob them, and leave them in humiliating circumstances as a kind of punishment. It's surprisingly funny, and much more pleasant than the past two books.

Be warned, though, that this isn't much of a mystery; it's more of a comic novel with some of the trappings of a mystery, and with a somewhat anticlimactic ending. But it was a fun ride, and I'm looking forward to the next one.

One Virgin Too Many
By Lindsey Davis

Davis just keeps getting better. In this, the latest tale of Marcus Didius Falco, Emperor Vespasian gives him (supposedly as a reward) the position of Procurator of Poultry. As such, he is responsible for the care and upkeep of the sacred geese and chickens which live on the Capitoline hill. His job soon leads him into conflict with the priest of Jupiter and yet another mystery.

The actual practice of the Roman religion is a strange thing that doesn't come into books much because it didn't come into the people's live's much--or rather, it does, but only in the sense that the Roman games were usually in honor of one holiday or another. But the average Roman citizen had little contact with the cults of the Gods as practiced by the high priests; Davis lets us in on a strange and (even by Falco's standards) archaic world.

See our Lindsey Davis page for a list of the earlier books in the series.

Last Seen in Massilia
By Steven Saylor

I couldn't read the latest Marcus Didius Falco novel without giving equal time to Saylor's Gordianus the Finder; and what I found didn't surprise me. As with Saylor's past books, Roman history is driving and contriving the plots, in defiance of common sense and to the detriment of the story; I much prefer Davis' approach, where the historical situation is the background rather than the subject matter, or George MacDonald Fraser's approach, where the plot is as contrived as all get out, mostly to comic effect. The stolid and serious approach is simply not as effective.

But be that as it may. This book brings Gordianus to Massilia (modern day Marseilles), in search of his son Meto, now a spy for Julius Caesar. Massilia is an interesting place, and the book as a whole is an interesting read--certainly, it's better than Saylor's previous book. I'll pick up the next one when it comes out.

The Possessions of a Lady
By Jonathan Gash

I read rather a lot of Gash's Lovejoy mysteries last month, when they perfectly suited my mood; I bought this one in the aftermath of that binge, and unfortunately picked it up and read it rather after my mood had changed. I had forgotten how mood-dependent enjoyment of Lovejoy is.

The average Lovejoy mystery is a lengthy, bewildering sequence of interrogations, warnings, attacks, double-crosses, betrayals, broken promises, seductions and attempted seductions, frustrated plots, with a denouement that always leaves Lovejoy one step ahead of half-a-dozen people and me scratching my head. Oh, and details about lots of kinds of odd antiques.

I found it tedious rather than entertaining; but then, I wasn't in the mood for a mental rollercoaster ride to take my mind off of how lousy I was feeling. So be warned--Lovejoy can be good fun, but he's not for everybody, or every mood.

The Eternal Champion
By Michael Moorcock

I was a big fan of Michael Moorcock when I was a teenager; the cosmic, all-encompassing nature of his "Multiverse", and the romance of his Champion Eternal, passing from existence to existence in one world after another, doomed always to fight and to never know rest, was irresistable. But I grew tired of him over time, and stopped reading him, and indeed (so far as I can tell, inspecting my bookshelves) got rid of my entire collection. So it was with some nostalgia that I picked up this present omnibus, consisting of three novels and a short story: The Eternal Champion, The Sundered Worlds (also published as The Blood-Red Game), Phoenix in Obsidian (also published as The Silver Warriors), and "To Rescue Tanelorn".

I picked it up under the misapprehension that I had never read The Sundered Worlds and To Rescue Tanelorn, and because Phoenix in Obsidian was always one of my favorites.

Alas; alas. It was an interesting walk down memory lane, but not much more than that. I fear that Moorcock's imagination outstrips his writing ability, something I didn't care so much about when I was a teenager. Phoenix in Obsidian is much the best of this set, though it's only fair to point out that the first two books are indeed Moorcock's first two books; he did improve.

There's now a whole series of Moorcock omnibus editions, comprising most of his Eternal Champion cycle: tales of Elric, Corum, and Hawkmoon, among others. When I bought this one, I had it in mind to seek out the others as well; now, I don't know. On the other hand, there certainly were some of his books that were beyond me as a teenager; perhaps they would make more sense now.

Smoke and Mirrors
By Neil Gaiman

I've written about Neil Gaiman before; he's an amazingly inventive writer, and I've very much enjoyed everything of his that I've written. This is an odd collection of short stories that remind me of nothing so much as the output of a happy Harlan Ellison, if such a thing is imaginable. I particularly enjoyed the story "Shoggoth's Old Peculiar," simply the funniest tale of the Cthulhu Mythos it's been my pleasure to encounter. (Note to Chuck: remind me to show it to you.) And, interestingly enough, there's also a tale, partially based on Gaiman's own childhood, that's an ode to Michael Moorcock's power over imaginative teenagers.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
By Robert A. Heinlein

This is simply the best of all of Heinlein's many novels. It doesn't have the notoriety of Stranger in a Strange Land, or the scope of Time Enough For Love, or the bizarre spatio-sexual contortions of his later books; instead, it's the straightforward tale of revolution on Earth's last penal colony: the Moon. It's dated in some ways--one of the main characters is a self-aware computer, and the description of computing technology owes much more to the 1950's and 1960's than it does to reality--but it doesn't really matter. This is a gem to be treasured, and I always enjoy reading it. If you've never had the pleasure, and science fiction is ever anything you enjoy, look up a copy.

Children's Books

by Will Duquette

The Reptile Room
By Lemony Snicket

I didn't think much of The Bad Beginning, the first outing in Snicket's "Series of Unfortunate Events" when I reviewed it some time ago; or rather, I liked it, but I thought it rather light-weight and not worth the ten dollars I paid for it. It was with mixed emotions, then, that I opened my birthday present from my sister (who is much addicted to kid-lit) and found the first two books in the series. On the one hand, I'd rather panned the first one; on the other, I had been slightly curious to know how it would go on if I could find out without paying ten dollars per volume.

Alas. The Reptile Room took me about an hour-and-a-half to read (and I didn't feel like I was rushing), and is even more light-weight than its predecessor. It was a mildly enjoyable ninety minutes, mind you, and I can understand why the Harry Potter crowd are falling on these with delight--but I can only hope that the prices fall or that my sister sees fit to give me the rest of them, because even with the pretty binding ten bucks is just too much.

As always, if you've read more of them and feel that The Reptile Room is a low point in an otherwise wonderful series, please let me know. I'm quite willing to be persuaded.

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