Category Archives: Books

Rereading: I DISCOVER COLUMBUS by Robert Lawson

I don’t know when people started denigrating Christopher Columbus and his “discovery” of America, but I don’t think anyone has done it as well and as humorously as Robert Lawson in this 1941 book. It’s told by Aurelio, a South American parrot who is caught in a massive storm in 1491 that blows him all the way to Spain. He lands in a monastery which is currently home to the penniless Don Cristóbal Colón, who teaches the bird Spanish. Before long, Aurelio has come up with a plan to get himself back home by helping Columbus get an audience with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to explain his grand plan of discovery. Isabella is the smart one, and Aurelio is soon conniving with her to get the Columbus expedition underway, but Chris seems very reluctant to actually take charge of the ships and crew he’s been given command of. Aurelio figures it out: he gets terribly seasick! With the help of the Queen and the actual ship captains, Chris is fooled into setting out with his three ships. After that, it’s Aurelio’s show all the way. When they do reach land in the Western Hemisphere, Columbus continues to get everything wrong. Only Aurelio can set things right.

A very entertaining read, and Lawson’s illustrations are as good as his writing. Recommended.

And Then I Read: MYSTERY MANOR by M.E. Atkinson

There is a sub-genre of novels written for children mainly in the 1920s through 1960s that I’ve long enjoyed. No magic or fantasy involved. Some call it “British Holiday Adventures,” though “British Family Adventures” would work as well. The general premise is a small group of children, usually from one family, sometimes with a few friends, who are on break from school and free to roam with little or no adult supervision, and who have adventures including visiting unusual places, solving non-murder mysteries, and taking part in exotic (to them) activities in the area of the story. The best of these, in my opinion, are the series of twelve books written by Arthur Ransome beginning with “Swallows and Amazons.” At the bottom end would be several series of books that follow an obvious, repetitious formula written by Enid Blyton. This genre may have been started by Edith Nesbit’s books about the Bastable family beginning with “The Story of the Treasure Seekers” in 1899. Other authors in this genre I enjoy are Winifred Mantle, David Severn, Philip Turner, Hull & Whitlock (the Oxus trilogy) and M. E. Atkinson.

Unlike the others on that list, I never found any Atkinson books when I was a child, I don’t think they were published here much if at all, but in my twenties I began finding them at used book sales, and later buying them online. Atkinson’s longest and best known series is about the Lockett family, 14 books in all. Mystery Manor is the fourth of the series.

The early Lockett stories are illustrated by Harold Jones, a fine artist and author himself. The endpaper map for this book is a good example of his style, and books with maps are usually an indication of a fun story. The Lockett children are older brother Oliver (the bookish one), sister Jane (the idea person), and younger brother Bill (the strongest, action-loving one). They are joined by several friends, including Anna, a quiet girl who is nonetheless fearless in the face of danger.

“Mystery Manor” returns the group to Wilbrow Manor, which appeared as a sort of haunted house in their first story (“August Adventure”), but now they are staying in the carriage house as guests of the owner, in the care mainly of the house- and grounds-keepers. The Locketts’ parents live in India, and the children are shuttled around between various aunts and uncles. Here, Aunt Margaret is meant to be with them, but is mostly away helping another aunt during a hospital stay, leaving the children conveniently on their own a lot. One interesting thing about the series is that it becomes metafiction because Aunt Margaret is an author who, with the children’s help and stories, writes about their adventures, and is the “author” of the Lockett books. In the books themselves, they meet others who have bought and read their books, and know about some of their past adventures. By the end of the series this becomes cumbersome, but early on it’s an interesting aspect.

Wilbrow Manor is reported to be haunted, something the children experienced themselves in their first book, but now its new owner is having it renovated and restored to be lived in when he returns from other business. The Locketts decide they must try to find out about and hopefully dispell the haunting, whatever it might be, and they are soon learning much about the history of the house and the family that long owned it. The last remaining member of the family lives alone nearby, and an odd character he is. The Locketts are soon following him, meeting him, and learning secrets about the house and grounds that have eluded previous investigations.

This is a long and satisfying read if you like the genre. The Locketts are upper middle class, and some of their friends are definitely upper class. When not on their bikes, they are chauffered around, often stop for meals like “elevenses” and “tea,” and rarely encounter serious threats from those they meet, but there is plenty of suspense as they creep around the empty house at night, find mysterious underground passages and suspicious characters, and get involved with the local families and children. Several mysteries unfold, every character has their moment to shine, and the plot is not predictable until near the end. Books such as this are like comfort food for the mind to me, and I enjoyed this one a great deal. There’s just one more Lockett book I haven’t read, the last, and it’s on my “to read” shelf.

Recommended.

And Then I Read: YSABEL by Guy Gavriel Kay

Cover art by Larry Rostant.

Ned Marriner is with his father Edward and a crew of assistants in Provence, France where Edward is doing photographs for a new book. He meets Kate Wenger in an old cathedral in Aix, another American in France as an exchange student, and the two of them have an eerie encounter with a man there, Phelan, who might be from the distant past. Forces are at work bringing a very old story of love and death from the distant pre-Roman past back into the present: two men, Phelan and Cadell, in love with an amazing woman, Ysabel. These three, and others around them return to a sort of life every so often to play out their story, but while the men return as themselves, the woman is reincarnated through a modern-day female. At first, Ned’s girlfriend Kate seems to be falling into the spell, but then his father’s personal assistant Melanie arrives and is captured instead.

Over the next few days, Ned and his friends and family must try to find Ysabel, who has gone into hiding somewhere in an ancient site in Provence, and do so before either Cadell or Phelan find her to have any hope of getting Melanie back. Ned soon finds his own place in the story when previously unknown abilities surface, handed down through his ancestors, and also evident in his Aunt Kim, who arrives to help. Encounters with spirit wolves, a malevolent Druid priest, a giant wild boar, and ghosts of ancient mighty battles complicate the search, putting everyone in danger. Will Ned find Ysabel in time?

I enjoyed this, but didn’t think it was as successful as the other Kay books I’ve read. Somehow the melding of ancient past to present seemed more forced than natural, and I thought there were too many instances where the main characters did not seem to have a clear picture of what was going on, therefore making it harder for me as a reader to get the big picture. Still, lots of fine writing and great characters.

Recommended.

Rereading: DOCTOR DOLITTLE’S ZOO by Hugh Lofting

Cover art by Hugh Lofting.

Okay, I’ve given up trying to read these in chronological order. Lofting wrote them following two timelines, one with a younger Doctor, one with an older one, accompanied by his assistant Tommy Stubbins. The first book published in 1920, “The Story of Doctor Dolittle,” is, of course, the young Doctor just learning to speak to animals, and traveling to Africa. The second, published in 1922, and my favorite, “The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle” is the older Doctor traveling to the South Atlantic. The third and fourth published in 1923 and 1924, “Doctor Dolittle’s Post Office,” and “Doctor Dolittle’s Circus” follow the younger Doctor. This, the fifth book, published in 1925, is about the older Doctor, and is a direct sequel to “Voyages.”

Sadly, it’s not as exciting as that book, which was full of thrills and adventure. This one has the Doctor back home in Puddleby trying to get his long-neglected house and garden in order, and working on plans to upgrade his private zoo (in his garden) to hold more animals. After consulting some of the animals already there, a plan is drawn up to create large housing complexes for mice and rats, “The Rat and Mice Club,” as well as similar housing for stray dogs, foxes, badgers and squirrels, plus a main street with shops where they could buy food and such. Of course, the Doctor insists all the animals obey a code of non-aggression in his zoo, and the animals are so happy to have these new opportunities, they agree.

Much of the middle of the book focuses on stories told by inhabitants of the Rat and Mouse Club at a series of evening events attended by the Doctor and Tommy. These stories within stories are often entertaining, but leave the Doctor himself with little to do but listen, with Tommy recording. The last section of the book finally brings action and adventure, as the Doctor and his household become involved in the mystery of Moorsden Manor. First, a mouse who lives there reports a fire in the basement. The Doctor and friends rush there to raise an alarm and put it out, but find the owner very hostile. The reason why becomes the mystery, and it’s good fun seeing it all roll out.

Recommended.

Rereading: OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET by C.S. Lewis

Cover art by Emanuel Shongut.

While I love Lewis’ “Narnia” series and have read them many times, his “Space Trilogy,” of which this is the first, is something I’ve only read once or twice, and not for decades. While meant to appeal to science fiction fans, they are actually allegorical fantasy. I don’t mind that, and never expected them to be scientifically accurate. This is a journey to Mars, but one that owes more to Jules Verne than Robert Heinlein. Of course, when it was written in 1938, much less was known about space travel and Mars, and seen from that time, Lewis’ book at least makes an attempt to adhere to then-current knowledge, but the important things are the characters and ideas. In that way, it is science fiction.

Doctor Ransom, a Cambridge professor, is out alone on a walking tour through the British countryside when he stumbles into secret experiments being done by two scientists, one a person he went to school with. Unknown to Ransom, Weston and Devine are planning a return trip to Mars (they’ve already been there once) and need another person to offer to the creatures they found there as a sort of hostage or possibly even food, they’re not sure. Ransom is drugged and kidnapped, awaking aboard the spacecraft already on the way to Mars.

When they arrive, Ransom first sees the fearsome creatures he is meant to be given to, and manages to escape on foot through an odd and unknown landscape. Eventually he is found by another sentient local creature, a hrossa: water-loving, friendly, primitive in some ways, wise in others. Ransom is brought by his new friend Hnohra to the hrossa village, and being a language specialist, Ransoe is able to learn theirs and begins to gradually understand their life and world. It’s very different from our own, especially in one particular way. The inhabitants of Malacandra (their word for Mars) are of three distinct species, but all follow the will and wisdom of a sort of immortal called Oyarsa. Eventually Ransom is sent to Oyarsa, not before one of his hrossa friends is shot and killed by the two humans who brought him to this world and are still pursuing him.

When Ransom finally reaches Oyarsa, he learns much more about Malacandra and its place in the solar system, where each planet is overseen by an immortal like Oyarsa…except for Earth. Our world is called “The Silent Planet,” because its connection to the heavenly family has been severed by an immortal who has turned evil.

There’s lots more to discover and enjoy in this book. The flora, fauna and physical world of Malacandra is inventive and fascinating, but the characters and ideas are even more interesting, at least to me.

Recommended.