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ex libris reviews

1 June 2003

Mrs. Telman found my mother a job in an office-machine factory.... We ate better, we had proper furniture, a phone, and, soon, a colour television. I found I had a lot fewer uncles than I'd thought I had, and Mother stopped walking into doors.
Iain Banks


In This Issue:
A Ripping Yarn

As I promised last month, I've begun posting installments of my novel Through Darkest Zymurgia! The third installment was posted just this morning. It's a fantasy novel, a ripping yarn of exploration, adventure, and potable beverages that takes place in a strange but oddly Victorian world. Naturally, I like it; but Deb English likes it, too, as you'll see below. And blogger Ian Hamet likes what he's read of it so far.

In addition, we have the regular slew of reviews from myself, Deb English, and Craig Clarke; Felicity McCarthy is regrettably absent--something about moving, and birthday parties for aging parents, and other such things that prevent one from reading as much as one would like to. We expect to have her back next month.

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Arms of Krupp
By William Manchester

About a week before I left for Australia, Deb English wrote me that she'd gotten a copy of this book, which was out again in trade paperback. She described it as "long and pithy," which is an intriguing phrase. I was looking for books to take on the trip, and as it concerns a time (World Wars I and II) and a place (Germany) that I've not read much about, I decided to grab a copy. I'm glad that I did, and at the same time horrified by its content.

When I think of Germany in World War II, I think of the train cars and the death camps and six million murdered Jews. I don't think--I didn't think--of slave labor, and of labor camps populated not only by Jews but by many other groups: Russians and other slavs from the Eastern Front, and prisoners and conscripted workers from all of the territories occupied by Germany. Many German firms used slave labor at this time, and the official line in Germany at the time Manchester's book was first published (1968) is that the firms were forced to do so by the Nazis.

In some cases, this may have been true. But in the case of the Krupp combine, it simply was not. From Krupp's own files, along with other documents, Manchester shows that the arms maker actively solicited slave labor, often demanding more than the Nazis were willing to provide. An entire factory complex was built near Auschwitz, purely to take advantage of the camp's inmates. And once the slaves were received by Krupp, they were treated as livestock--and not as valuable livestock, but as beasts to be worked until they dropped, and then buried. The food provided to them was inferior in both calories and quality even by the Nazi's standards for POW and labor camps, and consisted mostly of cabbage water. Disease was rampant, and the only treatment provided most of the ill "sklavenarbeiter" was the privilege of lying in their own filth in a so-called infirmary, a place where they were left alone and allowed to die.

The most appalling part of the story concerns a Krupp camp called Buschmannshof--a camp with no fences and no guards, because the inmates were all babies under two years of age. When the first "Eastern Workers" were conscripted, they were allowed to stay in family groups, and naturally after a time there were children. Krupp's policy was that the mothers had six weeks with their newborns; then, the mothers were required to return to work and the babies were taken to Buschmannshof. The camp was underfunded and understaffed, and while the infants were not actively maltreated they were poorly fed and poorly cared for. There was constant turnover, for older babies died of malnutrition, disease, and neglect even as new babies arrived.

The end came as the Allies approached the Ruhr valley. For fear of the Allied soldiers and what might happen if the camp was found, the last inmates were put on a train and sent east, possibly with but more likely without their caretakers. It's unknown what happened to them, but they certainly perished in transit; no sign of them was ever found.

The graves of many of the infants that died at Buschmannshof are now buried at Voerde-bin-Dinslaken. Originally, each had its own small headstone; but when Manchester went to see them they were already crumbling with wind and weather and were mostly illegible.

Manchester's book spans far more than the Nazi period, of course; it begins with the first founder of the Krupp dynasty in the 16th century, and ends with the dead of Alfried Krupp in 1968. It is, as Deb said, long and pithy, and for most of the book Manchester writes with a detached amusement that makes the pages fly by. Both the amusement and the detachment are shaken by the events of 1914; and they vanish entirely as World War II and the atrocities begin. Those chapters made for painful reading.

Much that Manchester has to say is evidently at odds with what Germans have been taught since World War II; at least, this was true in 1968, and might well still be true. But Manchester appears to have done his research thoroughly and well. He personally interviewed many of the principles from the latter part of the story (including a staff member from Buschmanshoff), and combed through reams of Krupp company memos and documentation--those that were not burned as the Allies approached. He quotes extensively from the Nuremburg trial transcripts, which he had the devil of a time finding copies of, and which have evidently never been published in Germany.

It's a fascinating and unpleasant tale, well-told. It's worth remembering how awful and extensive the atrocities of World War II really were--and I can tell you, the next idiot who makes the mistake of equating George W. Bush (or any of his predecessors) with Adolf Hitler in my hearing is going to get an earful.

Do Not Exceed The Stated Dose
By Peter Lovesey

This is a collection of short stories by the author of the Peter Diamond mysteries. Both Deb English and I have grown somewhat fond of Mr. Lovesey, but alas there's little in this book to make me grow more so. I mustn't be too harsh--the stories are all competently written, and entertainingly so. I liked them. But on the other hand, there's little special about them.

Once in a great while I'll buy an anthology of mystery stories by a diverse collection of authors, with the hope of finding somebody new that I'd like to read. I'm afraid that if I'd read almost any one of these in such a book, I'd have nodded my head, said to myself "Well, that was OK," and then gone on to the next story without looking back for the author's name.

I say "almost any one of these," rather than "all of these," because there were a couple of stories I rather disliked. Some time ago, Lovesey began a mystery series with "Bertie", the son of Queen Victoria, as the sleuth. Deb English reviewed one of them last year, and found Bertie to be a most unpleasant character; and I have to say I agree. He's a sleazy little git, prancing about and seducing women, secure in the knowledge that as the prince he can get away with just about anything he likes. Ugh. I suppose he's no worse than George MacDonald Fraser's Harry Flashman, but at least Flash Harry runs the risk of getting caught.

The Only Game
By Reginald Hill

This one was first published under the pseudonym Patrick Ruell, and is another of the books I bought in Australia. Although it's also a police procedural, it has a markedly different feel than Hill's Dalziell/Pascoe mysteries; it's more of a psychological novel. In this case, the psyche is that of "Dog" Cicero--for ten years a cop, and before that a soldier in the British Army.

Cicero was discharged from the military after a car bombing in Northern Ireland in which he was seriously injured and a woman he was coming to know was killed. The woman had ties to the IRA, and it was determined that Cicero had shown bad judgement and was not to be relied on. After his recovery Cicero joined the police and became a detective inspector, apparently to prove the military authorities wrong.

Then, a four-year-old is kidnapped from a day care center--or was he? It's unclear, especially after the mother disappears as well. And then Special Branch inspector Toby Tench steps in, and Dog discovers that the IRA is involved. Worse--Tench is more concerned with shutting down the IRA operation and capturing the men at the top than he is with the safety of the child.

This book has its good points and bad points. The whole psychological suspense thing doesn't really work for me, especially when it turns out that Dog Cicero has history with just about all of the other principles, including Toby Tench. On the other hand, Cicero is an interesting character, a gambler who learned everything he knows from his Uncle Endo. (Endo now runs a casino or two in Vegas, a fact which figures in the denouement.) And the ending is good. But I think Hill wasted Dog Cicero on a singleton like this.

Fell of Dark
By Reginald Hill

This, apparently, is Hill's very first novel, and I suppose one has to make allowances. But more of that anon.

Harry Bentinck goes on a walking vacation with a friend who's recovering from a nervous breakdown. One morning, the pair are stopped by the police and asked to come to the station to answer some questions; it seems that they'd been seen on the fells with a pair of young women who were later found murdered. Harry's innocent, as he and we both know. And this is where the problems start.

This book suffers from what I call "the idiot problem": Harry Bentinck is an idiot. First he lies to the police about how many times he and his friend saw the women in question; granted, his friend did this first, and he's just following his friend's line to avoid causing his friend trouble. So he's loyal, maybe, but stupid. Then, when he's accused of murdering the girls himself, he bolts--truly an excellent way to prove his innocence.

There follows a week or two of tramping about the fells, getting rides and aid from a variety of improbable folk (including a woman sculptor who seems to be at least half black widow) and finally pinning the crime on the correct folks. He nearly gets killed several times and has all manner of adventures, including a charming near-reconciliation with his estranged wife, and it's all quite invigorating and well-written.

Except, of course, that it's all predicated on the fact that Harry's an idiot. Why would I want to read a book about an idiot?

Death in Ecstasy
By Ngaio Marsh

This is the fourth of Marsh's Inspector Alleyn novels, and alas it's rather, well, pulpy. (It was 1936, so I guess she's allowed.) But it feels like she was attempting to find something exciting and sensational, rather than following her heart, and consequently it feels rather dated.

The plot is straightforward. Nigel Bathgate, reporter and Alleyn's self-proclaimed "Watson", is bored on a rainy evening. He sees some people going into an odd sort of church that's opened down the block, and he decides to go there for some spiritual thrill-seeking and maybe a hot story for the paper. It turns out to be what we'd think of as a New Age scam, with a slick operator separating the spiritually credulous from their money--and, in some cases, their virtue.

During the service, one of the initiates--a beautiful, wealthy young woman with the suggestive title of "Chosen Vessel"--collapses after drinking from a chalice; she's dead, and has clearly been poisoned (the scent of almonds is the giveaway). Bathgate calls Alleyn, and the mystery takes its course.

It's not a bad book...but it's far from her best.

Vintage Murder
By Ngaio Marsh

Before I left for Australia, I started re-reading Marsh's Inspector Alleyn mysteries in chronological order, just to see how she'd developed as a writer. It's been more interesting than I'd anticipated. Here's a brief summary of her first five books:

A Man Lay Dead: A conventional country house murder. Mostly from Nigel Bathgate's point of view. Alleyn is slightly comical, slightly self-deprecating, and not entirely himself yet.

Enter a Murderer: Takes place in a theater, a milieu Marsh knew well; less conventional, hence a much better book than its predecessor. Still mostly from Nigel Bathgate's point of view.

The Nursing Home Murder: Original, and with lots of authentic detail, but ultimately somewhat tedious. This is the only book on which she had a collaborator (a doctor who provided the medical detail). Bathgate is still floating about.

Death in Ecstasy: More sensational, and really rather silly; one can't help thinking her editor asked her to write something more commercial. Bathgate is officially listed in the Dramatis Personae as Alleyn's Watson. Alleyn and his aide Inspector Fox have taken pretty good shape by this time, but it's still mostly from Bathgate's point of view.

And now, finally:

Vintage Murder: A (nearly) complete break with the rest of the series. Alleyn is on his own, on holiday in New Zealand; the book is wholly from his point of view. At last, we really get to hear him thinking. He's become acquainted with a travelling theater company, and is called upon by the local police to help when one of the troupe is murdered. At last Marsh is fully in her element--it's the theater yet again, something she knows, and it's in New Zealand, her home. And it's without a doubt her best book yet.

It's so plain. She writes her first book, probably from a feeling of, "Gosh, I can write something better than that!" And she gets it published. For her second book she tries to do something more interesting, and mostly succeeds. Well and good. Her third book is more ambitious yet--she makes the murder turn on the details of a technical field with which she isn't personally familiar, and she relies on outside help. It doesn't quite succeed; her voice doesn't come clearly through. She retrenches, writing something conventional, sensational, and saleable. Then, she strikes out in another direction, writing about the two things she knows well: theater, and New Zealand. And more than that, she abandons bathgate, and lets Alleyn speak for himself. What joy!

Captain Underpants and the Invasion of the Incredibly Naughty Cafeteria Ladies from Outer Space (and the Subsequent Assault of the Equally Evil Lunchroom Zombie Nerds)
By Dav Pilkey

This is the third of the Captain Underpants epics, and really the title tells you just about everything you need to know about it. Almost everything; there were some surprises. But Dave, unsurprisingly, loved it a lot, and as before it was mildly amusing to me too.

A Nasty Bit of Rough
By David Feherty

To begin with, I'd like to say that I'm not responsible for this book; it was lying on the coffee table at my dad's house, and heaven only knows who gave it to him.

Frequent watchers of golf on television (I am not) might be familiar with sportscaster David Feherty (I am not), or with his monthly column in Golf magazine (I am not). In said column he's often referred to his fictional uncle, Colonel Sir Richard "Dickie" Gussett, owner of Scrought's Wood, allegedly the oldest golf club in the British Isles. According to Gussett, there are but two rules of importance:

Thou shalt play the ball as it lies, and the course as you find it.

This book details the all important semicentennial match between the members of Scrought's Wood and the denizens of the other claimant to be the eldest club, the MacGregors of Tay. (The course at Tay has only three holes, each about par 23, and only three hazards--a distillery adjacent to each tee. No one but a MacGregor has ever gotten past the second.) The prize to be won is the celebrated "Digit"--the mummified middle finger of St. Andrew himself.

As you can see, this is a remarkably silly book, with a bit of Wodehouse about it, and gouts of spontaneous laughter; it's also, at one and the same time, a prodigy of locker room humor of such remarkable extension that it beggars belief. You Have Been Warned.

Switching to the Mac: The Missing Manual
By David Pogue

Like any serious IT professional, when I want some serious information printed on the pulped remains of dead trees I immediately think of O'Reilly and Associates. O'Reilly became famous for publishing a line of "animal" books: books about the Unix operating system and its tools, each with a detailed black-and-white engraving of an animal on its cover. It's become a touchstone--a programmer knows that a technology has made it when O'Reilly publishes an animal book about it.

In recent years, their scope has expanded; they now publish animal books about Windows and Mac OSX, and under the imprint of "Pogue Press/O'Reilly" they publish "The Missing Manual" series. So when I went to The Apple Store and bought a PowerBook, I also bought a copy of Switching to the Mac: The Missing Manual.

The book is broken into parts. The first part is an extended introduction to the Macintosh and its user interface, slanted toward experienced users of Microsoft Windows. The second part is about how to move your files from your Windows machine to your Macintosh, with a special focus on transferring your e-mail; it also has a long section which discusses the Mac alternatives to many popular Windows applications. The third part is all about how to get connected to the Internet and use the related tools. The fourth covers a number of advanced topics: OSX's Unix command line, and how to customize OSX's "System Preferences".

All in all, I liked the book, and found it useful; it told me many things I'd otherwise have had to discover by trial and error. The style is breezy and witty, but not shallow. I found the e-mail conversion procedures to be less helpful than they could have been (you might remember that I had some trouble with that). On the other hand, once I figured out what was going on, it became clear that I got into trouble because I didn't follow his procedure exactly--I took some command line short cuts, and that caused my results to be off.

This isn't a book for the ages; once I've finished moving everything over and I'm completely comfortable in the new environment, I doubt I'll open it again. (I've already gotten a copy of its big brother, Mac OS X: The Missing Manual, which leaves out the Windows-specific information and is still about twice as thick.) But it got me over the hump, and it was well-worth it.

My Neighbor Totoro
By Miyazaki Hayao

Last month I reviewed Miyazaki's Spirited Away as the result of Ian Hamet's write-up of the director's work. I loved it. Jane loved it. The kids loved it. So I decided to take the plunge and watch Miyazaki's films more or less in sequence, as Ian recommends. And the first on that list is this one, My Neighbor Totoro.

As the movie opens, two young girls and their father are moving into a beat-up (though attractive) old house in the country. Their mother is in the hospital, and clearly has been for some time, though there are signs she may be coming home soon; one has the sense (though this is nowhere stated) that they've moved so far from their father's job at the university because the hospital bills have eaten up all their income.

And at one level, that's the story: how the four-year-old girl copes with having her mother gone, and how the eleven-year-old girl copes with having to be responsible for her sister while her father is at work.

And then, as with Spirited Away, there is the level of Faerie. For the house they've just moved into is clearly on the border of that perilous realm, and many peculiar things happen that only the girls can see.

My initial reponse to this one is, at best, greatly modified rapture. "Totoro" isn't the movie Spirited Away is; it isn't even half the movie. It moves extremely slowly, and when all is said and done not much has happened. And yet, the seeds are clearly there. I'm tempted to list the motifs from the latter movie that I saw clearly prefigured in the former, but that, as they say, would be telling.

The movie does have some absolutely delightful moments and sequences, and chief among them is the Catbus (Lewis Carroll would have loved it); My Neighbor Totoro is worth seeing for the Catbus alone.

The Great Brain
By John D. Fitzgerald

This book and its sequels were great favorites of mine when I was a kid, and when I saw it at a book fair at Dave's school I snapped it up. We finally got around it a couple of weeks ago, and I finished reading it to him this past weekend.

The Great Brain takes place in a little town called Adenville in 1896. The narrator is John D. Fitzgerald himself as a seven-year-old, and the "Great Brain" of the title is John's scheming, conniving, smooth-talking ten-year-old brother Tom. The book is a hoot, both as a plain story, and as a picture of life in that time and place.

Tom's a real operator. He charges his friends for the privilege of watching the plumber dig the first cesspool in town--and again for the privilege of flushing the attached water closet. He figures out how to rescue two of his friends from a dangerous cave...because a scheme he's working on depends on them. He teaches a new Greek immigrant boy how to be a real American kid...and charges the boy's father for it. And to top it off, he nearly causes the stern new teacher to lose his job.

The book read aloud really well, too. I'm looking forward to picking up the sequels.

The Peshawar Lancers
By S.M. Stirling

This is your basic 21st century Victorian-era historical novel, complete with dirigible airships. I don't know why it is, but whenever an author decides to write an alternate history novel that extends the Victorian age into the future, the future comes with dirigibles and blimps instead of airplanes. I understand the attraction, but it's perhaps been over done.

Be that as it may, Stirling's done a first class job. The premise is that a comet strikes the earth in 1878, at the height of the British Empire. The northern hemisphere is hardest hit, and the cloud of debris brings on an extended winter five or six years long. Of all the European powers, only Britain, warned by her scientists and possessed of India, is able to evacuate any sizeable fraction of her population to warmer climes. And with typical Victorian ruthlessness, it's the best and brightest who get the first seats.

Fast-forward a century and a half. The British Empire (now generally known as the Angrezi Raj) is still the dominant power; it now has its capital in Delhi. The great influx of English men and women have been brought into the caste system as a new kshatriya (that is, military) caste called the sahib-log. Most of the "Angrezi" are still nominally Christian, but it's a faith much syncretized with Hinduism.

The other powers are the Empire of Dai-Nippon, now encompassing China as well as Japan and nearly as strong as the Angrezi Raj; the Caliph in Damascus (the comet was hard on the Turks); the Empire of France, which actually encompasses some southern parts of old France but which is mostly based in Algeria; and the Russian Empire, now based in the Central Asian city of Samarkand.

Technological development was greatly depressed by the aftermath of the comet; lighter-than-air travel is common, as are railways, but cars and trucks are still rare. The telephone exists, but not the radio or radar. The largest computer on the planet is a Babbage Engine.

The principle characters are Aethelstan King, captain in the Peshawar Lancers, and his sister Cassandra, a physicist; the principle action involves a plot by the evil Russians (trust me--evil is the correct word) to kill the Angrezi King-Emperor and destroy the Angrezi Raj. And it's an entertaining trip.

Stirling is, unsurprisingly, familiar with George MacDonald Fraser's "Flashman" novels, and while he doesn't spell it out, there are a couple of broad hints that Flash Harry is one of Aethelstan and Cassandra's ancestors. It doesn't really affect the story, but it was a nice touch.

Stirling got his start, so far as I know, writing shorter fiction as part of Larry Niven's "Man-Kzin Wars" series; this is the first novel of his I read, and I liked it. I rather hope he'll do a sequel.

Castle in the Sky
By Miyazaki Hayao

Now here's a movie that's a beautiful sight to the eyes and just plain good fun. It's got everything: gorgeous vistas, airships, air pirates, giant machines that look like something out of a Jules Verne novel (anybody remember the movie Master of the World? I think that was the title; this had some of the same feel), a little romance, an exciting plot, evil villains, humor, and Laputa, the Castle in the Sky, plus two plucky kids.

It's not as serious in tone, nor as deep, as Spirited Away, and the animation isn't quite as good. Also, it's marred by something of an anti-government, anti-technology message. But neither of those are really serious criticisms. This movie is supposed to be both beautiful and good fun, and it succeeds wonderfully at both.

The movie begins with a girl in a private cabin in a large airship she has a large entourage with her. Then, pirates in small two-person airboats land on top of the airship and fight their way in; they are after the girl and a crystal she wears on a chain around her neck. As she tries to save herself from the pirates, she loses her grip and...but that would be telling. This is the sort of tale in which the progressive revelation of the back story is integral to the plot, so I'll say no more.

But if you've got anything of a sense of wonder left, you should arrange to see it.

The Business
By Iain Banks

When I open a new book by Iain Banks, I never know what to expect; this is especially true of his mainstream fiction. Mainstream is a non-very-descriptive term, by the way; much of his "mainstream" books are far stranger than any of his science fiction, The Wasp Factory being the best example. I picked this one up when I was in Australia, as little of his mainstream stuff makes over here to the states, and instead of diving right in I brought it home and kept it until I thought I was in the proper mood.

As it happens, I needn't have bothered. It's an interesting story, and it's well-written, and it seems remarkably tame compared to Banks' usual.

The "Business" of the title is an international concern whose roots go back, supposedly, to the Roman Empire. Except for very rare occasions (they once bought the Roman throne from the Praetorian Guard, and managed to keep it for all of six weeks), the Business hasn't dabbled in politics; instead, they've devoted themselves to making quite a lot of money.

Kate Telman is a senior executive with the Business, just two rungs below the board of directors. It's her job to research upcoming technologies and make investment recommendations. She's good at it, and is likely to rise to the top with time. And then her life takes an abrupt right turn.

I don't want to go into the details, as it would spoil it. But this is one of those books that I enjoyed while I was reading it, but afterwards wondered what the point of it was. Or, rather, there's a rather obvious point, that people are more important than profits, but it hardly seems worth writing an entire novel just to say that.

I dunno. The scenery was nice, though.

With the Lightning
By David Drake

I'd call this an Honor Harrington knock-off, except for two things: Drake's Lt. Leary has a very different personality than Honor's, and (in this book, anyway) most of the action is on the ground. And, of course, Drake's a skilled-enough writer that he's not going to write straight knock-offs anyway. But despite that, he's clearly aiming for the same readership.

The star nations of Cinnabar and the Alliance are adversaries, in a cold war that frequently becomes hot. Due to its position and trace, the planet Kostromo is a key ally for either side; a pact with Cinnabar is due to expire, and so a delegation has been sent to Kostromo to negotiate a new one. The Alliance, of course, would like to disrupt this.

Lt. Daniel Leary has been sent along with the delegation because he is the son of Corder Leary, a top man in the Cinnabar government. (He's also on the outs with his father, but the Kostromans don't know that.)

Adele Mundy, Cinnabar expatriate, is already on the planet, organizing a library for the Kostroman ruler. She's a skilled information handler, trained by the best; her loyalty to Cinnabar is suspect, as most of her family were killed by the Cinnabar government as Alliance sympathizers.

The two are more or less thrown together when a disgruntled Kostroman clan makes a deal with the Alliance, and the Alliance subsequently moves in on Kostromo. Armed only with his own cunning, Mundy's skills at information retrieval, and a twenty-man detachment of sailors, Leary must somehow turn the invasion around and get word back to Cinnabar.

It's a fraught situation, but naturally Leary and Mundy and the sailors pull it off, and it's great fun to watch. David Weber fans, take note--you should enjoy this one.

There's a sequel, Lt. Leary Commanding, that I have and will be reading soon.

Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

Harm Done
The Veiled One
An Unkindness of Ravens
From Doon to Death
By Ruth Rendell

After the first Inspector Wexford mystery I read, I went to the used bookstore and browsed the shelves for some more titles in the series. After a couple, I realized that there is an order but reading them in that order is not critical to understanding the characters or the plots. Essentially, they follow a typical murder mystery plot line. Someone dies or disappears under suspicious circumstances and the detective, in this case Inspector Wexford, must go back to the scene, interview the usual suspects and figure out the crime. Rendell sticks to the typical with some added flourishes. There is usually not one but two mysteries to be solved and it is not immediately clear how they relate.

Wexford has a male partner/subordinate named Burden who is younger, better looking and less satisfied with his life. Wexford has a wife and two daughters, one of whom he loves more than the other and feels horrible guilt for feeling that way. And the natural world surrounding Kingsmarkham, the locale, is described in detail at times, almost poetically. I liked Wexford. He has a sense of humor though the books are not comic in any sense. There stories are a touch too realistic to be really funny.  But his musings on his partner's wardrobe, his own ugliness and age, his relationship to his kids and the urban sprawl that is taking over his pleasant little town are kind of fun. Rendell is, I think, an acquired taste but I have it now and plan on reading more. Not too quickly, though.

The Kalahari Typing School for Men
By Alexander McCall Smith

This is the fourth in the series about Mma. Ramotswe and her detective agency. Her fiance, Mr. J. L. B. Maketoni, has recovered from his illness and taken over the management of his garage from Mma. Makutsi. Mma. Makutsi is left in a bit of a quandary on how to fill her time when is not assisting Mma. Ramotswe with detecting. And she is feeling lonely and wanting a husband but is handicapped by her looks and the disinclination of the men she meets to favor her for her excellent grades at the secretarial school over the other girls who did less well but are much better looking. All of these problems are solved when she decides to open a typing school for men in her spare time. And she meets a perfect young man. But Mma. Ramotswe is not so sure that he is the perfect young man for Mma. Makutsi. And how should she intervene without hurting her friend and employee?

Precious Bane
By Mary Webb

Used bookstores are goldmines for out of print, little known or unusual books. I have one I regularly visit just to see what they have added to the shelves since my last foray. It helps that it is in a college town where access to well stocked bookstores make the market more than old romance novels or spy thrillers. I recently found all 6 volumes of Dumas Malone's biography of Jefferson hidden behind some WWII books, a couple of interesting British published mysteries and some sci-fi for my son. On the same trip I found Precious Bane.

I read this book for the first time at least 20 years ago. The years blurred the details of the plot but I still remembered it as an enjoyable read. And PBS had shown a BBC production of it on Masterpiece Theater right about the same time which I missed then and haven't found anywhere since. Since then my tastes have changed and broadened, I look at life differently--two kids and a husband will do that to you--and what constitutes a good read is remarkably different.

But Precious Bane stood up to the changes I brought to it. Set in Shropshire just after the Napoleonic wars, the main character is Prue Sarn, a young woman born with a cleft palate--hare shotten when a hare crossed her mother's path while pregnant with her. Her chances of marriage are ruined by her disfigurement and she is suspected of being a witch because of it. Her life is one of constant toil on the farm she lives on with her brother, a young man driven by his need for money. The local weaver comes to the area and because he is so different, so much more open to life than the men she knows and lives with, she is attracted to him. And he notices her.

This is a book about place. The countryside, the buildings and the fields are all as much an element in the narrative as the people. It reminded me a great deal of Hardy's Wessex novels or Sarah Orne Jewett's Maine stories. Prue is very much a part of her community but an outsider to it as well. And her struggle to belong, to fit in and be as other young women is well written and lovely.

Through Darkest Zymurgia!
By William H. Duquette

One of the finer pleasures in my life is reading other people's writing. I have no aspirations to write more than my terse and rather dry technical prose at work, but I do appreciate a good story well told. Some of what attracts me to mysteries is that I am able to watch the author working to set up the clues and line of thought that will lead to the solution of the crime. I watch the writer write, in other words. Comic writing is the same. It's a craft to set up the situation and create the humor without by either going too far to spoil it or, conversely, by pushing it so far it increases the comedic elements. I'm thinking of Wodehouse here. Not a word is out of place.

Will sent me an email a week or so ago pointing me to a page on his site that contained his complete novel, Through Darkest Zymurgia! It's his first novel and was blithely rejected by publishers. But running your own website is a wondrous thing and without editorial edicts and publisher's financial pressures, he is able to publish for all to see what he has written. So I printed it off and read it, after a couple disasters such as dropping the unbound, unpaginated manuscript on the steps where it tumbled like scree down the mountainside. And I watched him write. I'm impressed to say the least. He sets the jokes up without missing a beat. His characters are believable. The story was going along swimmingly.

But, about a third of the way into the book, that all stopped. I stopped watching. I just heard the story in my head. No more critic making comments in the back of my head. The story took over and told itself. It was wonderful! And funny. And I couldn't believe he was doing what he was doing! Oh, not that, Will! Yikes!

So, pour yourself a nice frothy beer, pull up your chair and enjoy the book. And let Will know what you think! Me too!

You can read Through Darkest Zymurgia! here.

Queen Lucia
By E. F. Benson

A friend of mine put this book on my desk and quietly suggested I would like it. She had heard me holding forth on the adventures of Lord Emsworth and his Pig and chuckling over Bertie's descriptions of Madeline Bassett, a woman who thinks that every time a fairy blows it's nose a baby is born. P.G. Wodehouse's comic timing is inimitable however, and I approached the book with a few misgivings.

Only to be totally delighted by Lucia and her circle of friends. Lucia lives in a small town called Risenholme where she is the undisputed social queen. She holds sway over her husband, lovingly called Pepino, and a neighbor Georgie Tillotson, who embroiders, wears a cape and sighs appropriately over her bad rendition of The Moonlight Sonata. The three of them speak pidgin Italian to each other tossing off "caro mio" and "grazie" with fluency of those totally confident an Italian speaker is nowhere in the neighborhood. Daisy Quantock, her rival for her throne, is always scheming ways to take over the social scene and failing in the face of Lucia's greater ability. The balance of power, however, is completely upset when London opera diva Olga Bracely buys a house in Risenholme and breaks every social rule that the villagers have ever followed. Georgie leaves the thralldom of Lucia to become Olga's pet and Daisy Quantock finally one up's Lucia for some dominance.

The edition of the book I read had an introduction by Nancy Mitford who points out among other things that in this story "the chief difference is that, in Lucia's words, 'that horrid thing which Freud calls sex' is utterly ignored. No writer nowadays could allow Georgie to do his embroidery and dye his hair and wear his little cape and sit for hours chatting with Lucia or playing celestial Morzartino, without hinting of Boys in the background. Quaint Irene, in her fisherman's jersey and knickerbockers, would certainly share her house with another lesbian and this word would be used."

She got it right. It's the innocence of the characters and their world and the complexity of the social dynamics they come up with anyway that make the books so funny. I bought the rest of them on the Web and plan on savoring them over the summer.

The Endless Steppe
By Esther Hautzig

I have been reading children's books lately looking for good fiction to toss my daughter's way this summer. She's somehow migrated from the horse phase where she wouldn't read a book unless a horse figured prominently in the plot to what I think of as teenage-girl-angst books. The heroine always has some social ill to deal with, some horrible part of her life to overcome like a mother with AIDS or a pregnant sister or a friend who is dying of some horrible disease. And while I don't want to shield my kids from the problems of the world they will live in, at 13 I think she's a little too young to be exposed to all of them, even in a book. However, she is a reading machine and a vacuum must be filled so my quest for what I deem "good" books is on. I have also been cruising the catalogs of homeschool curriculum suppliers and this book kept coming up time and again as a good historical novel. I like historical novels.

The book is a memoir of a young Polish girl who's family is exiled in 1941 to Siberia as capitalists by the invading Russians. Forced out of their beautiful home with almost nothing but the clothes on their back and sent to work in a labor camp, it'the story of how Esther learns to survive in that world. And it's not prettified or romanticized either. They struggle for every potato, bucket of water and straw mattress they have. Esther takes in knitting to help support the family, working in the unheated log hut with almost no light after working all day or going to school. She learns to glean coal from the tracks of the railroad and steal wood shavings from the lumberyard to heat her family's house. She lives thru illness untreated made worse by poor nutrition and lack of proper clothes And she watches her parents try to keep them together as a family.

It's a sad book in some ways. It's also a triumph of the human spirit kind of book that I would rather my daughter read. This one has a happy ending. The family survives. In fact, the exile to Siberia saved them the horror of the Holocaust that the Germans inflicted on the family they left behind. It will go along perfectly with "The Diary of Anne Frank" which is also on the shelf ready for her and doesn't have the happy ending.

Farewell to Manzanar
By Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston

I think I was in college before I learned that we put people of Japanese descent into camps during WWII. Somehow, my American history teachers missed that fact during the WWII unit. They were concentrating on how nasty the Germans were. And they were nasty. But I was shocked to learn that some of the nastiness took place here, in the land of the free. In the beginning of the book, there is a timeline that lays out the dates of the laws effecting the Japanese internment. And foreign born Japanese weren't afforded the rights to citizenship until 1952. I am shocked again.

This is another booked labeled for young adults that I read in my quest to find good books for my daughter to read. And it is a good book. The book is a memoir of a young Japanese girl whose large family is sent to Manzanar in 1942 and kept there until 1945. It also tells the story of their return to "normal" life and the adjustment they have to make back into a society that put them there. It's told by the young girl now grown up with kids of her own, looking back on how the camp fractured her family structure, destroyed the proud spirit of her father and changed the way she looked at herself even as an adult. It's another story of survival and triumph. It has a fairly happy ending. But it's still a story that made me angry because it was allowed to happen. Even with all the confusion, fear and unknowns at the time, children should not have been put in camps because of the color of their skin or the slant of their eyes.

Craig's Recent Reading

by Craig Clarke

The Centaur
By John Updike

I usually like John Updike. I think it would be safe to say that he is one of my favorite authors. He makes the adulterous proclivities of the middle-aged middle class into great reading. The Centaur is a perfect example of what sometimes happens when a writer strays from his niche.

An allegory, it concerns George Caldwell, a teacher, and his relationship with his son, Peter. The story parallels that of Chiron the centaur and Prometheus, the story of which is interlaced with that of Caldwell. It is a clever piece of writing--too clever, in fact to be readable--and while it is obvious that Updike has done his homework, The Centaur feels almost like a mythology textbook, and that takes away any enjoyment. Updike has written a novel with a good idea and left out any sense of story.

It is admirable and thorough, however. Every character has an alliterative counterpart, mirroring his or her place in the myth. Caldwell, as I said, is Chiron, and Peter, Prometheus. Others are Hummel the mechanic (Hephaestus), principal Zimmerman (Zeus), the hitchhiker (Hermes), and Pop Kramer (Kronos).

Now personally, I would think it a bad sign if, after reading my novel, my wife asked me to compile an index to keep all the characters straight. According to said index, this is what Mrs. Updike requested. Unfortunately, it doesn't really help. It's hard to get involved in a novel that requires you to refer to a list every other page in order to be sure who is dealing with whom. I found The Centaur to be an ordeal. From about page 20, I knew I was in for a struggle through the next 200, and I like Updike. The only audience that I can see for this book would be scholars of Greek mythology, and even they might have trouble with it.

By Lawrence Sanders

Jannie Sheen is a writer of hardboiled thrillers under various pseudonyms. Unfortunately, sales have gone through the floor and her agent and publisher say it's because she has lost touch with reality--or at least the kind of reality necessary for a logical caper novel.

So Jannie decides to take a break from writing novels and do some writing of another kind: she wants to plan a caper. A "real" caper. She teams up with her friend Dick and they case possible targets, lining up people to help out, timing everything perfectly. They want to do everything except actually go through with it. That, of course, does not work out and Jannie and Dick are forced to actually commit the robbery.

Sanders is excellent at this type of thriller. Mixing equal parts money, violence, and sex (well, maybe a little more sex), he comes up with a formula that is right on for entertainment. Caper is right up there with Sullivan's Sting and The Loves of Harry Dancer for entertainment value. I believe that the proper cliche is "the perfect beach book," although I rarely if ever read on the beach. The book takes a bit too much time to reach its ending, but I was interested the whole way.

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 2003
Copyright © 2003, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
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