2003: 1st Quarter [25]

Perry, Anne. Death in the Devil’s Acre. NY: Fawcett, 1985.

In this seventh novel in the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt high Victorian mystery series, we leave the exclusive circles of high London society for the brothels and slums, where first a seemingly respectable doctor and then Max, the blackmailing footman from Callander Square, are not only murdered but mutilated — and then a third murder brings into play Charlotte’s connections with London’s drawing room society. Perry does a good job in this one, especially in delineating the characters of those whose existence middle class London would rather not know about. (3/27/03)

Perry, Anne. Paragon Walk. NY: Fawcett, 1981.

This is the third in the series, and murder strikes close to home again, this time on Emily’s own street, with the brutal rape and murder of an inoffensive young girl. Then her somewhat smart-mouthed brother disappears, to be found later stuffed up a chimney. Pitt has to solve the crimes before Society freaks out completely, while also trying to clear Emily’s husband of her suspicions. While Perry once again is devastating in her depiction of the Victorian upper middle classes and their preoccupation with manners, clothing, and withdrawing room gossip — and while the introduction of George’s overwhelming Aunt Vespasia is a very good move — the mystery plot itself is not as satisfactory in its conclusion, which involves recreational black magic by bored upper-crusters. (3/24/03)

Perry, Anne. Callander Square. NY: St. Martin, 1980.

A couple of years have passed since the marriage of Charlotte Ellison to Inspector Thomas Pitt, and she has adapted well to her more restricted economic circumstances, while her sister, Emily, has similarly done very well as Lady Ashworth. But Pitt must try to discover what happened to the two infants whose bodies have been dug up in the gardens in the center of fashionable Callander Square, and the two sisters resolve to assist him in rather ingenious ways. In a way, this second book in the series is a superior sort of soap opera, investigating the relationships within the families who live on the Square, uncovering their numerous scandals, and making it clear that wealth and privilege are no guarantee of personal quality. Some of the families are divided or devastated by Pitt’s investigations, and by the additional murders that take place, while others are reunited and perhaps improved. And the plot is again well laid and logically developed. (3/18/03)

Perry, Anne. The Cater Street Hangman. NY: Random House, 1979.

My wife is a great fan of the Charlotte Pitt / Inspector Thomas Pitt mystery series. She often asks for clarifying information about the details of Victorian society, and retails bits of business and dialogue from the stories, and she finally got me interested, too. And I have to say, this first one, which introduces all the principal characters, is quite good. Charlotte’s two sisters, Sarah and Emily, her parents, Edward and Caroline, her brother-in-law, Dominic, and Emily’s intended, Sir George Ashworth — all are drawn in fine, fully rounded narrative and descriptive lines. And Charlotte herself, of course, is a fascinating person, as is Thomas Pitt, with whom she becomes acquainted during the search for a serial killer apparently living in their own neighborhood. Perry does an excellent job delineating the caste system of late 19th century London society, with women living almost in purdah and under a rigid double moral standard. Not to forget the mystery plot, either, which is well thought out and developed. (3/13/03)

Cherryh, C. J. Downbelow Station. NY: DAW, 1981.

I first met Carolyn Cherry(h) at AggieCon in the late ‘70s, when she was still teaching school in Oklahoma and had just completed her first novel, Brothers of Earth. She had written that book in a sort of social vacuum, with no notion of the existence of the fannish world and was amazed at the warm reception she received from a bunch of enthusiastic strangers. That book and its sequels, plus the “Morgaine” trilogy, made me a fan and I enjoyed her work for years, including this first installment in the Merchanter series when it first appeared. Unfortunately, success seems to have made her lazy in recent years and she has recently been churning out interminable formulaic series, often sharing the credit with younger writers, and I find most of those efforts to be unreadable. Anyway. Downbelow Station showcases Cherry’s inarguable talent for complex but understandable geopolitical plots, many-layered characterization, and truly alien cultures that humans are never really going to fully understand. There are several sides to the conflict here: The Company, now in charge of an isolationist Earth; the Fleet, once the enforcement arm of the Company but now pretty much independent; Union, formed out of the farther worlds of the Beyond and possessed of a new psychological style completely foreign to Earth; Pell, a station circling a planet which circles Tau Ceti, and which only wants to left alone; and the free Merchanters, making a living hauling goods between the worlds and the stations. Pell is a civilized republic in the best tradition, but they’re about to lose all that. Mazian’s Fleet has been on its own devices for far too long to have a regard for any other culture and is quite willing to destroy a station and all its thousands of inhabitants in order to keep it out of Union’s hands. And Union is a chilling example of nascent fascism based on state-controlled cloning. The Merchanters, who are the focus of most of the later books in this universe, must find a way to work together if they are to survive at all. Peopling this tumultuous plot are the Konstantin family, the sort-of Medicis of Pell, willing to believe the best of others and appalled at what power-seekers are doing to their station, especially the Lukas family. And there’s Capt. Mallory of Fleet carrier Norway, a bloody-minded commander who nevertheless hews to her own kind of morality. And the hisa, the indigines of Downbelow, whose nonviolent assistance to Pell becomes crucial as the story progresses. And Jessad, the Union agent who has his own agenda on Pell. And Josh Talley, ex-Union agent who wants to find a new home there — or maybe he’s not so “ex.” And there’s a large supporting cast, all of them also exceptionally well developed. This is a fat book, more than 500 pages, but it never slows down and you’ll never lose interest. Definitely one of Cherryh’s best. (3/10/03)

Pullman, Philip. The Amber Spyglass. (His Dark Marerials, Book 3). NY: Knopf, 2000.

I can’t recall another trilogy in which I so enjoyed the first two volumes (see my earlier reviews) and was so thoroughly disappointed in the finale. Lyra (now called Silvertongue) and Will Parry are back in Lyra’s world this time, gearing up for the final battle between Good and Evil, trying to reach Lord Asriel, who commands the forces of humankind against the malevolence of God. Lyra was kidnapped by her mother at the end of Book 2 and has now been stashed in the Himalayas, and Will has to rescue her. He just happens to meet up with the migrating armored bears, who promise to help. Will’s long lost father also has a key role — there’s no such thing as a chance encounter in this universe — and so is Dr. Mary Malone from our own world. So far, so good. But by the halfway point in the narrative, we’re involved with angels who have very human characteristics and whom I found totally unbelievable as what they are supposed to be, and the pace has slowed to a frustrating crawl. Frankly, I couldn’t finish the book, which was very upsetting after all the time I invested in the story and the pleasure I drew from it until now. (3/06/03)

McEwan, Ian. First Love, Last Rites. NY: Random House, 1975.

McEwan is a master of the strange, odd, and peculiar. Of the eight stories in this collection of his early work, the best are the infamous “Homemade,” which is rather humorous and only partly about incest, and “Last Day of Summer,” which is very well told and displays the author’s outstanding ability to develop characters with no wasted effort, and which has a dreadful ending. Not bad, merely dreadful. “Butterflies” is a spooky bit of psychopathology. “Conversations with a Cupboard Man” is another excursion into a warped personality, and you can understand exactly how this poor guy ended up the way he is. The title story, “First Love, Last Rites,” is not the best, being an aimless sort of tale about being young and poor and semi-in-love, with eel-trapping and rat-catching thrown in. “Disguises” was a bit hard to read at first, being written in a sort of stream-of-consciousness style, but it gets better — much better. McEwan obviously has a thing for aberrant mental and social development. “Solid Geometry” is probably the weakest piece here, a sort-of science fiction story that telegraphs its ending in about the third paragraph. “Cocker at the Theatre,” on the other hand, is a truly hilarious short-short. (3/04/03)

Pullman, Philip. The Subtle Knife. (His Dark Materials, Book 2) NY: Random House, 1997.

Many trilogies suffer from having a weak middle volume, but that certainly isn’t the case here. Where The Golden Compass was set entirely in an alternate universe and told the adventures of young Lyra Belacqua, at the beginning of this volume we meet Will Parry, a boy of our own world with his own quest. The two connect in Ci’gazze, a third world adjoining their own universes, a place haunted by Specters and mobs of vicious children, torn asunder by Lord Asriel’s bridge-building. But we also find out what Asriel is really up to: He wants to reopen the war between Mankind and God, to liberate Man from the Authority. And Lyra’s nemesis, Mrs. Coulter, is aligned with the Church on the other side. We find out what Dust is in our terms, and why it (and the Specters) are attracted to adults but not to children. And we meet both Dr. Mary Malone, physicist and specialist in “dark matter,” and John Parry, explorer and shaman in the world of Ci’gazze. The strong characterization and narrative vigor of the story are remarkable and you’d better have Volume Three ready to hand when you finish this one. (2/22/03)

Pullman, Philip. The Golden Compass. (His Dark Materials, Book 1) NY: Random House, 1995.

Partly because I’m a librarian, I’ve been reading children’s literature and young adult books all my life, and the mark of a successful YA story is that it’s just as enjoyable and satisfying for an adult as for a kid. In this first volume of a trilogy, Pullman definitely meets that standard. It’s described as a “fantasy,” but it’s actually an alternate universe tale, and that becomes explicit late in the book. Lyra Belacqua is an eleven-year-old terror living in Jordan College in her world’s version of Oxford University, lording it over the servant-class kids, staging mud battles with the “gyptian” kids who work the narrowboats on the river, and generally having a good old time. Then (by being where she shouldn’t be) she overhears her uncle, Lord Asriel, an extremely dominating character, tell the Jordan Scholars about the Aurora in the far north, and the origin of Dust, and the possibility of building a bridge to the other world that’s visible through the Aurora. And Lyra’s life suddenly becomes much more interesting and dangerous (and cold). She’s marked out by her special abilities with the alethiometer, which always tells the truth, and by her ability to get around anyone. Pullman has created some terrific characters here, especially Iorek Byrnison, the king of the armored bears, and the viciously evil Mrs. Coulter, and Serafina Pekkala, the witch queen. The evil forces in this book come from the Church, which I don’t find at all difficult to accept. (Pullman has been condemned by numerous established religious groups for his opinions and viewpoints.) Most fascinating of all, though, is the concept of the daemon, a sort of human soul outside the person, which takes the shape of an animal and which is intimately connected with its human in a way that’s difficult for the daemon-less to fully understand. But having a daemon is what defines a human being and it’s the most fundamental difference between Lyra’s world and ours. (2/19/03)

Collins, Max Allan. Road to Perdition. NY: Pocket Books, 2002.

Graphic novels are difficult to review (for me), since one has to consider both the art and the story. In this case, the nicely restrained and carefully shaded black-and-white line drawings ensure that Collins’s storytelling gets center-stage. The plot is straightforward: Michael O’Sullivan is a hit man for the Looney mob in Rock Island, Illinois, in 1930, with close ties to Capone in Chicago. Purely from ignorant curiosity, Michael Jr. sneaks along on one of his dad’s “missions” and sees things he ought not to have seen. Which leads to the death of his mother and brother at the hands of Looney’s psychopathic son. Which means bloody vengeance by Michael Sr. It all rolls along with the inevitability of Greek tragedy. No super-heros, no heroics of any kind — just cold revenge. This is one of the best graphic novels I’ve seen yet, in all its aspects. (2/15/03)

Cornwell, Bernard. Vagabond. NY: HarperCollins, 2002.

This is the sequel to The Archer’s Tale, the second novel of the adventures of Thomas of Hookton, English archer in the wars with France during the 1340s, and of his involvement in a quest for the Grail. The author is masterful in his descriptions of medieval warfare, and also in his delineations of character, whether of Thomas and his friend, Robbie Douglas, or of their implacably vicious enemy, Father Bernard Taillebourg, or of minor figures like the deeply wounded Will Skeat and the impressively ambitious Cardinal Bessières. The story begins with the Battle of Neville’s Cross, just outside Durham, and ends with the startling defeat of Charles, Duke of Blois. Startling, because Charles was intelligent and did everything right, and ought to have won — but no battle plan, as they say, ever survives contact with the enemy. Perhaps what I like best about this series is that Cornwell gives as much attention to the minutiae of everyday existence in the 14th century as to the great battles, and that even with the Grail figuring importantly in the plot, there’s no hint of mysticism or the supernatural on the part of the omniscient narrator. I’m waiting for the third volume! (2/13/03)

Ang, Tom. Digital Photographer’s Handbook. NY: DK Publishing, 2002.

As a relatively novice photographer (haven’t owned one since my old Brownie Hawkeye) with some knowledge of computers and a new digital camera, I’ve been working my way through as many books on digicams and image-editing software as I can find. Some are pretty general, some are more specialized, but most seem to repeat the same mostly superficial information and advice on both photography and digital editing. This book is the great exception! Ang is a very talented photographer and this lushly printed (and therefore relatively expensive) volume is crammed with his work, but he’s also a very good teacher. The first part of the book, under the heading of “Total Photography,” is a mini-course in types of cameras and lenses, lighting, optical physics, and the essential practical differences in using film-based and digital cameras. (There’s also a survey of information on specific models of cameras, printers, and scanners, which will soon be outdated and which might have been omitted.) The second section, “Photography for the Digital Age,” leads you through such topics as composition, zoom, optical distortion, color balance, and how to avoid or at least fix the most common mistakes; I learned a great deal from his clear explanations and visual examples. “A Compendium of Ideas” is almost a separate book, being an excursion through all the major categories of subjects that interest people with cameras, from buildings and travel to microphotography and high-speed sports; you’ll want to return to this section now and then for leisurely browsing. “Radical Conversions” and “All about Image Manipulation” are worth the price of the book all by themselves, with very clear and often very detailed discussions of issues which I’m sure are old hat to experienced shutterbugs but which are new and often perplexing to me, including proper cropping, burning-in and dodging, sharpening, blurring, cross-processing, color vs. black-and-white, and lots of others. Ang is quite good at balancing received photographic wisdom with new digital ideas. He also gets deeply into such computer-specific subjects as levels, cloning, and the differences and similarities between channels, layers, and masks. (He seems not to have much use for such glitzy effects-filter tricks as stained glass and embossing filters, with which I have to agree.) “The Output Adventure” is very good on getting the color on your monitor to agree with the color your printer produces, and there’s a final section on portfolios, copyrights, and the business of photography. I can’t recommend this one highly enough. (2/07/03)

Better Homes & Gardens. More from Your Wok. Des Moines: Meredith Crop, 1982.

Saying it again: I’m an avid but picky reader and collector of cookbooks and, being diabetic, I’m also always on the look-out for tasty low-fat, low-carb recipes. I’ve had a lot of luck over the years with Better Homes & Gardens cookbooks, and this one generally lives up to that standard. The opening section on tools and cooking methods is especially good, and you also can apply almost all of it to skillet-cooking (I don’t even own a wok). And only a small part of the book is actually concerned with stir-frying — but that’s the point. Many of the recipes weren’t new, but some were (to me): Pepperoni-Vegetable Supper, Spinach in Sour Cream Sauce, and Horseradish Ribs were quite good. On the other hand, what they call “Jambalaya” isn’t, and the idea of sweet-and-sour fish has no appeal whatever! (2/05/03)

Stir-Fry Etc. (Meals for Life). Minnetonka, MN: Cy De Cosse, 1996.

I’m an avid but picky reader and collector of cookbooks and, being diabetic, I’m also always on the look-out for tasty low-fat, low-carb recipes. This new one “from the Kitchens of Healthy Choice Foods” will have a place on my primary kitchen bookshelf. I don’t own a wok but I’ve already prepared several of these quite successfully in a large, flat-bottomed skillet, so don’t let lack of specialized equipment stop you. Particularly good were the Lemon Chicken (of which there are several versions), the Spicy Beef with Peppers & Oranges, and the Shrimp Curry. Even the Celery Root, which doesn’t appeal to me at all, at least looks interesting, as does the Orange Scallops. On the other hand, there are a few puzzlers: What does a quartered acorn squash fixed in a casserole have to do with stir-fry. . . ? (2/04/03)

Grafton, Sue. Q Is for Quarry. NY: Putnam, 2002.

This seventeenth installment in the Kinsey Milhone series is something of a departure both for Kinsey and for the author. The detective, while loyal to her few close friends, is essentially a loner, especially when she’s working, but this time she’s linked up with two retired cops in attempting to solve an eighteen-year-old murder. And Grafton has based her story on the true unsolved murder in 1969 of a teenage girl whose body turned up in a quarry near Lompoc, California. In fact, a picture of the victim’s reconstructed face is included in hopes a reader will have information. The plot is well constructed, as usual in Grafton’s work, with the story’s progression revolving around the routine investigations that make up most real detective work. Kinsey seldom gets involved in a shoot-out. And right down to the last few pages, there are still several strong possibilities for the killer, so even if you think you know whodunnit, you won’t be sure. Grafton is also very good at delineating the details of character development. But not everything in this book is perfect and, in fact, the author seems to be getting a bit sloppy as the series ages. As I have complained in my reviews of her previous books, Grafton habitually over-describes. Kinsey doesn’t just make coffee, she takes the lid off the can, gets the measuring spoon out of the drawer, measures out the coffee, puts the lid back on, turns on the tap, fills a glass with water, pours the water into the reservoir of the coffee-maker, turns it on, . . etc. This book could have been 25% shorter — and better — without losing anything important if Grafton had a copyeditor willing to argue with a millionaire bestselling author. (2/03/03)

Chiang, Ted. Stories of Your Life, and Others. NY: Tor, 2002.

I gave up a decade ago on trying to keep up with the science fiction magazines, so I only recently became aware of Ted Chiang’s wide range of ideas and considerable proficiency at communicating them. There are eight stories in this anthology; all of them are at least good and several are excellent. Perhaps the best is the title piece, “Story of Your Life,” which is also the only one I had previously read. It’s about simultaneity vs. sequentiality and free will vs. predestination, with a strong taste of the sort of notions regarding time that Vonnegut originally made use of in Slaughterhouse Five. “Tower of Babylon” is sort of Babylonian science fiction, about the building of a mud-brick tower that takes four months to ascend and which reaches all the way to the vaults of heaven. An intriguing yarn, though the ending is a little weak. “Understand” is an interesting kind of riff on Flowers for Algernon, but with the implications very much updated. “Division by Zero” is about the effect on a woman mathematician who discovers (and proves) that the basic principals of math are quite arbitrary and inconsistent. While it’s a good psychological portrait, and also vividly presents some (to me) novel ideas, the math and the character development really have nothing to do with each other. “Seventy-Two Letters” is set in an alternate Victorian London in which nomenclature, the act of bestowing names on things, has become an experimental science. There’s a certain Bruce Sterling flavor here, but it’s really not at all derivative. “The Evolution of Human Science” is a short-short that originally appeared in Nature. I’m not sure I got the point of it, frankly, though it has a rather neat twisty ending. “Hell Is the Absence of God” is another terrific tale of an alternate world in which the souls of the deceased can be seen ascending or descending, Hell is often visible just below street level, and miracles are a regular news item. But a visitation by an angel (tracked by CB) is just as likely to kill an innocent bystander with an exploding window as to restore sight to the blind. Moreover, the whole God and salvation thing is entirely happenstantial, arbitrary, and without justice of any kind; a convicted child-killer who sees the Light goes to Heaven after his execution, while the victim of two previous miracles — the first crippling, the second restorative — receives a wasted third miracle she doesn’t want or need. This is a quietly angry story and, as a thoroughgoing secularist who is frequently pissed off by smug santimony, I really enjoyed it. “Liking What You See: A Documentary” is a very thoughtful and insightful examination of the misuse of beauty, of the effects of “lookism,” and of the ruthlessness of media advertising. Very nicely done. In all, I have to say that while Chiang doesn’t always get it quite right, he’s certainly well above the average. I’m definitely going to have to keep up with his future work. (1/30/03)

O’Brian, Patrick. Blue at the Mizzen. NY: Norton, 1999.

Until the very last couple of pages in this twentieth and last volume of the Aubrey-Maturin saga, I was unsure of the implications of the book’s title. But I was pleased to find that Jack’s “flag-sickness” has been appeased. With the Napoleonic wars ended, the captain of the Surprise has had to go to revolutionary Chile to find ways of continuing to build his reputation, this time in the development of the infant republic’s navy. There is a fine ship-to-ship action against a much larger Spanish vessel, and all the usual trials and tribulations of beating around the Horn. Moreover, the recently widowed Dr. Maturin has a much larger part this time even than usual, in his slightly odd pursuit of Christine Wood, widow of the governor of Sierra Leone and a noted naturalist in her own right. A mid-life crisis? We don’t know how all that will turn out, unfortunately. It’s sad that there will be no more installments to the story, but this is a reasonably satisfying conclusion. (1/21/03)

O’Brian, Patrick. The Hundred Days. NY: Norton, 1998.

This nineteenth installment in the series is something of a return to the blood-and-thunder days of the earlier volumes, as Jack Aubrey, pausing at Madeira with his family before setting off on a putative hydrographic expedition to Chile (as always when Dr. Maturin is involved, there’s a good deal more here than meets the eye), is told of Bonaparte’s escape from Elba — and is ordered to hoist his commodore’s pennant once more, to take command of all the available ships in the area, and to repair at once to Gibraltar to seal up the Med and protect Allied shipping. Then he’s off to the Adriatic to disable the French ship-building activities in the region and to cut off the shipment of an astonishing amount of gold from North Africa to the Balkan Moslems to encourage them to intercede on the Emperor’s behalf against the Russians and Austrians. Okay, there’s a lot of politics here — but it’s a side of the last days of the Napoleonic Empire most of us know little if anything about, and there’s plenty of skullduggery on Stephen Maturin’s part as well as naval action against an Algerine galley. And not to forget the Adventure of the Unicorn’s Horn and the Hand of Glory, which is one of the falling-down funniest episodes O’Brian has ever produced. On the other hand, there are two quite shocking deaths, too, one early in the book and one late, . . . but that, as they say, is life. An excellent entry in the saga. (1/18/03)

O’Brian, Patrick. The Yellow Admiral. NY: Norton, 1996.

This eighteenth volume in the Aubrey-Mathurin saga is relatively action-less. For once, Jack has been assigned to routine post-captain’s duty in the Brest blockade squadron, sailing back and forth for weeks on end. I don’t believe the great guns are ever once fired in anger in this book. But, however (as they say), there’s a lot here for the faithful reader of the series — mostly domestic, with Jack being caught in an old adultery, as he says, “without a leg to stand on,” but getting back with Sophie eventually. It’s 1814, and with peace about to break out, Jack is very worried about his lack of a professional future, wholly expecting to be “yellowed” — being made admiral in time but given no command — having unfortunately crossed his admiral, whose nephew wants to enclose the common on Jack’s manor. (Think agribusiness and economies of scale vs. the family farm.) Perhaps he can increase his professional stock by hiring out to develop a new navy for revolutionary Chile. . . . Stephen spends a good deal of time ashore in France tending to intelligence matters, but we get no details. But on the very last page, Napoleon escapes from Elba, and all bets are off! (1/14/03)

O’Brian, Patrick. The Commodore. NY: Norton, 1994.

Jack Aubrey has had experience of high command before, in the Mauritius campaign, but this time he’s a commodore of the first class, with a post captain under him and a rear admiral’s hat. The other themes here are slavery and sodomy — the first because he has been sent to clean out the prohibited slave trade on the West African coast, and the second because one of the other captains in the squadron under his command has completely disrupted the discipline of his ship with favoritism based on his personal sexual preferences. Stephen’s joy at being able to explore the fauna and flora of Dahomey are interrupted by a bout of yellow fever, but, as Jack notes, it would take more than that to do the doctor in. Jack and Stephen also both have domestic problems to deal with. All in all, however, this is one of the less satisfying in this otherwise magnificent epic series, less of an adventure novel and more of an opportunity for the author to moralize. (1/10/03)

Better Homes & Gardens Treasured Recipes. Des Moines: Meredith Books, 2000.

The magazine’s editors began the Better Homes & Gardens Prize Tested Recipes Contest in 1923 and it has been a popular source of inspiration for home cooks ever since. This volume offers more than two hundred of the best from the past seventy-five years — though, presumably because of changes in tastes, most actually date from the 1970s and later. Along with a large number of excellent recipes, many of them enticingly photographed, there are fascinating bits of culinary trivia: the circumstances behind the introduction of sangria, zucchini, and Belgian waffles to the U.S., the ups and downs of coffee-drinking, the invention of instant biscuit mix, the fudge brownie, and white chocolate, and many other subjects of interest. As always with the magazine, the recipes are clear and easily reproducible. (1/09/03)

O’Brian, Patrick. The Wine-Dark Sea. NY: Norton, 1993.

Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, having sailed off on a combination privateering and intelligence mission in the Surprise back in the twelfth novel in the saga, finally are nearly home again — and this is installment number sixteen! It’s hard to believe, too, that after so many volumes, with at least one circumnavigation and any number of roundings of Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope, we find Britain still embroiled in what we in the States refer to as the War of 1812. And what a journey this book narrates, from the witnessing of a new volcanic island and capture of a most irregular privateer in the mid-Pacific, to anxious flight through the Andes by mule and llama, to yet another encounter with ice-islands in the south Atlantic. Although the plotting seems thin at times and lacking in useful details, the narration is as adroit as ever, especially in the author’s patented style of understatement. Not his best work by far, but very much worth reading. (1/08/03)

Russell, Gary. The Lord of the Rings: The Art of the Fellowship of the Ring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

I loved The Fellowship of the Ring, not only for the story itself but for the way Peter Jackson brought it into being as faithfully as possible to the book, within the bounds of cinematic necessity. This meant a great deal in the way of SFX that would not have been possible even a very few years ago. The second disk of the DVD set handles that subject very nicely, but there’s also the more traditional part of behind-the-scenes, which is the design, costuming, prop-making, and makeup art of the picture. This volume is a very nice collection of drawings, matte paintings, models, and other art work, from early concepts to final choices. In fact, my only complaint is that it should have been at least three times as long! There will be a second companion volume for The Two Towers, and I shall buy that one, too. (1/06/03)

O’Brian, Patrick. The Truelove. NY: Norton, 1992.

This fifteenth novel in the series is not one of the author’s better efforts, I’m afraid. The Surprise has just left Sidney Cove when a female stowaway is discovered in the cable tier. She turns out to be Clarissa, a transported convict under the protection of Midshipman Oakes (for which almost no explanation is given), to whom she is quickly married. (Clarissa Oakes, in fact, was the English title of this volume, and I have no idea why they changed it.) Most of the remainder of the book is taken up with the ship’s progress across the South Seas and, although there is a land battle at the very end (and even that experienced at one remove), the bulk of the story is an exploration of Clarissa’s character and how it was formed, as well as the extremely divisive effects of her somewhat warped personality on the ship’s officers and company. As usual, O’Brian shows great skill in narrating a plethora of overlapping subplots, both supporting and complementary, most of them depending on the shifting relationships among the inhabitants of a closed universe — a ship at sea for weeks and months at a time out of sight of land — and for that reason the book is certainly worth reading. But if you’re in search of a more usual naval adventure, this isn’t quite it. (1/04/03)

Turow, Scott. Reversible Errors. NY: Farrar, Straus, 2002.

I’ve been a fan of Scott Turow’s writing since his law school memoir, One L, which he published in 1977 — ten years before his first novel. He has a terrific talent for incrementally developing his characters, slowly introducing the reader into their minds and lives, as he demonstrates again with Muriel Wynn, the driven chief deputy prosecuting attorney, and Larry Starczek, a talented homicide detective. The two of them have been having a largely destructive relationship for many years, and while neither of them is really a “bad guy,” they’re aren’t entirely good guys, either. In other words, they’re real people. The same is true of Arthur Raven, the corporate attorney who gets appointed by the federal court to be counsel for Rommy “Squirrel” Gandolph in the last round of appeals on his way to execution. Arthur, who is a bundle of personal problems and contradictions, is nevertheless the closest thing in this story to a wholly innocent person. Then there’s Gillian Sullivan, the ex-judge who originally sentenced Gandolph, but who subsequently went down for bribery and is only recently out of prison herself; she is in many ways an admirable person at base, trying hard to rediscover her place in a much more limited world with Arthur’s help. As always, Turow also builds a complex but wholly believable mystery plot — rather slowly at the beginning of the book but gathering speed by page 100 — doling out reasonable clues but not really giving anything away. (This ain’t Agatha Christie.) While the author still indulges in a number of minor but annoying grammatical idiosyncrasies, and often seems to have trouble making his verb tenses agree, I will continue to look forward eagerly to his next novel. (1/02/02)

Published on 22 November 2009 at 12:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

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