Blood Relation

By Andrew Taylor

(review by Irina)

Yet another part of my Quest for the Ultimate English Mystery Novel. I actually realized when I was on page 15 or so that I’d read it some years ago, but could only remember one scene – not a good sign. Not that the book is at all bad, just not memorable.

  • Author: Andrew Taylor
  • Title: Blood Relation
  • Published by: Victor Gollancz, London
  • Year: 1990

It turns out that this isn’t Andrew Taylor’s first novel by far, and that he’s even written some more books with the same protagonist. I’d probably pick them up in the library or buy them second-hand for one euro or less as a nice undemanding read when tired or miserable.

There’s nothing actually wrong with the book. The plot is interesting, the background well thought out (and means more to me than the previous time I read it, because large parts of it are set in the publishing world; I hadn’t started writing seriously then), the good guys are likeable, the bad guys are hateable, the in-between guys are ambiguous, just as it should be. It’s not even so predictable that it becomes boring: the ending has a nice unexpected twist that makes everything fit.

It’s set comfortably in England (and partly in Wales), without the foreign local colour that seems to be fashionable but tends to put me off when I pick up a book. The conversations are natural. There’s human interest.

But it doesn’t have “a certain je ne sais quoi” and, frankly, je ne sais quoi.

Mediaeval Latin Lyrics

By Helen Waddell

Not having benefitted from a classical education, I have never been able to teach myself enough Latin to read anything but the simplest books a vue — the Legenda Aurea or the Vita Karoli Magni and the easier bits from the Colloquia. So, when the Holy Nicholas of Myra presented me with a bilingual compilation of Medieval Latin verse, I was tickled to death.

  • Author: Helen Waddell
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics
  • Published: 1962 (1929)
  • Pages: 352

And not for nothing. Finally I have a compilation of Latin verse where even I, with my meager knowledge, can correct the translator. When Ausonius writes olim regum et puerorum nomina, it is surely essential to get the contrast that is caused by the juxtaposition of kings and children in the translation, and not merely give up with “once bewailed names of kings.” The Dutch translation that springs to mind is “eens de namen van koningen en kinderen”, but I have to admit that I cannot so readily phrase that in alliterating English.

There are other places where Helen Waddell, who is otherwise about as far above my touch as a person can be, is busy rhyming instead of translating. A pity, since I now cannot use the volume as a crib to aid my own imperfect understanding.

The usefulness as a crib is further diminished by the printing of the Latin text in a slightly smaller font than the translation. It does not succeed in its apparent goal of focusing attention on the English, and means that English and Latin line up even worse than usual. Add to that that English is usual wordier, and the outline of the problem will be clear.

As to how her translations fare as poetry in their own right: even though they do not always accurately transfer the sense of the original, they are nice, as poems go. But I do think that the original authors generally produced a stronger bit of poetry, with more meaning, oomph and espieglerie to it. Even if they wrote in a timid, half-articulate Latin, as Helen Waddell reminds us in the preface.

Of course, in the end, this is a very famous and very class compilation that I just happened to stumble against (or rather, that Sinterklaas) stumbeled against — and criticism about seventy years after the fact is a bit silly. But I’m still glad I caught the kings & kids’ names.

Errantes silva in magna et sub luce maligna
inter harundineasque comas gravidumque papaver
et tacitos sine labe lacus, sine murmure rivos,
quorum per ripas nebuloso lumine marcent
fleti, olim regum et puerorum nomina, flores.

Summer Lightning

By P.G. Wodehouse

This is the third Blandings Novel, and a treat I’d saved myself for when I thought I’d really need it.

  • Author: P.G. Wodehouse
  • Publisher: Herbert Jenkins
  • Published: 1929
  • Pages: 318
  • Alternative title: Fish Preferred

I know I’m a strange kind of fish — there’s no use denying it. There are a few books I know I’m going to like that I only read small pieces from. A chapter here, a chapter there, saving the real treat for some other time. This is what I did with Summer Lightning. However, feeling rather miserable with one thing and another, I figured the time had come to allow myself a long draught of the Master’s tonic.

Which, in itself, means that by know you know what I think of this book. It is, as Plum acknowledges in the preface, the familiar old story with the all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names.

But how does the book stack up qua book, instead of as a warm bath?

Pretty well, actually. Even if there’s no doubt about the eventual rejoining of the various sundered hearts, there’s a lot of genuine suspense — will the infernal Baxter manage to insinuate himself in Blandings Castle again, will we hear the story of Gregory Parsloe and the prawns, and, finally when lover B engages lover D, will A and C reciprocate? It is a testimony to Wodehouse’s talent that one never loses track of the developments, because they are as complex as in any C18 French comedy.

No words of mine, a mere L2 speaker of the language can do justice to Wodehouse’s polished English. Suffice it to say that I have seriously thought of dedicating my own book (GUI Application programming with Python to Wodehouse, because he has taught me real English. (That’s not to disparage the efforts of my high school teachers, but they, too, will know what I mean.)

Shall I give an outline of the story? Or will you rush out to your nearest second-hand bookshop and secure yourself a copy? Or perhaps splash out on a new printing (but take care and don’t buy those horrible Penguin pockets that are printed with ragged right edges, the ultimate insult).

Right, a short summary, then. Ronnie Fish, son of Julia Fish, is engaged to the chorus girl Sue Brown, daughter of Dolly Henderson, erstwhile fiancee of Galahad Threepwood, the brother of Lord Emsworth. Meanwhile, Hugo Carmody is engaged to Millicent Threepwood.

Needless to say, Sue is unsuitable for Ronnie because she’s a chorus girl, even if her father was captain of the guards, and Hugo is equally ineligible because he hasn’t got a bean.

And Galahad Threepwood is writing a book about the daring exploits of the English gentry in the 1890’s. The same English gentry thirty years later is not amused by the prospect.

Oh, and Emsworth is potty about his pig.

Buy this book and visit The Junior Ganymedes for the Wodehouse FAQ and other goodies. Do yourself the favour.

Father Frank

By Paul Burke

(reviewed by Irina)

An Irish priest in London wrestles with himself – not his vocation, but with celibacy and the fact that he doesn’t believe in God and never has. Now when have we heard that before? In the nineteen-sixties. But this book is from the twenty-first century, if only just. The premise isn’t new; the resolution isn’t, either. But the way Burke handles it is fresh enough to keep it interesting.

  • Author: Paul Burke
  • Title: Father Frank
  • Published by: Flame (Hodder & Stoughton), London
  • Year: 2001

Frank Dempsey may not believe in God, but he believes in people. I suspect that the way he drifts into the priesthood is God’s doing: where he ends up he’s the right man in the right place. But then he falls in love…

Sarah Marshall is a successful professional woman, but when she meets Frank her moral side starts to show up. And her emotional side. She knows it’s hopeless: she has God and the whole church for a rival. She doesn’t fight; but she wins.

Father Frank Dempsey breaks his vow of celibacy. They get married. And in that, the novel is exactly like any soul-searching-priest novel from the nineteen-sixties. I’d have liked to read a novel about a priest who didn’t succumb, who chose the Church over the woman, God over himself. But then, we know on page four that Frank doesn’t believe in God, though it’s clear that God believes in Frank.

That’s a minor nitpick, though. It’s a very enjoyable book and I’d like to read his second novel, Untorn Tickets, as well.

The Blood of a Dragon

By Lawrence Watt-Evans

  • Author: Lawrence Watt-Evans
  • Publisher: Del-Rey (Ballantine)
  • Published: 1991
  • Place: New York
  • Pages: 231

I remember I’ve tried reading this book before; when I noticed Lawrence Watt-Evans posting on the rec.arts.sf.composition newsgroup that I frequent, too. And what he has to say about writing is quite often very interesting (for Usenet values of interesting, of course).

And when I saw that he’s been working on an imaginary world (Etshar) since he was sixteen years old, I was doubly interested. I have one of those worlds (Andal), too. And I’m writing novels in that setting, too. And I’ve used my world a game setting, too. The main difference is that I had been working on the world for years before I even knew role-playing games existed.

It’s a pity therefore that the book couldn’t grip me. It’s a nice world, thoroughly worked out, but so very D&D-ish, or perhaps more Runequestish. I’ve got nothing against an iso-standard pseudo-medieval-europe world, with the regulation kinds of magic and the regulation guilds.

But if you throw in a boy who makes good through ambition despite a negative ability to work magic, I start to skim. After all, little chance of finding anything, is there? The setting is already known, the characters look very familiar, too, and the familiar dance can begin. Dragons, too. And dragons’ blood as a magical ingredient. In the end, even the twists are familiar — perhaps a function of this book being over a decade old. Fantasy (and science fiction) doesn’t age well. More beaujolais primeur than vintage port.

I skipped to the end, I’m ashamed to say, and then put the book back on the shelves. One of these days I will come back to it, to investigate whether there are surprises in the middle part of the book, but now I’m going to finish Death in Springtime, another Magdalen Nabb which I found in a second-hand bookshop yesterday.

Death in Springtime

By Magdalen Nabb

The third Marshall Guarnacci mystery I’ve read, and coincidentally also the third Magdalen Nabb has written. It shows a marked progress from the first book (Death of an Englishman), and is, in itself, a worthy precursor of The Marshall and the Madwoman. The same meticulous attention to people, and again a very, very tight plot.

  • Author: Magdalen Nabb
  • Publisher: Fontana
  • Published: 1984 (1983)
  • ISBN: 0-00-617032-3
  • Pages: 155

Now I’ve got about ten reviews — or rather book notices, since reviews ought to be a bit more full-bodied, and more critical — I begin to see where I should work on Squishdot to provide better support. Indexes by author, for instance, and better search functions. No doubt I’ll get the itch one of these days, and hack it in.

But that’s all irrelevant. Death in Springtime is very good. The plot is
as tight as a pair of tights. Young Bacci is back, and again falls in love with a foreign girl — resulting in some very, very touching scenes. There is a Substitute Prosecutor who is a very memorable character. And again there is a crime that is peculiar to the setting, and that is handled with complete confidence.

Maybe there’s not quite enough of our beloved Marshall in this book; but that’s understandable since he’s very concerned about poor Cipolla, the murderer — no he isn’t a murderer, he’s just killed somebody — in book one.

And in this book Nabb does it again: the person who will really pay for the crime is almost innocent. To misquote Sayers, altogether, poignant is the mot juste.

Nothing Serious

By P.G. Wodehouse

It’s getting harder and harder to add a new book to my Wodehouse collection — I must have about seventy of his novels and story collections by now. Still, sometimes one gets lucky, and happen upon a new one. Nothing Serious, in this case, and even if most of the stories are golf stories (not my favourite), there’s a Lord Emsworth in it that’s a genuine gem.

  • Author: P.G. Wodehouse
  • Publisher: Herbert Jenkins
  • Published: No date, but first edition, so 1950
  • Place: London & Glasgow
  • Pages: 254

This volume contains the following stories:
The Shadow Passes, Bramley is So Bracing, Up from the Depths, Feet of Clay, Excelsior, Rodney has a Relapse, Tangled Hearts, Birth of a Salesman, How’s that Umpire and Success Story.

Birth of a Salesman is the Lord Emsworth story. The earl is visiting his son Freddy in the United States when a girl rings the front door bell, and he opens it, Freddy being out for business. The girl tries to sell Lord Emsworth a richly bound encyclopedia of Sport, but fails. The reason she’s out toting books nobody in his right mind would want to touch with a twenty-feet bargepole is that she’s pregnant, and needs to inject some extra cash into the household, her husband being a lowly-paid car mechanic.

The chivalrous Lord Emsworth offers her his second son’s sofa, and sets out to sell the beastly books for her. And, against all reason or expectations, succeeds.

The other stories are all about various golf clubs and devoted golfers, and are very nice, especially Feet of Clay, where Rodney Spelvin and Agnes Flack are reunited after having been sundered by a lounge lizard and a sex authoress.

Anyway, it’s always hard to come to any kind of conclusion about a collection of stories, and even harder to say something sensible about a Wodehouse. If only to keep up my appreciation of English, I read a Wodehouse a month… And they’re all good clean fun, too.

The Marshall and the Madwoman

By Magdalen Nabb

I want more! This is the sixth mystery featuring Marshall Guarnaccia of the Pitti station in Florence , and comparison with Death of an Englishman shows Magdalen Nabbs development as an author. The immensely sympathetic characters are still there, but gone is all the fumbling stiltedness that made some scenes in her first book hard to get through.

  • Author: Magdalen Nabb
  • Publisher: Penguin
  • Published: 1989
  • ISBN: 0-14-011881-0
  • Pages: 223

I’ve been thinking lately about what it is that makes me read books, hunt out the complete works of authors and so on — not surprising if you’ve just started reviewing fiction. (I’ve been reviewing non-fiction, to be precise, linguistics books for Language for some time.)

My conclusion is this: I read books for the people the author lets me meet. I’m not terribly interested in clever ideas, although they’re a bonus. A tight plot is nice to have, but if the suspense distracts from the human interaction I’d prefer the plot flabbier. And unsympathetic protagonists are a turn -off worse than baby-talk in a woman.

On all counts, Magdalen Nabb is a find (literally — ten books for a handful of Euros), and I wish I had more than he two I have acquired up to now. Even people who conform to usually unpleasant archetypes like the nagging wife, the ambitious young upper class twit with no fixed purpose in life, the lazy fathead, the sobbing soppy girl or the sleezy after-hours gambler are given a sympathetic treatment. But that doesn’t mean that Nabb cannot portray a disgusting villain when needed. She’s not blind to the world’s excrement; she just manages to be sympathetic to ordinary people leading ordinary lives, and reserves her censure for murdering, swindling bastards.

So, without wanting to give anything away about the plot, The Marshall and the Madwoman presents us a sordid little suicide in Florence’s equivalent of Eastend. Except that it isn’t suicide, and the sleepy, weepy Marshall (who now has his wife with him in Florence, and bless him) is aware of that from the moment he sees the body of the madwoman in her empty flat.

The plot is very, very tight, this time. In the end, everything comes together in a very satisfying conclusion. One small point of criticism is the ‘little did he know’ at about one third of the book. On the other hand, the scene at two thirds (p. 150 in my copy) is so very effective that it’s an example for an action scene that just works.

I like the Marshall. I like his wife; I ‘m not going to rest until I’ve acquired Nabb’s complete works.

SSL and TLS: Designing and Building Secure Systems

By Eric Rescorla

Yes. SSL and TLS: Designing and Building Secure Systems is exactly what the title promises. If I had already coded a rating system, I’d probably expand it for this this book.

  • Author: Eric Rescorla
  • Publisher: Addison-Wesley
  • ISBN: 0-201-61598-3
  • Published: 2000
  • Pages: 499

If you have to code an application that uses SSL or TLS — or if you have to code an SSL or TLS library, then this is the book you need. It certainly was the book I needed, and I needed it badly, when I was working on the secure messaging layer over JXTA for Tryllian’s ADK — agent development kit.

Sometimes, but all too seldom, one reads a book that simply exudes competence. This is one of those books. All through the book it is clear that Eric Rescorly indeed does know what he is talking about; he knows so well what he’s talking about that he never has to fudge, he never has to write obscurely to mask lack of knowledge, and thus he writes with complete authority. He manages to be crystal clear, surely an achievement when writing on a topic traditionally viewed as extremely obscure.

However, that is not the only commendable quality. SSL and TLS: Designing and Building Secure Systems is very well organized. Rescorla first discusses public key cryptography — the basis for SSL and TLS — with a practices ease. Then he continues to give the details of the SSL/TLS protocol in the second part. The third part shows how to use SSL or TLS in your application, using very clear example code, both in C and in Java.

An engaging feature is the clear division between general discussion and deep-down core details. Fortunately, there is no stint of either, and the core details are illustrated with dumps from Rescorla’s own packet dumper.

At all places where I needed a backreference to something discussed earlier, I found that Rescorla had anticipated my needs and added a quick ‘as discussed in chapter X, Y is needed for Z.’ — and made it possible to read the whole book in about three days.

Topics discussed are: security concepts, the SSL protocol, security issues, performance, application design, http over SSL and smtp over SSL. Two appendices complete the book.

In short: if you are working on an SSL application, and you don’t have this book, then you’re, in view of the importance of security, almost criminially negligent.

Wandelingen door Rome

By Godfried Bomans

Het is vrij eenvoudig om van een losbol te houden en inderdaad ontmoeten zij ook overal sympathie. Maar om een heilige aardig te vinden, betaalt u de prijs van zelfverwijt.

  • Author: Godfried Bomans
  • Publisher: Elsevier
  • Published: MCMLVII
  • Pages: 216

On the basis of this quote alone one would be justified to style the great Dutch author Godfried Bomans the Chesterton of the Low Countries.

Unfortunately, Bomans has never really worked out his thoughts — sometimes it seems as if he were almost afraid to investigate the things that people usually call serious, and he could never resist the temptation to be merely flippant, instead of witty.

Which is a pity, since Bomans possessed wit in spades — as the seven volumes of his collected (though not complete) works testify.

Wandelingen door ROME is a collection of about twenty essays he appears to have written while living in Rome. Some of those, like De keerzijde van Rome are sublime; others, like Waarheden als koeien peter out, go nowhere in particular.

It is nowhere as famous a book as Eric of het klein insectenboek or his fairy tales. But Bomans, a devout Roman Catholic, spends quite a bit of time in this book on his religion, and especially on the Pope of his days, Pius X, whom he loved deeply. That makes this collection of impressions — essays is too big a word — valuable for me at least.

Oh, and the translation of the teaser? It’s quite easy to love a rake, and indeed, rakes are universally beloved. But in order to like a Saint, you must pay in self-reproach.(And, yes, the original is snappier. Learn Dutch…