The Library of Babel: August 2002

This page contains the archived copies of book log entries for November of 2002.

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December 26, 2002

The Spell of the Sorcerer's Skull by John Bellairs. On Christmas Day, a snowstorm swept across New York, dropping close to two feet of snow in Schenectady, and around a foot in Scenic Whitney Point, where Kate and I were visiting my parents. Not being foolish enough to travel in such weather (we had originally planned to come back to the Albany area that afternoon), we spent an extra night, and a lazy day lounging in front of a roaring fire.

I didn't feel much like reading the books I had with me, so we pawed through the old books in my parents' basement, and I picked this up. It's one of Bellairs's "gothic" kids' books (part of the Johnny Dixon series, with The Chessmen of Doom), and thus not especially Christmas-y, but otherwise well suited to the situation-- mildly scary, with a happy ending, and the whole thing can be read in an hour and a half or so.

Johnny Dixon is a young boy who lives with his grandparents in New England (his father is a fighter pilot in Korea), and gets into a number of sorcerous scrapes over the course of several books. In this case, Johnny and his good friend Professor Roderick Childermass are on vacation in New Hampshire when they stumble on an ornate clock carved by one of the Professor's ancestors. The clock contains a meticulously crafted replica of the room in which another ancestor met a mysterious end, and the discovery sets in motion a curse laid on the Childermass line. Upon returning home, the professor disappears, and it's up to Johnny to rescue him with the aid of his good friend Fergie, the local priest Father Higgins, and an odd assemblage of pseudo-Catholic mysticism.

Great Litratchure this isn't, but it's an enjoyable read in its own way (as are all of Bellairs's kids' books).

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December 16, 2002

Early Autumn by Robert B. Parker. Another Spenser book, and while this isn't the book where the series jumps the shark (some of the later books are better than this one), you can see the fin in the water, and hear the speedboat revving.

This one doesn't really make much pretense at being a mystery. Spenser is hired to retrieve a young boy who's been kidnapped by his father (to spite his ex-wife), and does so. Both parents are scum (the mother is a slut, the father is a goon), and each wants the boy only to annoy the other, and the kid is in sad shape. Spenser takes a personal interest in the boy's welfare, and sets out to make a man of him (or, in Spenser's terms, teach him to be autonomous).

This book nicely encapsulates everything I dislike about the series. Spenser is incredibly arrogant, handles everything and everyone in a very high-handed manner, and because the author just loves the character, he turns out to be absolutely dead-on right about everything. Spenser makes Jack Ryan look like Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

Fortunately, it's a short book, and there are some good bits (mostly involving Hawk, who "oozes panache" to cop a phrase used in reference to Brust novels). But I don't think I'll be reading any more of these for a little while.

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December 14, 2002

The Miserable Mill by "Lemony Snicket." When a book start out with the sentence "The Baudelaire orphans looked out the grimy window of the train and gazed at the gloomy blackness of the Finite Forest, wondering if their lives would ever get any better," you just know the Events will be Unfortunate.

Fortunately, this is also a very informative book, as the Baudelaires spend time working in a lumber mill, and learning about important philosophical outlooks:

The children could tell, from Phil's statement about everything and everyone having a good side, that he was an optimist. "Optimist" is a word which here refers to a person, such as Phil, who thinks hopeful and pleasant thoughts about nearly everything. For instance, if an optimist had his left arm chewed off by an alligator, he might say, in a pleasant and hopeful voice, "Well, this isn't too bad. I don't have my left arm anymore, but at least nobody will ever ask me whether I am right-handed or left-handed," but most of us would say something more along the lines of "Aaaaah! My arm! My arm!"

The series continues, without a noticeable drop in quality. And really, that's all there is to say about this book.

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December 12, 2002

The Paths of the Dead by Steven Brust. I've already quoted a bit of this on my other weblog, which makes my opinion of this, mid-book, pretty clear. Finishing the book didn't change my mind-- Steven Brust rules.

This is a sequel to The Phoenix Guards and Five Hundred Years After, Brust's series of Dumas pastiches. These are set in the same world as the Vlad Taltos novels (see Yendi, Orca, and Dragon), and cover a period in the history of the Dragaeran Empire from five hundred years before the Interregnum (which is brought on by actions taken in Five Hundred Years After up to Vlad's day. They provide fascinating additional information about some characters in the Vlad books (this book includes the origin stories of at least four characters who appear in the Vlad books), and a different view of some events that are mentioned in other books (the Vlad books, and also Brokedown Palace).

The only complaint I have about this book is that it reads very much like the first third of a much longer novel. Which, of course, it is, in the Dragaeran universe where The Viscount of Adrilankha is a popular historical novel published by Glorious Mountain Press, and written by the wildly discursive Paarfi of Roundwood:

It should come as no surprise to the reader that, as Pel prepared to take his leave of Khaavren, there were other activities occurring in other parts of what had once been the Empire. This is because of that phenomenon of history called "simultaneity," which avers that events do not always happen in a neat orderly manner, one after the other; but rather that many things can happen at the same time. Thus, for example, during the Eleventh Issola Reign, while in Dragaera City the Baron of Karris was preparing an expedition to venture into the eastern jungles in search of exotic birds, at that same moment, in the desert of Suntra a caravan of traders was forming that, on their way to the port city of Adrilankha, would be passing through the jungle; and it was in this way that there came the fateful meeting between Ricci of Longgarden and Nessa of Kobi that resulted, some few years later, in the Battle Beneath the Hills and the subsequent rise to power of the Chreotha who became the Empress Synna the Fourth. This is just one example out of thousands of the phenomenon of simultaneity, and serves to point out one of the difficulties in writing-- and, consequently, reading-- history: that is, while historical events of significance are inclined to happen at the same time, it is nevertheless obvious that they can be treated by the historian only one at a time, as if they had happened sequentially. Hence, the writing of history is bound to introduce certain inaccuracies, and the reading of history is bound to produce certain misconceptions. It is the hope of the author that these inaccuracies and misconceptions can be held to a minimum by the expedient of making the reader aware of this circumstance, which we have just endeavored to do by our discussion of simultaneity, which, now that it has been made, can be set aside as we turn our attention to an example of this phenomenon of more direct moment to our particular history than the events, thousands of years in the past, when the birdwatcher met the game hunter.

Anyone who's read much of this book log, or my other web log, should see immediately why this appeals to me. Paarfi is my kind of guy. Nobody else would use that monster paragraph to, essentially, say "meanwhile, back at the ranch."

I won't discuss the plot, as it would be impossible to do so without spoiling numerous other books by Brust. If you have read and enjoyed the other "Paarfi of Roundwood" books, this is a worthy entry in the series. If you haven't read them, and the two chunks of this book that I've quoted don't make you want to run screaming for some Hemingway, start with The Phoenix Guards, or possibly Jhereg and then The Phoenix Guards, and work your way up to this one.

This was a great read, probably the best of the series to date. I certainly read it faster than either of the other two, and annoyed Kate to no end by reading choice passages aloud. And, as a bonus, there's a forward by Emma Bull, and an afterward by Teresa Nielsen Hayden, each of which are pretty damn funny, in their own right.

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December 10, 2002

Skin Tight by Carl Hiaasen. Now this is a good book for air travel.

This is one of Hiaasen's older books, and as such is considerably more manic than Basket Case, with plenty of colorful violence:

The fourth and most important person that Mick Stranahan killed was a crooked Dade County judge named Raleigh Goomer. Judge Goomer's specialty was shaking down defense lawyers in exchange for ridiculous bond reductions, which allowed dangerous felons to get out of jail and skip town. It was Stranahan who caught Judge Goomer at this game, and arrested him taking a payoff at a strip joint near the Miami airport. On the trip to the jail, Judge Goomer apparently panicked, pulled a .22 somewhere out of his black nylon socks, and fired three shots at Mick Stranahan. Hit twice in the right thigh, Stranahan still managed to seize th gun, twist the barrel up the judge's right nostril, and fire.

A special prosecutor sent down from Tampa presented the case to the grand jury, and the grand jury agreed that the killing of Judge Raleigh Goomer was probably self-defense, though a point-blank nostril shot did seem extreme. Even though Stranahan was cleared, he obviously could no longer be employed by the State Attorney General's Office. Pressure for his dismissal came most intensely from other crooked judges, several of whom stated that they were afraid to have Mr. Stranahan testifying in their courtrooms.

It would require numerous acts of selfless charity to improve Hiaasen's opinion of the average Florida politico to open contempt, which means he has a grand old time writing books in which crooked South Florida politicians meet messy and richly deserved ends. This book is no exception, and indeed, his wrath expands to include quack plastic surgeons, ambulance-chasing lawyers, and trash-tv "journalists."

This is a fun book, in a revenge-fantasy sort of way, as is the case with most of his books. There are always a handful of noble characters in a Hiaasen novel-- here, it's Stranahan, a tv produce, and an honest Homicide detective who I think appears in a couple of the other books-- and the plots consist of watching them thwart the evil schemes of a wide variety of colorful villains, most of who die messily, or are brought low in some other poetically just manner. It's not for the squeamish, but if you enjoy a spot of black humor and righteous indignation, Hiaasen's a reliable source of entertaining reading.

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December 7, 2002

The Prize in the Game by Jo Walton. This is an absolutely dreadful book to read on an airplane. It's a very engrossing book, and the characters have a decidedly non-modern worldview, meaning that every time a stewardess stopped to ask if I wanted water or snacks, I had a moment or two of complete disorientation. That's pretty high praise, actually.

This is a prequel of sorts to The King's Peace and The King's Name, telling the story of Elenn (who becomes the Guenivere-analogue in the other books), Black Darag (an off-stage presence in the other story, and the Cuchulain-analogue in this story), and Conal Fishface, who probably has a specific analogue in myth, but who I got stuck thinking of as the mad Irishman from Braveheart. Yeah, I'm a cretin.

As with the previous books, it's not exactly a re-telling of existing myth, but there are clear parallels. The first two books are the Arthur legends re-told with different characters and a new ending, while this is recognizable even to me as a version of the Irish epic Táin Bó Cúalnge, or "The Cattle-raid of Cooley." The original can be found here, both in English and the original Irish.

The story is told from four different points of view, cycling chapter by chapter between Conal, Elenn, Emer (Elenn's sister, who falls in love with Conal), and Ferdia (a friend and foster-brother of Darag and Conal). Conal and Darag are rivals for a kingship, and the story follows their struggles in attempting to win the throne, and the relationship between them, the women, and Elenn and Emer's thoroughly awful mother.

I think I like this book even better than the others. The narrative is much more engaging than the looking-back-from-years-later tone of Sulien's narration, which necessarily undercuts some of the suspense in the other books. The story here is in the more common tight third person, where you see the story as it happens, through the eyes of one character at a time. It does a much better job of putting you into the head of the character at that particular moment, which in turn makes this an awful book to read on a plane.

I have a few minor quibbles with the characters who appear in the other books-- Conal, in particular, seems like a much different person. But then, we know that there's tragedy in his future before he makes those appearances, so it's probably not that surprising. And the story here is terrific, with all the characters being very well drawn.

I highly recommend this book, and not just because it's dedicated to my wife. It's a terrific read, and a very different take on Celtic mythology. Just don't take it with you if you're flying to Vegas.

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December 1, 2002

Slow Burn by G. M. Ford. The third of the series books I read last weekend, and the fourth Leo Waterman novel (the others being Who in Hell Is Wanda Fuca?, Cast in Stone, and The Bum's Rush).

This is a book chock full of Nero Wolfe references, from the very Wolfean Sir Geoffrey Miles (who is first seen dining on saucisse minuit), a mountainous gourmet who hires Leo to prevent an embarrassing spectacle at the Seattle meeting of Le Cuisine Internationale ("At last we were at my area of expertise. Embarrassing Spectacles Are Us.") to the concluding scene where the solution to the mystery is revealed:

I stood up. "I want to confess," I shouted.

All eyes turned my way.

"Confess to what?" [Detective] Lobdell sounded hopeful.

"I want to confess that I always wanted to do this."

"Do what?"

"Have the cops and the suspects all crowded into one room at the end of the case so I can tell everybody what actually happened and who actually done it." Nobody had a clue, so I tried again.

"You know, like at the end of a Nero Wolfe novel, when everybody crowds into Wolfe's office and he sets them straight."

The blank looks suggested a disturbing lack of literacy.

This was a fun read, with a good mix of eccentric characters and sordid situations. It held up to being read in the car while we were stuck in traffic on the Mass Pike, and my Giants were choking away a game on the radio, and there aren't many books that can say that.

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As I'm not as ambitious or conscientious as Kate is, this isn't using any weblogging software at the moment-- I don't figure it will be updated regularly enough to require automatic archiving and the like.

The comment feature is provided by YACCS, and is dead simple to install. If you're looking to add comments to a weblog, it's a good way to go.

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Begun: 7 August, 2001