Home : Ex Libris : 1 June 2006

ex libris reviews

1 June 2006

"What's our motto, boys and girls?" he sang out.

"No plan survives contact with the enemy!" the class shouted in unison.

"And who are we?" he asked.


John Ringo


In This Issue:
Things Proceed

Things are beginning to relax a bit. Plus, Craig Clarke is back this month!

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Money in the Bank
By P.G. Wodehouse

This might be considered in some sense a sequel to P.G. Wodehouse's book Money for Nothing, which I read and reviewed quite a long time ago now, featuring as it does a slick pair of American grifters, the husband and wife team of Soapy and Dolly Molloy. In this book they've come to England and are presently staying at stately Shipley Hall, once the seat of the Uffenhams but now the site of Mrs. Clarissa Cork's utopian community, where they are enticing Mrs. Cork into buying some phoney oil shares. All is well at Shipley Hall...except for the strange behavior of the butler, Cakebread, who has been found rooting around in an astonishing variety of rooms. Little do they know that Cakebread is really Lord Uffenham, an absent-minded peer who having put the family fortune into diamonds and hidden them for safety was later unable to find them again. Having none of the ready at hand, all having gone for the diamonds, he was unable to keep up the old place and was forced to rent it out. Meanwhile, of course, he's looking for the diamonds. And looking for him is one private detective hired by Mrs. Cork to protect her guests' valuables, a gent named J. Sheringham Adair. Except, of course, Adair isn't Adair; he's a young barrister and author of thrillers who took Adair's place due to an unfortunate incident with some rock cakes and the timely appearance of Lord Uffenham's beautiful niece.

And that's just the opening chapters.

In short, it's classic Wodehouse and well worth your time.

Alector's Choice
By L.E. Modesitt, Jr

This is the fourth book in L.E. Modesitt, Jr's "Corean Chronicles" series. The previous three books, Legacies, Darknesses, and Scepters, form one continuous narrative; I've reviewed them all in the past and won't recapitulate them here. The current book is set in the distant past, and concerns events that set the scene for those in the previous books. This is a typical Modesitt gambit; he's the only author I know who habitually writes his series backwards. Few authors write prequels all that well; I have to assume that Modesitt plans the whole series out ahead of time, and simply ("simply", hah!) writes the later volumes first.

I won't go into the plot; by the nature of Modesitt's scheme, to do so would be to reveal spoilers for the earlier books. I will say, though, that I enjoyed it rather more than I expected to; in fact, it might be the most satisfactory of the series to date.

I confess, I had low expectations for this book. I found the first three books to be enjoyable but rather slow, and the climax of the third book wasn't as interesting as I'd hoped. Having finished the trio, I wondered if Modesitt was beginning to lose it. And when Alector's Choice was published, I rather expected that it was something of a potboiler, just one more application of the same slow formula--but in fact, it wasn't.

The usual thing in a Modesitt fantasy is that you've got this guy. On the surface, he's an average joe....but as the book progresses, he discovers that he has powers he didn't suspect. During the course of the book, he is forced to learn to use them to defend himself and his loved ones during a series of crises which frequently leave him overextended and exhausted. The book is told almost entirely from his point of view, sometimes in first person but more usually (I think) in third person; however, the main narrative is usually interspersed with a sequence of short vignettes which describe the doings of his enemies. Where the main narrative includes a wealth of detail and context, these vignettes are usually rather obscure; and they are usually told in a detached third-person, with no specific viewpoint character. It's often not clear, early in the book, just how they fit in.

Alector's Choice has a different structure, and one I'm not sure he's used before. Instead of one viewpoint character, there are two. One's story matches the template I gave above; the other doesn't. There are interesting parallels between the characters, as well as significant differences; and though their stories overlap they have little direct contact, and then only near the end of the book.

In short, Modesitt's trying something new; and I'm rather looking forward to the next book, Cadmian's Choice.

No Highway
By Nevil Shute

Ian introduced me to Nevil Shute's books some years ago now. The trouble is that while Shute wrote a fair number of books they can be a little hard to find; so far as I can tell, only A Town Like Alice and On the Beach are in print. Used book stores are a must, then; and since we're blest with a number of excellent large book stores in our area, I'm not often in a used book store.

Yes, I know, lots of used books are available via Amazon. I've gone that route, on occasion; but frankly, it's much more fun to go hunting. The thrill of the chase, you know. The problem is, most used book stores I've checked will have only one or two books by Shute--the books I named above. To date, I'd found only one by this route: Lonely Road.

So Jane and I were out on a date, and happened to stop by a used book shop I'd not previously entered. And they had not one, not two, but eight (!) books by Shute, with multiple copies of several, none of which I'd previously seen. I bought four of them (carefully eschewing the first editions in favor of lower price and increased durability), and this is the first of the four. It's a doozy.

When writing about Shute's books, I always wonder what to say. The plots are always rich and involved; the characters always have the breath of life; and nothing I come up with really seems to capture the essence. But I'll try.

The book concerns a British scientist, the quaintly named Mr. Honey, whose life work is studying metal fatigue in airplane structures. As the book opens, his current research involves the tail section of the Rutland Reindeer, a new trans-Atlantic passenger liner which has just gone into active service. His calculations suggest that the tail plane might fracture due to metal fatigue after about 1440 hours of service. Being the absent-minded type, Honey hasn't considered the practical aspects of his research--that is, if he's correct the Reindeer which have just begun carrying passengers might start falling out of the sky. His boss inquires discreetly, and discovers that all of the Reindeer but one have flown for 200 hours or less; the one exception is the prototype, which crashed in Labrador after about 1300 hours. Ominous, yes--but it appears they have a little time to think before grounding the fleet. Honey is sent to Labrador to investigate the crash and look for signs of metal fatigue in the tail section. He's flying (naturally) on a Rutland Reindeer--and he discovers that contrary to what his boss had been told, this Reindeer already has 1400 hours on its clock....

This probably makes the book sound like a disaster novel--something like The Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno, which is far from the case. And what I remember most are the characters: Honey himself, and his daughter; Honey's boss, and his wife; the aging movie actress from Terre Haute, Indiana; the stewardess. And in the end, the story isn't really about planes and metal fatigue; it's about people, and courage, and redemption.

On top of being a good story, the book is guilty of precognition. There's a disclaimer at the end of the book that says that the Rutland Reindeer bears no resemblance to any actual airplane. However, No Highway was published in 1948 as the world's first jet-powered passenger liner, the DeHaviland Comet, was being designed and built. ("Comet"'s one of Santa's reindeer.) The Comet first flew in 1949. In 1951, Shute's novel was filmed as No Highway in the Sky with Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Honey, Marlene Dietrich as the movie actress, and Glynis Johns as the stewardess. In 1952 came the first Comet crash; more would follow. And investigation revealed that the culprit was, naturally, metal fatigue.

Shute was out in one way: the tail wasn't involved. Rather, the Comet had large rectangular windows; and it develops that large rectangular openings diminish the structural integrity of a sheet of metal by quite a bit. Later Comets were designed with small round windows, and the crashes ceased.

The Far Country
By Nevil Shute

The Far Country is the second of my recently acquired Nevil Shute novels, and I'm not sure what to make of it. It's a romance, certainly; spunky English lass meets spunky Czechoslovakian immigrant in rural Australia. The setting is post-WWII, at a time when rationing is still in force in England and wool is finally beginning to command a good price in Australia. England is presented as a drab, hopeless place, with nothing to attract the ambitious or industrious (and Shute notes several times that the socialists are in power), while Australia is bustling, prosperous, and very much the Land of Opportunity. The characters are well-drawn and interesting, as always with Shute, and I enjoyed sharing their lives for a while; but I can't help feeling that the plot is driven more by heavy-handed social commentary than anything else. It seems to be telling the English socialists, "Wake up, folks! You'd better change your tune or we're going to lose our best and brightest to other shores."

In the book's favor, all this is the result of subsequent contemplation. The first chapter was a bit slow, but after that I was drawn in and couldn't help but be carried along by the narrative. And although on first reading No Highway seems the more substantial book, I've a suspicion that The Far Country will be the more rewarding on re-reading. Really, the book's main problem is that its setting begs comparison with A Town Like Alice, and it can't help but look a little pale and wan in such robust company.

There Will Be Dragons
Emerald Sea
By John Ringo

In There Will Be Dragons, John Ringo invented a delightfully prosperous world. Thanks to breakthroughs in nanotechnology, energy production and control, and artificial intelligence, all mediated by the technological descendant of today's Internet and overseen by a nearly omniscient, nearly omnipotent AI named "Mother", mankind lives in a near utopia. Every person can do pretty much what he or she wants to do and live how he or she wants to live. There's plenty of food, plenty of energy, and plenty of time--most people live to be over three-hundred years old. There's no government to speak of; all that remains is the Council, a small body that oversees the operations of the Net.

Want to be a dolphin? Go for it! Want to fly? There are personal devices that will allow that. Want to fly like a bird, with your own wings? You can do that too. Want to spend a century studying genetics, or blacksmithing, or the Roman Legions? Feel free. Almost anything is possible.

Some things we're familiar with have been made impossible. Explosions are prohibited at the molecular level; if something is made to explode, Mother quietly siphons the energy away. Bombs don't work. Firearms don't work. Steam engines don't work. But nobody misses them, so it's no big deal.

Then, one day, there's a split in the council, and one faction uses violence to try to take control of the Net. The opposing faction responds, and quickly each faction is using all of the energy reserves available to it to destroy the other. Normal citizens have a limit on how much energy they can draw; council-members do not. In short order, all of the energy normally used to transport food, to power houses and appliances, to suspend thrill seekers high in the air, is withdrawn. Mother is programmed to preserve herself and her functions, but otherwise not to interfere if her charges go to war; so Mother goes on, and the constraints she places on the world (such as the ban on explosions) go on, but there is literally no power available for anyone else but Mother and the council-members.

Civilization crashes overnight; indeed, many people perish in the first minutes of the war. The rest struggle to rebuild, forming communities primarily around groups of reenactors--folks who, like our Society for Creative Anachronism, get their kicks learning primitive skills and living without all of the modern conveniences. In this crisis, they are the only ones who have the skills needed to survive. And with centuries of experience, some of them are a darn sight better at it than their medieval ancestors.

At least, that's what the good guys do. The evil faction on the Council captured control of slightly more energy than the good faction, and they've dealt with their civilian population in a different way: by "Changing" refugees into the kind of people they need: slow, stolid, hardworking farmers--or big, hulking, angry warriors. Orcs, in a word.

What Ringo has done is create a high-tech, science-fictional (if thoroughly preposterous) background for writing heroic fantasy. There are a very few wizards with miraculous powers--the council-members. The available weapons are low-tech: swords, spears, bows and arrows. There are dragons, elves, dwarves, merfolk, and intelligent dolphins--and, now, orcs--all created through the miracle of biotechnology.

This first book in Ringo's "Council Wars" series sets everything up for the initial crash, and describes the efforts of one particular community to rebuild and then defend itself. The second book, Emerald Sea carries the story forward; and here's where Ringo really begins to enjoy himself.

It seems that the "good" faction on the council, the faction with which our heroes are aligned, has managed to gain control of most of the Americas. The "bad" faction has its stronghold in Europe. The bad guys (and they are most certainly bad guys) want to invade North America; but they haven't enough of an energy edge over the good guys to transport their orcs to America from Europe by pre-collapse means. That means they'll need to use low-tech, which is to say, sailing ships. The good guys realize this, and they intend to prevent it. Being low-tech doesn't mean you can't innovate; and there are some serious history buffs on the good side.

In the 20th century, air power was the key to control of the sea. Our heroes don't have airplanes; but they've got a number of dragons; and a bunch of wyverns trained (indeed, created) to be ridden by trained dragonriders. So how do you carry these dragons and wyverns to where they'll be useful in an ocean battle? Enter the sail-powered dragon-carrier....

As Jane would say, Ringo had far too much fun writing this book; it's evident in every chapter, and in fact Ringo says much the same in an author's note at the end. It's glorious fun, although thoroughly preposterous; and the presence of a certain chaotic rabbit is almost worth the price of admission all by itself. I'm looking forward to the next book.

By Nevil Shute

By rights, the next Nevil Shute I opened should have been An Old Captivity, as Ian's been practically with child to find out what I think of it. But I found Pastoral at the used bookstore last night, it's been highly recommended, and anyway I started reading it in the bookstore while Jane was still browsing.

What we have here is nothing more nor less than a nice little wartime romance. Peter Marshall is a British bomber pilot, and a veteran of over 50 missions to Germany. Gervase Robertson is a WAAF officer. Both are stationed at Hartley air field. It is, of course, completely against regulations for the two of them to fall in love, but when did that stop anyone?

I'm told that many people find this to be their favorite of Shute's novels; I can't see that myself. It's a plain, simple story, and moreover a story that's undoubtedly been told hundreds of times over with respect to WWII alone. I'd have to say that I liked A Town Like Alice rather better. On the other hand, I did enjoy Pastoral rather thoroughly. If there are few surprises, Shute nevertheless spins his tale deftly; the characters are believable, the incidental details are charming, the climax is suitably climactic, boy gets girl and all is well (with the two of them, at least). The flying scenes are particularly well done, and there was one moment--one of the few real surprises in the book--that stole the breath from my lungs and brought tears to my eyes.

All-in-all, a good outing for Mr. Shute, and I wish there was rather more of it.

Upon a Dark Night
By Peter Lovesey

This is yet another Peter Diamond mystery, and frankly it's not up to par. The writing's nice, and I enjoyed it well enough, but the Maguffin fails to convince.

The book begins with that hoary chestnut, a person waking up in the hospital with no memory of their past life. I can cope with that; if it's hoary it's also remarkably effective if properly used. In fact, I was with Lovesey right up to the moment where we find out why the individual has amnesia. I won't go into details--it's a good series, and if you like the others you might as well read this one as well--but the mechanism failed to satisfy. Diamond doesn't seem entirely himself, either; I think he's a bit restrained. But there are some good characters, and if the story isn't up to snuff Lovesey's story-telling almost makes up for it.

Ah, well, no one bats a thousand.

Against the Tide
By John Ringo

This is the third book in John Ringo's "Council Wars" series; and though it has some good moments I'm afraid it was a disappointment overall. Plot-wise it carries on from the previous book in a rather obvious way, with few surprises or new ideas. Worse, Ringo has a taste for sex games and fantasies of a sort I really dislike, and after showing a certain amount of restraint in the previous book he lets himself go again here. I really don't need to hear major characters lecturing on how to properly conduct dominant/submissive sex games, thank you very much. I suppose he's entitled to his kinks, but I'd really prefer it if he refrained from sharing.

The fourth book is out in hardcover; I'll take a look at it when it comes out in paperback, and we'll see if it's worth continuing with.

Craig's Recent Reading

by Craig Clarke

A Walk Among the Tombstones
By Lawrence Block

You've got to admire an author who can write about the same character over a period of decades and never have the experiences of that character get old to either a new or long-time reader. Lawrence Block has done this with a few series protagonists, but the one I've been most impressed with is Matthew Scudder. A Walk Among the Tombstones is the tenth novel in the series, and the eighth one I've read. (With 23 Block books read in all, it's safe to say he's a favorite.)

It's not necessary to read them in order, but the character does evolve over the course of the series. The first few books had him as basically a drunk ex-cop who would solve crimes in between blackouts. The fifth, Eight Million Ways to Die, found him entering AA to change his ways, and each successive one has focused on his day-to-day struggles with the bottle. The best novels in the series are among the half-dozen or so after (and including) that one. (His involvement in the case in A Walk Among the Tombstones actually arises from his acquaintance with another AA member.)

During a shopping trip, Kenan Khoury's wife, Francine, is kidnapped by a couple of men driving a blue truck and wearing uniforms, making them virtually invisible to the public, who saw only the truck and uniforms and not their faces. Khoury is a drug trafficker, so he does not want to involve the police. Things go poorly when he does not come up with the million-dollar ransom; Khoury delivers $400,000, and the kidnappers deliver his wife -- in separate pieces wrapped in parcels. Soon they move on to another victim, and it's up to Matt to stop them before they kill again.

Like most Scudder novels, the villain in A Walk Among the Tombstones is one of the more fascinating characters, along with Matt's reluctant assistant, the street smart TJ; Matt's girlfriend, high-class call girl Elaine; and of course Matt himself. The least interesting character by far is Kenan brother Peter Khoury, who seems to have little purpose than to mirror Matt's struggles with addiction -- only Peter is a recovering heroin junkie. The last third of the book is stuffed with suspense as Matt works with the kidnapper over the telephone to get the next victim returned to her family, and a grudging type of respect is forged between the two. The quick ending came as a surprise; I thought there were 20 pages left, but instead there was an excerpt from The Devil Knows You're Dead.

One thing about the series that bothers me, though, is the titles. Some of them are so similar that I get confused as to which ones I've read. I saw this one and A Ticket to the Boneyard at the library, and had to bring them both home until I could check which one I'd read since both titles reference cemeteries. The same with the ones with "Dead" in the title. Have I read The Devil Knows You're Dead or was it A Long Line of Dead Men? Maybe it was In the Midst of Death. Oh, well, the worst that can happen is that I get to reread another Lawrence Block novel, and that's never a bad thing.

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.

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