ex libris reviews
1 June 2002
Chicago started slowly, like a migraine.
Fairly often people write me to recommend some favorite author they think I might like. And sometimes it happens that I've tried that author and not liked them all that much. I'm always honest about it, not knowing what else to say, and the sad thing is they usually don't write me back, which is a shame.
Rather less often someone will write and suggest an author I've never heard of before. That's how I encountered(well, it was my sister who recommended Tey, if that counts), , and . And now I have to add to the list, thanks to a biochemist from Poland of all places. It's simply too wonderful to think that I have a reader in Poland. But anyway, you'll find more about down below. Enjoy!
Each month I'm reading and reviewing one book from O'Brian's justly acclaimed Aubrey/Maturin series. This is the fifteenth in the series; if you are new to ex libris, you may wish to jump back to the April 2001 issue.
The Truelove is a stirring tale of sea battles and Pacific islands. It's also a portrait of a young woman of unusual background: a murderess (in self-defense), a transportee to Australia, a sometime prostitute, a woman for whom sex is a physical act of no pleasure and less meaning, a woman whom very much wants to be liked. She escapes Australia on board Jack Aubrey's ship as the fiancee and then wife of one of the midshipman. Because of her strange childhood ("upbringing" isn't quite the word) and life, she has no experience with traditional family life, or with men as they appear outside the walls of the brothel, or with jealousy.
Placing such a woman in the constrained masculine world of a British man-of-war is a recipe for disaster, and it's fascinating to watch it develop--and equally fascinating to watch Jack Aubrey deal with it.
As such, this is another of O'Brian's books that I completely failed to understand on first reading; I was in it for the adventure, and the plot completely eluded me. I found it much more satisfying this time around.
Next month: The Wine-Dark Sea.
Over the last few months I've been reading and reviewing books from Dunnett's Lymond series of historical novels. This month I finished The Ringed Castle, the fifth book in the series. If you're a newcomer to ex libris, you might wish to jump back to the review of The Game of Kings in last December's issue.
In the previous book, Lymond concludes his long duel with his enemy, Jubrael Pasha. He is successful, but at great cost. The mysterious Guzel, protege of the Dame de Doubtance, mistress of Dragut Rais the sea-pirate, and one-time mistress of the Imperial Harem in Stamboul nurses him through his illness, and then takes him to Moscow, there to serve the Emperor of Russia, Ivan now called the Terrible, establishing herself as the power behind the power behind the thrown. For reasons of his own, Lymond throws himself into his work, turning away from the affairs of Western Europe France, forever as he thinks. But it is not to be; the Emperor's own business sends him to England.
Historically, this book is of interest for two reasons. The first is the story of the exploration of the Northeast Passage.
The sixteenth century was one of the great ages of exploration, and the dream of English merchants was a northern passage to the riches of Cathay--that is, an all-sea route from England to China to the north. My North American readers will remember learning in history class about the search for the Northwest Passage; it always came up in discussions of the Pacific Northwest, and I'd always assumed that the term meant "a passage around the Northwest corner of the North American continent." This, it develops, is not the case.
Before the digging of the Suez and Panama canals, there were precisely four possible all-sea routes from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. In Lymond's day two of these were known: one could go southeast from England around the Cape of Good Hope and through the Indian Ocean (the Southeast Passage), or one could go southwest around Cape Horn and so into the Pacific (the Southwest Passage). Both of these were seriously flawed from the English point of view; England is a northern country, and going so far south was a nuisance. Thus, the dream of every navigator was to find either a Northwest passage around the north side of North America, or a Northeast passage around the north side of Europe and Asia. We know now that neither of these routes is particularly practical, at least for surface shipping; in Lymond's day, they were largely unknown but held the possibility of huge profits.
In London the Muscovy company was formed to trade with Russia via its northern ports; but its real goal, and that of Diccon Chancellor, the company's master navigator, was to reach China. Chancellor's tale forms a large part of this book.
The other interesting point is the description of Imperial Russia in the days of Ivan the Terrible. Russia has always seemed paradoxical to the West, and the paradoxes go right back to its founding. Russia in Lymond's day was the sole remaining heir to the glories of Byzantium, the sole bastion of the Orthodox (as opposed to Roman) faith which never fell to the Turk, and the Emperors of Russia so saw themselves. At the same time it was a barbaric and brutal land, freshly freed from the lash of the Tartar hordes. When England was the heir to a body of common law a thousand years in the making, Russia was still in the iron grip of the most powerful. It is this juxtaposition, the relative youth of Russian civilization combined with the antiquity of Russian pretensions, that has led the Russians to both their greatest achievements and their worst crimes, to the ballets of the Bolshoi and the bullets of the Bolsheviks. It comes as no wonder, then, that one of the worst insults in Russian translates as "uncultured".
Next month: Checkmate.
This book is an encyclopedia of the non-fictional persons, places, and quotations found in Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond and Niccolo series. I was mostly interested in the people and places, rather than the quotations, and found the material to be a little thin in that regard, especially with respect to the Lymond series.
In addition, it sticks strictly to the historical detail; it doesn't discuss the fictional elements of the books at all, or the all-important interface between fiction and reality. That means that while it's not a bad starting point for learning about the world Lymond lived in, it doesn't help clear up any of the more obscure plot points and mysteries.
I really can't fault the book for being what it is, rather than what I wanted; but what I really want is something that I could read when I was finished with the Lymond series that would explain to me all of the subtleties of plot and motivation I missed while I was reading it.
I should add, this book covers only the first half (the only part then written) of the Niccolo series; there's a second volume that covers the remainder, and also goes into more detail about some of the material in the first book. I've not looked at it in detail yet.
Necklace and Calabash
The Willow Pattern
The Monkey and the Tiger
These are the last four of van Gulik's tales of the Chinese Sherlock Holmes, Judge Dee; they are just as good as their predecessors. See the previous month's issues for reviews of the earlier books.
Some years ago, I devoured an old book of my Dad's, entitled The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, a quirky, witty, knowledgeable survey of world history. What impressed me most is that the humor depended on knowledge of history, rather than ignorance; the latter is much easier to find these days. So when I found another of Cuppy's books on the shelf at our local store, I snatched it.
How to Attract the Wombat is a serious of short, humorous, tongue-in-cheek descriptions of various odd and wonderful animals, ranging from the Wombat of the title to the various kinds of Anteater. It's undeniably funny, but, alas, not in the same class as Cuppy's other book. I'd save your pennies for something more sure-fire.
I had to read this in high school, and I confess I never saw what the fuss was all about. But my tastes have broadened and deepened since then, and I decided to give it another try. In so doing, I came to two startling conclusions:
First, as unlikely as it seems to me, a guy who nearly compulsively finishes any book he starts, I must never have finished it when I read it in high school. There are several scenes toward the beginning that I remember with, if not crystal clarity, at least through a glass darkly; but the last half of the book was completely new to me. And yet not to have finished a book assigned for school would have been entirely out of character. Perhaps I got sick or something.
Second, (warning, I'm about to reveal myself as a Philistine here) I still don't see what all the shouting is about. I'll grant you, Gatsby's story is about the nightmare aspect of the American Dream: Ugly Duckling grows rich and powerful, only to find out that he's still just an Ugly Duck. And the prose is quite good. But the story is full of unpleasant people I wouldn't want to have living next door, let alone in my living room; why would I want them in my head?
I dunno. Maybe appreciating a tale of disillusionment requires a strong streak of disillusionment of one's own.
Now this one was a stinker. I bought it on the strength of the silly title and the cover blurb, in hopes of finding a light, witty mystery of the sort so well done by Charlotte MacLeod, Sharyn McCrumb, and Elizabeth Peters. Instead I got a book that's so flawed I almost didn't bother finishing it.
The book, one of a long-running series, takes place in a Bed&Breakfast in a city that, while unnamed, has got to be Seattle. It tries very hard to be funny, but fails on a number of counts. To wit:
Deb English discovered P.D. James last month, and told me I really needed to go out and read some of her books. Now, I'd read some in the past, but I couldn't remember why I'd stopped after the first couple-three. So I went out and bought the latest one, which coincidentally Deb reviewed last month. So you get extra for your money: back to back reviews of the same book by two different reviewers.
I'll begin by saying that I liked Death in Holy Orders. The writing is excellent, and the characters are remarkably well drawn. The only thing that niggled at me was the character of Father John, a priest who was at one point sent to prison for sexual mistreatment of a boy under his care. It's not clear that the mistreatment amounted to anything much, compared with what we've all been seeing in the papers recently; there were witness at his trial who claimed he'd done much worse, but there's also the suggestion that they were lying. But the thing that niggled was that throughout the book Father John is presented as a man more sinned against than sinning; nowhere was the pain and anguish of his victims referred to. He's supposed to be an object of pity, and I'm afraid I didn't feel all that much.
But that, given that Father John was a fictional rather than actual sex-offender, is a minor point. The major point is that reading it reminded me of why I hadn't read more of her work.
James' detective, Adam Dalgleish, is a quiet, wistful, rather melancholy man. And he casts a wistful, rather melancholy air across the whole book. There are bright spots, here and there, but there's little humor, and little joy.
I mean, yes, a murder mystery is a murder mystery, people are dying like flies, but nevertheless I like to feel happy and entertained when I finish a mystery, not sad and wistful. This is why I stopped reading's Kate Martinelli mysteries, and stopped reading altogether--they left me feeling not just sad and wistful, but (especially in George's case) bleak and despairing. This is not my goal when I pick up a book.
In its defense, I will say that the present book has a fairly upbeat ending, and indeed I liked it better than anything else I've read by James. But it's upbeat precisely because Dalgleish is choosing to step out of a rut of extremely long standing, a fact that has put the kibosh on any desire I might have to go back and find the earlier books.
The next Adam Dalgleish book, now--now that I might be interested in.
Many thanks to my correspondent in Poland for recommending Peter Lovesey.
This is the first book in Lovesey's "Peter Diamond" series. It's extremely well written; in fact, I've never read a mystery quite like it. It's about an English detective superintendant named Peter Diamond who lives in Bath, England. He's a remarkable character; he's an ex-rugby player gone-to-fat, he's brusque, confrontational, and usually impolitic; he's a traditional detective, and highly suspicious of all of the new technology, especially computers, being brought into police work. He's very good at eliciting confessions, so much so that in one case he's under suspicion of having intimidated a suspect into a false confession. So happens, intimidation isn't his method; but given his personality and usual manner, folks have a hard time believing that.
So Diamond has two problems: dealing with the suspicion and caution of his superiors, who have sent him a new partner to keep tabs on him, and with the mysterious corpse found floating in a nearby lake.
I really liked this book. It was gripping, witty, and less formulaic than most mysteries I've read; in particular, the characters were fully three-dimensional. The rivalry between Diamond and his underlings, and in particular between him and his partner John Wigfull, was particularly a joy; it was both realistic and funny, and much more than just surface banter.
This is another Peter Diamond mystery, written about 8 years after The Last Detective. It has a different tone; we have here an older, more mellow Peter Diamond, a Peter Diamond who has grown capable of a certain subtlety and restraint. It's also less strikingly original, but that's to be expected of the nth book in a series. Part of what made The Last Detective so much fun was the knowledge that absolutely anything could happen. Once the sleuth has settled into a series, the choices are somewhat more limited.
Nevertheless, it's still extremely good. And it includes one delicious joke at the reader's expense, that I cannot possibly describe without spoiling it. Suffice it to say that Lovesey has a wicked sense of humor, and he knows when to shut up.
It's interesting to compare Lovesey with. Both authors are outstanding at their craft...but Lovesey has none of that wistful melancholy that puts me off.
It takes a lot of work to do anything fresh and new in the area of fantasy fiction, but Neil Gaiman is generally capable of it, even when, as now, he's recycling the ideas of others. In fact, there's very little in this book that's new. But the way Gaiman does it makes it all worthwhile.
The premise is simple. As men and women came to the New World from the old, they brought their gods and goddesses with them. And those same gods and goddesses are still around, trying to make a living in a world that mostly disbelieves in them. Meanwhile, the modern world has raised up its own idols, who are competing for attention with the old. A battle's coming, and it's not clear who will win.
If the genre of urban fantasy has any appeal for you, you've probably already read this book, and any review of mine is superfluous. If you like fantasy and haven't tried urban fantasy, or haven't tried Gaiman, you should give this a try. It's worth it, despite some truly gruesome imagery here and there.
Charles Tyng was a Boston sea captain of the early 19th century. He first went to sea as a ship's boy in 1815, at the close of the War of 1812; he rose to be a captain and the owner of ships in his own right. This is his memoir of his first twenty or so years at sea, and it's a doozy, all told very matter-of-factly when he was an old man. He talks about his troubles as a ship's boy, persecuted severely by the first mate, his eventual mastery of his trade, his many close brushes with death, and with mutiny, and all the minutiae of the merchant sea-captain's life.
Something that had escaped me before was that each voyage was a separate commercial endeavour, and usually entailed new mates, a new crew, and possible a new captain. On Tyng's first voyage he goes to Canton in China as a ship's boy. On his second and third visits to Canton, he's the only person on board the ship who has been there before. The previous captains had retired with their profits.
The second thing that struck was the extreme danger of life at sea. Merchant ships had much smaller crews than men-of-war, with the result that the men had to take more risks, and many of them died. The book is full of references to shipmates of Tyng's who went one voyage with him, and then died on their next voyage.
This book isn't for everyone. I liked it for two reasons: firstly as a history buff, because it fills in many empty spots in an era I've read much about, and secondly as an aspiring author, because it is simply full of the sort of wonderful details that you won't find in your typical history book. And on top of that, for what it is it's surprisingly well-written.
School for Murder
The same reader who recommended I tryalso recommended . I finally managed to track down some of his books at a used bookstore, and I picked out these two more or less at random.
The bad news is, he's not, which is to say I don't feel motivated to compulsively read all the rest of his books over the next couple of months. Lovesey really is excellent.
The good news is, Barnard is pretty darn good in his own right. He doesn't reach as high in these books as Lovesey does, but I don't think he's trying to either. Corpse in a Gilded Cage and School for Murder are quirky little mysteries, designed purely for entertainment--something to pass a pleasant summer afternoon with. And for that purpose, they're both spot on.
Corpse in a Gilded Cage concerns a working-class Cockney family whose patriarch inherits the title and estate of the Earls of Ellesmere, much to the dismay of the old Earl's man of business. And it's easy to understand that dismay. The Earl's older son is a petty-crook, just finishing a three-year prison term; his daughter-in-law is brassy, bold, and out for number one in the sleaziest possible way; his younger son stars in porn films (and brings his co-stars home with him); his daughter and her husband are a pair of prissy, greedy weasels. And the Earl and his wife are all for selling the old family estate and its stately home, Chetton Hall and all of its many treasures, lock, stock, and barrel, and move back to their little home. The various family members don't necessarily like this plan, and whoops! The Earl turns up dead the next morning.
The book started in a promising way, and just when it looked like it was becomming tedious and dreary it took an abrupt left turn and turned into something quite different than I expected. Good stuff.
School for Murder takes place in a small school in an mid-sized English town. The school system in England is completely strange to me; suffice it to say that the Burleigh School is a private school of more than usual mediocrity, blessed with a headmaster of more than usual incompetence, and a head boy of more than usual charm and malice in more or less equal portions.
Unusually, both of these are standalone novels; Barnard may have a series going, but if so neither of these belong to it.
I'll be keeping an eye out for more.
by Deb English
This book was read in fits and starts betweenmysteries until the story finally took over and I couldn't put it down. The powers that be at the publishing house labeled it a historical novel and while a series of shadowy historical events are the basis for the outline of the plot, the further into the novel the more uncomfortable I grew with that label. wrote "historical novels"; this has more qualities of South American genre of magical realism than history.
The story is of Gudrid, an Icelandic woman who in her old age has made a pilgrimage to Rome. A young educated monk originally from Iceland is asked to transcribe her story by a Cardinal as a politcal gesture in the move to make Rome the center of Christianity. The timeframe for the telling is 1051 AD, though the events actually take place much earlier. The monk translates Gudrid's story into Latin and adds the politically correct spin to it for his superiors but keeps the original hidden until, finally, he too is an old man and living again in Iceland, away from the turmoil of Rome. The book is the original tale, not the translation.
After being fostered by a pagan woman, Gudrid marries Eric the Red's second son, only to lose him to plague a year or two later. As a member of Eric's household, she is able to marry a wealthy trader from Norway and with him and other seaman, goes on a voyage to find and establish trading posts in a land that Leif Ericson has discovered across the water. They spend a year in Vinland, as they call the new land, culling lumber from the forests for wood starved Iceland. The story of how she got there and what happened is the tale she tells the monk in Rome.
The story of Gudrid is a story about edges and how they blur. Christianity and paganism as institutions operate side by side within the community. Land and sea blur on beaches so wide and shallow that ships beach 500 yards from shore. Life and death blur when the ghosts of the dead are not released from thier ties to life. Light and darkness join in the northern twilight of winter with no real days. Even gender roles blur when Gudrid funds the trip to Vinland with her property from her first marriage. She sails to the edge of the world as she knows it and lives to come back and tell the tale. It wasn't until I was nearly done that I realized the action took place close to the milennium, another form of edge. And the land they find has forests so dense they cannot penetrate beyond the scrub marshes on the edge between the forest and the sea. Even the actual telling of the tale and the writing of it down by the monk is another edge that has to be crossed.
Devices and Desires
After last month's brush with, I went back to the used bookstore and got these three titles by her. I am always amazed when I read authors I have avoided and discover they are, well, wonderful. Why did I not read these before? My personal theory is that what you bring to a book is almost as important as the writing itself in determining whether you enjoy or understand it, or not. When I was hunting for more James to read, I decided not to go in published order. Hopefully, each book can be enjoyed for itself and not dependant upon knowledge gleaned from the history built up in previous books.
Unnatural Causes was the first of the three I read. Dalgleish has gone to Suffolk to visit his aunt. He is hoping for a quiet, peaceful holiday away from London, birdwatching with his aunt. His relationship with Deborah is at a pivot point where it must either go forward to marriage or whither away and that, too, is what he is trying to decide away from his normal routine. Unfortunately, a murder mystery writer from within his aunt's small community of neighbors is murdered and Dalgleish's fame as an investigator draws him, unwillingly, away from his holiday and into solving the mystery.
Devices and Desires was the next on the pile after Unnatural Causes. Dalglieish is in Norfolk to close up his aunt's estate after her death. She had moved from Suffolk a few years back and bought an old windmill and its properties on the coast quite close to a controverial atomic nuclear power plant. Dalgleish goes to Norfolk amidst the furor caused by a serial killer stalking young women near power plant and is again drawn, against his wishes, by his reputation into the investigation.
Original Sin was the third book of this sitting's reading. This one is very different in setting and plot. An old and well-thought-of publishing house in London has its premises in a pseudo-Venetian mansion on the Thames. The ruthless and much disliked managing director of the firm is found murdered in the house with a stuffed snake in his mouth. Dalgleish and his investigation team are called in to look into the suspects and the motives that may have precipitated the crime.
Two things stood out after reading more. One was the complex, tight plots she creates. She creates small, weblike communites of people intertwined with relationships and histories and feelings and puts Dalgleish in the middle of them with a puzzle to solve. Dalgleish is the outsider who is able to stand back and see the whole community and why something like a murder happened. James gives the reader clues along the way but also leaves the story to progress and develop as Dalgleish as observer learns more about what is hidden beneath the surface.
The second thing that I kept noticing over and over in each book was the delightful level of detail she includes. The picture drawn of Dalgleish's aunt in Unnatural Causes is perfectly spare and crisp and tight. She even includes a brief picture of her knitting a sock "Continental Style" in the upright manner her German governess taught her. The description of places like the publishing house in Original Sin or the widowed father's front door in Devices and Desires are spot on with just enough description to make it real. James is not above poking gentle fun at her trade and creates a club in London called the Cadaver Club for all those interested in murder. Membership is restricted to men because women shouldn't be thinking of things so gruesome. And, murder mystery novels are relegated to the bottom shelf in the library. I really enjoyed that.
I plan on reading morethis summer. I have a few of her books on the shelf in the "to be read" pile. I don't plan on reading them in a rush of discovery, however. Her books are meant to be read slowly and completely and enjoyed.
I have been part of a book group for about 6 years now. We are a small group of 5 or 6 core members with others who come and go as schedules permit and we meet monthly at the local bookstore in the small town I live near. We have kept the structure of the group loose deliberately with virtually no rules except that we alternate fiction and non-fiction monthly and use a consensus model in deciding what book to read. Lately, I have thought about not attending anymore, what with the kid's activities and my own other interests barging in on my "free" time. But, I've always kept getting the book and going to the meetings, more out of loyalty than interest. The interests of the group do not always coincide with my own and lately I have to force myself to read the chosen book. This month we chose Paul Nagel's biography of John Quincy Adams published by Harvard University Press. Although it was not my choice, I have to admit I enjoyed reading it.
John Quincy Adams was the son of John and Abigail Adams. During his life he was Minister to Belgium, the Netherlands, and Russia, was Secretary of State and then President of the United States and served as a U.S. Senator in Congress. He taught at Harvard, wrote published works of poetry, fathered three children who lived past infancy and served on the defense of the Armistad case. Two brothers and two sons died of alcoholism. He suffered all his life from chronic depression with periods so low he couldn't function. He also was a lifelong diarist whose nearly daily writings in his diary allows biographers a view into his activities and interior world with amazing detail.
Because of my own near complete ignorance of this particular period of American history, I kept wishing Nagel would include just a little more background information as a setting for JQA's diary. He stays pretty close to the interior events in Adams life but doesn't provide enough context to set them in. He also paints Abigail Adams as a domineering woman who badgers and controls her son into exile in Europe just to escape her manipulations. John Adams comes off as a hen pecked husband. John Quincy Adams is a cranky, self absorbed, almost buffoonish man who passes his neuroses created by his mother on to his own children in an attempt to make them live up to his impossible standards. All of that may have kernals of truth but Nagel doesn't provide enough substantiation from outside John Quincy Adams' to convice me that the picture of the man is complete.
With all that said, I liked John Quincy Adams. I have always encountered him as John Adams' son and had never read anything about him as his own person. It was interesting instead to see him in context with Andrew Jackson or trying and failing to pore over his father's papers and write his biography. Unfortunately, he was not given a pivotal moment in history to live in as were the generation before with the Revolution the generation following him with the Civil War. I think his potential for greatness went unused and unappreciated. I would love to fast forward him into the current Congress and hear his blusterings repeated on the nightly news. It would be so refreshing.
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