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Ex-Libris
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45 of 48 people found the following review helpful
HALL OF FAMEon July 12, 2001
"A most delightful hallucination", is the title of these comments in a more customary form. It is a phrase that was used in Mr. Ross King's book, "Ex Libris", and I thought it is an appropriate term for the suspension of disbelief that all good novels must accomplish. This is a mystery in which books play a prominent role. The detail that is related is vast so I can understand why some might find the enormous number of descriptions tedious. I am an absolute book addict, so I enjoyed the history of how the paper was made, the words created and concealed, and the manufacture and repair of what are now very old books, or manuscripts that predate books by many centuries.
The book is very well written and features an unassuming bookseller as the protagonist who owns a shop and lives on London Bridge in the 17th Century. His cloistered world is shattered one day, and from that moment until the book ends, readers follow him along on a complicated mission to solve a mystery. To make matters more complex, there is a second background story taking place many years in the past that helps with the exposition of what our bookseller is dealing with. The players are legion and a very good memory is required to follow the tale. A pad of paper and a pen helps to track the important pieces. As many of these pieces are rare editions of old books and book fragments, it could make anyone a bit dizzy while keeping all in order. As I said, for me it was great fun, but I can see why others would be frustrated if they were expecting a more straightforward tale.
The book jacket suggests a few Authors whose work is comparable to that of Mr. King's. One I agree with and one I do not, but I do feel a third is even more appropriate. Mr. Charles Palliser writes very intricate tales in historic periods that are a maze to follow as well as a book to read. I truly think most will find this a wonderful book and reading time very well spent.
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38 of 41 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon June 2, 2001
As a book collector and voracious reader, I have a soft spot in my heart for books about people interested in books. This genre has produced great non-fiction ("A Gentle Madness" by Nicholas Basbanas leaps to mind) and great fiction (such as "The Club Dumas" by Arturo Perez-Reverte). Ross King has produced a novel that is not among the best in the genre but it isn't bad.
This is a novel that tells two parallel stories: First, of a London bookseller in 1660, Isaac Inchbold, who is charged with tracking down a rare manuscript. Second, of Emilia, a lady-in-waiting to the young Queen of Bohemia in 1620, who flees the destruction of Prague with the treasure-trove of books from Prague Castle.
Of the two, the secondary story of Emilia is the more interesting of the two. Hearing a bit of Prague in its glory days took me back to a recent visit I made to the city and brought it to life for me again. Also, Emilia comes off as a sometimes bewildered but ultimately intelligent and together young woman. On the other hand, I found Inchbold to be rather uninteresting. He seems to be intelligent but allows himself to be easily manipulated and rather slow on the uptake. I found myself rather irritated with this character who is supposed to be our guide through this story and who allows himself to almost completely controlled by rather obvious means. Fortunately, this novel is also peopled by quite a few interesting minor characters such as Inchbold's apprentice, Monk; Biddulph, the old Navy historian; and Appleyard, the blind clerk in the deeds' crypt.
Unfortunately, I'm not quite sure the culmination of the novel is really worth the effort it takes to get there. There are some interesting revelations concerning the book that is the object of everyone's interest but the end in rather anticlimactic. Still, this novel is an easy read and there's some interesting things here. All in all, it's not a bad way to spend an afternoon.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on October 6, 2002
I love historical fiction, particularly when, as in Ross King's case, a mystery is involved. Ex-Libris was a satisfying, and rewarding read for at least 300 of it's 392 pages (Paperback Edition). I have read many books involving English history, still, I feel Ex-Libris painted a picture more vividly of life in the mid-1600's.
Without giving anything away, or not much anyway, Ex-Libris is a story set in the disastrous years of and after English Reformation. There are two stories entwined together in the story, they run parallel to eachother but are decades apart. Both stories center in the search for a missing text, one of greater value than the reader can imagine at first.
I enjoyed the introspective pace of the narrator Isaac Inchbold. His accounts of life on London Bridge were enlightening, and convincingly authentic, the sites and smells and cricks and creeks are all lushly delivered. Fans of historical fiction will lap these details up.
I wonder, however, if Ross King prefers narration to dialogue, for I felt the story was lacking in the latter, and when it did occur, it sounded versed in the same tongue as narration, every character exactly as eloquent as the next. I probably wouldn't mention such an incongruity, or even write a review for this book at all if it hadn't been for the way the book ends.
Ex-Libris is recommended in the same breath, with almost all reviewers, with the works of Umberto Eco, Arturo Perez-Reverte, and Iain Pears, which is good company no doubt. But I felt some of the comparisons are too obvious. Our hero (or, anti-hero, in Mr. Inchbold's defense he is clumsy and club-footed) spends a waning chapter on deciphering a cryptic jumble of letters he finds, and, while he does solve it's peculiar riddle, it hardly seems important. It seems, in the deja vu sense, a tribute to Umberto Eco's intricate novel Foucualt's Pendulum and little more.
The story also suffers slightly from esoteric name-dropping, not of seventeenth century personalities but of Hermetic texts from up to three hundred years previous to this story. If the reader is not familiar with the works of Cornelius Agrippa, Blaise de Vignenère, Böhmen or Fincino will that reader feel confused or muddled? No, I did not and do not know the few names I just plucked out of Ex-Libris, but I never felt I was missing intricate details of the story, I felt instead that I was trekking briskly uphill to reach a destination that I increasingly demanded better-be-worth-it with each trudging step. The book is peppered with bibliophiles, there doesn't seem to be anyone in post-Cromwell England (according to Ex-Libris) who is not extremely well read.
It is the ending that upset me the most, it is the ending that prompts me to right this review. Now, how do I do this without giving anything crucial away... It seems the last chapter was reserved to tie so loosely the hundreds of shreds that kept us plugging along. It was the most improbable finale I can think of. And in the midst of life threatening turmoil, two characters intellectually pander all the conclusions as they run for their very lives. It's more ridiculous than even that, I promise you, but I don't want to give away the preposterous details.
Here is the worst part, and this is safe territory, for it is mentioned on the very last page but does not give anything dreadful away. The narrator sits in his bookshop on London Bridge many years later in the Epilogue, and he mentions the passing years by saying "...even now, in the Year of Our Lord 1700..." and all the while he is staring out a window of his bookshop on London Bridge! (I know I repeated that twice, but I had to). Now, I was flabbergasted when I read that, insulted and disgusted. Most any amateur of English history, I am by no means an expert, knows that the Great Fire that devastated London (known also as "London's Fire") started in a bakery on London Bridge in 1666. September first, I just looked it up to make sure. The fire, fueled by the unusual early morning wind, tore apart London. It is disturbing that Ross King, who knows much more about
Seventeenth-Century London than I am likely to ever know, by-passed this alarming detail.
The question remains, after all of my directionless rambling, do I recommend this book or not? I do. I think the details about the time, the rich scope described deliciously in four senses is worth reading. And the ending, while unforgivable, does not merit abolition of the story that precedes it
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
#1 HALL OF FAMEon February 15, 2001
In 1660, Lady Marchamont petitions London bookseller Isaac Inchbold proprietor of Nonsuch Books to visit her in Dorsetshire. Since Isaac never leaves London and is such a creature of habit, anyone who knows him is stunned when he decides to travel to the countryside. Yet the strange note sends an intrigued Isaac journeying to Pontifex Hall.

Lady Marchamont hires Isaac to restore her library to its former glory before looters ransacked it during the civil war. In particular, she wants the bookworm to locate an antiquated heretical tome, "The Labyrinth of the World" identified by her murdered father in his EX-LIBRIS. Intrigued not only by the immense fee, Isaac begins a quest that places his life in danger.

EX-LIBRIS is a superb historical thriller that grips the readers with its in depth look at seventeenth century Europe. Even more interesting is the clever historiographical look by the 1660 Isaac back to the Civil War. The story line is fast-paced as Isaac tells his tale in the first person so that the audience completely understands him as a likable chap whose simple existence turns frustrating with troubles. More novels like this one will lead to Ross King ruling the genre.

Harriet Klausner
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on January 18, 2003
I love historical fiction, particularly when, as in Ross King's case, a mystery is involved. Ex-Libris was a satisfying, and rewarding read for at least 300 of it's 392 pages (Paperback Edition). I have read many books involving English history, still, I feel Ex-Libris painted a picture more vividly of life in the mid-1600's.

Without giving anything away, or not much anyway, Ex-Libris is a story set in the disastrous years of and after English Reformation. There are two stories entwined together in the story, they run parallel to eachother but are decades apart. Both stories center in the search for a missing text, one of greater value than the reader can imagine at first.

I enjoyed the introspective pace of the narrator Isaac Inchbold. His accounts of life on London Bridge were enlightening, and convincingly authentic, the sites and smells and cricks and creeks are all lushly delivered. Fans of historical fiction will lap these details up.
I wonder, however, if Ross King prefers narration to dialogue, for I felt the story was lacking in the latter, and when it did occur, it sounded versed in the same tongue as narration, every character exactly as eloquent as the next. I probably wouldn't mention such an incongruity, or even write a review for this book at all if it hadn't been for the way the book ends.
Ex-Libris is recommended in the same breath, with almost all reviewers, with the works of Umberto Eco, Arturo Perez-Reverte, and Iain Pears, which is good company no doubt. But I felt some of the comparisons are too obvious. Our hero (or, anti-hero, in Mr. Inchbold's defense he is clumsy and club-footed) spends a waning chapter on deciphering a cryptic jumble of letters he finds, and, while he does solve it's peculiar riddle, it hardly seems important. It seems, in the deja vu sense, a tribute to Umberto Eco's intricate novel Foucualt's Pendulum and little more.

The story also suffers slightly from esoteric name-dropping, not of seventeenth century personalities but of Hermetic texts from up to three hundred years previous to this story. If the reader is not familiar with the works of Cornelius Agrippa, Blaise de Vignenère, Böhmen or Fincino will that reader feel confused or muddled? No, I did not and do not know the few names I just plucked out of Ex-Libris, but I never felt I was missing intricate details of the story, I felt instead that I was trekking briskly uphill to reach a destination that I increasingly demanded better-be-worth-it with each trudging step. The book is peppered with bibliophiles, there doesn't seem to be anyone in post-Cromwell England (according to Ex-Libris) who is not extremely well read.
It is the ending that upset me the most, it is the ending that prompts me to write this review. Now, how do I do this without giving anything crucial away... It seems the last chapter was reserved to tie so loosely the hundreds of shreds that kept us plugging along. It was the most improbable finale I can think of. And in the midst of life threatening turmoil, two characters intellectually pander all the conclusions as they run for their very lives. It's more ridiculous than even that, I promise you, but I don't want to give away the preposterous details.
Here is the worst part, and this is safe territory, for it is mentioned on the very last page but does not give anything dreadful away. The narrator sits in his bookshop on London Bridge many years later in the Epilogue, and he mentions the passing years by saying "...even now, in the Year of Our Lord 1700..." and all the while he is staring out a window of his bookshop on London Bridge! (I know I repeated that twice, but I had to). Now, I was flabbergasted when I read that, insulted and disgusted. Most any amateur of English history, I am by no means an expert, knows that the Great Fire that devastated London (known also as "London's Fire") started in a bakery on London Bridge in 1666. September First, I just looked it up to make sure. The fire, fueled by an unusual early morning wind, tore apart London. It is disturbing that Ross King, who knows much more about
Seventeenth-Century London than I am likely to ever know, by-passed this alarming detail.
The question remains, after all of my directionless rambling, do I recommend this book or not? I do. I think the details about the time, the rich scope described deliciously in four senses is worth reading. And the ending, while unforgivable, does not merit abolition of the story that precedes it.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on August 19, 2005
London is a city of coal cinders and rat droppings -- at the first level this is a gritty, detailed evocation of everyday urban life in the 1660s by a remarkably young author. At a second it's a pleasingly intelligent bibliothriller, exploring not only the period's book trade but also the value and power of the private libraries of royals and the nobility both as prizes to plunder and as ideological weapons to deploy in the wars of religion. This was an era when there were not yet so many books that a highly educated person could not at least aspire to read more or less universally. On still another plane Ex-Libris looks at the emergence of the first tender shoots of modern science from the compost of alchemy, astrology and even more mystical influences. Cartography and navigation of the seas figure prominently. Finally, the book delves the ongoing idelogical struggle between spiritual and secular ways of seeking knowledge, as the Catholic Church labors to suppress the ideas of Copernicus, Galileo and others. A thoughful reader may well ponder whether we have progressed very far since the seventeenth century.
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Ross King is clearly not an unintelligent man. I had mentally "bookmarked" his non-fiction, as it looked fascinating, and clearly he's done an enormous amount of research into some of the things that fascinate me.

But... research is not enough to make a good writer.

To write fiction, one must be able to create characters that are three-dimensional. These characters should breathe and speak as though real, no matter in what setting one places them. To create a coachman who is mysterious, cloaked, speaks in a hoarse voice, is scarred, etc., etc., creates nothing unique at all. To create a hero who has a club-foot and is endlessly self-conscious about it could have worked nicely - but no. In the hands of Mr King, Ichibold does not come to life. He remains an affectation on the page, as do all the other characters.

The sinister coachman - just one of a set of stock characters employed by the author - need not have failed so utterly to work. Had he been created tongue-in-cheek, or had he been given ANYTHING to make him unique and real, the readers might have been convinced by him. But no. This does not happen.

Even the secondary plot set in the past in Bavaria, although it's better than the more "modern" plot, reveals the same lacks; that is, poor characterisation, ridiculous and melodramatic plots, a lack of narrative flow, a lack of convincing resolution.

Judging by this book, Ross King is simply unable to write good fiction. I could have wept upon getting a few pages into this book, because it SOUNDED as though it would be a wonderful novel. But the standard of writing was poor. I note with astonishment that some reviewers mention having to get a dictionary to check the words - but I can assure potential purchasers that any reasonably well-read reader will not find any extraordinary vocabulary here.

Even the subject matter does not save this badly written novel. I was too exasperated by the poor writing to ever feel myself in sympathy with any character, for none of the characters assumed a corporeality for me that attained any level of realism.

If you are truly expecting a novel in the vein of Perez-Reverte's "El Club Dumas" or Umberto Eco's fabulous "Name of the Rose", I am terribly sorry... but you will not find it in this book.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
After several years of reading others' reviews, this is the first time I've written one myself. The question is, Why this one? I've read a lot better books in the last few years. King's recent non-fiction works have been weel received so I found this fiction piece at a decent price and figured I'd try it before going to the others. Mistake. I'm hoping the non-fiction works are an improvement. Mr. King needs some work as a fiction author.
I'm forced to agree with an earlier reviewer (Mr. Fantino); this book starts fine. The first 100 pages are intriguing, but not overpoweringly so in contrast to Eco's "The Name of the Rose", to which it is unfortunately compared. When there is dialogue, it is in a contemporary 21st century speaking style, not one comparable to how 17th century characters would actually have spoken.
The first 340 pages move along nicely, but the final 20 pages are a mess. The ending comes from nowhere; it's as if King couldn't figure out how to finish it and made it up the day the manuscript was due at the publishers. the last two chapters really weaken what otherwise is a decent tale of intrigue and double-dealing.
It's not bad, but it could have been a whole lot better.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on July 8, 2005
This isn't a terrible book, in fact the core story is pretty decent for most of the thing, but if you have read any of the best books in the literary mystery genre, you have read this story before. It is one part Club Dumas, one part Name of the Rose and one part pretension. Seriously, to slough through the book, you have to face down a formidable vocabulary of tongue and mind twisting words and many mind boggeling lists of names and books that show the author did mountains of research, but this verbal and historical pomposity doesn't really add anything to the story. Don't get me wrong, I love many of the erudite elements that the author stabbed at (and others like Perez-Reverte have mastered) but in this case, it became very annoying very quickly. The obscure references and go-grab-the-dictionary terms merely pad the story, they don't add to it. If you like the types of books where books play a major role, you may be able to plod through this as I did, but otherwise, read one of the better efforts in the genre. Otherwise, when you reach the "trick" of the narrative near the end and shake your head at the deux-ex-machina element of the climax, you may become seriously upset at the whole ordeal. I was merely annoyed and wished I hadn't wasted valuable reading hours at the effort.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on November 22, 2002
There is a popular kind of "mystery" novel in which the story becomes increasingly complex, with more characters, more possibilities, and more paranoid plots introduced until the reader gets swamped with them all. Then in the last few pages, the secret is unlocked, and something that could not possibly have been guessed is revealed as the key. Ex Libris repeats this formula in 17th-century England, and I found it as exasperating as the versions that take place in present-day California.
There are some nice historical touches in the book, although the narrator is clearly unrealistic in a number of respects in order to help the modern reader through the 17th century. The problem is that the plot moves slowly, the protagonist wanders around aimlessly for much of the book, and the digressions and explanations dilute any excitement one might have felt. The ending is simply absurd, and the reader feels cheated, as events that were never mentioned previously turn out to be key to explaining the mystery.
It was an excellent idea to attempt to import the modern noir thriller to this historical setting, but the pacing and plotting of the novel do not live up to the initial conception. I found that I had to force myself to finish the book.
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