April 30, 2003

Ex Libris Reviews

The May Issue of Ex Libris Reviews is now available for your reading pleasure.

Posted by Will Duquette at 05:10 PM | Comments(0)

April 29, 2003

Spirited Away, by Miyazaki Hayao

In his lesser known story Smith of Wooton Major, J.R.R. Tolkien has much to say about the land of Faerie, much that's been mostly forgotten by modern purveyors of fantasy. Faerie is, of course, the land of the Fair Folk, the Fairies, a dangerous breed about as unlike Tinkerbelle as it is possible to be. Faerie lies "beyond the fields we know" as Lord Dunsany said in The King of Elfland's Daughter; a man might wander all his days the wild world over and never enter its halls, or he might find it in the forest over the hill.

The essence of Faerie is that it is not for mortal men, though mortals might stray there. It is a perilous realm, where man or woman might meet their death, or find their heart's desire never to find it again. It has its rules, but they are not for mortals to know; and often they change capriciously from place to place and from person to person. It is a place where almost anything can happen and in which few things can be explained--a place of high fantasy.

Ironically, few fantasy authors have spent much time there. This is largely Tolkien's own fault; he was a painstaking systematizer, and The Lord of the Rings consequently has little of Faerie in it. (The Blessed Realm of Valinor, the land of the Valar, has a stronger flavor of Faerie, in that mortals are forbidden to enter it, but even Valinor is too well mapped and understood to be truly a part of the Perilous Realm.) Tolkien's followers have written many books ostensibly set in Faerie and featuring such luminaries as Oberon and Titania and the Puck, but even this is no guarantee of success. Faerie has best been captured, in my reading, by George MacDonald and Lord Dunsany. H.P. Lovecraft knew something of its darker corners, and Neil Gaiman might well be a changeling.

I've often written about my notions of the Big Story and the Small Story. It's the nature of Faerie that stories about that realm are necessarily Small Stories, concerned with the fate of individuals rather than the fate of worlds. And this is a good thing, for individuals are as varied as snowflakes, whereas systematized fantasy worlds are driven by the demands of narrative causality into a dreadful sameness.

Over at Banana Oil, Ian Hamet has recently begun a series of essays about his favorite film makers--the ones he considers to be absolutely top-tier. And the first essay in the series concerns Japanese animator Miyazaki Hayao (or Hayao Miyazaki, as he more usually called here in the West). Now, I know about as much about Japanese animation as you can fit in a thimble without removing your finger; I figure reading Ian's essay just about doubled my knowledge of the subject. But I was intrigued: here's a maker of cartoons, for goodness sake, and Ian ranks him as one of the greatest film makers in history. I can't even dismiss Ian as an anime bigot, because (IIRC) Miyazaki is the only animator on the list.

It so happens that Miyazaki's latest film, Spirited Away, just won an Academy Award over Lilo and Stitch (a movie I love); that Spirited Away was seen in this country largely due to the efforts of John Lasseter, the genius behind Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. and a man whom I greatly respect as a storyteller; and that Spirited Away has just been released on DVD.

As I say, I was intrigued; and so last week I went out and got a copy. And last night, after the kids were in bed, I slipped it into the DVD player, and pressed "play", and...stepped into Faerie.

It's a Japanese-flavored Faerie, mind you, with Japanese names and Japanese architecture, and Japanese spirits, but Faerie nonetheless. And it's a stunningly beautiful place.

The story is, in one sense, an old one. A young woman's beloved is captured by the Queen of Faerie; she steals him back at great risk to herself, defeating the Queen of Faerie in the process. In Miyazaki's vision this tale is transformed. The young woman becomes a spoiled, petulant young girl; the beloved becomes the girl's parents; and the Queen of Faerie is a witch who runs a bathhouse where the gods of Japan come to be refreshed. The girl enters Faerie in the usual way: by accident. She and her parents are driving to their new home--

I must digress for a moment. The movie is set in Japan. The food is Japanese; the signs are in Japanese; the cars drive on the left side of the road. How come the girl and her parents look caucasian? But anyway--

She and her parents are driving to their new home, and take a wrong turn down a dirt road. They come to a high wall pierced by a long dark tunnel; the tunnel entrance is guarded by a stone idol. Despite the girl's misgivings, they walk through the tunnel and into another place, and therein hangs the tale. I could go on, but it wouldn't avail me anything--much of the allure and the delight of the film lie in details that are wholly unexplained.

To say that I'm impressed by Spirited Away would be an understatement. Most animated features (including Pixar's excellent films) are children's stories; by comparison, Spirited Away has the stuff of a full-fledged novel; it's kid stuff only in that the main character is a young girl, and the movie contains no sex to speak of. Oh, and it's about courage, fortitude, love, and personal integrity, instead of the more "adult" themes of cynicism, disillusionment, and despair.

I really can't do this film justice. I'm no film buff, nor am I a student of Japanese animation; and any attempt I'd make to describe the beauty of the background paintings would be doomed to failure. You'd have to watch it for yourself.

So go find a copy and watch it. I'm looking forward to seeing it again, and I dearly wish I'd seen it in the theater. And I'll definitely be looking for other Miyazaki titles.

Posted by Will Duquette at 09:57 PM | Comments(1)

April 28, 2003

The Children of the Storm, by Elizabeth Peters

A Disclaimer up front: This review is NOT going to include any kind of plot description. The book is in hardback and I have 3 co-workers who will hurt me if I give away the plot before they get the book.

This is the next installment of the Amelia Peabody series. It's great. If you have the cash and can't get it due to waiting lists in the library, go and get it. Otherwise, I guess you'll have to wait for paper.

Posted by Deb English at 04:59 PM | Comments(0)

April 27, 2003

The Golden One, by Elizabeth Peters

This is the most recent Amelia Peabody mystery but one, just fresh out in paperback. Deb English gets them from the library in hardcover, so she reviewed this one quite some time ago, and I'm afraid I'm too lazy to look up what she said.

But anyway, I liked it. Parts of it were purely absurd (if very much in keeping with the traditions of the series), and over all I think it's the best of the most recent few episodes. All the familiar players are there, and there's considerable obfuscation, and the bad guys get what's coming to them, and so forth.

If you're not familiar with Amelia Peabody, this is not the book to start with; go to our Elizabeth Peters page and find out more.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:55 PM | Comments(0)

April 26, 2003

"Oh, the Humanity!", Take Two

"OH, THE HUMANITY!" Take Two: As everyone knows but me (where "everyone" means the two people who wrote me), the phrase "Oh, the humanity!" dates back to at least 1937. Iam Hamet of Banana Oil put it this way:

The earliest instance of it I ever encountered was the radio broadcast from the Hindenberg disaster when the commentator, at a loss for words and with genuine anguish cried out this very phrase. His reflexive usage makes me think it was a common phrase at the time.

Thanks also to Lynn Sislo, who's 99% sure the reporter was Edward R. Murrow. She's got a blog called Reflections in d minor which I'll be taking a look at.

Update: Alas, the 1% case came up. According to Stasia, the reporter's name is Herbert Morrison; she cites this site.

Posted by Will Duquette at 09:15 PM | Comments(1)

April 25, 2003

"Oh, the Humanity!"

Has anybody tracked how the expression "Oh, the humanity!" because a cliche cry of horror and dismay? I first heard it, so far as I can recall, maybe five years ago, and I assumed that it was a silly riff on "Oh, the inhumanity!" If anybody has any ideas please e-mail me, as I've been curious about this for some time.

But any way, I'm crying "Oh, the humanity!" because Jane's new computer arrived today, and naturally it runs Windows XP, and I'm the guy who gets to set it up.

For the last six or seven years, Jane's been using a Gateway desktop machine. It was bought as "our" computer, and was pretty ritzy when it was new; at that time, it had the best graphics hardware I'd ever seen. Jane used it for personal finance and her tax accounting work; I used it for games, digital photography, and programming projects. We both used it for the Internet. Then I got a laptop and started doing almost everything but Internet access from it. And then three years later I replaced it with another laptop, which I now have, and about six months ago I started doing all of my Internet access from it. Meanwhile, Jane's had this crufty old desktop Windows 98 desktop with all sorts of garbage installed on it, and lots of stability problems.

So, in the interests of conserving space, we ordered her a laptop, and it arrived today.

Windows XP is better than I feared, in most ways; it's certainly more tractable than Windows ME. And the machine's power blows mine out of the water; it's pretty sweet.

But there's a bad apple in every barrel, and the bad apple showed up when I started trying a copy my collection of digital photos (family snapshots, mostly) from my laptop to hers...or, more precisely, from the backup CDs I've been burning to her computer. Every so often it would find a file on the CD that it simply wasn't willing to read. I put the same CD in my old machine, and was able to load the erring files...but the picture was corrupted in each case. So either the CD was bad to begin with, or the new laptop's CD drive was damaging it. The new laptop's drive is a CDRW drive, so the latter is possible, but it seems really unlikely. So I grabbed a couple more CDs I'd burned and checked those; they had problems too. Ouch.

I ended up copying the pictures from one laptop to the other, 100 MB at a time, swapping my external Zip drive back and forth.

All this left me with a question: was it the old drive, the new drive, or the cheap CDR media I'd been using? So I decided on an experiment. I took an unused CDR from the spindle, and burned a disk full of photos using the new laptop's CDRW drive. Then I attempted to copy the contents back onto the new laptop's hard disk. It didn't work! The disk I had just burned was unreadable. OK, says I; I found an unused Verbatim-brand CDR I'd gotten ages ago, and tried it again. It got about a third of the way through the disk, and hung there. I had to reboot the machine just to extract the bad CD. Interesting, no?

That, by the way, is my primary complaint about the new machine and OS so far--it doesn't cope with CD problems very well. Of course, if the CD drive itself is faulty then it's not entirely Windows XP's fault if it doesn't behave properly.

Now, the Verbatim discs are pretty old; they are 74 minute discs while the current standard is 80 minutes; it's possible (though scary) that they've degraded over time. Also, some peculiar things had happened with the first disc, and I hadn't rebooted. I decided, I could easily afford to destroy another disc, so I rebooted and tried it again.

It recorded just fine, so far as I could tell.

I put the new disc in my old machine, and copied its contents to the hard disk. No problems--but then, the new machine had been noticing problems the old one didn't. So I put the new disc back in the new machine, and again copied its contents to the hard disk. My hope was that it would find a bad file, and that checking that file against the copy I'd just made onto the old machine's hard disk would reveal that the new laptop's drive was eating CDs. Then I'd know where I stood.

It worked perfectly.

So now I don't know where I stand, and it's getting late. More tomorrow, probably.

Posted by Will Duquette at 09:20 PM | Comments(1)

April 24, 2003

Maskerade, by Terry Pratchett

I like Pratchett's books. I especially like the Witch series he writes. They crack me up.

This one has Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax looking for a third witch to replace Magrat, now Queen of Lancre. It's the maiden-mother-crone requirement for having a coven. The most likely candidate for maiden, Agnes Nitt, who calls herself Perdita because it sounds so much better than Agnes, has gone to Ankh Morpokh to find herself. After a series of false starts, she finds herself in the chorus of the Opera. And of course the Opera house has a ghost with a white mask who unfortunately has taken to killing folks. And Agnes is extremely, well, large but sings like a diva, so Pratchett gets to get in all sorts of fat lady jokes. And then there is the fake Italian Opera Star who eats constantly. And Nanny Ogg has written a cookbook called "The Joy of Snacks" that has recipes guaranteed to make your blood boil and other parts heat up nicely. It's sold tons of copies with virtually no money coming back to Nanny Ogg so Granny Weatherwax takes the matter in hand and they go to see the publisher, in Ankh Morpokh, of course. And they take Nanny's cat Greebo along who in times of stress morphs into a man, unfortunately naked. And there is the delightful scene where Granny plays poker with Death to save the life of a child and cheats to win. And then does some chiropractic work on his arm bones that are tired from swinging the scythe. In order to get Agnes back to Ramtops they have to work out who the Ghost of the Opera is and why he is killing people. And it goes from there.

None of that is any kind of order from the book. Pratchett books are often hilarious vignettes tied together with a funny plot line. This one was good. Especially the ending. I really liked the ending.

Posted by Deb English at 08:54 PM | Comments(0)

April 23, 2003

The Conspiracy

I've written a number of short stories over the past few years, along with a couple of novels. I've decided that it's time to let them see the light of day, and so I'm going to publish them here on my website, on a new page called [hlink "Once-Told Tales"]. I'll be adding them slowly, over time, and as I add each new piece I'll announce it here.

The first story is a little tale of revenge called The Conspiracy. Have fun.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:34 PM | Comments(0)

Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets, by Dav Pilkey

This book, being "The Second Epic Novel" about Captain Underpants, arrived in my home, along with four or five others, whilst I was in Australia. I want this to be perfectly clear--my sister is responsible, not me. Jane read "The First Epic Novel", The Adventures of Captain Underpants, to David while I was gone; I got to read him the concluding chapters of the second volume on my return.

The series is really about two boys who can't sit still in class--the kind who are clever, easily bored, and always able to make their own fun. In the first book, so I gather, they write a comic book about a character named Captain Underpants--the first superhero to wear jockey shorts instead of longjohns. He has "wedgie power". Along the way, they hypnotize the school principle, Mr. Krupp, into thinking that he's Captain Underpants. When anyone snaps their fingers, Mr. Krupp will divest himself of his outer clothes and his hair piece, and rush off to fight evil wearing only his underpants and a cape.

In this volume, our heroes use an old copier revamped as a Science Fair exhibit to try to make copies of their latest comic book. To their dismay, the evil beings therein (the Talking Toilets) come to life and ravage the school, eating all of the students and faculty (including the delightfully named Miss Anthrope, Ms. Ribble, and Mr. Meaner). They save the day by feeding the toilets the food from the school cafeteria.

The book is clear aimed at the beginning reader. Above all, it's short. The book is short, the chapters are short, and the pages are short. The writing is breezy and fast-paced, and Dav Pilkey undeniably has a lock on what small boys find amusing, and he manages to (mildly) entertain the adult reader as well.

Which is just as well, as I've got several more of these in my future--both David and James were in stitches.

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:47 PM | Comments(0)

Stop the Presses

If you're like most people, you've gotten at least one of those African Scam e-mails. They mostly read like this (I paraphrase):

Hi, I'm related to somebody who has been looting my small, underdeveloped nation and stashing the money abroad, and I want my share; if you'll just give me information about your bank account I'll funnel it through there and leave you a ridiculously large sum as a gratuity!

This roughly translates as:

Hi, if you're stupid enough to give me your account information, I'll take all your money!

Originally they all seemed to come from Nigeria, but they've evolved since then; now they come from all over Africa and other third-world locations. But today I got one with features I've never before seen: it's formatted neatly, with appropriate use of upper and lower case.

Somebody notify the New York Times.

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:37 PM | Comments(0)

April 22, 2003

Northworld Trilogy, by David Drake

The Northworld Trilogy is a really weird retelling of ancient Norse myth, mostly drawn from the Elder Eddas. Though I'm not familiar with the Elder Eddas myself--it sounds like something from the pages of H.P. Lovecraft--I'm savvy enough to recognize the most obvious elements (Chief God with one eye, Valhalla, Valkyries, and so on and so forth). And indeed, I spotted the Valkyries and a few other things. But I didn't really catch on that it was a retelling of Norse myth until I read the afterword at the end of the first of the three tales.

The trick is, the trilogy bills itself as science fiction rather than fantasy. The framing story is straightforward: Northworld is a potential colony world. A number of expeditions have been sent to explore it and tame it; all have disappeared. The last expedition reported that the planet itself had disappeared; and then that expedition disappeared. So the Powers That Be tapped one Nils Hansen, top cop and extremely successful troubleshooter, to go to where Northworld is supposed to be and found out what happened to it. The trilogy is ostensibly about his mission.

Except that it isn't, of course; it's about the various myths that Drake's trying to retell, and that's the problem. He's bent over backward to cloak the world of Norse myth with science-fictional garments, and while the result is interesting, it's predictably contorted.

It's an ambitious and valiant effort, but Drake doesn't quite bring it off.

The battle suits are cool, though. And I'd sure like to have Nils Hansen at my back during a fight.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:04 PM | Comments(0)

April 21, 2003

40,000 in Gehenna
by C.J. Cherryh

I am selective about the sci-fi I read. It's not a genre I know my way around in and I've read some that struck me as, well, just silly. But lo, my son has now grown to the age where he is reading adult fiction and spends most of his free time with his nose stuck in sci-fi novels. Robert A. Heinlein is his current passion. Plus, summer is coming and he's too young to drive which means he'll be spending long hours out here at the farm. I need to have some authors lined up to throw his way when he gets bored and we're browsing the library shelves.

And then Will talks about how good Cherryh is. I usually concur with Will. Not always; it's highly unlikely that I will ever make it thru the entire Patrick O'Brian "Jack Aubrey" series though I did give the first one a go. But usually Will is spot on. So when I saw Cyteen on the shelf at the local Large Chain Bookstore, it was a sale, right then and there.

If you want a good plot summary, go to our C.J. Cherryh page and read Will's. He nails it well. I read it in a weekend and wanted more so I stopped and picked up a few more at the used bookstore on the way home. 40,000 in Gehenna was there and I opened it thinking it would be more of the same. Wrong. Nothing like it. Initially, I was disappointed but as the book progressed, it grew on me.

Gehenna is the name of the planet where 40,000 born-men and clones are left in an experiment in sociogenesis. The clones are programmed to reproduce and farm; the born-men are there to administer the society and fulfill the upper-level functions required. And it goes wrong when sentient life is discovered in the form of huge lizard-like critters that build mounds and tunnels in swirl patterns. The book is about the evolution of the society from one that is structured by off-world standards to one that has adapted to the environment and has become viable in its own right. And then the off-planet men come back to check up on how things are going. And things start going wrong. It's a theme that's been done before. What fascinated me were the lizards, called calibans. They create the patterns in the dirt and change the way people communicate. They provide the forms that shape the society. They create the power structure in the society. I wish she had made the novel longer and fleshed it out more. Cyteen detailed everything but we only get a taste in 40,000 in Gehenna. And that taste left me wanting more.

Posted by Deb English at 04:49 PM | Comments(0)

April 20, 2003

Memories of the Heart

Today is Easter Sunday, and Jane asked me to include this remembrance she'd written recently. So this is Jane speaking, and not me.

In my life there are a few days that come back year after year. At Christmas dinner, I will always remember throwing Nerf balls at my brothers the Christmas after my Dad died. We all needed to play, and Dad wasn't there to make us behave. Lent, Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and Easter services also bring strong memories.

Early in 1996 after nearly eight years of medical problems and infertility, Will and I learned that I was pregnant. We tried to be cautious, and waited until after we had seen the ultrasound before we told anyone. We were so very joyous. Then, once again, everything went wrong. I miscarried on Mardi Gras. I sat through the Ash Wednesday service the next day and internally I raged at God. I lived Lent that year, with prayers, tears, feeling abandoned by God, and deep grief, while trying to pretend life was returning to normal. I went to church because I should, not because I wanted anything to do with a God who teased me with a child and then took the dream away.

Good Friday fit my mood perfectly, but I could not pay attention to the service. The first reading at that service is Isaiah 52, verses 1 to 13. I picked up one of the Bibles in the pew, and not being able to follow the service I continued reading in Isaiah, reaching chapter 54. I was stunned by what I found:

"Sing, O barren woman, you who have never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband," says the Lord. "Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes. For you will spread out to the right and to the left; your descendants will dispossess nations and settle in their desolate cities."

Sing for joy? More children? Enlarge your tent? I was stunned. God had not only heard me, he would give me joy and children even if I didn't understand the details. Hope came back. I was able to cry tears of release rather than grief and rage. I began to accept the Lord's peace. He had heard me, and I knew he had a plan.

That next year was wild. We celebrated the 70th birthdays of both of Will's parents; my brother John got married; Will and I hosted a couple's Bible study; Will's mother was finally diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease)), and we were told by the doctors that it was OK to try again to have a child. After the prayers of many, I got pregnant. (As did every other woman in our couple's Bible study; be careful what you pray for!)

Then, Will's parents realized that they could not stay in their home (the house Will grew up in) and would have to move. After a few moments of discussion and with much fear and trembling we offered to buy it from them. We sold our old house and moved in on February 1st, thereby doubling the size of our home--a much bigger tent, indeed.

On Ash Wednesday, just under two weeks later, our son David was born; we had him baptized at the Easter Vigil service. We've since added James and Anne to our family--God knew we needed that bigger tent.

I don't know what plans God has for me, but each Lent and Easter season I am reminded of both the intense sorrow and the amazing joy He has for us.

Posted by Will Duquette at 03:02 PM | Comments(0)

April 19, 2003

Liberal Arts?

In a comment in a recent thread on the 2Blowhards blog, I admitted that I was an economics major in college. Michael Blowhard asked, "How did you manage to migrate from econ over in a more lib-arts kind of direction?"

By the time I saw the question, the thread was dead, and I'm not sure Michael saw my answer. So I thought I'd answer it here, instead, and point him at it.

The fact is, I didn't migrate from econ over in a more lib-arts kind of direction. Far from it. I started as an econ major, and somehow, by the time I graduated from college I was an econ/math double major. I completed the required General Education requirement, but took no elective literature, history, or philosophy courses. (I now regret that I didn't take Prof. Rick Quinones' Shakespeare class, which was famous. The chances of Prof. Quinones ever seeing this post are slim and none, I suspect, but if he ever does, he should know that his Western Civ class was a hoot, and I appreciate it far more in retrospect than I did at the time. Ah well.)

Then I did a year at Stanford University, where I got a masters degree in an esoteric field called Operations Research. Those of you who are old enough will remember the days when you went to the bank or the post office, and there was a separate line in front of each teller. The guy who persuaded them to use a single line instead was a practitioner of Operations Research.

And from Stanford I went to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is just a hop, skip, and a jump from where I grew up. Originally my intent was to do Operations Research stuff there, but after about three years the scales fell from my eyes and I started doing what I'm still doing almost fourteen years later: writing software.

So all-in-all, I find it amusing that I can masquerade as a liberal arts kind of guy well-enough to fool Michael Blowhard. A lot of credit no doubt goes to my alma mater, Claremont McKenna College, and the quality of its core curriculum; even if I focussed on mathematics, it's still a liberal arts school.

But mostly, I think, it's because I read a lot. I don't suppose that surprises anybody who's been following the site for any length of time.

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:17 PM | Comments(0)

Singing the Sadness, by Reginald Hill

This is another book I picked up in Australia, and it's rather different than anything else of his I've read. To begin with, it's not a Dalziel/Pascoe mystery; it's not even a police procedural. Instead, it concerns a machinist-turned-private-eye named Joe Sixsmith. He's black, and he's lives in the mean streets of Luton, which I gather might be a redundant statement. At least, Hill doesn't go out of his way to tell us that Sixsmith is black, which caused a number of events in the book to be rather perplexing until I finally clued in.

This is not the first Joe Sixsmith novel, but it's the only one I found while I was there. Joe's Aunt Mirabelle is a staunch member of the Boyling Corner Chapel, and a cornerstone of the chapel's choir. Joe, I gather, isn't much of a member of the chapel, but thanks to his singing voice and the wishes of his redoubtable aunt is also a member of the choir, which is on its way to a choral festival in Wales. They're big on this sort of thing in Wales, so I'm given to understand. And naturally once they get to Llanffugiol there are alarums and excursions and Joe is called upon to help the locals--several different groups of locals--with their investigations.

I haven't made up my mind about this book yet. It didn't hold my attention nearly was well as Hill's other books have, but I was suffering from jet lag at the time, so it might not be Hill's fault. And then, Luton, not Llanfugiol, is really Joe's place. It's hard to judge him without seeing him in his native surroundings.

I liked Joe Sixsmith and his aunt, though we didn't see much of her; I liked his girlfriend, but we didn't see much of her either; I didn't like his best friend particularly, and this book didn't give me much reason to. I might feel differently if I'd read the earlier books first, of course. The book clearly suffers from being in the middle of a series; Hill slacked off on the character development of the continuing characters.

So the book gets an extremely qualified thumbs up, in that I'd gladly read more of the series. But that's the most I can say.

Posted by Will Duquette at 02:59 PM | Comments(0)

April 18, 2003

Lacking Ambition

It's Good Friday, and I'm feeling unambitious. So, if you haven't already, head over to James Lilek's place and read his latest "Bleat" and see what he has to say about Kid's books. You'll be glad you did.

Posted by Will Duquette at 03:40 PM | Comments(0)

April 16, 2003

A Town Like Alice, by Nevil Shute

I first heard of Nevil Shute when I was in elementary school and tried (and failed) to read On The Beach under the mistaken impression that it was a science fiction novel. Whatever else it was, it was completely over my head.

I first heard of A Town Like Alice when they made a mini-series out of it on national TV, many, many years ago (the mid-1970's, maybe)? I didn't watch it, though my parents did, and I saw snippets. I knew it took place in Australia, and somehow I got the idea that it was about a convict, a woman who had been transported to Australia and was having to work as a housemaid. Possibly I'm conflating two different TV spectaculars, but that's how it stuck in my memory.

I didn't put the two names together, or contemplate reading A Town Like Alice, until Ian Hamet wrote me a note and suggested that as I was going to Australia I should give Nevil Shute a try. I'm a history buff, I thought to myself, and A Town Like Alice is a historical novel; and I'm going to Australia, and A Town Like Alice is about Australia; and most likely I'll find a copy of it there.

And in fact, though I looked for it in several of the bookstores I visited, I didn't see anything by Shute at all while I was in Australia. Go figure. But I found a copy shortly after I got back to the States, and opened it, and finally stayed up late to finish it, which was a really bad idea given my jet lag, but was satisfying none the less. And this, even though everything I knew about the book was wrong.

It's the story of an English woman named Jean Paget, and the action begins during the second world war. Jean's family has business interests in Malaya, and after going to school in England she's working as a secretary in the company office there when the Japanese invade. She's captured and marched off to a POW camp with a large group of other women and children--except that there is no camp to receive them. Eventually, after many hardships and forced marches over a good bit of Malaya, the surviving women, led by Jean, manage to settle down in a village and wait out the war. During their marches, they encounter an Australian POW named Joe Harman who's being made to drive a truck for the Japanese, and who helps the women out at the risk of his own life.

Years later, when the war is over, Jean receives a legacy from a distant relative, and becomes reasonably wealthy. She visits Malaya to say thank you to the villagers who took her in--and while there discovers that Joe Harman, a man she'd thought had been killed by the Japanese, is in fact still alive, and everything changes for her.

It says something about the book that the plot I've summarized so far is only part of the story; the best is yet to come, and I won't spoil it for you.

I've been trying to think what else to say about this book, other than "Go find a copy and read it." It's a little slow getting started (though not in a bad way), as the story is narrated by the solicitor who is the executor of Jean Paget's legacy and it takes him a while to locate her and longer still for her to begin to tell him her story. But once we've passed that, things take off. I'm still pondering why Shute felt that the solicitor was necessary to the story; he mostly serves to distance us from Jean Paget and Joe Harman. Perhaps Shute simply felt that the horrors of war were still too close to most people (the book was published in 1950), and that some distance was needed. I dunno.

But the book works, and where it especially works is not the broad sweep of the story but the little details along the way, especially the details of frontier life in mid-20th-century Australia. (Rather like the Wild West--and yet, very different.) I was especially taken with the explanation of why Joe Harman didn't die at the hands of the Japanese--and it's a great frustation to me, because if I tell you, I'll spoil it.


Go find a copy and read it, or you'll never know what poddy dodging is all about.

Posted by Will Duquette at 05:59 PM | Comments(3)

April 15, 2003

Destiny, by Elizabeth Haydon

This is the third volume in the trilogy that began with Rhapsody and continued with Prophecy, and it has a suitable title. The events of the book are more-or-less destined to occur, and they play out more-or-less as they are supposed to. The romance that buds in the first book and blossoms in the second comes to fruition after a suitable number of obstacles are overcome (most of them, it's only fair to say, are really rather novel); sundered kindreds are united, old feuds are put aside, and Rhapsody and her beau usher in a new era of gladness. Whew, I was worried for a moment that she might not make it.

All in all...pretty good for a new author, though not perfect. If you like epic fantasy, and you enjoy a little romance with it, you'll probably enjoy these. My major complaint is with Haydon's handling of history. More than anything else, this trilogy is about about healing the wounds of past conflicts. The history of her world, both recent and ancient, are key. And the problem is that real history is complicated. It doesn't flow naturally in ways that support the story you want to tell. When history is presented too simply, it looks comic book, as though it's painted in all primary colors, and I have trouble taking it seriously.

Maybe that's just me, though; we aren't all history buffs.

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:28 PM | Comments(0)

April 14, 2003

The Nursing Home Murder, by Ngaio Marsh

In all of Marsh's long career, she wrote only one novel with a collaborator, and this, her third novel, is it. This is a medical mystery, and appropriately enough her collaborator was a medical doctor named Henry Jellett (not that you'd know that from the edition of the book I have; I found it out on a web page some where, quite a long time ago now, when I was looking for a complete list of Marsh's books).

Full disclaimer: I actually read this before my trip to Australia, and neglected to write a review before I left. Usually I don't let quite such a long time go by before writing about a book, but, well, there were special circumstances.

The set up is simple: a prominent politician, the Home Secretary in fact, suffers an attack of appendicitis just as he's pushing for a new law that will allow the government to pursue revolutionaries with vigor. This was written in 1935, remember; the bomb-throwing anarchist was not forgotten, and the Bolshevik was a real presence in England. The Secretary collapses in the Halls of Parliament and is rushed to a hospital. The operation is a complete success--except that he receives an overdose and dies shortly after the operation. Who gave him the drug? It could have been the surgeon; the Secretary had recently had a sordid affair with the woman the surgeon loves. It could have been one of the nurses; one of them is the woman with whom the victim had the sordid affair, and another is a Bolshevik who laughed at his death. Was it thwarted love? Politics? Or something else....

It's not a bad book; none of Marsh's books disappoint. I enjoyed it. But it was a bit tedious, and if the excursions into Bolshevism aren't as absurd as the ones in A May Lay Dead, they still detract from the picture. There's better to come.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:42 PM | Comments(0)

April 13, 2003

Martian Time-Slip, by Philip K. Dick

I must be missing something. This guy's books have a huge cult following and I DON'T get it. This one was just plain bad. It's dated, the premise is stupid and the characters bored me to tears. I finished it, but only because it wasn't too long and I was too lazy to get up and get something else to read. A co-worker of mine loves Dick and tells me he's right out of the 60's drug culture which may explain it. My co-worker, from what I can tell, is still halfway back in the 60's drug culture which somehow is interesting face to face but doesn't really work very well on paper.

The story is that Mars has been colonized by Men. All of Earth's political and national divisions have been brought along to Mars. They are using the canals dug by the, get this, indigenous Martians to transport the precious little water they have up there. Everyone is paranoid about mutations that have shown up due to the gamma ray exposure during the long trip to Mars and autism and schizophrenia are seen as manifestations of a mutation rather than as a neurological condition. The native Martians are called Bleekmen and are sort of like the Australian Aborigines in appearance except really small and kind of dried up. They have a kind of mystical shamanist culture as well. And they are able to communicate on some other mental plain that's not really explained except that that is where the autistic children and the schizophrenic's minds are really at.

That is the setting. I won't go into the plot except to say that the 50's bored housewife messing around with the milkman comes into it, tediously, and that it tries to imitate the social climate of the post war years, badly.

Skip this one. Hated it. Hated it. Read something a little more developed or thought out.

Posted by Deb English at 03:03 PM | Comments(0)

April 12, 2003

Magic Mountain

For those who aren't familiar with the Los Angeles area, Magic Mountain is the local Six Flags amusement park. It first opened six or seven years after I was born, as a simple little amusement park. There was one roller coaster, the Gold Rusher, which sprawled over one side of the mountain, and had no steep dips or drops; there was the Log Jammer, your basic flume ride, on the other side of the mountain; there was a sky ride, like a gondola-style ski-lift; a carousel; a bunch of prettied up carnival rides; and a weird sort of ferris wheel thing called the Galaxy. At the top of the mountain was the "Sky Tower", with an observation deck at its crown. A funicular railway went to the top the hill, and a simple monorail called the Metro travelled around the park. The park had a vaguely German/Alpine theme to it, and was presided over (in lieu of Disney characters) by a wizard and a bunch of large rotund trolls covered with pale blue fur.

One of the first times I went, they had a deal where you could get a special shoulder patch called "The Red Badge of Courage" if you went on five of seven scary rides. I don't recall what they all were, but given what the park has become, I find it rather ironic.

Over the next few years they added additional rides, including (in 1976, tied in with the U.S. Bicentennial) the Revolution, the world's first looping roller coaster. (Last night I heard two guys discussing which coasters they'd ridden on that night, and how many times, and consequently how many loop-the-loops they'd ridden through. I believe the total was 54.) Later they added Colossus, at that time the world's largest wooden coaster--and that, in my mind (though I'm no coaster enthusiast) is when Magic Mountain's destiny became clear. How was Magic Mountain to survive against the competition of Disneyland and Knotts Berry Farm? It became coaster city.

Since then it's been bought by Six Flags. They've added a water park, Hurricane Harbor, next door; and with the addition of Scream, a brand new coaster that opens today, they have sixteen roller coasters.

The last time I'd been to Magic Mountain was before most of the new coaster were built, something like eight or ten years ago. Jane and I had thought about going a couple of times in the last few years, but as she's carried, delivered, and nursed three babies in the last six years it hadn't really been possible. But this week I got a bright idea.

See, this past week was Spring Break for my older son, David, who is in kindergarten. Since Jane wouldn't be needing to get David to and from school, she decided that it would be an excellent week to get our younger son potty-trained, which I'm sure he'll one day be ecstatic to know was discussed publically on the Internet. Obviously we wouldn't be going out and doing anything exciting as a family, but it would be a definitely help if I could get David out of the house for a while.

And, for some reason, I thought of taking him to Magic Mountain. I did a little research on line and verified that yes, they still had enough rides he'd like to make it worth while. I also discovered that season passes were really not that expensive--the same as two adult admissions. Ho, I thought. I go, get myself a season pass, and then on our next date night, Jane and I go together. She gets a season pass, good until the end of the calendar year, and then if we went even one more time after that, the passes have paid for themselves. And the park is close enough to our house that going there in the evening for even just a couple of hours is reasonable, provided you're not paying full price each time.

So I've been to the Mountain twice this past week, once with Dave, and once with Jane, last night, and we frequented entirely different parts of the park. 'Twas wonderful; it's still the beginning of the season, and with the new coaster not opening until tomorrow the park wasn't very full on either day. We pretty much walked on to most of the rides without waiting.

Both Jane and I enjoyed reflecting on all of the changes we've seen take place at Magic Mountain during the past thirty years. The trolls are long gone, and mostly forgotten, replaced by Bugs Bunny and friends; the kiddy rides are much better than they were when I was a kid; and while some of my old favorites are gone, most remain: the Log Jammer, the Gold Rusher (still a darn good coaster), the Funicular, the Metro, and the Carousel.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:53 PM | Comments(0)

April 10, 2003

Dialogues of the Dead, by Reginald Hill

The Mid-Yorkshire Gazette is having a short-story contest, and the preliminary judges find an unusual entry: a so-called dialogue, though only one voice is represented, which describes a murder--a murder which happened before the entry was received, but was not discovered until afterward. And then the receive another such entry, and then another....

This is Hill's latest Dalziel/Pascoe novel; I picked it up in Australia (it's not available here in the States yet) and read it on the plane on the way home. It was a remarkably good choice, much better than the books I read on the flight out, and kept me thoroughly occupied for hours. It's as good anything else he's done.

Interestingly, this book covers some of the same thematic territory that Lawrence Block's most recent, but does so far more convincingly--and the ending is far more chilling. You'll have to read both to find out what I mean.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:24 PM | Comments(0)

April 09, 2003

Canberra Trip, Day 8

Day 8 of the trip was a Saturday; Gulf War II had been in progress for a day and half. We went off the complex to meet with the operators of Team D, and then had lunch at the complex cafeteria (pepper steak and chips). After that we visited the Australian War Memorial.

The War Memorial is an incredible place. It is, at one and the same time, a memorial to all Australian soldiers who died in war and a museum of military history.

The upper level is built like a shrine. You go up the steps, through glass doors, a lobby, and more glass doors, and you're in a courtyard. At the far end is a chamber with a dome; if you go inside, you find yourself in a darkened room with stained glass windows; the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is at your feet. On either side of the courtyard, raised above the floor, are two long galleries containing floor to ceiling metal plaques. On the plaques you'll find the names of the Australian war dead, from Kitchener's march on Khartoum to rescue "Chinese" Gordon up to the war just before the current one. Many of the names will have red flowers tucked in beside them. On the outside of the galleries, visible from the courtyard, are the names of the places Aussies have fought. Many were unfamiliar to me; others, like Gallipoli, are known to everyone.

It was deeply moved the first time I was hear, in 1999; I was even more affected this time, knowing that people might be dying in Iraq as I stood there. Now, of course, I know that the casualty figures for both soldiers and civilians have been unbelievably low--God be praised.

After visiting the memorial, we went downstairs to the museum, which is simply enormous. It would take two or three days to do it justice. And the tone is perfectly set. The War Memorial doesn't glorify war; the aches and pains and blood and guts of warfare are clearly documented. The War Memorial doesn't trivialize the reasons for war, either; the wars for which Australians have fought and died are not dismissed simply as the result of evil warmongers and arms merchants. And finally, the War Memorial respects her own, the soldiers who fought. Their sacrifices are recognized, but their accomplishments are celebrated.

The Australian War Memorial is unique; the United States has nothing comparable.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:30 PM | Comments(0)

The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope

Somewhere, which I cannot for the life of me recall, I read that Tony Blair presented Bill Clinton with a copy of this book on a visit to the States. I hadn't read the book at the time and thought it a rather strange gift. Both men are highly intelligent although from what I recall, Bill wasn’t doing much recreational, um, reading in the White House. Anyway, I bought it on the strength of my past readings of Trollope and a faint, very faint, desire to know what it was that Mr. Blair had in mind.

What he had in mind was a warning to Bill about what happens when you build your house on shifting sands using wormy wood.

Augustus Melmotte is a wealthy man. Everyone says so, therefore it must be true. Everyone flocks to his presence though they are offended by his vulgar, coarse manner and his total lack of breeding, family, or class. His wife is an ugly, unfashionably dressed woman who lingers in the background of society, put up with by the wives of the gentlemen who need the Melmotte wealth. His daughter is chattel to be married off for the reflected consequence of the title her future husband can bring, in exchange, of course, for a substantial dowry and marriage settlement. He has no friends, only business partners. He has absolutely nothing of worth except what money can buy.

Lady Carbury is the widow of an abusive husband reduced to writing extremely bad romantic novels to support her daughter and horrid, dissipated son. Felix Carbury lives off his mother having wasted his inheritance on gambling, horses and drink, caring nothing for her or his sister except that they leave him alone and provide him with cash to gamble with. His haunt is a club called the Beargarden where he spends his time reveling the night away. However, he is persuaded by his mother to court Melmotte's daughter, Marie, for her money in the hopes that he can find his way clear of the crushing debts he has accrued. Lady Carbury cares nothing for his happiness except that he should have money enough to support himself.

Paul Montague, in love with Lady Carbury's daughter, Hetta, has invested unwisely in a land scheme in San Francisco. His uncle and partner sells his shares in the venture to a man named Fisker who comes up with the idea of creating a paper company supposedly to finance a railroad from Salt Lake City to Mexico City. Augustus Melmotte is named the London Director and is given control of the company and Paul, on the Board but having no shares to sell, is drawn into the whole fraudulent scheme, not knowing how to get out.

That is a brief outline of the novel's intersecting plots. Around this are other characters who gather around Melmotte, feeding his ego and losing their money in bad business decisions. I disliked just about everyone in the book, even the stodgy Roger Carbury who is supposed to represent the "good" gentlemen of England in the book. None of the women in the book were in the least sympathetic. They were either self- centered, egotistical predators or mindless, spineless victims.

Despite that, the book was fascinating. I think it was the sense that all this was going to come to a head, that it couldn’t go on. And the crash was going to be horrible. And knowing people were going to be hurt, I couldn’t look away.

Kind of like the same feeling I felt during the Bill and Monica thing. Disgusted, angry and fascinated at the same time.

Posted by Deb English at 05:28 PM | Comments(1)

April 08, 2003

Border Crossing, by Pat Barker

In my next lifetime, I am going to be independently wealthy. I will be able to skip the annoying requirement of going to work when what I really want to do is Finish My Book. This one almost, though not quite, caused me to take a personal day. Then, I also will be able to have a maid and cook to take care of the annoying chores I have to do when what I really want to do is Finish My Book. Life will be grand.

In reality, life would be pointless and reading would not be nearly as precious as when I carve out the time to do it.

This novel I carved time for. It totally captivated my imagination. I thought about it driving, doing dishes, cooking and waiting to fall asleep. I had a hard time putting it down. That NEVER happens anymore. The plot is fairly simple. A man and a woman are walking along a river, separately mulling over their marriage and divorce, when a young man attempts to drown himself. The man jumps in and drags the kid out, saving his life. The same man, a child psychologist, did an assessment 13 years before on a 10 year old boy who was alleged to have murdered an old woman. He finds that, in fact, the child understands death, the permanency of death, and right and wrong. The child is sent to prison, for life. The young man who attempted to drown himself is the child he had sent to prison.

Their meeting causes the psychologist to rethink his previous assessment, revisit the places the child has been kept and the people he has been with in the prison system and to finally make peace with himself that he made the correct judgment the first time around. It is an intense internal journey into himself and the mind of a very sick child, now a very sick adult. The writing is bare and crisp, the characters are fully developed and not overworked, and the settings are somehow fully dressed with a minimum of description. In my mind, I know exactly what these people look like, what the houses they live in look like and how they sound when they speak. Except for one memorable and hysterically funny scene, the novel is somber in tone but never mawkish or grim. Even near the end, when you have seen how twisted the young man has become, there is still hope for him. And I liked him, almost against my wishes. I want to dislike him as a twisted, manipulative killer, badly. But I don't.

Very interesting stuff. I had read Barker's "Regeneration" trilogy and remembered how completely involved with it I became. It's nice to know her skill continues. I look forward to reading more of her work.

Posted by Deb English at 06:10 PM | Comments(0)

The Cruise of the Talking Fish, by W.E. Bowman

This tale was included in the same volume as Bowman's The Ascent of Rum Doodle; and I'm glad to say that it's altogether more fun. Binder, the narrator of the first book, is invited to the home of a friend who has become convinced that all animals are as intelligent as people. Somehow he finds himself bankrolling an ocean raft expedition in search of a species of talking fish. With him go his friend, several other men, a frog named Darwin, and an oyster named Neptune.

As with the previous book, The Cruise of the Talking Fish isn't to be taken seriously, but to Bowman's credit it improves upon that book in two ways. First, the plot is considerably more screwball; second, the characters take everything with great seriousness. Good farce is like a souffle, and if those involved treat it lightly it falls.

The Ascent of Rum Doodle was a pleasant diversion during a business trip; but The Cruise of the Talking Fish is actually worth seeking out.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:06 PM | Comments(0)

April 07, 2003

The Ascent of Rum Doodle, by W.E. Bowman

This is another book I found at the bookstore in the Kingston neighborhood of Canberra. As with The Overloaded Ark it was the title that caught my eye; and opening to page 100, I found this:

All this interfered with the rhythm that is so essential to climbing at high altitudes. I decided to forget everything else and concentrate on the rhythm. I devised a little rhyme to keep step with my feet:

Organ grinders, kings and queens,
Call for Binder's Butter Beans.
Three times daily, knave and noodle,
Eat them gaily on Rum Doodle.

This went round and round in my brain all day, and made such a nuisance of itself that it only added to my worries.

That certainly sounded promising; further, the blurb compared it to Three Men in a Boat, which is a delight. "A humorous account of a mountain climbing expedition," I thought. "Why not?" And so I bought it.

When I actually sat down to read it, I found that the comparison with Three Men in a Boat was a tad strained. Jerome K. Jerome's tale of boating on the Thames is indeed humorous, but in the vein of Mark Twain's non-fiction. The details are exaggerated, but the basic story appears plausible. The Ascent of Rum Doodle is anything but. Moreover, it's of that genre of humor in which the narrator pretends to be an idiot; much of the fun comes from the narrator's misinterpretation of actions and events which are quite clear to the reader.

This isn't a style of humor that lends itself to book length, but Bowman somehow manages to pull it off. It's not in Jerome's or Twain's league, but I enjoyed it, and I laughed out loud more than once.

Posted by Will Duquette at 05:29 PM | Comments(0)

April 06, 2003

Gooder, Badder, Uglier

Over at Banana Oil, Ian says that he's shocked, simply shocked, that I'd never before seen The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, and that I have to see Once Upon A Time In The West when it comes out on DVD. It's another Sergio Leone spaghetti western, and it has an interesting cast--Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson, Keenan Wynn, and also Jack Elam, who I've only ever seen before as the sidekick in the James Garner movies Support Your Local Sheriff (outstanding) and Support Your Local Gunfighter (eh...so so.). So you know I'm curious.

And of course, Ian was right about A Town Like Alice, only he doesn't know that I think so because I haven't reviewed it yet. I'll get to it sometime this week, probably.

Regarding Charles Bronson...I just had occasion to watch The Great Escape, another classic movie I'd not previously gotten around to, and while there was considerable stuff to like about it, I was most impressed with Bronson. He plays a Frenchman named Danny who escaped to England at the beginning of the war and enlisted in the RAF. In the flick he's a "tunnel king", that is, he's in charge of building the tunnel they'll use to escape. It's a role almost entirely unlike his usual shtick, and if I hadn't seen his name in the credits and been looking for him, I'd never have recognized him.

I suppose Ian's going to be shocked again, now.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:37 PM | Comments(0)

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency,
Tears of the Giraffe,
Morality for Beautiful Girls,
by Alexander McCall Smith

These books have been on the tables at the Large Chain Bookstore I go to for quite some time. I've picked them up, browsed them, laid them down etc. several times before taking the plunge and buying them. The premise is so, well, different from most mysteries that are out there that I was a little skeptical about them.

Boy, was I wrong. They reminded me of and and, oddly, some of Jan Karon's books, without the Christian theme. I just felt happy when I read them. I like Mma Ramotswe. I'd love to sit down and have a cup of bush tea with her. And tell her my problems.

The bookstore categorizes these as Mysteries, a title that is deceiving and not particularly acute on their part. I suppose every book needs its place on some shelf or another. The books are about Mma Ramotswe, who sets up a detective service after the death of her father leaves her with a legacy. She is widowed, independent and wants to help people. She hires a secretary, because every detective agency must have one, and her friend, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, gives her a typewriter. She puts out a sign and she's set for business. And she sends away for a manual on running a private eye service which gives her much wise advice to supplement her wealth of common sense and knowledge of the ways of people. Plus she has read Agatha Christie.

The whole thing is tongue in cheek most of the time. Mma makes horribly sexist statements about men that, coming from anyone else would offend, but seem fairly reasonable flowing from her mouth. She has much to say about women as well so she balances out nicely. Botswana is a major character of the book; you can almost smell and feel it. National pride is there and the horrific problem of AIDS is lightly addressed while not being made the theme of the book. The theme of the book is Mma Ramotswe and her wish to help. And her love of Botswana.

I haven't enjoyed a series so much since I discovered Laurie King. If you like light, wry detective stories go and get them. The next one comes out this spring.

Posted by Deb English at 08:24 PM | Comments(0)

Prophecy, by Elizabeth Haydon

This is the second book in the Rhapsody trilogy, and has the strengths and weaknesses of its predecessor. Which is to say, I liked it; but I think it could be trimmed quite a bit.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:22 PM | Comments(0)

April 05, 2003

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

I don't get out to the movies all that much, and I have so many interesting ways to fill my time that I'm rarely willing to sit and watch one on TV for two hours on end. So even if I have the DVD, it can take me quite a long while to get around to watching it. When the movie is one that's not suitable for little kids, it takes even longer--those hours after they go to bed are precious. So even though I got a DVD of Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly in a gift exchange last Christmas, I only got around to watching it last night. My friend Dave the co-worker (as opposed to my son Dave, or my friend Dave the non-co-worker) came over to watch it with me, as it's one of his favorite flicks. Myself, I'd never seen it before.

They say that constraints foster creativity; in this case, I think Leone was chiefly constrained by having relatively few actors who could speak English without an Italian accent. Consequently, this is a film of little dialog and long silences in which the storytelling is almost completely visual and cinematic. Toward the beginning, for example, Lee Van Cleef stalks slowly into a hacienda. The family members all hide, except for the man of the house. The man is clearly terrified, but he makes a play of bravery: he sets the table for dinner and then sits down and serves himself some kind of soup. Van Cleef has been leaning in the arched doorway at the far end of the house; now he walks slowly forward, sits down, serves himself a bowl of soup, and begins to eat it--all without talking his eyes off the man for even a second. And his eyes clearly say, "You're mine. I can crush you like a bug."

There's a similar moment toward the end, when Van Cleef, Eli Wallach, and (of course) Clint Eastwood are having a kind of three-way shoot out. There's something all three of them want; realistically, only the last man standing will get it. The camera jumps from face to face as you see them thinking: who will draw first? If I draw first, will I be able to gun down both of them? And you notice (or perhaps you don't) that Wallach is sweating profusely, and that even the face of the normally cool Van Cleef has a sheen of perspiration, while Eastwood is both relaxed and dry as a bone, and you think, "What's going on here?"

But I expected the meaningful glances, the tumbledown buildings, the wide open spaces, and the violence. What surprised me was the humor--there are many points that are laugh out loud funny. Unfortunately, few of them are truly quotable; the funny lines are funny only in context, as when Eastwood admonishes Wallach, "And after all the times I've saved your life."

All in all, I enjoyed it--it's a good bit of story telling.

Posted by Will Duquette at 12:55 PM | Comments(0)

The Overloaded Ark, by Gerald Durrell

I found this book in a bookstore in the Kingston neighborhood of Canberra. I plucked it off of the shelf because of its title, and submitted it to the Page 100 test, a trick I learned from one of Donald Knuth's books. Having read the cover blurb and perhaps the table of contents, open the book to page 100, and read that page. This is far more effective than reading the first few pages; the author expected you to look at those pages first thing, and probably spent lots of time polishing them. But there's nothing to distinguish page 100 of the book from any other in the author's mind--indeed, when he submits his manuscript, he probably doesn't even know what's going to end up on that page--so it's a more representative sample of the quality of the book as a whole.

Now, The Overloaded Ark is a memoir of an animal collecting trip to the Cameroons (as they were called in the 1950's) by the owner of an English zoo. It's intended to be light and funny, though factual, and for the most part it succeeds. Page 100, for example, concerns the author's attempts to teach the village boys that he won't buy animals from them unless they are in good condition. He finally shames them into it by publically rewarding a little girl who brings him a bird she's handled gently and well, and then questioning their manhood. After that, he says, he has no more difficulty.

And that sample is indeed representative, but not in the way the author would have expected. Because what's most interesting in this book isn't the depiction of African flora and fauna (though these are presented by a loving and witty hand), or even the travails of collecting the animals and keeping them alive for the return trip to England. Rather, it's the relationship between the author and the natives. They are dark-skinned; he is the great white sahib. He calls them by name; they call him Masa. They have villages dances; sometimes he deigns to adorn their dances with his presence. He is erudite; they are ignorant, frequently knowing less about certain animals than he does. He is masterful; they are subservient.

And yet, he genuinely cares for his native employees, and takes care of them in many ways; and they, for their part, seem genuinely honored by his attention.

Quite frankly, it's a PC person's nightmare. And though I don't try to be politically correct, it nevertheless gave me much food for thought.

So it was an interesting book to read, as well as being a useful source book should I ever wish to write anything about collecting animals. On the other hand, it wasn't quite the laugh riot I'd been hoping for.

Posted by Will Duquette at 12:55 PM | Comments(0)

April 04, 2003

Canberra Trip, Days 3-7

Naturally, John the Tester and I spent most of the work week working, so there's not much to tell. Still, there were a few highlights, including several more half-pints of Toohey's Old.

On Monday another JPLer showed up; he'd gone through hell trying to get here. His flight got four hours out from LAX, had a problem, and flew back to LAX. After five hours in the terminal, the passengers were loaded on to another plane and flown to Sydney. He missed the last flight to Canberra last night by fifteen minutes, so they put him up in a hotel in Sydney. He woke bright and early, not surprisingly, and caught the earliest flight to Canberra, and then got lost on the way to the complex at Tidbinbilla.

Tuesday we had dinner at the Santa Lucia Trattoria in Kingston. I'd been there with some folks from the complex on my previous trip, and had had a chicken and veal risotto that was out of this world. I'd been wanting to have some more, and was not disappointed. John and Bob, the other JPLer, had a seafood risotto which featured, among other things, Baby Octopus. Lots of restaurants that we looked at had dishes which included Baby Octopus; I asked an Australian friend whether this was some kind of fad, and was assured that the friend had grown up with it.

There was a neat bookstore near the restaurant, where I picked up a few oddments you'll be seeing reviews of in the next few days.

Not much happened on Wednesday and Thursday, but on Friday I learned a valuable life lesson: Australian hot dogs are made with an unnatural red dye, and are to be avoided. That was at lunch at the Moonrock Cafe, a little snackbar and giftshop attached to the museum at the complex.

John and I left after lunch, because we were going to be coming in again for Saturday morning to talk to some operators who weren't going to be in on any of the weekdays we'd be there. After some discussion, we decided to spend the afternoon at the Canberra Zoo. It's a nice zoo. We got some excellent pictures of the koalas, and also of the little fairy penguins, one of whom, we were assured, is the original of Tux the Linux penguin. It's unique among zoos, in my experience, in that you could actually see all of the animals fairly well. Most of the new exhibits at the Los Angeles Zoo seem to be designed to let the animals hide from you.

Then, that evening we went shopping for gifts for friends and family (Jane scored a blue denim pullover covered with aboriginal art), and ended the day with a glass of Toohey's Old Black down in Manuka.

Sometime during the week, I don't remember exactly when, John was telling me about the places he's been. He's just out of college, but compared to me he's a world traveller; and he has a way of tossing off the most exotic comments with a straight face. The best example, and my favorite, was

I went to this hookah lounge in the Egyptian section of Bangkok...

He didn't get any farther than that, because I stopped him. I couldn't let a remark like that pass without comment. And since then, I've been completely unable to think of anything else as casually exotic that doesn't involve either sex or illicit drugs. I mean, who knew that there were hookah lounges in Bangkok? Who knew there were Egyptians in Bangkok? For that matter, who knew there were hookah lounges in Egypt? Not me.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:18 PM | Comments(0)

Justice Hall, by Laurie R. King

This is the latest of King's Mary Russell Holmes mysteries, just out in paperback; I bought it a couple of weeks before leaving for Australia, intending to read it on the plane, and would that I had. I'd have gotten more enjoyment out of it in that context than I would have out of either of the books I actually did read on the flight over. But I enjoyed it once I got to Australia anyway.

For those who aren't aware of this series, it postulates that there was a real Sherlock Holmes, similar to but rather younger than the familiar character. In the first book, The Beekeeper's Apprentice, he meets a young woman, Mary Russell, and takes her on as his apprentice. Later they marry, despite the age difference between them. (Yes, there's a bit of an Amelia Peabody feel to the whole thing, but only a bit.)

In an earlier book, O, Jerusalem, they become acquainted with two British intelligence officers in the Middle East. In the current book, one of them is in serious trouble and calls on the pair to help out. The action largely takes place at a stately country home called Justice Hall, the seat of the Dukes of Beaufort.

I try not to say too much about the plot of mystery novels; after all, plot is everything in a mystery, and I don't want to give it away. But I will say that the book involves (in part) a young soldier summarily executed at the front lines during World War I--and that Reginald Hill did a better job at it in The Wood Beyond. Also, I disliked the ending; although it tied up all of the loose ends satisfactorily, it wasn't very satisfying. It seemed rushed; and while the actual events were OK, I think they could have been motivated better.

But I'm being picky. Justice Hall is a worthy addition to the series, and a good read besides.

Posted by Will Duquette at 05:06 PM | Comments(0)

April 03, 2003

Murder Being Once Done, by Ruth Rendell

This is the first book by Rendell I have read. I've seen her name on author's lists, usually coupled with P.D. James as great-British-women-detective-novel-writers. When you see a list of adjectives that long, certain, often unmet, expectations are created. And then, this is a novel right smack dab in the middle of a series, which isn't the best place to start if the series is a continuing one and knowledge of the previous installments are necessary for the understanding those following.

None of that seems to matter, though. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Inspector Wexford has had some sort of bleeding in his eye leading his doctor to prescribe rest, healthy food and no work as a cure. I gather he prefers to work hard, drink a bit and eat badly. The novel opens with him and his wife in London staying with his nephew, a detective for Scotland Yard. He is being coddled, pampered and generally bored out of his wits by his wife and niece while his nephew, lucky man, gets to go off to work everyday. On one of his prescribed and hated daily walks, he passes a cemetery where a murder investigation is taking place, decides to just pop in for a quick look and stumbles on his nephew heading up the investigation. His aid is enlisted, surreptitiously lest the women find out, and he begins to nose around. A very young woman has been strangled and left in a crypt. Investigators find her identity but have no luck tracing the girl using the name she is known by and no one steps forward to claim her as missing or lost. And sometime in the last year she has had a full term pregnancy. Hmmmmm....

As a detective novel, it was pretty good. I had the wrong person pegged as the killer most of the way thru the book. Actually there were about 4 candidates I came up with in the course of reading the book, none of which actually were the killer. And while Rendell deliberately was messing around with my mind and setting up false trails, she was also equally giving the same sort of clues for the correct candidate. Interesting. I want to hunt up more of her work to see if she does the same thing in other novels. I would also like to see Inspector Wexford in his home setting in rural England, working too hard, drinking a bit and eating badly.

I love it when I find a new author to follow. It's been lonely without Peter Diamond books.

Posted by Deb English at 08:00 PM | Comments(0)

April 02, 2003

High Fashion

My little girl is just over a year and a half old. I came down for dinner tonight and spotted her playing with two video cassettes. She'd pulled a few inches of tape out of each, and had one dangling from each arm. I can only assume that they were supposed to be purses. A third cassette was lying on the floor, discarded after the tape broke (for the record, it was "The Empire Strikes Back").

Both of her brothers ruined their share of video cassettes...but unlike their sister, I don't believe they were driven by the need to accessorize.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:08 PM | Comments(0)

Canberra Trip, Day 2

On day 2, a Sunday, I woke up about 7 AM. Actually, I woke up about 3 AM, which would have been 8 AM in Los Angeles, but after a little tossing and turning I managed to get back to sleep again. When I finally got up I walked out to the living room of my suite, and beheld two hot air balloons hanging in the air outside my window. I grabbed my camera and took a picture.

Sleeping until 7 AM counts as a major victory; my first morning in Canberra in 1999, I woke up around 4:30 AM or so and simply could not get back to sleep. That set a bad tone for the rest of the trip.

I took a quick shower, and then drove down Canberra Avenue four or five blocks to St. Paul's Manuka, a vaguely gothic brick church of the Anglican variety. It's not nearly as pretty as All Saints Ainslie, the church I went to in 1999, but it's the local church so that's where I went. Just my luck--they were just beginning their planned giving compaign. I didn't get warm vibes about the place--I don't think I'd pick it as my regular church, given a choice--but the service and especially the Eucharist was joyous and comforting. God is good, and I was glad to praise him.

Then I returned to the hotel and called John the Tester as we had agreed the night before; no answer. I called him at intervals, getting no answer, until he finally called me about 10:30 AM; apparently he'd been out drinking until about 5 AM with folks he'd met in a bar up in City Center, and my last phone call woke him up. (Whoops!)

Well, anyway, we went out to the Australian National Museum, which I'd not seen before as it had opened just a couple of years before. It's got some interesting stuff, but I have to question the judgement of both the architect and the folks who approved his design.

Canberra is divided into north and south halves by Lake Burley-Griffin; the halves are joined by the Commonwealth Avenue bridge. The museum sits on a peninsula just west of the north end of the bridge; the site is incredibly scenic. You'd think the architect would have taken advantage of this, but instead he built a museum that looks inward onto a courtyard; and the courtyard is filled with a strange mixture of rubberized concrete, fencing, and pond called "the Spirit of Australia Garden". Personally, if I were Australian I'd be insulted.

Next we toddled of to Woden Plaze, one of the local malls, where we had lunch; I was also able to buy some books by Reginald Hill, Peter Lovesey, Iain Banks, and Terry Pratchett.

On the way back to the hotel we saw another car coming at us head on. It honked at us madly, and we realized that indeed, we were in the right-hand lane. John quickly swerved into the left lane, and we escaped injury, though John was a bit shaken. But then we remembered that we were on Canberra Avenue, which, like many thoroughfares in Canberra, is a divided road. There are two lanes each way, with a thirty-foot-wide island in between. In other words, the other driver was the one driving the wrong direction.

At one point I heard an ad on the radio about some store called The Lettuce Connection. They have lots of different kinds of Lettuce in stock, or you can have your Lettuce custom designed. It wasn't until the ad was almost over that I realized that the store's name was really The Lattice Connection.

Around 6 PM we walked down to Manuka and had dinner at a place called El Rancho. My dinner was nothing special; but following John's lead I elected to try a half-pint of Toohey's Old Black, and that was really nice. It tasted good and went down smoothly. I don't drink beer very often, and a half-pint is usually more than enough, but I was almost tempted to have another.

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:47 PM | Comments(0)

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, by Terry Pratchett

Pratchett generally writes two sorts of books: Discworld novels and young adult novels. The Discworld novels are always written to be accessible to Americans; the young adult novels are intended for young adults in the UK, and make much or use of UK slang and terminology. They generally aren't as satirical, either, and they generally aren't available in the United States.

This present novel is an exception to the rule--it's both a Discworld novel (though it's not marketed as one) and a young adult novel. I nabbed it joyfully at a bookstore in Australia, and read it with glee.

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents is a sterling example of the Small Story. It takes place on the Discworld, but doesn't depend on any prior knowledge of the Disc; in fact, the only standard Discworld character to make an appearance is Death (no surprises there).

Maurice is an intelligent talking cat; his Educated Rodents are intelligent talking rats. Apparently the animals ate something that agreed with them from the trash heap of Unseen University, the Disc's premier college of wizardry. Once blessed with intelligence, Maurice found a stupid-looking kid playing the pennywhistle, and then enlisted the rats into a continuing Pied Piper scam--the kid, the cat, and the rats move into a town, the rats raise a ruckus, and (for a sizeable fee) the kid pipes them out of town.

The rats are starting to grumble that maybe this is unethical (being intelligent is giving them ideas) when the troupe arrives in the Uberwald village of Bad Blintz--a village on the verge of starvation due to a plague of rats, except that Maurice and his Educated Rodents can't find any rats there but themselves. What goes on?

This is a small book, shorter than the usual Discworld novel, but it was a lot of fun.

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:46 PM | Comments(0)

April 01, 2003

Canberra Trip, Day 1

My trip to Canberra DSCC officially started at 6:20 PM on March 13 when the Super Shuttle arrived to take me to LAX. I kissed Jane and the kids, and then waved through the shuttle window after I got inside. The driver got extra points--it was dark outside, and he turned on the inside lights so that the kids could see me.

I really had no desire to be leaving my family, let alone with a war in the offing. My imagination was running riot, telling me that either my plane was going to crash, or that a terrorist attack was going to wipe out Los Angeles while I was gone, and that either way I'd never see them again. That's ridiculous, of course; but people do die in plane crashes, and it reminded me to spend some time talking with God on the way to the airport.

I have to give the shuttle driver credit. I wasn't sure how he could possibly do it, but he got me to my terminal in fifty minutes, dropping me off outside the United International Terminal at 7:10 PM, exactly three hours before my flight was due to leave. I had to show my ticket at the terminal door, and then wait in a line specifically for my flight. Checking my bag went quickly; then I had to wait for a couple of minutes while they screened my suitcase. A fat old security guard got a call on his walky-talky, and told me I could go ahead.

The next barrier was the security screening for me and my carry-on stuff. It was no big deal, as I'd made sure my pocket knife was in my suitcase and that I was wearing a minimum of metal--my wedding ring, and the rivets on my blue jeans. I had to take my laptop out of its case and let it go through the X-Ray machine by itself, but that was the only annoyance. The security was a lot more stringent when I flew to Vancouver, B.C., last September.

On my way through the terminal I stopped at a McDonalds and got some fries and a Diet Coke. Gastric distress is my great fear on a long plane flight, and taters are a rare good ballast for an empty stomach, as the Gaffer said. Fries are one of my favorite things for preventing heartburn. The Diet Coke was simply a source of caffeine to help me stay awake on the plane until it was worth trying to sleep.

My flight was scheduled to leave Los Angeles at 10:10 PM, Thursday, and arrive in Sydney around 7:30 AM on Saturday. With the time difference (19 hours), that amounted to a little over fourteen hours in the air. Boarding was at 9:25, making fifteen hours on the plane in all. I had a plan for surviving those fifteen hours:

First, hope that (given the unstable political situation) the plane would be nearly empty, so that I'd have an empty seat next to me--and maybe and entire empty row.

Next, stay up until about 2 or 3 AM, California time. I had some books and my Nomad Zen Jukebox to help with this; with the Jukebox I had some special earbud headphones that incorporate earplugs, making it easier to hear the music and harder to hear the plane. Plus, they'd be giving us dinner, and maybe there would be a movie worth watching.

Next, take a couple of Excedrin PM tablets (the normal adult dose) resulting in a 76 mg dose of Diphenhydramine--the anti-histamine otherwise known as Benedryl; and put in the regular ear plugs I'd bought. If I was lucky, this would knock me out for six-to-eight hours, leaving me just enought time to have breakfast on the plane before we landed in Sydney.

Jane had her own plans; she'd heard rumors that various airlines were cutting service in lieu of going into bankruptcy, and so she packed me a nice lunch: sandwich, cheese stick, brownie (from the best batch she's ever made), carrots, celery.

But nothing goes according to plan. We started boarding on time, but what with delays at the gate and delays on the tarmac it was 10:30 PM before we left the ground. By that time I'd already been on the plane for a full hour. (I was sitting next to a couple of guys from Holland who work for a company that writes and sells software that runs on cargo ships. Or something like that. We chatted a little bit as we waited for the plane to take off. They'd already flown from Cuba to the Netherlands to New York to Los Angeles.) Then, the Captain told us there was a storm on the direct path from Los Angeles to Sydney, so he was going to fly toward Hawaii then hang a left, thus lengthening the flight.

The food on the plane was actually reasonably good. On the other hand, the cabin interior was showing signs of poor maintenance. The arm rests all looked worn, and the woman just ahead of me had no reading-light. Also, the TV projector in our cabin was busted, so there was no movie to watch. (It was "Jerry Maguire" anyway, a movie I have no desire to see.) So I spent several long hours reading. And this is where I made my first mistake.

My book leading up to the trip was The Arms of Krupp, by William Manchester. It's a good book, but it's a thick trace paperback, and that's clumsy on a plane. Still, that's the main book I had in my backpack when I arrived at the airport. I wandered around the terminal gift shop, looking at this and that, and found a paperback of Stephen King short stories called Everything's Eventual. See my review for why this was a mistake.

Finally, I decided at about 1:30 AM to turn out my reading lamp and try to sleep. That was a little early, but mine was the only active reading lamp in my cabin. (Some folks had been sleeping since we took off.) I went to the lavatory and took a couple of Excedrin PM; I put in the earplugs; I waited for oblivion. The earplugs were a great idea, by the way. You can still hear the dull roar of the jets quite clearly, but they are much quieter, as are all of the other things going on. Details are hazy, but I believe I managed to doze until maybe 4:30 AM. (Most of that was due to the ear plugs and fatigue, I think; there was no oblivion. I've been taking anti-histamines for my allergies for too many years.) Then I sat up and went back to reading.

A couple some rows ahead of me had a little girl about Anne's age with them; every so often she came running down the aisle on the way to or from the lavatory. She was a cutie. She wasn't a nuisance--I only heard her cry once, and the ear plugs got most of that--but watching her got me a little misty.

At around 6 AM (PDT) they served a snack, which I skipped; but I did have a Diet Pepsi. I wasn't hungry, and in fact I was wondering what I was going to do with the lunch Jane had made for me. My digestion was happy, a condition not to be trifled with; but I couldn't take the lunch into Australia. I didn't want to throw it away, as it was much more than a lunch; it was really a statement of Jane's love. She knew I didn't want to go, and that I needed to, and she couldn't do anything about that. But she could pack me a lunch of comfort food. In the end I got genuinely hungry at around 10 AM (PDT) and ate it, and it was good, especially the brownie.

At some point in there I finished the King anthology, and this is where I made my second mistake. Instead of pulling out the Laurie R. King mystery I'd been saving, I pulled out the first book in a series by Elizabeth Haydon. My brother recommended it to me just a couple of days before I left, and I went out and bought it at the same time as my new suitcase. Now, I don't want to imply that it's a bad book. I enjoyed it, in fact. But see the review for why it was also a mistake.

Around 11:30 AM (PDT) they served breakfast, which I wasn't expecting. The snack at 6 AM was pretty substantial, even though I didn't eat it, and my itinerary only called for two meals. I guess supplying food is a kind of crowd control on long international flights. I had apple pancakes, which were overcooked, and two sausages, which were OK, and a bit of croissant, and some milk.

My jukebox's battery ran out of juice about then, so there was no more music after that.

We finally landed in Sydney around 1:15 PM (PDT), or 8:16 AM Sydney/Canberra time, almost 16 hours after I boarded the plane and about 45 minutes after our scheduled arrival. Then came passport control, the baggage carousel, and Australian customs, which took me until 9 AM. My connecting flight to Canberra was scheduled to leave at 9:15 AM. Sydney's domestic terminal is quite a ways from international terminal, and although there's a shuttle bus dedicated to that purpose it still took until 9:15 AM to get there. I finally took the 10:15 flight, landing in Canberra just before 11:15 AM. It didn't take long to get my rental car, and I arrived at my hotel (the Bentley Suites in the Manuka neighborhood of Canberra) before noon despite making a couple of wrong turns and doing some exploring.

Yes, this is still Day 1 of my trip.

I ran into John the Tester in the hotel's reception area; we agreed to get something to eat after we'd taken time to shower.

I got a nice one bedroom suite on the fourth floor; the hot water pressure was lacking. And when I tried to adjust the shower head's spray pressure it broke off in my hand. That wasn't a bad thing, actually, as it worked better that way.

JPL allows you to make one call home at company expense, so that your loved ones know that you're safe, so after I showered I made it. I talked to Jane, and told her how to call me; I talked to Dave, who had just (just that minute!) lost his first tooth, one of the lower ones in front. (Damn it!) He was worried because he'd dropped it or something and couldn't find it. Jane told him that she'd put a note under the pillow for the tooth fairy, and I assured him that the tooth fairy wouldn't mind; it was the sort of thing that happened all the time.

Then John and I went and got lunch, and bought some groceries. By this time it was about 6 PM Canberra time, and I didn't dare go to sleep until at least 9 or 10 PM. Just for the record, 10 PM is 3AM, California time; by then I'd had only three or four bad hours of sleep in the past forty hours.

For dinner we walked down into Manuka and had a nice little meal at an Italian place puzzingly called Le Rendezvous. I had an "American Style" pizza, which is a thin crust pizza with cheese, tomato sauce and mild (!) salami (!) (according to the menu). Actually, the salami didn't taste much liked salami; it had a smoky flavor. It wasn't bad, though I don't think you could find anything quite like it back in the States. (Note: I went back to the same place a couple of nights before we came home, and ordered the same pizza, and let me tell you-- either they made it differently, or I was really sleepy the first night, because it was awful.)

It was getting dark as we walked back, and the crickets chirruped noisily as we passed the Australian Capitol Territory Cricket Oval. That observation was much more amusing to me at the time than it is now.

And so to bed.

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:41 PM | Comments(0)

Rhapsody, by Elizabeth Haydon

My brother recommended this book to me, along with its two sequels, just before I left for Australia; he said that he and my sister-in-law had rather enjoyed it. I was out buying a new suitcase, and on a whim stopped at a bookstore to see if they were available. They were, and I bought them. I packed the second and third books (Prophecy and Destiny) in my checked luggage, and brought this first book along to read on the plane.

As with Everything's Eventual, this was a mistake. Not because it's a bad book--it isn't. It's the story of a young woman who calls herself Rhapsody. She's a Singer, on the verge of becoming a Namer; which is to say that she's a bard, in a world in which bardic songs have real power. She's brave, brash, and clever; she's also good looking, and is much sought after by a admirer, a military commander who call himself Michael the Wind of Death. Michael is a confirmed sadist, and Rhapsody sees no reason to have anything to do with him. And then Michael sends his troops after her, and she's forced to flee.

As it happens (this is an epic fantasy, after all), she runs into the arms of the only people who can help her--a mismatched pair of killers on the run from their demon master. The three of them flee from Michael's forces (leaving quite a few of them dead) in search of a secret and magical passage to the other side of the world.

And therein lies the problem. After a number of scenes to get the ball rolling, the first part of the book consists primarily of a long, torturous slog through the center of the earth. A lot of character development occurs, along with a few pertinent adventures, but most of that part is simply a painful endless ordeal of trudging, trudging, trudging through cramped, confined tunnels while fighting off nasty vermin. And whenever I looked up from the book during this phase, I found myself in my seat at the back of the plane--a plane in which the shades were drawn, the main lights were off, and most of the reading lights were off as well. I was cramped and confined, and while I was sitting instead of trudging the flight still seemed endless. And the cabin of a dark plane does look rather like a tunnel

Needless to say, this did not help my mood, which was not good to begin with.

But none of that is really the fault of the book or its author. It's a competently written epic fantasy, and considered dispassionately I enjoyed it. Especially the parts I read after I got off the plane. I'm looking forward to the subsequent volumes.

However, I do have a few complaints. First, this is a Big Story with a vengeance--the fate of the world depends on Rhapsody and her two friends. Second, the story depends greatly on ancient history, and on creatures and people who have survived from ancient times. J.R.R. Tolkien managed to pull that off, but he spent years on the historical background, purely for his own enjoyment, before he wrote the books that made his reputation. In the hands of other authors the result usually seems rather comic book.

But mainly, the book is too darned long. I'd estimate that the book could be trimmed quite a bit without affecting the plot or the character development in the slightest.

It's hard to know what to say about this book. It's not perfect; parts of it are too long, for one thing. A little more editing could have taken care of that. And it's a bit comic book, too; like so many fantasy writers these days, she's forgotten that in fantasy some things must remain mysterious and evocative. She's a systematizer, and it shows, and that's not entirely a good thing.

But anyway. It's a competently written epic fantasy, and is certainly worthy of your time if you like that sort of thing. I'm looking forward to the later books.

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:34 PM | Comments(0)

I'm So Confused

I checked my webstats this morning, and saw that March 2003 was our best month so far with 19575 page views. That's an increase of 17% from February, and an increase of 5% from our previous best month (November 2001).

And what did I do this month to increase traffic? I stopped blogging for two weeks. Hmmm.

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:28 PM | Comments(0)