Category Archives: Reviews

Rereading THE PRYDAIN CHRONICLES by Lloyd Alexander

Cover illustrations by Evaline Ness

I’ve gotten rather far ahead on my reading, so I’m going to discuss this entire five book series at one time to catch up. By the time this book was recommended to me by my grade school librarian, I had already read The Hobbit, and she thought I would like this one. I did! Alexander is careful to explain in all of his introductions that the series is based on legends from Wales, though creatively reinvented by him for his books. No mention is made of Tolkien, but I recognized similar ideas and themes, particularly in the final book. This may only be a case of two writers going to the same sources, but I can’t help thinking Alexander had read Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” and was influenced by that too. I have no problem with that, what he did is quite different, with appealing characters that will amuse and entertain readers, and clever plots to keep the pages turning. The books also have emotional depth and the relationships and life stories of the main characters ring true and make this series the best that the author produced, in my opinion. Others agree, the second book was a Newbery Medal runner-up, and the fifth won the prestigious Newbery medal for children’s literature in 1969.

In the first book we meet Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper of Caer Dallben. Dallben is an old man who spends his time studying magic tomes like “The Book of Three,” while Taran and Coll, an older worker at the Dallben farm, take care of crops and livestock like the oracular pig, Hen-Wen. Taran is charged with caring for Hen-Wen, and when the pig runs off into the forest, he follows. Soon he is drawn into deeper matters, as he meets Prince Gwydion, son of the high king of Prydain, the land where all the stories take place. Gwydion also wants Hen-Wen found, and they are soon joined by an odd shaggy man, Gurgi, who at first threatens them, and then begs to join them. As the story moves through more of Prydain, we learn about the threat of Arawn, the Death-Lord, who imperils all the good men and creatures of Prydain. Taran loses Gwydion when they are both imprisoned by an evil queen, but he and Gurgi gain two more friends, Princess Eilonwy, who has some magic of her own, and the traveling bard Fflewddur Fflam and his magic harp. Later they meet the dwarf Doli, a curmudgeonly character who loves to complain but helps them all the same. Taran and company try their best to thwart the plans of Arawn and his champion, The Horned King. Eventually they rejoin Prince Gwydion.

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And Then I Read: JINGO by Terry Pratchett

Continuing to follow the City Watch thread in Pratchett’s Discworld because I’ve enjoyed the characters and stories, this was another good one.

Ankh-Morpork is the largest and most powerful city on the main continent of Discworld, you might equate it with Rome in Europe. Across a wide ocean bay is the desert country of Klatch and its capital Al Khali, which you might think of as Cairo in Egypt. As the book opens, two groups of fishermen discover an island newly risen from the ocean centered between the two countries, one group from each country. Each fishing boat wants to claim the island of Leshp for their country, and with that small event, a war is launched. And as you can imagine, there’s plenty of silliness and satire in Pratchett’s handling of it.

Back in Ankh-Morpork, a visiting prince of Klatch barely survives an assassination attempt, just thwarted by City Watch Commander Samuel Vimes, who seems to find it was staged by one of their own men. This is the last straw for each city’s military types, and war is declared. Military leaders take over the Ankh-Morpork government and the citizens enthusiastically join up to go fight in an invasion of Klatch. The city watch is disbanded, but those loyal to Vimes form their own unit. Meanwhile, the Watch’s werewolf member Angua is captured by Klatchians and taken to Klatch. Vimes and his group set off to rescue her, commandeering a ship. Meanwhile, former Ankh-Morpork ruler Lord Veterinari and two Watch policemen are off on a secret mission in a new invention of Veterinari’s captive genius Leonard Quirm, a submarine. They discover some interesting things about the new island of Leshp, then continue on to Klatch. Soon, everyone from Ankh-Morpork in Klatch, where things continue to go wrong in various funny ways, and the so-called war is mostly groups wandering around in the desert and sniping at each other.

Good fun, though the Klatch sections drag a bit. Still a fine read and recommended.

Jingo by Terry Pratchett

And Then I Read: CROWNS by Katharine Hull & Pamela Whitlock

Many years ago I discovered the three Oxus novels by these two teenage authors, writing holiday adventures of kids and ponies in wild Dartmoor, England in the manner of their favorite author, Arthur Ransome. This was their only other book and while it’s available online, it’s expensive. I finally decided to buy one, and here’s what I think: it’s a very odd book, but worth reading. The book is sharply divided into two parts, a central fantasy section of 195 pages framed by a mundane London section of 90 pages at the front and 30 pages at the end. The same four children star in each part, with the London sequence representing their real lives, and the fantasy sequence the wished for dreams of their imagination.

The children are cousins, brother and sister Rob and Eliza Jardine, and Andrew Gunn and Charlotte Roper. They live upper-class family lives in London some time in the 1940s (the book was published in 1947), and the opening section details their lives and personalities well. Readers of the authors’ Oxus books will recognize some similarities to the children there. Charlotte is headstrong, brave, and at times rude. Andrew is solitary, bookish and withdrawn, Rob likes to take charge of things, and is good at that, while Eliza is timid and somewhat more childish than the rest. They and many other cousins and relatives are preparing for an annual Christmas gathering where presents, mountains of food, and games will be on the program. One game is Sardines, where one person is chosen to hide, and with the lights off, all the others must find that person, but when they do, they simply join them until everyone is together and the game is over. Rob is chosen to hide, and he goes up to the attic of the house where only the three other cousins can find him. There, in the dark, somehow they imagine themselves as Kings and Queens in a far off land, though we don’t actually see or hear that, but it’s implied in the next long section.

Part two of the book opens, with no explanation, in a world where Rob, Charlotte, Eliza and Andrew are Kings and Queens together, though still children. Everyone bows to their authority, including their elderly advisor, the Chancellor. There is an old palace that they are having renovated to suit their desires, and each child has his special place planned in it. Rob takes on the role of leadership, sitting in the council chamber to hear complaints and petitions from the people, while the others mostly do what they like. Over days and months, they explore their realm, and learn more about it. Charlotte is the most active in this, pushing even beyond the borders of their kingdom, and putting herself and her courtiers in great danger. Andrew finds being a king not to his liking, and he runs off to live anonymously in the wilderness, having different sorts of adventures. Eliza prefers to stay at the palace, where she gradually becomes aware that all is not well in her realm, and that a plot to overthrow them is afoot. After many adventures, some full of peril, all four Kings and Queens are finally together again for a grand celebration…and then suddenly they are back in their real lives as their hiding place is discovered by the other children at the Christmas party.

The final section attempts to wrap things up, but oddly, almost no mention of their adventure is made, and the children don’t seem to have been changed by it at all. That’s where I think the book goes wrong, but I did enjoy reading it, and recommend it as an interesting experiment, and a finely crafted and creative story in the fantasy sequence. Of course, unless you find an old copy at a library, or want to spend too much money to buy one as I did, this isn’t easy.

Crowns by Hull and Whitlock

Rereading: TREASURE OF GREEN KNOWE by L. M. Boston

The Green Knowe series of fantasy novels for young readers has been a favorite since I discovered them in my own teen years. Lucy Maria Boston had an unusual life, and did not become an author until in her sixies, you can read about her HERE. I reread the first and probably the best of the Green Knowe books in 2010 and wrote about it HERE. I’ve decided to reread the rest. One of the unique things about these books is that they are set in Boston’s home, an ancient British manor house dating to the 1100s, which I was able to visit and tour it in 1999, a memorable experience. The scratchboard illustrations by Boston’s son Peter are excellent too.

In the story, Green Knowe, near Cambridge, England, is owned and inhabited by elderly Grandmother Oldknow, and once again her great grandson Tolly has come to stay with her for the Easter holidays, an exciting prospect after the adventures of the previous Christmas holidays, where he met some of the ghost children that remain tied to the house. In these holidays, a different group of ghosts gradually make themselves known to Tolly, from a different time in the house’s history. They are from the time of Captain OldKnow, who owned the house in the late 1700s, though he was often away at sea. His daughter, Susan, was born blind, and she’s one of the spirits that Tolly meets, learning about her life and times through stories told by his great grandmother over the patchwork quilt she’s making in the evenings. The Captain’s wife and older son Sefton are in charge of the household when he is away on long sea voyages, and Susan’s life is often miserable, as she isn’t allowed to do or even touch anything, and considered a helpless cripple by her family, except for her father. When the Captain is home, he encourages Susan to learn as much as she can, and to help her, he brings back from the West Indies a young black boy to be her personal helper. Jacob is unlettered, but also eager to learn, and the two of them are given lessons by a family friend. Everyone but the Captain think this is a waste of time, especially the head servant Caxton. He is a man with great ambition, and he’s drawn Sefton into shady activities and debt which he hopes will someday make him the owner of the house.

The Captain’s trading voyages make him prosperous, and his wife is showered with rich gifts, including jewelry. Despite that, she and Sefton laugh at him behind his back as they keep busy attending society events and spending the Captain’s money frivolously. In time, though he is treated badly by everyone in the house but Susan and her tutor, Jacob learns much about the devious plans of Caxton, and does what he can to thwart them. Tolly is able to see and speak with Susan a few times, and even becomes a part of her own story. That story reaches a climax when the manor house catches fire and burns, while Susan is forgotten inside by everyone but Jacob.

A fine story and an exciting plot make this a great read. Boston’s characters spring to life, and her writing is excellent. Highly recommended.

Treasure of Green Knowe by L M Boston

And Then I Read: SECRET IDENTITY by Alex Segura

This is a noir murder mystery taking place in New York City in 1975, a time when the city itself was in financial trouble, the streets were dirty and could be dangerous, and noir seems the right description for them. New York is also the traditional birthplace of comic books, with companies like National (DC) Comics, Timely/Atlas/Marvel, Dell, Fawcett and many others having great success there with them in the 1940s and 1950s, but by the mid 1970s, sales were way down, and comics pundits were predicting the demise of the industry at any moment. I started working in the DC Comics production department in 1977, and most of the comics creation and production insider information in the book as well as many of the characters based on real people or composites of real people seemed quite familiar to me. I found nothing in the book that hit a wrong note, or presented an impossible circumstance, except perhaps for the actual murders, but then it is a murder mystery.

Carmen Valdez is the secretary and right-hand person of Triumph Comics’ boss Jeffrey Carlyle, a small publisher trying to compete with the big boys, DC and Marvel, and just getting by with a few popular titles. Carmen is 28, and her love of comics has brought her here from Miami in the hope of finding work as a comics writer, but her boss, who depends on her people skills, is not really interested in her script proposals. Frustrated, she teams up with a fellow Triumph production staffer, Harvey Stern, who also wants to write for the company. Since Carmen’s attempts have hit a wall, they agree to put Harvey’s name as sole author of their new character, The Lynx. Most of the ideas and text are by Valdez, incorporating things she’s been thinking about for years, but Stern helps her mold them into several good scripts, or so they hope. They end up on the desk of Triumph boss Carlyle, he loves them, and puts his best artist to work on them. Sample pages of the comic that also contribute to the plot are interspersed through the book. Meanwhile, Carmen is feeling cheated of credit for her work, and goes to Harvey’s apartment to confront him about it. She’s shocked to find him killed by a single gunshot. His murder is the first but not the last, and Carmen soon finds herself not only a suspect, but a possible target.

Alex is a comics insider himself, but the era in question involved much research, as it’s well after his time in the business. I think he got it right. The story is well done, the characters and plot drew me right in. At times the name checking of actual comics creators was a bit distracting, but in all I found this a great read and I highly recommend it. Well done!

Secret Identity by Alex Segura