Category Archives: Books

Rereading: THE ANGRY PLANET by John Keir Cross

Cover and interior illustrations by Robin Jacques.

Published in 1946, this adventure story about a trip to Mars has more of the feel of Jules Verne than post World War Two fiction. It was one of only a few science fiction books in my grade school library, though, and I liked it a lot then. In rereading it now, I see that the science aspect is greatly lacking, and author Cross does much worse than Verne in his space voyage books despite this one being written many decades later, but as an adventure story for children it’s not bad. The excellent illustrations by Robin Jacques help.

Professor Andrew McGillivray in Scotland has been building rockets, and has finally made one big enough to travel through space. His neighbor and friend, writer Stephen MacFarlane, helps when he can, and the two men plan a voyage to Mars. Things get complicated when Stephen is forced to take charge of his nephew Mike Mallone and Mike’s cousins Paul and Jacqueline Adam for a few weeks. Unknown to the Professor and Stephen, the children stow away on their rocket just before it leaves for Mars, and the five travelers arrive there unharmed. What they find is superficially like other versions of Mars:—the dry, red, sandy landscape for instance—but the Martians that greet them and bring them to their city are quite different, as seen in the cover illustration above. These Martians, who call themselves The Beautiful People, communicate through telepathy, and are friendly once they realize the travelers mean them no harm, and the group enjoys exploring their city and their way of life.

Not long after they arrive, though, the space ship Albatross is attacked by a different, malevolent type of Martians who succeed in capturing young Mike. Soon the two Martian races are preparing for war, with the travelers caught in the middle. When that war begins, even more danger comes from a volcanic eruption. Will they be able to escape in their ship and return to Earth? Of course the reader knows they will, as the book is told in a series of chapters and reports by the five travelers after they’re home, but it’s an exciting adventure all the same, and I liked the characters. This is not as interesting a Mars as those written by Edgar Rice Burroughs or C.S. Lewis, but it has its moments. Looking online I found there was a sequel, which I’ve never seen. I’ve ordered it.

Mildly recommended.

And Then I Read: SOURCERY by Terry Pratchett

After reading this fifth book in the Discword series, I’ve decided that if I had read them in order as they came out, I might have dropped out here, and missed some great reads later. “Sourcery” is very much like the first two books except that Rincewind the hapless, cowardly magician is even more annoying than in the first two books. The Luggage is here as well, but doesn’t have many good moments. The simian librarian of The Unseen University, the college of magic, is here, and is perhaps the best of the returning characters, though limited in dialogue mostly to “Oook.” Death appears a few times, but doesn’t have much to do either.

The new threat to Discworld is a young sourcerer, Coin, who has enough power to easily take control of the much older wizards of Unseen University, and he begins to remake the world to suit his plans, with the usual chaos ensuing. Rincewind, Conina (the daughter of Cohen the Barbarian) and would-be hero Nijel attempt to stop him, and the usual disasters occur with occasional triumphs. I found this book to be mostly a retread of the first two in spirit and design, and was often tempted to stop reading it, but persevered. It’s not a bad book, just too much of the same thing, very plot driven, and too light-weight for my taste.

Only mildly recommended.

And Then I Read: MORT by Terry Pratchett

The fourth Discworld book by Pratchett focuses on a young man, Mort, who is apprenticed to Death. That’s to say, he’s hired by Death to help out and to learn the business of ending lives when the time is right. Previously Death appeared as a secondary character, this book fills in much of his history and methods, while continuing to have lots of dark humor. One soon comes to realize that, if he didn’t look like a skeleton with glowing eyes and carry a scythe, Death might be a rather good person to know. To the young peasant boy, Mort, he’s quite kind and welcoming. Mort is surprisingly unafraid of Death, and makes himself at home in Death’s house, where the only other beings are a cook, a young girl who Death calls his daughter, and a magic horse that carries Death and Mort to their appointments. One thing made clear is that Death himself does not appear to every person at life’s end, just the more important ones.

As Mort begins to learn the trade, he is sent off on his own to take lives, following the prompts of hourglasses that measure the time of each person on Discworld. Where Mort runs into trouble is when he’s tasked with taking the life of a beautiful princess he rather fancies. Mort decides to change the rules, thereby throwing reality into chaos. While he’s doing that, Death himself is taking a long-overdue vacation, trying out some of life’s purported pleasures for himself, something he’s never done. By the time Death is dragged back to work, things are well out of hand, and it’s hard to say if they can be put right.

I enjoyed this book, but despite its reputation, I didn’t like it quite as much as the third book in the series, “Equal Rites.” It still seemed very plot-driven, though I did like the characters and storyline. Recommended.

And Then I Read: HABIBI by Craig Thompson

This and all images © Craig Thompson.

Habibi is an amazing work on many levels. There are over 650 pages each completely written, drawn, lettered and inked by Craig Thompson, a feat in itself. For this project, Thompson immersed himself in Islamic art and lettering, and the results are present on nearly every page in stunningly intricate work, like this one:

Thompson also shows and tells us some of the things he learned from the language and lettering as here:

In addition to the exploration of the religion and culture of Islam, and the book includes stories from the Qur’an and The Bible, Thompson seems to have been equally inspired by western Orientalism, things like The Arabian Nights. Tales of that sort are here as well. Then there’s the Arabian mathematics embodied in magic squares and patterns that run through the work.

That’s perhaps half the focus, the other being a story of a young woman and a younger boy thrown together by loss and hardship, first living together in the desert, then separately in a city until their paths cross again. Dodola and Zam have only each other for much of the story, trying to survive against all odds, and through all the cruelties and tragedies thrown at them. Their story covers decades and has all the ups and downs of epic melodrama, while they also seem to represent archetypes beyond their daily lives, as the heroes and heroines of legend and fable do in so many stories. That aspect of the book meanders at times, and dips in and out of the characters’ lives.

Habibi has been criticized as furthering Islamic stereotypes, and I can’t speak to that. I can only say I am astonished by the work and enjoyed reading it. I will remember it and think about it for a long time, I think. And, wow, is the art and lettering terrific!

Rereading: THE STARS MY DESTINATION by Alfred Bester

I read this first as a teenager, but not since. It came up as a favorite of several friends, so I thought it was time to read it again. I’m glad I did.

As the story opens, Mechanic’s Mate 3rd Class Gulliver Foyle has been adrift in a wrecked spaceship in the asteroid belt of our solar system for 170 days. That he’s still alive is due to his tenacious will and stubborn refusal to give up. Only a small part of the ship is habitable, his supplies are almost gone, but he’s hanging on. Foyle, “Gully” as he’s known, is a simple working man, born and raised in the gutters, with no education or ambition. He’s 30 years old and has made a life for himself in the spaceways until now. He doesn’t even know why his ship, the Nomad, was wrecked. He won’t last much longer. Suddenly another ship appears near his course, close enough to read her name, Vorga. He hails it, sends up flares, pleads for rescue, but is ignored. Thus is born Gully Foyle’s fury and desire for revenge on this callous act that will fuel escape by his own cunning, and fuel his deadly quest for the rest of the book. That quest will take him back to Earth, allow him to learn to jaunt, or teleport himself from place to place around that planet, and send him deep into the lives of several wealthy men and smart women involved in interplanetary trade. Along the way, Foyle will end up in prison, in a circus of his own creation, in the board rooms of the powerful, and in an interplanetary war. Through it all his singular purpose drives him like a tiger after its prey. Because of it he is changed in many ways, and his path will draw others in its wake, some to destruction, some to glory.

Still an amazing read, and not very dated. Highly recommended.