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ex libris reviews

1 December 2002

Monsieur, I like men of your stamp, and I foresee that if we don't kill each other, I will have much pleasure in your conversation.
Athos, Comte de la Fere


In This Issue:
Ex Libris Lives!

Thanksgiving is just past; Christmas is just ahead. May you all have a happy and peaceful holiday season, and may God bless you and your families!

Last month I raised the possibility of replacing ex libris reviews wholly with our weblog, A View from the Foothills, and asked for your inputs. I got one (1) e-mail in response to that, a (mildly) impassioned plea to spare ex libris. Clearly, my reader has spoken! So ex libris is safe for the time being.

In other news, Craig Clarke returns this month, and a new reviewer, Neil Madden, makes his debut with a review of Iain M. Banks' new novel.

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

By Brian Jacques

If you've got kids of the right age, you've probably heard of Redwall; not only is it a popular and still growing series, but the first book was made into a PBS TV show. That's where David first encountered it, and he was too excited for words to find out that we actually had a copy of the book for me to read to him. It took us the tail end of September, all of October, and the first few days in November, but by golly we did it.

A quick plot summary: the peaceful mice of Redwall Abbey are known all over the countryside for their willingness to help others. But an evil rat, Cluny the Scourge, is coming with his horde; he wants to take Redwall Abbey for his castle. The Abbey was founded in part by the great warrior mouse Martin, who defended it and then pledged himself to peace. Now a young mouse, Matthias, must find Martin's armor and sword, and take up arms to defend Redwall as Martin did. So it's about knights and armor and derring do and battles and brave scouting missions; it's a coming of age story, naturally; and since it's written for kids there's lots of good stuff about the importance of forgiveness and turning enemies into friends. Martin succeeds, of course, and a great celebration is enjoyed by all.

I find I need to approach this review from two points of view, David's, and my own.

David loved it. He was thrilled. I couldn't possibly have had a better audience. If Redwall the novel has any faults, David was immune to them.

Now, my point of view. I bought our copy of Redwall some years ago; I often like kid-lit if it's done well. I liked it, with caveats, but didn't feel at all motivated to by any of the other books in the series.

Nothing about this reading changed my mind. The writing isn't great. The prose frequently edges into the purple; a good editing could make it a much cleaner, crisper read. The plot is rather contrived. The quest for Martin's sword involves hints which require Martin to have been seriously prophetic, for which no decent explanation is given.

The laws of physics get stretched in a cartoon-like way far more often than I like. And no, I'm not being overly critical here. It's one thing if the laws of physics are stretched by magic--that's part of the story. So are talking mice who live in an abbey. But in this case, they are simply stretched to make the story work properly.

I can almost hear the author saying, "Yeah, that's implausible, but the kids won't care."

And he's probably right a lot of the time. But I think that books for younger readers must play fair and follow the rules. The author is free to set the rules; and one of the rules for Redwall is that it's a world more or less like our own. The rules of physics apply. To break them just to make the story come out is an insult to the readers and an unwarrantable liberty on the author's part--the more so as (given its vocabulary) Redwall is clearly aimed at the teen market. These kids are smart enough to notice these things.

It doesn't really read-aloud well, either (most flaws are at their most visible when read aloud), and it doesn't break up into nice chunks for for bedtime reading. You finish a chapter with Matthias in a serious cliffhanger, and it doesn't get resolved until a full chapter later, for example. Plus, the chapter lengths vary widely. I can't really criticize these last two points so much, though, as it just reflects that Redwall is really a book for much older kids.

Now, there's a lot to like here as well. The plot is fine, and the storytelling was adequate. I wasn't writhing in bored horror as I read the tale to Dave. Jacques clearly accomplished what he set out to do. But I really wish the writing was better and the solutions a little less strained.

I believe this was Jacques' first book; it may be that his writing improves in the subsequent volumes. I have every reason to expect that I'll find out...but it's with a sigh of relief that I remember that we'll be starting Prince Caspian tomorrow night.

The Hundred Days
By Patrick O'Brian

Being at home sick for a day, I put the Burton bio aside for awhile and picked up this, the penultimate volume in O'Brian's long, long saga. I've gotten the impression from little things I've seen here and there that many fans don't think much of it; and to be fair it never really seems to catch fire. Plus, O'Brian did some really obnoxious things. The book begins with a passing mention of the death of Stephen's wife Diana; and toward the end another of my favorite continuing characters is killed with hardly any notice taken--and to no literary end that I can see.

Apart from that it's a pleasant enough book; lots of nautical to-ing and fro-ing about the Mediterranean Sea and a few nice sea battles, with the escaped Bonaparte floating about Europe and a complicated Islamic plot to help him back into power. Of course, by the time Aubrey succeeds in forestalling said plot Wellington has succeeded in defeating Bonaparte at Waterloo, rendering the whole thing rather moot.

I have some suspicions on where O'Brian might have been going. I say "might have been", because I haven't yet read the final book, Blue at the Mizzen, and because he had just begun writing a subsequent book when he died. But in the previous book, The Yellow Admiral, Stephen meets a lovely woman, a naturalist in her own right, and the wife of the governor of Sierra Leone. Though she doesn't appear in this book she's mentioned a number of times; and it's rather pointedly mentioned that (1) the governor has just died, and (2) the marriage was not as happy as it appeared to be, and in fact was never consummated. It begins to look as though O'Brian was getting Diana out of the way, so as to interest Stephen in somebody new.

So I'm quite curious to see what happens in Blue at the Mizzen, a book about which I've heard none of the unpleasant little whispers. But that's a tale for next month.

Prince Caspian
By C.S. Lewis

Just the other night, David and I finished reading Prince Caspian together. It was lovely: Lewis' prose is a joy to read aloud, just flowing off of my tongue effortlessly. For comparison, after even a couple of pages of Redwall I was tired and ready to stop. Part of the difference is that Redwall is written in a cinematic style; it's as though a camera is following the characters around. Lewis, on the other hand, is an old-fashioned story-teller. Where it's appropriate to be terse and just tell us something, he does so without dramatizing it. But that's not the whole difference; Lois McMaster Bujold writes in a cinematic style, and her prose is also lovely to read aloud. I dunno.

I'd never read Prince Caspian aloud before, or so slowly (one chapter a night), and so I'd never really noticed what an odd book it is. It's supposedly about Prince Caspian's efforts to regain his throne from his usurping Uncle Miraz with the aid of "Old Narnia" (the Talking Beasts, dwarves, woodnymphs, and of course Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy). And yet the central conflict in the book has nothing to do with Caspian at all. Morally speaking, the book is about Lucy and her willingness to follow Aslan's guidance even if it means angering her siblings, or even leaving them behind. Lewis devotes the better part of three chapters to it, in what is (after all) a very short book. And upon reflection, it becomes clear that Caspian's victory and the salvation of Narnia are both rooted in Lucy's courage in following Aslan in the face of stern opposition. Interesting.

Orphans of the Sky
By Robert A. Heinlein

Probably every long-time science fiction fan has read Heinlein's short story "Universe"; as the first story to describe the now familiar "generation ship" concept for planting space colonies, it's been widely anthologized. What I'd never realized is that Heinlein wrote a sequel to it called "Common Sense". Orphans of the Sky is simply the pair of tales back to back.

The gimmick is simple. Earth launches a colony ship; it's supposed to get to Proxima Centauri a couple of generations later. But there's a mutiny shortly after launch, and in the ensuing fracas most of the officers are killed. The remaining loyal crew drive off the "muties", but in the meantime the ship's main drive has been turned off, and the ship drifts quietly through space....for hundreds of years.

And then our story begins. The descendants of the mutineers, now "muties" in truth, occupy the center of the ship and the areas of low gravity, including the main control room; the descendants of the loyal crew live in the high-gravity areas in a theocratic society based on what little they can understand of the remaining science texts.

"Universe" has a warm place in my heart; it was truly a great story when it was written. But the ideas in it have become commonplace, and the writing isn't stellar. I'd recommend this book for the Heinlein completist only.

The Three Musketeers
By Alexandre Dumas

It's funny, but every time I read this (and I've read it three or four times previously) it makes more sense and is more fun.

When I read this the first time (I was in junior high school, I think) it didn't make much sense to me. I got it at the local library, and I think I must have gotten a badly translated or bowdlerized edition because I remember some details from it that simply aren't there in the unabridged translation I have now. (Of course, I could be dreaming.)

When I read it the second time it made more sense; but there were some long digressions, as it seemed to me, that I just didn't understand the need for. And I remember it as being a bit of a slog between the good bits, but I didn't have that problem this time. Instead it just flowed from beginning to end in the most lovely way.

Anyway, if you've never read The Three Musketeers, and you think you know the story, you probably don't. It's a good one, and Dumas (and his collaborators) write with romance, flair, and great good humor.

March to the Sea
By David Weber and John Ringo

Some time back I favorably reviewed March Upcountry, the tale of a spoiled young prince who ends up stranded on a nasty planet with nothing but his personal guard (a company of marines) and a handful of other retainers. It's military science fiction, but it's also a tale of growth, as Prince Roger MacClintock, detested by his guards, matures into a capable leader the marines will follow anywhere.

March Upcountry gets Roger and his marines about a third of the way to his destination, the planet's only starport, which is currently in enemy hands. This book takes up immediately afterward, and suffers all of the problems the middle book in a trilogy usually has. There's only limited character development; Roger did most of his growing up in the first book. There's no real resolution; we get farther along the path home, but that's it. What there is is military detail aplenty, and it's very good if that's what you like, but I'd been hoping for a bit more.

Nevertheless, I'm quite looking forward to the third and final volume, March to the Stars; I really want to see what happens when Roger gets home.

Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

The Bohemian Murders
By Dianne Day

I realized after about 2 paragraphs that this book is part of a series that needs to be read in order. It takes place in Carmel, California in 1907. Fremont Jones, the heroine, has moved to Carmel after the San Francisco earthquake to take a temporary job of lighthouse keeper. On watch one day she spots a dead woman floating in the sea, unknown by anyone around and unclaimed by family.

Fremont Jones reminded me a little of Amelia Peabody or Mary Russell. She is the "independent woman heroine," refusing to give into accepted norms for women's behavior and lifestyle for the period. If you accept the conceit and ignore the unlikelihood of such a heroine, the novel works fairly well. This book didn't have the slapstick humor of Peters mysteries but I enjoyed it nevertheless. She includes a love interest named Michael who is some sort of spy--I think that came out in previous novels. My only gripe with the book is that for all the detecting going on, Fremont doesn't really figure out much of anything. And I wish I knew more about Michael and what he is doing sneaking around in the background of the plot. I have to read the earlier books in the series.

By Peter Lovesey

This book explores the locked room mystery plot. A murder victim is found in a room locked from the inside with no discernible way that the murderer could have gotten in or out. But Lovesey is not only writing a book with the plot. The opening chapter of this book reads like a Who's Who in crime fiction. A young woman joins a meeting of Bloodhounds, a bookclub dedicated to crime fiction that meets weekly in the crypt of the Abbey. Her fellow club members are all eccentric, opinionated critics with their own favorite authors in the genre, which they discuss in painful detail.. When someone sends a riddle to the local radio station predicting a crime, the group decides to work solve the mystery, thankfully.

Lovesey is writing his normal humorous murder mystery with all the twists and dodges that he has put in the other books of the series. Peter Diamond is his normal grumpy self. The end is unpredictable at the beginning unless you are paying very, very close attention. However, it's not the best in the series. I found it a bit repetitive, though still totally enjoyable.

Diamond Dust
By Peter Lovesey

I am not going to say much about the plot of this book. First, it's still in hardback and unless you want to spring for the $23 it's priced at, any plot description is going to be a spoiler.

Second, and this is the main reason, I have my knickers in a knot about what Lovesey did in this book. I will say it is the end of the Peter Diamond series. And if it is funny in any way, I totally missed the humor. You kind of grow to expect certain things from a series and when the author throws the right hook he did in this one, it's a little disconcerting. Don't get me wrong. The writing is great. The murder investigation is interesting and has some twists you can't see ahead of time. I am just a little ticked at Lovesey for doing what he did to Peter Diamond. I kept waiting for it to be an elaborate charade similar to what he has done in previous novels. It isn't. Rats.

The Burglar in the Closet
The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian
By Lawrence Block

When I was a kid I worried that someday, in the distant future, I would run out of good books to read. Seriously. Thinking back, that probably speaks more to my innocence and ignorance than to my taste in books at the time. But I did and now, many, many, MANY moons later, I have yet to hit that tragic moment. And I highly doubt that I will. This has little to do with Lawrence Block's books except that they are a new discovery for me and whenever I find a new author to read I experience a slight feeling of relief. I haven't run out yet.

Anyway, these were my first two Bernie Rhodenbarr mysteries and already I have figured out Block writes with a formula. Bernie breaks into someone's house after some sort of treasure, something goes wrong, like a murder, and he has to solve the crime himself or get the rap pinned on him. A formula book is comforting. You can sit back and watch how the writer varies it without horrid little surprises coming your way. And Block is funny, an added bonus. The Mondrian book was a little more developed than the Closet book. Block had developed additional characters and expanded Bernie's social life a bit. He has found his sidekick in Carolyn, the lesbian owner of a dog washing business. And he has developed Ray Kirschmann, the cop on the take who somehow always ends up helping Bernie out of the mess he finds himself in.

These are good books. Not great literature and not really even classics in the mystery genre. Just plain good reads. And there are lots of them so I don't have to worry about running out of good books for awhile. Phew.

Tanner On Ice
By Lawrence Block

This is a reprise of a character Block created in the 60's, fast forwarded into the late 90's. I haven't read the rest of the series with Evan Tanner so perhaps my critique is not valid but I found this whole book just plain cheesy.

Ok, so maybe that is a little harsh. Evan Tanner is brought back to life after a Swedish Nationalist splinter group puts him into a cryonic coma because they want him out of the way and yet, being highly evolved humans, don’t want to kill him. Yeah, right. After springing from his hospital bed with no side effects except a tendency to be chilly, he goes back to his old apartment, which is still there after 25 years, and finds his name on the doorbell. And the child he had taken in has grown up into a breathtakingly gorgeous woman who home schooled herself without anyone noticing and kept his apartment for him. Yeah, right. Then we get to watch as Tanner "catches" up on the happenings of the last 25 years via Internet which only takes 6 months because he doesn’t have to sleep. His sleep center has been destroyed by shrapnel in the Korean war. Yeah, right. So somehow, he finds himself going to Burma on some lame scheme for some guy he worked for all those years ago. Now th e book turns from sci fi to thriller and we get to watch Tanner walk thru Burma with this bombshell chick he picked up, both of them posing as Buddhist monks and no one stops them. James Bond, eat your heart out.

The whole book is cheesy, lame and just plain silly in parts. I finished it, though, which says something.

Witches Abroad
By Terry Pratchett

Today I spent most of the day at home with a sick kid. She called me shortly after I got to work and way before I had consumed enough coffee to face the spreadsheets I had planned on tackling this morning. Anyway, when I got her home, medicated with Tylenol and tucked in, the couch called me. Loudly. But, of course, any really fine nap is preceded by a short read in a good book so I picked up my son's copy of "Witches Abroad" and started in. And two hours later I finished it. So much for napping.

This is another Pratchett book about Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick. After Desiderata, the good fairy godmother, placidly dies leaving her magic wand to Magrat, they must travel to the city of Genua to prevent the marriage of the girl to the handsome prince. Along the way they take the magic out of just about every fairy tale told to children. It reminded me of the spot on the Rocky and Bullwinkle show called "Fractured Fairy Tales" that I loved as a child. And Pratchett has this way of writing that includes little comments that are hysterically funny. There's one about panty girdles that I had to put the book down til my eyes quit tearing up from laughing so hard. His nod to Tolkein is a hoot, too.

As always with Pratchett books, buy them, read them, enjoy!

Lords and Ladies
By Terry Pratchett

The witches have returned from their trip to Genua and are settling back into their lives in Lancre. Magrat Garlick is going to marry King Verence who used to be a Fool and is now the King. And crop circles keep turning up all over the place. Plus there is a new contingent of young girls dressed in black who want to be witches to plague Granny Weatherwax. She has her hands full since the crop circles are a sign that the Lords and Ladies, euphemism for Elves, are trying to come back.

This one wasn’t as good as the previous witch books by Pratchett. There are some funny bits, like Magrat wandering around the castle bored out of her mind. And there is the long ago story of Mistrum Ridcully and Granny Weatherwax. And the Librarian has a humorous part to play. But Pratchett wasn’t at his best, which means the book is still wonderful, just not so funny you have to stop reading to let the tears clear from your eyes. Anything with Granny Weatherwax is worth the time.

Buy it, read it, enjoy!

Jane Eyre
By Charlotte Bronte

It must have been in grade school that I first read Jane Eyre. I suspect my older sister had a copy and I snitched it. I have read it since, most likely in high school, and then pretty much ignored it as a nice little romance. Been there, done that. At the local Large Chain Bookstore, I saw it on display with a bunch of other "classics" and I bought it, I am ashamed to admit but it's totally true, for the picture on the cover. The Oxford Classics edition has the most interesting painting of a young woman knitting with absurdly long needles and a cunning little yarn basket hooked to her wrist. The needles must be at least a yard long and she is working on a huge ribbed afghan with stripes in teal and white. Saw the picture, had to have it.

I finally got around to rereading it last weekend. Why I dismissed this book as a romance is beyond me because it is disturbingly weird. The basic story is that Jane is an orphan taken in by her aunt by marriage, treated badly, sent to a horrible charity school where she manages to learn all sorts of accomplishments and then ends up as governess for a child whose guardian is enigmatic to say the least and living in a seemingly haunted house. Not to mention she has all these depressive thought patterns that could seriously warrant therapy. That's the first half of the book. She ends up falling in love with her employer but finds out at the altar, no less, that he has a lunatic for a wife and he was just about to disgrace her with bigamy. She leaves in the middle of the night, spends some time starving on the road and is taken in by a pastor and his sisters. The pastor sets up a girl's school for the local peasants for her to teach in and then thru coincidence they find out that they are cousins of some sort. He is going to India as a missionary and even though he doesn’t love her he wants to marry her because she will be a good wife to a missionary. She refuses and then hears her name called to her on a dark and gloomy night on the wind by her former employer. She goes back to see him and finds that his wife has set the house on fire and he has been blinded and maimed in the fire. She marries him and they live happily ever after.

Not only does Jane have really bad luck with the guys in her life, she inhabits a world with of haunted houses and voices calling her in the night. I used to think Emily Bronte was the sister whose work showed some scary psychological disconnects with reality but after reading this one, I think it must have been in the family. If they made a movie plotted from the book instead of the normal Hollywood sunny, sanitized version, it would seem more like a Stephen King movie than anything else. What a weird book!

Craig's Recent Reading

by Craig Clarke

Burglars Can't Be Choosers
By Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block is in my top five of favorite authors. His books always manage to make my brain feel as if it has just had a cup of hot cocoa, his Burglar series especially so. The books about Bernie Rhodenbarr are derivative and often stilted, but Block makes the character so appealing, I can't help but like them.

Burglars Can't Be Choosers is the first in the series. I seem to have started with #4 or 5 and gone from there. This is the first early one I have read. Bernie has not yet bought his bookstore, has not yet met his Lesbian pet-groomer friend. And has not yet begun gathering all the suspects around for the solution, Agatha Christie style.

So this one isn't as interesting--there's not as much going on. Bernie spends most of the novel in an apartment--one that's not his own, of course--thinking to himself. Sure he meets a girl, and sure he has a murder to solve, but the whole experience is just not as good as the ones that follow. But, even with that said, I was never bored with the book, Block just hadn't hit his stride with this series yet.

Truer than True Romance
By Jeanne Martinet

This is perfect execution of a hilarious idea. Martinet has taken the "True Love" comics of the 1940's-1970's, left the art alone, and rewritten the dialogue. The best venture into surreal territory; such as the postal-love story that is turned into a tale about a town where everyone is stupid ("Too Dumb for Love!"), and a lost-love tale turns into a woman obsessing about a bad haircut ("I Hate My Hair!")

But the details really make it. Like when a woman comes upon a rotary phone and doesn't know how to work it ("Where are the buttons?"), and at a picnic our heroine expounds on her hot dog making skills ("They're homemade. I stuffed the casings by hand.")

The Case of Lucy Bending
By Lawrence Sanders

Lawrence Sanders has always been a controversial author, and with The Case of Lucy Bending he continues that streak. The title concerns a psychiatrist's pursuit of the reasons why 8-year-old Lucy likes to "tickle" grown men. His search leads him to consult with other family members with surprising results. The ending went a completely different direction than what I had expected and the writing kept me involved all the way through; this was a really quick read.

A warning for those unfamiliar with Sanders: Everyone is this book is obsessed with sex. It practically drips from the pages. But, then again, if one has read other Sanders novels like The Loves of Harry Dancer and Sullivan's Sting, then one knows to expect this. It is in no way gratuitous and is actually helpful in filling out the characters through their feelings about it. There's also a tender love story between two elderly folk that I especially enjoyed.

We All Fall Down
The Rag and Bone Shop
By Robert Cormier

Robert Cormier is one of the most well-known authors for young adults, primarily because he is one of the most controversial. His book The Chocolate War, according to the American Library Association, is the fourth most frequently challenged book of the last decade "for using offensive language and being unsuited to age group."

We All Fall Down could easily fall into that group. It is labeled as being appropriate for ages 13 and up, but there are scenes in this book that disturbed even me. It is concerned with the repercussions of random violence in a small town in Massachusetts. Four boys break into a local house and devastate it, including the young daughter who walks in unexpectedly. This affects not only the girl who was hurt, but also her sister, Jane; the neighbor (known only as The Avenger) who saw it happen and is in love with Jane; and one of the "trashers," Buddy (an alcoholic at 15) who inadvertently falls in love with Jane.

This is a very dark book. The characters are doomed from the beginning, and the way the story is set up, it could not end any other way. But at the same time, there is a thread of hope that runs throughout the story the lightens it towards palatability. The teenage characters feel real and Cormier is wonderful at describing the problems that affect people at that age. I've not been a teenager for several years, but his writing evoked old feelings through its truth.

And it must have affected me more than I though because after We All Fall Down, I picked up Cormier's latest (and last) work, The Rag and Bone Shop. It's very short and concerns the investigation surrounding the death of seven-year-old Alicia Bartlett. Professional interrogator Trent is brought in and coerced to get a confession out of prime suspect Jason Dorrant, 12-year-old friend of Alicia.

The meat of the book concerns itself with the interrogation. It's fascinating to see these two characters interact--Jason worried that things he is saying are making him look guilty, and Trent trying to lure Jason into confessing (though he knows he's innocent) in order to close the case and appease the local Senator who has promised Trent the ability to "write his own ticket."

Cormier puts out a winner once again. He is obviously gearing his books to the younger audience, but I think even adults would find much to appreciate in his works. I plan to seek out more in the future.

Neil's Recent Reading

by Neil Madden

Look to Windward
By Iain M. Banks

This is the first Iain M Banks book that I have read, and I was extremely impressed with it, especially as I managed to pick up a hardback copy cheaply. The book is another in the Culture series which make up the staple of the author's science fiction output. Set on a Culture Orbital illuminated by the ancient light of two exploding stars (the tragic ending of a long ago war), the book tells the story of a Chelgrian composer, Ziller, who is in self-imposed exile on the Orbital, and the Chelgrian emissary sent, apparently to persuade him to return to his home world. However, it becomes apparent that the composer is the least of the troubles on the emissary's mind, and the consequences of more recent wars are coming to light. The book quickly develops into a much more complex and mysterious plot, set in a universe of such massive proportions and depth of detail to beggar belief. The author takes us on a journey through a universe full of diverse environments, complex characters, and intriging history. As the story unfolds, more details are revealed which make sense of eariler information. This can make the book a bit confusing at the start, but if you keep with it, everything becomes clear, and you shouldn't need a second reading to understand what is going on (although, I know I will read it again some day). This is one of the few books I've read recently that I haven't been able to put down, much to the detriment of my university work. Highly recommended.

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 December 2002
Copyright © 2002, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
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