Category Archives: Books

And Then I Read: CASTLE CORONA by Sharon Creech


Illustration by David Diaz

The setting of this social satire fantasy is in and around the Castle Corona, where we meet the royal family, who seem generally ill-suited to and unhappy with their roles, and some of the peasants in the town near the castle, subjects of the King, with the main focus on two servant children who are brother and sister, Enzio and Pia. They are orphans taken in by Master Pangini, a temperamental man who punishes them often, and they are also unhappy with their lot, dreaming of what it might be like to live in the castle. Other important characters are a mysterious hermit who lives in a hut on the castle grounds, and who serves as a sort of advisor to the King, and a wise woman of the town who is recruited by the Queen to be HER hermit and advisor. The story begins with a theft, and a stolen purse which comes into the hands of Enzio and Pia. It has tokens inside made of gold, and they are torn about what to do with it: turn it in to the authorities, or keep it for themselves. The theft has unsettled everyone at the castle, even though no one is quite sure what has been stolen, and as the King orders an inventory of the royal belongings, he is soon baffled to find all kinds of other things missing. Or is it just the faulty records of his staff? As the story develops, the royals, the peasant children, and the hermits find their lives intertwined in unexpected ways, and everyone ends up doing things and going places they never thought they would. A wise storyteller at the castle puts them all into his stories, helping them see themselves in new ways.

I enjoyed this book, though it’s pretty lightweight emotionally, and the characters all follow the threads of the plot rather woodenly. The plot is clever enough to make it a good read even while sometimes predictable, and no one seems to get into any real danger. The illustrations are many and nicely done, but the medieval flavor doesn’t help draw one into the story, I found. I would not put this book on the same level as Creech’s earlier modern-day works that I’ve read.

Mildly recommended.


HeroesofComicsImage © Drew Friedman

This large, attractive hardcover collects 83 of caricaturist Friedman’s portraits of (mostly) comic book creators from the earliest days through perhaps the 1970s, depending on how you figure it. Most are known names to me, but I’m not familiar with the visual appearance of about half of them. Drew’s caricatures usually feature a head larger than the body, and some exaggeration, but they are also very detailed, and give the impression of realism, an interesting combination. Most of them worked for me, but the portrait of Jack Kirby on the cover above did not — I had no idea who that was until I came to his page in the book.

HeroesofComicsOrlandoOn the other hand, many seemed spot-on, like this portrait of Joe Orlando, who I worked with at DC Comics for a few years. In general, Drew works from photographs, and likes to bring out every last detail on his faces. This can be a little less than flattering at times, but it does add to the feeling of a true portrait.

The 83 color portraits in the book each have a facing page of text about the subject. There’s also a foreword by Al Jaffee of MAD fame and an informative introduction by Drew. One page of text is only a brief summary of some careers, and a pretty detailed synopsis of others, depending on the subject. I saw a few errors, but it seems well researched in general. It’s a fun collection, and one I enjoyed reading and viewing. Another volume is in the works.


And Then I Read: MISTER MAX: THE BOOK OF KINGS by Cynthia Voigt


Cover illustration © Iacopo Bruno

This is the third book in the Mister Max trilogy, and I’ve enjoyed all of them. Young Max Starling has been on his own since his parents were kidnapped in the first book, and in this one he and his friends and supporters are finally ready to journey to South America to try to rescue them. Since finding himself alone except for his grandmother and friends, Max has developed his own business solving mysteries. He calls himself “Mister Max, Solutioneer,” and his clients range from school-children to his town Mayor and important and wealthy families. No mystery has proved as challenging as the one of his missing parents, but Max is closing in on it. They’ve surfaced as the apparent King and Queen of the very small South American country of Andesia. Clearly the local General is really in charge, and keeping the theatrical actor couple on hand for show. How to get them back? Max’s first big hurdle is meeting the King of his own country so he can set up an official delegation to visit Andesia. Then the delegation, actually all Max’s friends and his grandmother, must travel across the sea and over rough mountain terrain to reach the remote capital. If they succeed, there’s no telling what new hurdles will await them there, far from any further help.

Cynthia Voigt has developed great characters and a clever coming-of-age story in these three books. Here, about two thirds of the time we are in Andesia, where Max has fewer chances to work his skills as a problem solver, and there is an oppressive regime atmosphere there that makes this last book somewhat gloomy, but it’s still a fine read, and has some clever revelations and surprises. There is also the satisfaction of Max and his parents finally being reunited in Andesia after so many months, though that reunion is hard to achieve for the rescuers, and fraught with peril for everyone.


And Then I Read: THE BLUE SWORD by Robin McKinley

BlueSwordIllustration © Dan Craig

This book came out in 1982, and is an excellent read. An orphan girl named Harry Crewe has come from a very civilized land that suggests Victorian England to live with her aunt and military-man uncle in a border outpost that suggests Pakistan. It’s a fantasy, and there are definitely elements to the story and characters that go well beyond the implied British Empire setting. The land is the desert country of Damar near mysterious mountains that remain unconquered and the home of the Free Hillfolk. Beyond the mountains are The Northerners, an enemy empire that wants to beat back the “British” army and citizens now occupying Damar.

When the king of the Free Hillfolk, Corlath, comes to parley with Harry’s Uncle Charles, commander of the small garrison where they live, he finds no common ground, but Harry catches his eye, and vice versa. That night, Corlath and his men kidnap Harry and carry her off to their mountain village, where she begins a new life. At first, Harry is frightened and angry, but she soon comes to realize this new life is exactly what she has been longing for. In time she becomes a warrior woman of great prowess herself, and even finds she has magic within her that she never suspected. That magic is revered by the Hillfolk, and also in Corlath — he recognized it in Harry from the start.

The Northerners are gathering for an invasion of Damar, one that will take them through the mountains of the Hillfolk. While few in numbers, Corlath and his people are determined to oppose them, even if it means their own destruction. Harry has plans of her own to help in that battle, and perhaps even recruit her uncle’s forces as well.

This book is not only well written, it feels fresh because of the unique language, characters and mythology developed for it by the author. It’s not a Tolkien clone, if anything it’s more reminiscent of George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones,” which was written 14 years later.

Highly recommended.

Rereading: A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE by Peter S. Beagle

FinePrivatePlaceIllustration by Gervasio Gallardo

Peter S. Beagle’s first novel was published in 1960, and written when he was 19 years old. I discovered it in this paperback edition when it came out in 1969. It and Beagle’s second fantasy novel, “The Last Unicorn” made me a fan, and I’ve been enjoying his work ever since.

I hadn’t read this one since I was about 18 years old myself. I didn’t remember any of the characters clearly except the raven, who talks and has a dry, sarcastic wit. The raven has some of the best lines in the book. The setting is a large graveyard in Long Island near enough to Manhattan to have a subway line next to it. It’s fenced and in active use, though of course much of it is filled with graves and monuments from past burials. It’s a reasonably posh place for a graveyard. Mr. Rebeck, we learn, has been living here secretly  for about 20 years after finding life in the outside world too much to take. He’s careful, and manages this with the help of the raven, who brings him enough food to keep him going. Mr. Rebeck has an unusual ability: he can see and speak with the recently deceased. He considers himself a sympathetic friend to those spirits he meets, helping them make the transition to the next life. Some ghosts are stubborn, though, like Michael Morgan, who is determined to hang on to every shred of humanity he can for as long as he can. Michael claims he was murdered by his wife, and he’s angry about it. When he meets the ghost of another recent burial, Laura, they develop a strange relationship that begins with friendship, but later becomes a kind of love. Meanwhile, a grieving widow, Mrs. Klapper befriends Mr. Rebeck, and the two of them have their own odd relationship. She is not even put off when she learns the truth about where he lives. It seems Mr. Rebeck might have a chance for a new life if he can just get up the nerve to walk out of the cemetery, something he’s been unable to do since he fled there.

This book meanders like the characters, as they walk endlessly, or sit and chat through much of the story, and there’s lots and lots of talking, but the young author shows his talent with the characters and dialogue, so the book seldom drags. Mrs. Klapper’s life outside the cemetery is also explored, and that adds to the atmosphere and depth of the story. There’s a trial going on for Michael Morgan’s wife, and though we don’t see it, the raven keeps everyone informed. Later there are some surprising revelations, a good deal of overwrought emotion, and a pretty satisfying resolution for nearly everyone. It’s not always a page-turner, but Beagle’s writing skill kept me entertained again during this read.