February 29, 2004

Ex Libris Reviews

The March issue of Ex Libris Reviews is now available. Enjoy!
Posted by Will Duquette at 03:04 PM | Comments(0)

February 26, 2004

Posting to Increase

I apologize for the slow rate of posting recently; I've been battling a nasty cold and haven't felt much like writing (or much like reading, truth to tell). But I hope to be getting back in harness over the next few days.
Posted by Will Duquette at 07:53 PM | Comments(0)

February 24, 2004

In the Hall of the Martian King, by John Barnes

This is the third of Barnes' Jak Jinnaka series; I like it considerably better than its immediate predecessor, A Princess of the Aerie, though not as much as the first book, The Prince of Uranium.

In this episode, Jak Jinnaka is serving his time in his first post as Vice Provost of Hive's base on Deimos. Ostensibly he's a civil servant; really, he's an agent of Hive Intelligence. His boss, the Provost, is a wise and canny fellow who unaccountably likes living on Deimos, has two ways of dealing with his VPs: either they are incompetent, in which case he sacks them for the good of Deimos, or he arranges for them to look so good they get promoted elsewhere. As the book begins, said boss is about to take a trip to Earth, living Jak in charge. There's bound to be a crisis of one kind or another while he's gone, so he tells Jak; if Jak can rise to it, it will make his career.

A crisis does arise, of course, and a variety of funny, distressing, and action-packed scenes follow, and as I say I enjoyed the ride. Nevertheless, the series leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. It appears to be Jak's fate to be double-crossed by everyone he trusts, and in particular by his employers, and to be swept hither and yon by powers too subtle for him to perceive until it's too late. It's as though Barnes has a kind of anti-Heinlein thing going. Instead of a main character who's too amazingly competent for belief, we've got a guy whose own desires are almost literally beside the point.

I enjoyed it enough to read the next one, if there is a next one, but it's still a little too cynical for my taste.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:23 PM | Comments(2)

February 23, 2004

Death on the High C's, by Robert Barnard

This one's much better than the last Barnard I read, Death of an Old Goat, better in every way. The plot is better, the characters are better, the mystery is better, and it doesn't drip with scorn. It's true, the most obnoxious character in the book is Australian, but you get the sense that she'd have been just as annoying no matter what her origin.

It involves a young but promising opera company in the north of England. They are just beginning their second season with a staging of Rigoletto--and Barnard clearly knows and loves Rigoletto just as much as he (apparently) dislikes Australia. There are lots of nice twists and turns, and it ends up quite satisfactorily.

One of the interesting things about Barnard's work is that he doesn't have a consistent tone. Sometimes he plays for laughs; sometimes he's more serious; and in this one, it almost seems like he's trying to play Ngaio Marsh. If so, he doesn't quite make it...but the results are pleasingly Marsh-like nevertheless.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:46 PM | Comments(0)

February 20, 2004

Death of an Old Goat, by Robert Barnard

An aging Oxford professor of English is travelling across Australia, giving "guest lectures" at all of the institutes of higher learning (so called) in that country. It is the mid-1970s; he wrote the two lectures he is giving in the 1920s, when he was a young don, and has been giving them unchanged, word-for-word ever since. He is deadly dull.

And at one of his stops, a particularly back-water sort of University even for Australia, he is murdered for no discernible reason.

If you've detected a note of disdain for Australia in this review, it's simply because I'm trying to maintain the tone of the book itself, a so-called "satire" in which Australia is shown to be in every way dirtier, shabbier, and coarser than the mother country, even down to its academic politics (which, heaven knows, are pretty shabby no matter where you go).

But if, on the one hand, you've got a book that repeats all of the usual pommie slanders, then on the other the mystery is fairly lightweight.

The book is, I hasten to add, well-written--the characters are all marvelously well-drawn and very much themselves. But one doesn't like them, or the constant English snobbery, and the mystery does little to make up for it.

Oh, well.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:21 PM | Comments(0)

The Old Ones

This morning I got the weirdest piece of spam I've yet received--nothing much, just a little text telling me that there's now a web page for THE OLD ONES.

I usually ignore spam, but for some reason I clicked on the link. It took me to a web page for a Czech band called "The Old Ones" whose first album, Al Azif, contains songs inspired by H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. The leader of the band calls himself "Black Pharoah".

What a weird and wonderful world it is, to be sure.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:25 AM | Comments(2)

February 17, 2004

More of the Old Man

The Old Man in the Hat has acquired another verse. Now I need to figure out what to say about Weathertop...if anything.
Posted by Will Duquette at 08:16 PM | Comments(1)

Tenser, said the Tensor

I've found promising new blog; apparently it's going to focus on linguistics, with excursions into linguistics in science fiction.

Ten extra credit points if you know where the title of the blog (and this post!) come from without peeking.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:06 PM | Comments(2)

The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Having finished re-reading The Lord of the Rings, it seemed reasonable to keep moving along and re-read The Silmarillion. And I'm glad I did; but at the same time I find I don't have much to say about it. It's history rather than narrative, and except for a few points (notably the story of Beren and Luthien) I don't find it nearly as moving as the trilogy. There's pleasure in it; but it's a different kind of pleasure.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:24 PM | Comments(5)

February 16, 2004

Good News and Bad News

So I took my PowerBook down to the Apple Store today, and discovered that there was Good News and Bad News.

The Good News is that all I needed to replace was the power adaptor--effectively, the power cord. This makes no sense to me at all, mind you. How can it be that the power adaptor can power the computer, but can't charge the battery? I don't get it. Nevertheless, it's good news--they gave me a new power adaptor under the warranty (which has a couple of months left to run) and I got to take my laptop home.

The Bad News is that my laptop has a nasty dent on one back corner that I wasn't aware of. It probably got there last Spring when I went to Australia; I slipped and fell in the airport and dropped the laptop case. But I looked the laptop over then and I don't remember seeing it. If it didn't happen back then, I'm at a loss--it clearly got a pretty good whack. It doesn't seem to have affected the computer's behavior at all, but I was informed today that it's enough to void the warranty if I ever do have to send the whole thing for service. Ugh.

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:23 PM | Comments(1)

I Hate My Printer

I have an Epson C82 inkjet printer. I got it because according to the reviews it's a good light-duty printer, prints photos reasonably well, and uses non-fading inks.

I've also decided that it's a royal pain.

I tend to use it once a month or so. Every time I use it, practically, I discover that I need to run through the nozzle cleaning procedure, which wastes ink.

Today, I found out that I needed to do that after wasting about an hour and several sheets of photo paper. So I fixed it, and printed the pages again, and on the third page I discovered that I needed to do the nozzle cleaning again. Net result: after two hours of wasted time I've got lots of wasted sheets of paper, half the pictures I wanted, and a printer that I don't trust.

Can anybody point me to a nice, reliable color printer that doesn't get bitchy if it's ignored most of the time?

Posted by Will Duquette at 01:10 PM | Comments(5)

February 15, 2004

Competitions, by Sharon Green

This is the second book of Green's series The Blending, which I panned back in November. So why did I read the second book if I disliked the first? I have three answers. First, Jane liked it rather better than I did, and wanted to read the second book. Second, the premise is somewhat interesting; I'm curious to see how it plays out. Third, I didn't read this book--rather, I got through a hundred pages or so and decided I didn't want to read any further thanks to a case of acute moral indigestion.

It's dangerous, of course, to guess a novelist's views from their work; one is all too likely to take some sentiment vehemently expressed by some character or other as a statement of the author's beliefs, only to be proved ludicrously wrong. Nevertheless an author's worldview generally does show up in their writing--and Green's world view, as I see it reflected here, is one that I find particularly pernicious, as well as all too prevalent. It is, quite simply, the belief that spiritual growth equals mental health, that religion equals therapy.

An examination of Green's characters is illuminating. The "good" characters are open, thoughtful, and friendly (with each other, anyway). They are mostly emotionally damaged in some way: one is claustrophobic; one fears sexual intimacy because of a prior marriage to a cruel husband; one has little understanding of people because his domineering mother attempted to fixate him on her; another has a heart of gold but is unreasonably jealous (that is to say, he believes in traditional monogamy!). But because they are "good" they are all trying to overcome this damage and grow into full emotional balance. And--this is where the book becomes particularly wearing--those passages which don't advance the plot are dedicated to the characters administering therapy to each other. It's not called that, but that's what it is.

The "bad" characters are also mostly emotionally damaged, but unlike the "good" characters have no desire to grow into health. Instead, they glory in their infirmity, which generally manifests as some kind of sexual perversion. They are sadists (genuine sadists who really enjoy causing pain to non-consensual partners), or masochists, or indulge in unloving promiscuity, that is, promiscuity for pleasure only, with people you don't care about. It's clear that in Green's world, promiscuity with people you love isn't a problem--as I noted above, a hangup about this is the obstacle one of the "good" characters has to overcome.

Tellingly, the only major characters I've noted who are not emotionally damaged, that is, who are "well", are adepts of Spirit. In Green's world, every person is aligned to a greater or lesser degree with one of the five elements: Air, Earth, Fire, Water, and Spirit. Adepts of Spirit are able to read very clearly the emotions of others, even those the others might wish to keep hidden, and if strong enough can manipulate the emotions of others as well. Supposedly, strong adepts of Spirit have to be emotionally stable, because otherwise the emotions of others would destroy them.

One of the two "healthy" characters, Jovvi, is not only an adept of Spirit but a prostitute by trade who has grown rich in her profession by manipulating the emotions of her customers with her magic talent. She never manipulates the emotions of the other "good" characters, of course, except for their own good.

And there we have the pinnacle of Green's moral pyramid: emotional stability, along with the ability to manipulate the emotions of others "for their own good." It's a world in which the only saints are therapists.

It's a world view that's becoming increasingly popular these days; as I've written elsewhere it's a world view that has nearly consumed the Episcopal Church, of which I'm a member. And it's a lie. Most people are not emotionally damaged and in need of therapy. Spiritual growth is not the movement from a position of emotional injury to one of emotional stability (though it may involve that). Spiritual growth is a movement from being centered on one's self to being centered on God, a process which can involve considerable discomfort, and which has little to do with being a well-adjusted member of society.

The ironic thing is, I could probably tolerate Green's world view if she'd just leave out all of the therapeutic conversations and sexual healing (by the good guys) and weird sexual power games (by the bad guys--one of whom is purely disgusted when he finds out that a woman he knows is a dominatrix. In his view, the man ought to be holding the whip)--if, as I say, should discard all of that and just get on with the damn story.

But where the first book was told from five good, ever more healthy viewpoints, this book adds five additional mostly sick and twisted viewpoints. And there are three more books to follow before we get the payoff. Frankly, I decided that I couldn't stomach it and put the book away.

Please note--I'm not rejecting therapy altogether. It fills a need, and sometimes it's lifesaving. But it's a really bad way for most people to approach spiritual growth.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:48 PM | Comments(0)

The Source of Values

J.W. Hastings has some things to say that mesh interestingly with some things I said about values last week.
Posted by Will Duquette at 04:47 PM | Comments(0)

February 14, 2004

Alphas and Betas

Some while back I read an article about the social dynamics of high school girls. The article divided high school girls into three groups: Alphas, Betas, and Gammas. The Alphas are those who maintain a position in the upper ranks of the school pecking order by constant attention to their position and by continual politicking and infighting. The Gammas are those who fall to the lower ranks because they can't compete socially or politically with the Alphas.

And then there were the Betas. The Betas have two notable features: they don't play the political game and indeed are almost outside the social hierarchy that defines the lives of the Alphas and Gammas--and they are able to do so because they are good at something else. It might be academics, it might be athletics, it might be music, it might be drama. They win a place for themselves because of their obvious competence, and consequently have no need to scrabble for position. They might not be the prettiest girls, and they generally aren't the most popular girls, but they tend to be the most interesting, and the most content.

Now, what I know about feminine social dynamics you could lose in a thimble. But I related this article to my wife (a classic Beta, she got good grades and was in both choir and track & field in high school), and she assured me that it was spot on. And I've paid attention since then, and observed that most of the women I know well and like are also classic Betas.

Now, today was my son David's birthday party. (He's just turned 7.) At the party were many little boys from David's class, and just one little girl, Kayley. And I was fascinated to discover, as I listened to Jane talk to a couple of the other mothers, that the politicking and infighting are already going on among most of the girls in David's first grade class. But David's good friend Kayley isn't one of them. And in addition to being straightforward and friendly, she's apparently also very creative--constantly jumps into art projects on her own initiative. In a word, she's a budding Beta.

Fascinating. First grade, and it's already begun--and David already knows what kind of girl he likes. Bodes well for the future, I think.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:44 PM | Comments(2)

The Black Cauldron, by Lloyd Alexander

The plot of this, the second of the Chronicles of Prydain, is simple. Arawn, Dark Lord of Annuvin, has a black cauldron which he uses to turn the bodies of his slain enemies into deathless, fearless, pitiless warriors known as the Cauldron-Born. Recently he's been gone even farther--he's been sending his servants out to catch and slay the living, and bring their corpses back to Annuvin and the cauldron. This clearly cannot be allowed to continue, and so Gwydion Prince of Don plans to steal the cauldron and destroy it, gathering a team of men to help him--a team that includes our hero Taran of Caer Dallben and his friends. And naturally, it's Taran who will succeed (with the help of his friends) in finding the cauldron.

So much for the plot. As with the previous volume, the real story is the story of Taran's own moral growth, the mistakes he makes, the lessons he learns, and the hard choices he makes. And most of the characters in the book are there as moral exemplars of one kind or another.

Several of the characters return from the previous book. Gwydion, Prince of Don, represents the ideal man--that which Taran most admires. Princess Eilonwy, with her matter-of-fact analysis and her resourcefulness, is common sense. Fflewddur Fflam, whose accomplishments so often fall short of the desires of his great heart, represents perseverance in the face of human frailty.

But it's the new characters who provide most of the interest. Ellidyr, youngest son of the King of Pen-Llarcau, is haughty, thirsty for honor, and hag-ridden by envious pride, and not much older than Taran. Taran and Ellidyr clash badly at their first meeting, and at regular intervals thereafter--and the conflict forces Taran to confront his own pride and thirst for honor.

And then there's King Morgant, who stands to Gwydion much as Ellidyr stands to Taran, except that he's older, wiser, and sneakier, and knows how to bide his time.

But the book isn't entirely, or even mostly, filled with somber morality and growthfulness. It's also graced by considerable good humor, and nowhere more than in Taran and Co.'s encounter with Orrdu, Orwen, and Orgoch, as merry (and terrifying) a group of Fates as I've yet seen. I'd completely forgotten how much fun they were.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:25 PM | Comments(0)

February 13, 2004

We've Lived This...

...but it's nice to know that other parents have too.
Posted by Will Duquette at 08:43 PM | Comments(0)

Two More Verses!

The Old Man in the Hat Comes Back has miraculously acquired two more verses!
Posted by Will Duquette at 08:19 PM | Comments(0)

Dealing With Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede

This is Book One of The Adventures of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles; I picked it up for my daughter who's been looking for another good series to read. She's been on a Tamora Pierce kick for so long she's just about worn the books out from reading. But, of course, I had to see what they were about too, especially since I've seen Wrede's name several places and heard her mentioned as a good writer. And now I have to go get more of them and not for my daughter either. Ha, that'll teach me.

The book starts out like a fractured fairy tale. A princess, Princess Cimorene, is not the typical princess. She hates clothes, hates all the dancing lessons, hates to embroider and mostly doesnít want to marry any of the incredibly stupid princes she's met. She wants to learn fencing and cooking and Latin and magic which just isn't done when you are a princess. So she runs away and becomes a volunteer "princess held captive by a dragon," except she loves it. The dragon actually wants her to learn Latin so she can help sort out and catalog the library. She has to learn a little magic too which she gets from learning Latin so she can read the spell books and she gets to try out recipes when she does all the cooking for the household. It's perfect; she's busy and useful and doesnít have to worry about what she wears.

There is some conflict in the story, mostly involving wizards and princes who keep trying to rescue her while she keeps shooing them away so she can get on with her work. But what is entertaining is the way Princess Cimorene uses logic and common sense to blow holes in all the inflated notions of what is Done and what is Proper.

I enjoyed it. I laughed at parts and wondered where Wrede was going with the story at times and then watched as she used common sense and logic to get her princess out of the mess she is in. I'm hoping she can keep up the momentum and tempo in the following books. Now I have to go to the bookstore and find them.

Posted by Deb English at 08:07 PM | Comments(0)

February 12, 2004

Blogging might be erratic...

...for the next couple of days.

On the good side, today is my eldest boy's 7th birthday--an event that tends to spill over into the nearest weekend. (So much for Valentine's Day!) So things will be busy.

On the bad side, my laptop's battery isn't taking a charge--which at the best means I need a new battery, and at worst means I might lose the use of my laptop for a while, while it's in the shop. And I can't do much to find out until after the birthday festivities are over.

We'll see how it goes.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:34 PM | Comments(0)

February 11, 2004

Update: The Old Man in the Hat

I've added a bit to The Old Man in the Hat Comes Back. And there's more to come!
Posted by Will Duquette at 08:28 PM | Comments(1)

The Murder Room, by P.D. James

I actually bought this book in November but put off reading it right away so I could savor it in January when things slow down. And, darn, then I forgot about it until I rearranged my bookshelf the other day. It was like my birthday all over again.

I like P.D. James mysteries, a lot. The way she sets up the plot, develops all the characters and then brings in Dalgliesh to sort thru the mess of the crime is so elegantly done I find it hard to class her with other mystery writers. She's more mainstream in her writing; more literary than genre. And she does it again in this book.

The DuPayne Museum is a privately held museum on the outskirts of London dedicated to preserving the social and political event of the years between WWI and WWII. Of special interest is the room dedicated to the famous murders and their results of the period called The Murder Room. It's full of ghastly photos and exhibits of crimes committed and persons found guilty.

The three trustees are the children of the founder and all must sign the renewal of the lease on the building for the museum to continue. They don't get along and one is refusing to sign. They employ a curator who is a former government official now writing a book on some esoteric topic concerning the period, a receptionist/office manager who has the personality of a grumpy crab and a housekeeper who enjoys her work and especially the home she has found in the cottage attached to the museum.

And then one night one of the trustees is set on fire, alive, in his car in exactly the same manner as one of the exhibits of the Murder Room. And all the folks involved in the murder have motive and possibly opportunity.

The book is one of her better ones, I thought. And considering that she turned 80 in 2000, I am in awe that she is still able to plot and write with such manifest skill. But I do think it's the last Dalgliesh mystery. There are two many final notes in the book. Too many of the main characters were old people looking at a graceful exit from the stage. And at the end, when Dalgliesh throws back his head and laughs his triumph aloud, I was sure there weren't going to be any more stories well told about him. Read it and see if you agree.

Posted by Deb English at 08:06 PM | Comments(2)

February 10, 2004

The Old Man in the Hat Comes Back

Update: I've moved The Old Man in the Hat Comes Back to our fiction page; that's where I'll be posting all updates.
Posted by Will Duquette at 07:36 PM | Comments(4)

February 09, 2004

Magician: Apprentice, by Raymond E. Feist

The beginning of this book was very promising but then it degenerated so quickly into a knock-off of other authors that I found it irritating. It's the story of Pug, the young orphan boy, who is taken as apprentice to the local magician and finds that although he has no talent for conventional magic, in high stress situations something just happens and magic flows. And then there is this weird rift in space/time that is letting really bad guys from another place thru to plunder Pug's world and all the good guys are trying to figure who they are and how to defeat them. Oh, yes, there are elves and dwarves. The elves live in the woods that are magically imbued with their essence and the dwarves are miners and metal workers. And there is a mysterious woodsman who has dealings with the elves. And there are little dragons, who thankfully donít have swirly eyes or I'd have tossed the book across the room, but who are taken as pets by the wizard. And there is a princess whom Pug is just really hot for but you know, he has a destiny to fulfill and can't really commit right now.

I finished it but it became so obviously dependent on Tolkien and others that I donít think I will read the next one in the series. By the end of the book the plot was so confused and disjointed I just didnít care anymore. It might make a good read for the young adult audience and I will probably pass it along to a 10-year-old I know, but there are too many other good stories well told to read that don't rip off other authors. Bah!

Posted by Deb English at 08:41 PM | Comments(6)

February 08, 2004

1632, by Eric Flint

We had a big snowstorm this week. I'm unemployed right now, which is not a bad thing during a huge snowstorm, and I had my housetending chores out of the way and supper in the crockpot so I settled down with this book and just read. It's a good book for a snowy day when you have nowhere to go.

The novel's setup is fairly simple. An entire county of West Virginia is mysteriously transported back in time, intact, to Germany in 1632. Power is shut off, communications are gone and roads end in a clean cut at the perimeter of the area. Those within the area are left to cope with what supplies they have and good old American ingenuity. Fortunately, it's an area well armed with hunting rifles and hand guns. Fortunate also, they just happen to be sitting on a viable source of coal with a town full of coal miners and have the local power plant sent back with them. This is all fortunate because they landed smack dab in the middle of the Thirty Years War and the Inquisition among neighbors who live with the plague and believe in witchcraft.

It's an interesting premise and what Flint does with recreating the situation of the Founding Fathers is a tribute to the democracy and the American Way. And I donít mean that cynically either. He puts the his characters in a fantastic situation and then lets them struggle and develop based on the principles we all talk about but never really have to put into practical use on a daily basis because the mechanisms and institutions are established. What would happen if they just went away? The heroes in this book aren't the theorists or white collar guys who run things. The heroes are the working class folks who can get the power back on and deal with the realities of producing food and heating the houses and defending the town from the natives until negotiations can be made.

It's not a staid book either. The culture shock of 20th century meeting 17th century is funny in parts and full of rollicking derring do in others. I kept thinking to myself that folks who are anti-hunting and anti-gun would have a bird reading parts of this book. And my practical side kept wondering what they are going to do for little things like, oh, toilet paper or toothpaste or baking powder once the town's supplies are gone.

Now I have to read the next one, 1633. It's available on line at the Baen website so I downloaded the first couple of chapters to see if keeps the same tempo before heading off to the bookstore with my wallet.

Posted by Deb English at 06:34 PM | Comments(0)

February 06, 2004

Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren At a Time, by Michael Perry

This is not a book I would see on a bookstore shelf and think, gosh that looks like a good book. Even the blurbs on the back donít really sound all that interesting. I read it because my book group decided they wanted to read it.

Michael Perry writes about returning to live, after 10 years in the wide world, to his home town of New Auburn, WI, pop. 485. In a community of loggers and farmers he is a writer and poet, and though a native son he needs something to help ease himself back into the community. He joins the local volunteer fire department. Each chapter is an essay on some emergency or another that he is called out on, often humorously told with himself as the butt of the joke. The story about working on a guy down in a cow barn wedged between two cows while he, the first responder, is dressed in bike shorts and work boots and in direct line with a cow's business side is sweet and hilarious. His descriptions of the other guys in the department are so vivid I bet if I drove up to New Auburn, I could pick them out. And when they go to the local school to do the Firemen's Talk, which he calls "cultural interdiction," I could just see the kids in the gym sitting on the floor, absolutely enthralled by the firemen. But essentially itís a meditation on community and neighbors and being dependant on the people you live among. I found it engaging and sweet. I hope he writes more.

Posted by Deb English at 07:41 PM | Comments(2)

February 05, 2004

Firedrake, by Ann Ewan

A few times a year I'm asked to review somebody's new book. Most of the time I say no. If the book isn't the sort of thing I usually read there's no way I can review it fairly or objectively. I suspect many authors wouldn't care about my fairness or objectivity provided that I liked the book--but if it were the sort of book I like it would be the sort of book I read, if you follow me.

So I've established some rules. I only accept book review requests if it's the sort of book I might read anyway, and if they are willing to send me a review copy. Once in a while those conditions are actually met...and then, of course, I have to read the darn thing, and then review it. And that's a problem.

It's very odd. I've been reviewing pretty much everything I read for over six years. I know when I pick up a book that eventually I'll be recording my opinion of it for posterity--or, at any rate, for you folks. And yet, it's different when I've been asked to review a book. I find I can't approach it with an open mind and an open heart and simply try to enjoy it; instead, I've got my critic's hat on from page 1. And, absurdly, this just makes it harder for me to know what I think, because I end up watching the book instead of reading it.

I say all this as fair disclosure--Firedrake, a young adult fantasy novel, is one of the rare requests that made it through my filters.

So what's it about?

Shan is a young girl. Since she was a small child she's been in training to be a Wolf, one of the elite soldiers who guard the borders of the land or Perinar. Once, long ago, the common folk loved and honored the Wolves, for it was the Wolves who kept them safe. Several centuries past, however, after having saved Perinar from a horrible enemy, a group of wizards known as the Arkanan took over the rule of the country. They also discovered a horrible way to live beyond their normal span of years, and since that time all of their skill and strength has been devoted to retaining their lives and their rule. The Wolves are their chief tool.

The common folk have a prophecy that the Arkanan will be destroyed by a blind woman, a madman, and a wizard. Shan isn't blind, quite, but everything beyond arm's length is a blur. Could she be the blind woman of the prophecy?

In this genre, that's pretty much a rhetorical question. Of course she is, and of course the Arkanan are going to be destroyed. The only question is how. And the answer is, pretty well; it's an interesting ride.

So far as the book involves a young person going through a training regimen and growing into a destiny she only dimly understands, the book reminds me of something by L.E. Modesitt (and doesn't that tar Modesitt with a broad brush!). But there's also an element of suspense and claustrophic tension that reminds me of C.J. Cherryh. And like both of those authors, Ewan dumps you into Shan's world with a minimum of exposition--you have to watch and observe to figure out what's going on. This is generally considered to be a good thing.

On the whole, I'd say that I liked it. Once I got started I kept turning pages until I was done, which was for the better part of a long, lazy day. The writing is quietly competent, rather than flashy, and Shan's world has some neat aspects. At the same time, I'm not head-over-heels in love with the book.

I'm really quite curious to know how I'd have responded to Firedrake if I hadn't been asked to review it. Perhaps someday I'll pick it up again and read it just for fun, and then maybe I'll find out.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:43 PM | Comments(2)

February 04, 2004

Basket Case, by Carl Hiaasen

I tend to read about one Hiaasen novel a year. On the one hand, he's wickedly funny; on the other hand, he's wickedly funny, and tends to exceed the level of sex'n'drugs'n'sleaze I'm comfortable with. And then, he tends to harp on the subject of over-development and related government corruption in Florida--a serious problem, no doubt, but one I'm not especially interested in. So I find that about one a year suits me fine.

And then in January's Ex Libris Craig Clarke reviewed Basket Case. I won't describe it; click on the link to read Craig's review. But it sounded both intriguing and different than Hiassen's usual thing, or at least different than the ones I'd read previously.

And in fact it was a lot of fun. It wasn't as outrageously over-the-top as I've come to expect, and consequently wasn't as funny as usual; but then, there was somewhat less sleaze as well. Taken all-in-all the resulting book is a pretty good thriller, with memorable characters and a nice little romance thrown in for good measure. Oh, and over-development only gets a short paragraph. Who could ask for more?

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:21 PM | Comments(0)

A Correction

Yesterday a post containing reviews by Deb English appeared under my name, causing great confusion all over the world--or, at least, from Wisconsin to Shanghai. 'Twas my fault; I plead confusion, and promise that it will surely happen again someday. In the meantime, the error has been corrected.
Posted by Will Duquette at 08:03 PM | Comments(0)

The Wood Beyond
Recalled to Life
Arms and The Women
Dialogues of the Dead

by Reginald Hill

These are four more books in the Dalziel/Pascoe series by Hill. After reading On Beulah Height I just had to find more, it was that good. After a trip to the two Large Chain Bookstores in my area and a side trip to my local independent store, I came home with nothing. Zip, zero, nada. It was exasperating but there is also a mystery bookstore in town; I normally avoid since a visit there is usually a big hit on the wallet, but I called them and, joy!, had them set these aside for me.

Will has reviewed them before and given excellent plot summaries so I will skip that. What struck me reading these so closely together is that each book had several layers and one of them is always a text--a diary, a story, a manuscript--that either mirrors the plot or is key to the mystery the detectives are trying to solve. In Arms and the Women, Ellie Pascoe writes a story about Odysseus and Aeneas meeting on the island of Calypso and bases Odysseus on Dalziel and Aeneas on her husband. In The Woods Beyond, Pascoe's great-great-grandfather's WWI war diary provides the subtext. Fascinating.

Another thing that stands out when dashing thru the books one after the other is the way Hill plays with long words. There were times I literally had to look things up in the dictionary because he was using adjectives and nouns I had never seen before. Ever. Dialogues with the Dead has characters playing a hyped-up version of Scrabble that uses word play and puns in multiple languages and Hill just goes wild tossing off polysyllabic mysteries that beg to be checked on.

Plus the mysteries are so well plotted I almost never figured them out ahead of time. And I find Dalziel compelling. He's a truly gross man, fat, sweaty, cynical and abrasive, but there is something that makes you unable to take your eyes away from him and after a bit you find he's messing around with your mind.

Now I just have to find more of them. There's always Amazon, I guess.

Posted by Deb English at 07:40 PM | Comments(0)

February 02, 2004

This Is Not A Post

I've got two books waiting to be reviewed, but frankly, not tonight. It's pouring down rain, my allergy is acting up, and I've got heartburn from the bad pizza at a local pizza parlor we've made it a point not to go to for years now except that my son had some gift certificates he wanted to use. I am not feeling the slightest bit creative, just at the moment. Humph.
Posted by Will Duquette at 08:30 PM | Comments(1)

February 01, 2004

Dating Gollum

Found at Mirabilis, the Lord of the Rings dating guide:.

  • Eating raw fish is no longer a sign of a sophisticated date. (That said, you have to admit the Atkins plan is working for Gollum.)
  • When overused, terms of endearment such as "precious" lose their meaning;

Posted by Will Duquette at 05:27 PM | Comments(1)

Values vs. First Principles

I received a copy of C.S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man for Christmas; I'll be reviewing it eventually, but I want to re-read it first.

One of Lewis' points, though, is that the meaning of the word "reason" has shifted since the Middle Ages--indeed, since antiquity. Today what we mean by a reasonable or rational argument is one that follows the rules of logic. To the medievals, as to the ancients, the word meant something more--it meant logic, of course, but it also meant the recognition that certain truths were self-evident.

As, for example, that honesty is better than deceit; that integrity is better than corruption; that courage is better than cowardice; that sexual fidelity is better than promiscuity; that industry is better than sloth; i.e., that wisdom is better than foolishness.

The interesting thing about these kinds of self-evident values is that you can't really make a rational argument for them (in the modern sense of the word)--that is, from first principles. As Lewis shows in his book, any such attempt either fails at the outset or relies on some other standard of value that is to be taken as given. Try it--try to think of an argument in favor of honesty that doesn't involve an appeal to some other intangible value.

I'll have more to say about Lewis' argument, and the consequences that follow from it, when I actually review the book. In the meantime, I have some observations.

The first is that the primary lesson I draw from the history of philosophy is that you can't prove anything of interest about the real world from first principles. I'm thinking particularly of Mr. Hume; he began with the axiom that he should only believe what he saw, heard, tasted, smelled, or touched directly--and ended up with solipsism. In short, he proved that he couldn't prove that anything existed but his own mind. Some have regarded this as a profound result; I regard it is a reductio ad absurdum. His axioms were too few, and at least partially incorrect to boot.

It has long been my view that any philosophy that doesn't take objective reality--the world as it is--as its starting point is doomed to end in futility. Thus, the notion that any attempt to derive a worthwhile system of values from first principles is inherently flawed doesn't distress me; it's what I'd expect.

The second observation stems from the history of mathematics. Early in the 20th century there was an attempt to devise a set of axioms from which all of mathematics could be derived--a system in which every true statement of mathematics could be proven. Then Kurt Goedel came along and proved that you can't do it--that if your system is powerful enough to describe all of mathematics, then necessarily there will be true propositions within that system that cannot be proved. That is to say, there will be mathematical statements whose truth will be evident to the mathematician but for which no proof exists.

Now bear in mind that formal mathematics is all about proving things from first principles, and that it has nothing to do with contingent reality--and yet, even in this confined system, there are truths which must be seen to be self-evident.
It's improper, of course, to generalize from Goedel's theorem to the wider world...but it seems to me that objective reality is far more wild and complex and rich than mathematics, and that any formal philosophical system (like Hume's) that attempts to encompass it must likewise be larger and richer and more complex than mathematics. (And isn't that a thought to give one pause! As if math wasn't hard enough!) I don't think anyone is likely to accomplish it; mathematical reasoning is difficult enough, and one could argue that math is simply that branch of philosophy in which it's straightforward to tell whether or not you've made an error in your reasoning.

From this point of view, it once again doesn't surprise me that attempts to describe the nature of the world through formal reasoning from first principles have failed to capture its richness. And further, it doesn't surprise me that many important things about the nature of the world will be self-evident but unproveable--like the value of honesty, integrity, courage, compassion, and fidelity.

It's the attempt to dispose of our traditional values through logical argument that's unreasonable, not our acceptance of them.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:38 AM | Comments(3)

Pickled Dragon

Over a hundred years ago, someone with a fine sense of humor and real talent made this. I'm really very impressed, and I wish I had one.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:49 AM | Comments(0)

Our Man in Shanghai

After an absurdly long silence, given his resolution to post daily, Ian's back with five (count 'em, five) new posts. I guess that averages out to one a day. Start here and keep scrolling. Don't stop until you've read his remarks on cynicism in America.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:31 AM | Comments(0)