Home : Ex Libris : 1 January 2007

ex libris reviews

1 January 2007

To my daughter Leonora, without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time.
P.G. Wodehouse


In This Issue:
Ten Years!

ex libris reviews has been a going concern for ten years now. I'm shocked, that's what I am, shocked.

-- Will Duquette

Books to Read Aloud

by Will Duquette

The Sharing Knife: Beguilement
By Lois McMaster Bujold

Bujold is one of our favorite authors. She's one of the few we regularly buy in hardcover; she's also one of the few we regularly read aloud. When a new Bujold comes out, Jane and I expect to devote our evenings (after the kids go to bed) to reading the new book. It usually takes a week or so, although we slammed through a A Civil Campaign in a weekend; the kids were much younger, then, so we could devote more time to it. But I could hardly talk when I was done.

So when Bujold's latest, the first book in a new series, came out, we were thrilled. A few days later, we were less so; it just didn't work well aloud, and we ended up reading the last half separately.

Be warned; this book is much different than Bujold's Vorkosigan novels, or even than the more recent Chalion series. What it is, is an out-and-out fantasy romance. There's an interesting setting, and some neat monsters, but mostly it's about one of those wrong-side-of-the-tracks star-crossed-lovers sort of relationships. And make no mistake--the emphasis is squarely on the relationship, and on each of the principle's thoughts and feelings. That's one reason why it didn't read aloud well--there was so much introspection that the story dragged terribly. I can't fault Bujold for that, as it proved to move along nicely when read silently. (The other problem with reading it aloud had to do with the nature of the text. Her prose usually reads aloud beautifully, but with this book my tongue kept tripping. Odd, that.)

Anyway, a little more about the story. In this world there are two kinds of folk: the Farmers who are fairly settled villagers, farmers, and townsfolk, the kind you've met in a hundred stories, though these seem to have more of an American than a European flavor, and the Lakewalkers, semi-nomadic tribesman who spend their lives "patrolling" for vicious creatures of death the Farmers call "blight bogles" and the Lakewalkers call "malices". Dag, a Lakewalker, rescues Fawn, a young Farmer woman, from a malice's minions and later from the malice itself; though in a nice twist it's Fawn who slays the malice with the "sharing knife" of the title. The deed links the two in a manner I can't describe without spoiling the story; suffice it to say that the two are thrown together and ultimately (of course!) fall in love.

This is not entirely a good thing, as the difference between the Farmers and the Lakewalkers goes far beyond culture. As the first book of The Sharing Knife ends, all seems well but it's clear that Dag and Fawn will have a hard time being accepted in either her world or his.

As I say, it read OK silently, and had some quite good bits in it; but it wasn't what I was hoping for. Oh, well.

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Not Enough Indians
By Harry Shearer

Most of the books I review I've bought myself. But sometimes publishers send me books for review unasked; other times they query whether I might like to review a book first. More often than not, I say no; there's no point in their sending me a book I'm more than likely not going to enjoy. In this case, though, it seemed a good bet. Harry Shearer can be quite a funny guy, in a broad sort of way, as witness This is Spinal Tap. This, his first novel, is about a New York town that's hit the skids after all the factories close. To try and revive things, the townsfolk decide to sell themselves as the remains of an Indian tribe and get into the Indian casino business.

It's an idea that has possibilities. According to the back cover, Carl Hiaasen likes the book. So does Andrei Codrescu and Jamie Lee Curtis. (Jamie Lee Curtis?) So does Kirkus Reviews. Apparently it's delightfully wicked satire, it leaves no sacred ox ungored, it's droll and funny and wonderful. (Curtis says it will leave you "shaking your head in wonder and worry.")

Now, I'm no stranger to funny. P.G. Wodehouse is funny. Terry Pratchett is funny. Lois McMaster Bujold is sometimes extremely funny. Neil Gaiman and Douglas Adams are funny. Even Carl Hiaasen is funny, though his books are so full of sex, sleaze, and tacky people (I sure didn't invite them) that I have trouble enjoying them.

Given all that, all I can say is that I personally found Shearer's book--well, let's be honest, the first 83 pages--to be tiresome, dreary, unfunny, and occasionally simply disgusting. At that point I put it down and I honestly haven't been able to make myself pick it up again.

It isn't simply that it's satire; I rather enjoyed Swift's A Modest Proposal. Most of Pratchett's output is satire. But Shearer's book simply didn't work for me, and there are a couple of images I now have in my head because of it that I sincerely wish I could get rid of. (I won't inflict them on you.)

I dunno. Your mileage may vary. Me, I'd rather read Pratchett and Wodehouse.

By Terry Pratchett

This is the latest of Pratchett's Discworld books, and also the latest in his young adult series about junior witch Tiffany Aching. In this, the latest adventure, Tiffany is unwise enough to dance with the Wintersmith, the (not particularly anthropomorphic) personification of the Disc's season of winter. She's a pretty young girl, and he's your basic age-old anthropomorphic personification who's never danced with a real girl before, and he's rather smitten. Before you know it, it's snowing....well, read it and see. Plus, there's a fair amount of Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg to be had as well. (Of course, there always was a lot of Nanny Ogg to be had, and....ahem.) And, of course, there are the Nac Mac Feegle, who steal the show whenever possible.

Oh, and a cheese named Hector.

All in all, it's not a bad outing; I read it to Jane over the course of a week, with much laughter and merriment. And if Tiffany's larger story doesn't advance much in the course of the present volume, nevertheless some telling foundations are laid for the next one.

In short, well worth your time, if you're a Discworld fan; and not the place to start, if you're not. And if you're not, why aren't you?

From Adams To Stieglitz
By Nancy Newhall

Nancy Newhall was one of the founders of Aperture, an influential photography magazine founded in 1952; an early member of the staff of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the husband of Beaumont Newhall, the preeminent historian of photography and the Department's first curator; an intimate friend of Ansel Adams and other noted photographers of that era; an accomplished photographer in her own right; and a disciple (I think it's not too strong a word) of the aged and eccentric Alfred Stieglitz. She was also an accomplished writer, as this collection of her writings shows clearly. There are articles on Adams, Edward Weston, and Paul Strand, among others, and a great deal of material about Stieglitz, as well as a scattering of pieces on photography in general.

There's lots of interesting stuff here about the development of photography as an art form during the early to mid-20th century; as such, it's a good companion piece to her husband's masterful History of Photography. The main problem--and a serious one for a book about photographers--is that there are very few photographs in it. Every piece begins with one picture, often one taken by Newhall herself; but the pictures she writes of are not present, which can be quite frustrating. And frankly, the emphasis on Stieglitz, while fascinating, is a little creepy.

Anyway, this is clearly not a book for general consumption; but if you're interesting in the history of photography, it's got some interesting material in it.

Sorcery & Cecily -or- The Enchanted Chocolate Pot
By Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer

This is a decidedly odd book. It is dedicated to Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Ellen Kushner, all of whom may be said to have inspired it. Kushner's contribution was through introducing Stevermer to something called "the Letter Game":

I don't know who invented the Letter Game (which I have heard called Persona Letters, or even Ghost Letters) but Ellen Kushner introduced it to me. I believe it originated as an acting exercise, one character writing a letter "in persona" to another.

The game has no rules, except that the players must never reveal their idea of the plot to one another. It helps to imply in the first letter why the two characters must write to each other and not meet in person.

Stevermer and Wrede set out to play such a game, writing letters back and forth in a light-hearted way, when they found it beginning to take over their lives. The story, set in an odd version of Regency England (hence Austen and Heyer) in which wizards and magicians are an established part of the social order, became so detailed that they eventually realized they had a novel on their hands. At that point they went back, cleaned things up, added plot devices here and there in the early letters so they'd be ready to hand when wanted, and like that. The result is both delightful and charming.

The novel takes the form of the correspondence between two young woman, Kate and Cecily, who are first cousins. Kate is in London with her awful Aunt Charlotte for her "coming out"; Cecily is dying to join her, but won't be allowed to come out until the next year at least. There's a mystery--who is the terrible old woman who tried to poison Kate at a meeting of the Royal College of Wizards?--and (naturally), a pair of mysterious young (single) gentlemen. Plus, there are a number of references and phrases (neck cloths, and the knotting thereof; the role of Beau Brummel as the arbiter of taste in dress; the notion of giving someone a "set down") which I first saw in the Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman novels I reviewed a month or so ago, which I'd not noticed at all in Pride and Prejudice; I am forced to conclude that they are staples of the Regency Romance.

Anyway, it was good fun, I enjoyed it considerably; and as it happens there are two sequels. But more of them, anon.

These Three Remain
By Pamela Aidan

This, of course, is the third volume of Aidan's Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman, concluding the trio of An Assembly Such As This and Duty and Desire. As such, it's the volume in which Mr. Darcy concludes that he simply must marry Miss Elizabeth Bennett, is soundly refused, takes a good look at himself, and changes his tune, finally succeeding in his goal. (It was ever thus.) It does a remarkably good job of showing the influences and causes that lead Darcy to so thoroughly change his manner; and does so in a delightfully believable way.

The good folks at Simon & Schuster were kind off to send me a review copy just in time for Christmas, and I read it through, not quite in one sitting, during the long, lazy Saturday of December 23rd. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

In short, if my reviews of the earlier books in the series at all piqued your curiosity, wait no longer....the sequence starts adequately, becomes quite good some way into the first volume, and continues to charm from there to the end. Enjoy.

Mastering Black and White Digital Photography
By Michael Freeman

There's been something of a resurgence in Black and White photography in recent years, due largely to the digital revolution. B&W film photographers had to rely on colored filters applied when making the exposure to bring out or suppress the particular tones that they wished to appear in the final print; this was, and is, something of a black art. Digital photographers can simply shoot the scene in color--and then mix the red, green, and blue channels as desired. The results are considerably more flexible, and the process is much more forgiving. It's this new process that is the subject of this book.

I've come to realize that many photographs of the kind I like to take simply look better in black and white, and so I brought this book home. My feelings about it are mixed. On the one hand, I learned a few things from it, and have made a number of (I think) decent B&W prints as a result. On the other hand, the book has a number of flaws. It is extremely Photoshop-centric, and many of the techniques described simply can't be done in Adobe's entry-level package, Photoshop Elements. I don't have the full version of Photoshop, and I really can't justify spending the money on it at present. (It's surprisingly expensive.) Further, although the book is full of before-and-after pictures they are poorly laid out, too small, and printed so badly that often enough I really can't see much difference between them. I don't know if these presentation problems are the fault of the author or of someone further down the chain; but they are a real shame, as the book would be 100% better if they were taken care of.


By Christopher Paolini

I got a copy of these a few weeks ago, thinking the boys might like it. Then, of course, I had to read it myself, as I was unwilling to give it to them sight unseen, or to begin reading it aloud with having some notion as to whether I'd have to stop in the middle. My final judgement: no harm in giving it to the kids, as the only way to learn to appreciate good books is to read a lot of bad ones.

I just saw (courtesy of Byzantium's Shores) a delightful review of the movie version of Eragon, currently in theaters:

look! a farmboy wow! check out the destiny! instant grown-up dragon! mentor! evil wizard! platonic love interest! minor confrontation! hidden fortress! major confrontation! is she dead?! of course not! come back for the sequel!

Oh, by the way: Spoilers Ahead!

What it is, in fact, is Star Wars, Episode 4 (which I persist in thinking of as just plain Star Wars) transplanted from deep space to your basic Dungeons&Dragons-derived medieval fantasy setting. The parallels are stunning in the first hundred pages or so, then settle out for a while, then resume for the climax.

First, the back story. For a thousand years, give or take a few, peace was kept all over the world by the dragonriders and their dragons. So we have Jedi Knights, with intelligent dragons instead of lightsabers. Then, one of the riders went mad, turned to evil, betrayed his comrades, and made himself Emperor. The power of the dragonriders was broken for ever. So substitute Evil Emperor Galbatorix for Palpatine. However, there's a plucky Rebel Alliance (of humans, elves and dwarves) called the Varden.

Then there's the plot. The tale begins with an elven princess--actually, I don't know that she's a princess, but she's nevertheless an important elf, a member of the Varden, who's transporting something crucial to the success of the rebellion (a dragon egg, as it happens). She's captured by an evil Shade and his horde of Urgals, standing in for Darth Vader and his storm troopers, but manages to magically transport the egg far away. It's picked up by a farmboy named Eragon who doesn't know what it is, but who nevertheless bonds with the dragon when it hatches. Servants of the Emperor kill Eragon's family, and of course he has to avenge them, with the help of Brom, the enigmatic Obi-wan Kenobi figure.

Eragon and his dragon travel with Brom, learning a variety of skills from him, and are eventually captured by the Shade. They escape, first rescuing the Elven Princess (remember her?) although Brom dies in the process. They have help through all of this from a fellow named Murtagh, who's sort-of-kind-of the Han Solo character. They join the Varden, and fight a huge battle against the Shade and his Urgals (with yet more parallels I'm too tired to remember) in which Eragon manages to kill the Shade and save the Varden from utter destruction.

From the final pages of the book it's clear that he's going to begin the next book by going to a wise old sage to complete his training.

The elves and dwarves owe much more to D&D than to Tolkien, but there are a few nods to Tolkien as well, including a near copy of the scene in which Aragorn tells the hobbits a bit of the tale of Beren and Luthien, translating the verses from the Elvish into the common tongue.

In all fairness to Mr. Paolini, he began writing the book when he was 15; it would be more surprising if it weren't horribly shallow and derivative. Given that handicap, it's not too bad. There are some original bits, and he's an OK teller of tales; I wasn't tempted to not finish the book. And I confess I'm curious to know whether there's more originality in the next book, or whether he continues to follow the Star Wars books.

But if you're looking for the next Harry Potter, Eragon ain't it.

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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