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Book Review Roundup

Here are some books I've read in recent months that I thought were too short or too disappointing to merit a full-length review.

Silverwing: I can just hear the pitch for this book: "It's like Harry Potter meets Watership Down meets Incredible Journey -- kids will love it!" Kids probably will love it, and I didn't find it half bad either. The heavily anthromorphisized critters of Silverwing are bats, and our hero is the newborn Shade, the runt of the litter who is determined to prove himself but is separated from his migrating clan and forced to blah blah blah ... Well, needless to say there's nothing new in regards to plot or characters -- in fact, as I was reading this aloud to The Queen, I would occationally introduce a new character and have her say "oh, this is Professor Snape" or "aha, I knew Draco Malfoy would be in here somehwhere!" But while I'm not one to typically recommend a book on the basis of its unoriginality, Silverwing is at least as interesting as J. K. Rowling's novels (and, at 200 pages, about a third as long), so it might just be the perfect thing for you or your youngster if you need a Harry Potter fix before Order of the Pheonix is released later this month.

A Wizard of Earthsea: And speaking of Hogwarts ... After recently reading several of those wordy-to-the-point-of-prolixity Harry Potter books -- not to mention rereading the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy in all its verbosity -- my initial reaction to this was one of disappointment. A Wizard of Earthsea tells the tale of Ged, an usually gifted young magician who is coming to grips with his powers on a world where dry land is few and far between, and every region is an island unto itself. Ursula K. Le Guin writes the novel in a manner so devoid of description that it seems almost curt. The book was short enough to keep me reading, though, and by the midpoint I was surprised to discover that I had come to appreciate the style. Le Guin is a storyteller in the truest sense of the term: she concentrates solely on the narrative and only gussies things up with description when necessary. The result is less a story less you'd find in a 600 page tome and more like what you'd hear told around a campfire. By the end I decided that I'd quite enjoyed A Wizard of Earthsea, and I'm looking forward to the next book in the series.

Legacy: I'd never read a James Michener novel before and, given that this one only runs about 150 pages, I guess you could argue that I still haven't. (Don't be fooled by the "288 pages" listed on the Amazon page; in addition to Legacy the book also contains the entire text of the Constitution of the United States and a 30 page preview of another novel entirely.) Written in 1990, the story traces the lineage of several generations of "patriots," beginning with Jared Starr (who was present at the signing of the Constitution) and ending with Major Norman Starr (who is about to be called before a Senate investigation to account for his role in the Iran / Contra Affair). I found Legacy to be entertaining, but I can't say that I feel any burning desire to grab one of Michener's 1000+ page opuses as a result. I did appreciate that the central character, Major Normal Starr, was portrayed as deeply conservative and reverential towards the Reagan Administration; as a lefty-progressive, it was nice to get a peek into the mind of "the other side".

To Say Nothing Of The Dog: I spent much of this book thinking "Wow: this sure reminds me of Bellwether." And it wasn't until I was nearly two-thirds of the way through it before I had my big d'oh! moment, realizing "no wonder: the author of To Say Nothing Of The Dog is -- d'oh! -- the same person who wrote Bellwether". The problem, unfortunately, is that Bellwhether was quite a bit more enjoyable than this congenial mess. To Say Nothing Of The Dog starts out as a book about time travel (cool!), but then becomes a book about the Victorian Era (less cool) and remains so throughout most of the middle (zzzzzzzz) before, at the very end, abruptly transmorgifying back into the science fiction novel it had promised to be. That the author tries to shoehorn a mystery story in as well doesn't help. Willis has plenty of clever ideas about time travel, but they are largely wasted in what is primarily a comedy of errors and manners. The whole thing comes off as a nice try, but Bellwhether is a essentially a refinement of the ideas within and a vast improvement over the somewhat muddled plot to be found here.

Posted on June 05, 2003 to Books


I'm so glad you and The Queen read children's books aloud. I was beginning to feel like Andreas and I were all alone in the endeavor.

Posted by: Ariel on June 5, 2003 3:50 PM

I just finished reading James Michener's Poland, one of those 1000 page opuses, so reading Legacy should be a walk in the park. His historical novels are a great way to delve a little deeper into those areas of the world that were glossed over in high school history class.

I've heard that Michener used a lot of grad students to do the heavy lifting in his books, ala Rick Bragg, but it's still a good read.

And as a conservative that is somewhat reverential towards the Reagan Administration I read the Yeti to get a peek into the mind of the lefty-progressive "other side"!

Posted by: Duane on June 5, 2003 4:32 PM

When I was 15 my girlfriend at the time loaned me her copy of 'A Wizard of Earthsea'. I've been looking for more books by that author ever since. Unfortunately, I havn't found a damn one, OR any more copies of the aforementioned. I guess they weren't widely released in the south.

Posted by: Baron Samhedi on June 5, 2003 5:53 PM

LeGuin is a gen-you-wine saint of Ectopia too, and lives in Orry-gone. She surface hereabouts from time to time.

Posted by: mike on June 5, 2003 6:45 PM

I can tell I'm getting old. My eight-year-old is now reading A Wizard of Earthsea. My eleven-year-old finished all five books in the series years ago. I read them decades ago - so long ago there were still only three books in the series. Check out The Left Hand of Darkness - http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0441478123 (don't break the URL at the dash). Or The Word for World is Forest. Her parents were anthropologists who wrote the Ishi books - http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0520229401 .

Posted by: Amazon escapee on June 5, 2003 9:54 PM

LeGuin rules the world. i _so_ appreciate her lack of description compared to folks like Dan Simmons or, worst of all, Robert Jordan.

for the sci-fi fan i would recommend, in addition to The Left Hand of Darkness, Worlds of Exile and Illusion: Rocannon's World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions [http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0312862113/qid=1054908305/br=1-15/ref=br_lf_b_15//102-4555703-3784913?v=glance&s=books&n=15522]

Posted by: Sean Meade on June 6, 2003 7:07 AM

I quite enjoyed Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog. Mind you, I haven't read Bellwether so I have no point of comparison, but I liked the way in which Willis took all the standard tropes of a Victorian murder mystery - upper-class weekend in the country, secret identities, culpable butler - and turned it into a light farce. SF writers seem to be half in love with the Victorian era, for some reason.

Posted by: palinode on June 6, 2003 7:35 AM

Silverwing was actually published the same year as Harry Potter, so any Snape and Malfoy resemblances are probably due to ancient bat gods intruding into our dreams.

Posted by: Tim on June 6, 2003 10:14 AM

For what its worth: the first 3 books of the Earthsea series are good wizardy fun, but the last three totally rocked my world. LeGuin, she's cool.

Posted by: leen on June 6, 2003 11:39 AM

LeGuin is for those who want to do a 180 from Tolkien, if only for the purpose of going back to Tolkien to read about Frodo with re-freshened eyes; and am glad someone took note of the style of her writing. It is one of the reasons I love the Earthsea trilogy so much. And yes, her 'verbosity' is rather sparse...rather elegant, in my opinion. There were parts of LOTR that were maddening for me, as the description got lost in...well, the descriptions.

But anyway, she has written couple of followups to the trilogy, one about the little girl who was rescued in Tombs of Atuan, and then another that I have yet to find.

The Earthsea trilogy is about the only fantasy she did. The rest she wrote is of science fiction on the level of Asimov...only not as verbose. I have read "Left Hand of Darkness" which was made into a movie recently (Lukas Haas and that talentless chik from The Cosby Show...you know, the one who thought so much about herself for no good reason...) and "Rocannon's World" which was pretty interesting.

She has also written many essays about writing fiction.

I was also thrilled to learn that she is the daughter of one of the leaders in anthropological research, Alfred Kroeber. Knowing that made reading the trilogy even more of a pleasure.

Posted by: Sharon Ferguson on June 6, 2003 3:57 PM

Don't let To Say Nothing... put you off of Connie Willis. It was the first of her books I read and I didn't care for it either. But Passage and especially Doomsday Book are both fantastic books.

Posted by: tomas on June 7, 2003 11:03 PM

I believe that the title "To Say Nothing of the Dog" is lifted from Jerome K. Jerome's book, "Three Men in a Boat" (which is subtitled, "To Say Nothing of the Dog"). The dog in JKJ's book -- which is, by the way, easily the funniest book I've ever read -- is named Montmorency.

Go get "Three Men in a Boat" from the Project Gutenberg web page and read it. (Yes, it's *that* old.) Throw-away lines from that book have been recycled by *everyone* from "Garfield" the cat to, well, everyone.

Just get the PG file and give it a go. The same characters take a bicycle tour of Germany in the follow-on story "Three Men on the Bummel" and it's just as funny.

Posted by: Will E. on June 9, 2003 10:16 AM

I knew I'd heard that phrase "to say nothing of the dog" before. Just didn't click till you made the link with 3 men in a boat.

Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness is greeeaaattt!! I read the Earthsea books when they were a "quartet" - didn't know there were more. Anyone know the titles of the later two?

Posted by: anothertim on June 10, 2003 4:02 AM