Category Archives: Books

Rereading: NEVERWHERE by Neil Gaiman

Cover illustration by Robert McGinnis.

When “Neverwhere” was first published by BBC Books in 1996, Neil was kind enough to send me a signed copy.

Interesting to see his inscription included “Mind the Gap!” which almost made it onto the cover of the new paperback that I helped design. I read it at the time, and enjoyed it. I also got the DVD of the TV series and enjoyed that, though it was clearly a low-budget production, but well done.

In 2005 I lettered a comics adaptation written by Mike Carey with Neil’s approval. So, I’ve had lots of contact with this story, and didn’t plan to read it again until I opened my copy of the new paperback and saw Neil describe it as his preferred text, and a version not seen before. Good selling point, that, I now wanted to read it again!

Richard Mayhew is bumbling through a London life he doesn’t seem much good at or very interested in: a job in a cubicle, a girlfriend who abuses him emotionally, work friends who hardly know him. When an injured girl, Door, falls at his feet out of nowhere, Richard’s good heart tells him he must help her, and he does, even though it lands him in a world of trouble below London, one that most of us know nothing about. Door’s family has been murdered, and she’s likely to be next. Richard Mayhew is, at first, merely an obigation to her: she lets him tag along when it becomes clear to him he can never return to his old life. Richard, and we, are introduced to a rich and dangerous world where all the London Underground (subway) stations are real things of some sort rather than merely brick and mortar. Door gathers friends and allies around her, but danger is always nearby, and eventually Mayhew finds himself taking an important part in Door’s protection and survival, to the surprise of everyone.

I’ve just scratched the surface (no pun intended) of this highly imaginative dark fantasy. I had a great time rereading this version. I couldn’t say how it differs from the first one, but it certainly comes across here as a mature work in every way.

Highly recommended.

Rereading: DOCTOR DOLITTLE’S POST OFFICE by Hugh Lofting

I’ve decided to try rereading the Doctor Dolittle books in what several online sites have said is internal chronological order. This is the third book published (in 1923) but the second in chronological order. Chronology is somewhat uncertain for the early books, though, but I’ll follow their lead.

While no years are given in this book, it probably takes place in the 1820s, and mostly in Africa. That Africa is, of course, very different from what we know today, very much a tribal society of small kingdoms with large areas of the interior controlled by animals rather than people. I feel Lofting handles the race issue pretty well overall, there is some stereotyping for humor, but not much, and his African men and women are of various personalities and abilities. Lofting reserves villain roles mostly for white pirates and thieves, with one warlike African chief as well.

While the book opens with action and adventure as the Doctor takes on some pirates almost single-handed, much of the story is about a postal system he sets up in the African kindgom of Fantippo using his many animal friends, largely the birds, to deliver mail from Fantippo to all parts of the world. Lofting is interested in process, and he makes the process of setting up this postal system interesting, with plenty of amusing and entertaining animal activities and comments. He has each species of bird under a leader or “king,” with Speedy, the leader of the Swifts, taking charge of long-distance mail delivery and Cheapside the Cockney sparrow from London brought in by the doctor with his brethren to handle city mail deliveries in Fantippo’s capital city. Once the system is set up, the Doctor gets involved in politics, war and government in neighboring countries with more action and adventure.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is near the end when the Doctor and his animal friends go on an expedition into an unknown part of central Africa to meet the world’s oldest animal, a very large and ancient turtle, Mudface. The journey is full of wonders, and Mudface himself has amazing stories to tell while the Doctor tries to help with his arthritis. Mudface’s story involved Noah and his Ark, adding a bit of religion to the mix, but there are so many fantasy elements in these books that it seems to fit right in.

Good fun, brought back happy memories of my childhood. Recommended.

And Then I Read: GLADIATOR by Philip Wylie

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I’ve long known of this book because it is said to have inspired Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in the creation of Superman, and is often cited as inspiration for superheroes in general. I read a comics adaptation of it by Howard Chaykin and Russ Heath published in 2005, but until now I had never read the original novel.

Professor Abednego Danner teaches in a small college town in Colorado, but his obsession is his work to develop a serum to create animals with much greater strength and toughness than normal, proportionally as strong as ants and other insects. He succeeds, and after experimenting with animals he injects his pregnant wife, unknown to her. Their son Hugo Danner begins exhibiting great strength as an infant, but he is also a good and reasonable child that they are able to train and teach. At first Hugo’s parents hide him from the world, but once they have taught him the dangers of his abilities, and the importance of keeping them secret, he’s allowed to go to school. Hugo soon finds out that being different will ostracize him from other kids, and aside from a few mistakes, he’s able to get through school without too much trouble, but his strength and his secret are already making him feel alone in the world.

At college, Hugo is determined to fit and and get a fresh start. He reluctantly agrees to join the football team, even though the coach soon finds out at least some of his powers, but his teammates accept him and come to rely on him to win games. For his final game, he decides to sit out to give the rest of the team a chance to win on their own, but they’re unable to do so, and Hugo has to get in and take over. He gets angry at an opponent and accidentally kills the player from the other team, ending his college life and football career.

Hugo spends some time in New York City, and finds a girl there he likes, but he always feels unsatisfied. He wants some way to use his abilities that will seem worthwhile and perhaps make him a hero, but nothing seems to work out. He becomes a sailor for a while, and ends up in France at the beginning of World War One. Hugo knows he would make a nearly invincible soldier, and the cause seems just. While he’d rather do something creative, becoming an unbeatably destructive soldier seems to offer him a chance to finally realize his full heritage.

Hugo’s wartime exploits are covered in detail, as are the grim and gory realities of war, and it’s probably the most depressing part of the book, as Hugo finds even his great powers cannot save his friends or turn then tide, try as he might. In despair, he’s about to fly to Germany alone to take on the war leaders when the war is declared over.

Back in the United States, Hugo has more adventures, but finds little satisfaction, and is always in danger of his secret abilities making him an outcast. At last he heads to South America with a team of explorers hoping new adventures there will bring him satisfaction.

That’s probably too much of the plot, but there’s plenty more in the book. I enjoyed reading this even though it tends to become depressing and tragic. If this was an inspiration for Superman (never confirmed), one can see young Siegel and Shuster stayed well away from the grim realities of being super-strong as depicted so well in this novel. The writing and characters are vivid and smart, not as pulplish as I was expecting, and the portrait of America and humanity is thoughtful and insightful. Well worth your time.

Recommended.

And Then I Read: A SOLITARY BLUE by Cynthia Voigt

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Cover art © James Shefcik.

This is the third book in the Tillerman series, but it’s not a sequel. Instead, it tells the life story of Jeff Greene, a boy living in Baltimore with his father, a college professor. Their relationship is distant, so much that Jeff calls his father “The Professor.” Jeff’s mother, Melody, who he remembers fondly, left the two of them when he was seven, and since then Jeff has struggled to keep things normal in their home, doing as much of the housework as he can, making things as easy as possible for his father. Emotionally both father and son are damped down, cut off. “It doesn’t matter,” is their byword. Both are clearly sad and hurt by the departure of their wife and mother.

Things change when Jeff is in high school and suddenly his mother gets in touch and invites him to stay with her in Charleston for the summer. Arrangements are made, and soon Jeff and his mother are reunited. At first all is wonderful, Jeff’s love for Melody is reawakened, and her charm and beauty are focused on him. Jeff meets her family for the first time, a matriarchal grandmother and others living in an old family home in Charleston. Jeff enjoys this, too, but after a while Melody has less and less time for him, and he takes to wandering Charleston on his own.

The following summer Jeff is invited again, but this time finds himself not very welcome. His great-grandmother has had a stroke, and is no longer interested in him. Melody has almost no time for him, involved with a boyfriend who is not friendly to Jeff. Jeff is devastated by Melody’s obvious lies, and is deeply hurt by her new betrayal. He takes to traveling to a distant shore town every day by bus where he rents a small boat and takes it out to a lonely, abandoned island where the atmosphere suits his own.

Back in Baltimore, Jeff struggles with guilt and depression. His schoolwork suffers, and soon he’s about to flunk out. This crisis finally brings him closer to his father than they’ve ever been. The Professor decides they need a change, and they rent a run-down summer house on the Chesapeake Bay and move there. At this point, Jeff meets the Tillermans and his story is joined with theirs.

Sorry to give so much of the plot, but it’s hard to explain the connection to the other Tillerman books without it. I enjoyed the writing and the characters, though this book is more depressing than “Dicey’s Song” or “Homecoming,” at least until the last third, when things improve for Jeff, even in the face of new crises. I plan to read more of the series, and continue to look for more books by Voigt.

Recommended.

Rereading THE STORY OF DOCTOR DOLITTLE by Hugh Lofting

drdolittle

Originally published in 1920, the first of many books about the doctor who talks to animals is one I haven’t read since my childhood I think. I like other books in the series better, the second, “The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle,” is my favorite. The first one is important because it’s an origin story, of course. We learn how the very kind medical doctor (for humans) kept accumulating pets until their presence drove away nearly all his regular patients, and how he struggled to feed everyone. Then his parrot, Polynesia, who converses with complete intelligence in English, changes Dolittle’s life by teaching him the many languages of animals, and he becomes a veterinarian of great renown in the animal world, if still a very poor man. The process of learning languages is not discussed much, and it would have slowed down the story, but we get a few glimpses here and there that are entertaining. Eventually the reputation of the doctor, known as the Great Man in the animal world, has spread all the way to Africa, and he receives word that a plague of some kind is threatening the monkeys there, and they implore him to come and help.

The doctor finds a way, as he always does, borrowing a ship from a grateful human patient, and crewing it with some of his animal friends. They arrive in Africa where they must pass through the Kingdom of the Jolliginki to reach the Monkey Kingdom, and there they are captured and locked up. Fortunately Polynesia has a few tricks to help him out. When they reach the monkeys the doctor’s real work begins, and he organizes the monkey kingdom into a model medical relief center. More adventures happen on their way back, but Dolittle’s success with the monkeys have cemented his reputation in the animal world so strongly that he is never far from help, even when threatened by pirates. And it’s on the return voyage that Lofting really gets to the kind of storytelling that made him well loved, developing the character and personality of each of the animals in his party and playing them off each other in amusing and informative ways.

In order to help repay those who helped him, and to restore his fortune, the doctor has brought an unheard of animal back to England with him, the two-headed Pushmi-Pullyu, one head at each end of his body, which you might remember from the generally awful movie with Rex Harrison. In a book full of fancy and fantasy it’s the one element I always found hard to swallow as a child.

Critics have found the author’s depiction of African natives racist, but I think Lofting’s approach was progressive for his time. The King of the Jolliginki tells the doctor, “Many years ago a white man came to these shores; and I was very kind to him. But after he had dug holes in the ground to get the gold, and killed all the elephants to get their ivory tusks, he went away secretly in his ship—without so much as saying ‘Thank you.’ Never again shall a white man travel through the lands of Jolliginki.” Lofting pins his own social set with the real evil, which seems more than fair. Yes, Lofting’s illustrations of the natives are stereotyped and crude, but so are his depictions of the doctor, as seen above. Lofting was not a good artist, but he was the right artist for his own work, and his pictures are integral to the storytelling, even when badly drawn.

In all, I enjoyed rereading this, and hope to reread the rest of the series in the coming months. Recommended.