Category Archives: Books

And Then I Read: THE TOUGH GUIDE TO FANTASYLAND by Diana Wynne Jones

Cover art by Walter Velez.

The title of this book suggests it’s a parody of the “Rough Guide” travel books, but inside it’s more of an encyclopedia of people, magical beings, places, elements, hazards and so forth you might meet on the book’s suggested tours of Fantasyland. In this way, it’s almost a cross between a Dungeon-master’s guide, a Berlitz phrase guide, and a humorous encyclopedia with lots of in-jokes for those who enjoy reading fantasy. Many references are fairly obscure, but if you’ve read Tolkien, you’ll get a lot of it. The problem is that, as in trying to read an actual encyclopedia, there’s no plot. It’s amusing at times, certainly, but you can only read so many entries at a time. It took me several weeks to get to them all, even though the author is a favorite. There’s a fair amount of repetition and cross-referencing, and by the end of the book you have a pretty complete idea of what the tours it describes would be like, but I’d rather have read a book telling the tale of one of the tours, and having the “Tough Guide” used by the characters, as seen on the cover. Some entries are quite entertaining, others are predictable. One of my favorites is on Horses:

“Horses are of a breed unique to Fantasyland. They are capable of galloping full-tilt all day without a rest. Sometimes they do not require food or water. They never cast shoes, go lame, or put their hooves down holes, except when the Management deems it necessary, as when the forces of the Dark Lord are only half an hour behind. They never otherwise stumble. Nor do they ever make life difficult for Tourists by biting or kicking their riders or one another. They never resist being mounted or blow out so that their girths slip, or do any of the other things that make horses so chancy in this world…”

And so it goes on to the conclusion that these horses are actually bred from plants!

Fun stuff, but not as much fun as a real Diana Wynne Jones novel. Mildly recommended.

And Then I Read: THE GILDED AGE by Mark Twain & Charles Dudley Warner

Title page found online, I read an ebook version. This was Twain’s first novel. He’d written many short stories before it, and two non-fiction books about travel, “The Innocents Abroad,” and “Roughing It.” Warner, a fellow writer, and Twain were friends and neighbors, and their wives challenged them to produce a novel better than what the women were able to find in the bookstores of their day in Hartford, CT. Twain wrote the first 11 chapters, which focus on the the Hawkins family of rural Tennessee and their friend and mentor, Colonel Beriah Sellers. Warner wrote the next 12 chapters which follow two New York City men from well-to-do families, Philip Sterling and Henry Brierly. The many later chapters were a tag-team effort, and a collaboration at the end. All these characters have one desire: to make it rich quickly in the American midwest, still essentially frontier territory in the years after the Civil War. Sellers is a dreamer and a schemer, leading the gullible Hawkins family on a move westward from Tennessee across the Mississippi into Missouri, where one scheme after another fails to work.

Along the way, the Hawkins family adds and adopts two orphans. One of them, Laura, grows into a woman of intelligence and beauty, and the latter half of the book often focuses on her, with and without the two New York Men, Philip and Henry. Those two get involved in a land surveying project in Missouri and soon meet up with Colonel Sellers and the Hawkins group. Later, Sellers, Laura, and the two men end up in Washington DC trying to get legislation passed that will have the U.S. Government purchasing land they own, or benefitting them in other ways. Laura is an excellent schemer in this area until she is derailed by the appearance of her former husband, George Selby, a man who had treated her very badly, and now arrives in Washington with a new wife. A melodramatic murder ensues.

This book has lots of social and political satire, and reveals the truth that politics has always been a corrupt game. One early effort by Colonel Sellers to get a federal grant for a railroad project in his home area involves lots of wrangling and “selling” by Sellers, Laura Hawkins and their friend Senator Dilworthy. They finally get half a million dollars for the project, a fortune in those days. But as they find out, once payoffs are made to all the congressmen who voted for the money, their staffs, and so on, Sellers and cohorts find they actually owe their new railroad company $10,000 each. While it has serious moments, there’s also a good deal of humor and romance on hand. Colonel Sellers and Laura Hawkins are the standout characters, the former being a sly con-man, the latter a charming con-woman.

It’s a long book, and at times did not entertain me as much as other Twain works I’ve read. The standout chapter in the early Twain ones is a steam boat race on the Mississippi with a disastrous conclusion that jumps off the page with excitement and thrills. Clearly this was an area that Twain was good at and would return to. I’m not a fan of politics, so the political satire dragged for me, though the characters got me through. It’s certainly an interesting look at a period of American history I hadn’t known much about, a time for big dreams and big schemes that often failed to come true.

Mildly recommended.

Rereading: DOCTOR DOLITTLE IN THE MOON by Hugh Lofting

My hardcover edition from 1928, art by Hugh Lofting.

When I first read this eighth book in the Dolittle series as a child, I didn’t like it because Lofting’s depiction of our moon was so different from what I knew to be true. I was an ardent follower of the U.S. Space Program, and read all I could find about actual and potential space travel, as well as lots of science fiction. Lofting’s book is clearly a fantasy, and doesn’t try to reflect what was known about the moon even in his own time. Reading it now as a fantasy, I found it much more enjoyable. Indeed, Lofting’s creativity and even his art seems at a high point here not seen since the second book in the series, “The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle.”

Endpapers by Lofting.

The doctor, his boy assistant Tommy Stubbins, and two of Dolittle’s animal friends, Chee-Chee the monkey and Polynesia the talking parrot have flown to the moon on the back of a giant moth at the request of the moon’s inhabitants. When they get there, though, none of those inhabitants (giant insects at least, and probably more) are present to greet them. Instead, the expedition seems to be under covert surveillance. They are on the edge of the moon’s dark side, and at first are in what seems to be a desert, but as they travel they come across a huge lone tree. Soon an entire forest or jungle is found, where Chee-Chee finds food for them in the form of edible roots and fruit. While Dolittle explores and collects information, he discovers that the plant life seems to be sentient and have a language, and as usual, he can’t rest until he’s learned it. In some ways, the Moon is Earth-like: it has breathable atmosphere (different from ours, but they adapt to it), water in streams and pools, and some of the plants they find are giant versions of things on Earth, like asparagus. The gravity is different, and sound travels much more easily, so distant sounds are often heard. As Dolittle learns the plant language, he begins to learn about the flora, fauna and history. Eventually they are contacted by the only human on the Moon, Otho Bludge, who was on this part of the Earth when it was torn away to become a satellite, and has been here ever since. Long life is one of the Moon’s other features, as is giantism. Otho is a huge giant! He’s also the leader of flora and fauna society, which he has engineered to be a peaceful co-existence between all living things. In addition to insects, the fauna seems to be mostly birds.

Otho has brought the doctor to the Moon to help the inhabitants with medical problems and illnesses, and he does his best to help them. He does so well that they don’t want him to ever leave. Young Tommy Stubbins, now a nine-foot giant boy from the Moon diet, is tricked into returning to Earth on the back of the same giant moth that brought them. When he finally gets back to the Dolittle household, the many animal friends of the doctor are sad that he has not returned, but feel sure he will someday.

This book was meant to be the end of the series, hence the ambiguous ending, but he did come back in “Doctor Dolittle’s Return” about five years later. I’ll be rereading that one next. This one is great fun if you can put aside your knowledge of the real moon and accept it as a complete fantasy.

Recommended.

Rereading: DR. DOLITTLE’S GARDEN by Hugh Lofting

Dust jacket for an early edition, art by Hugh Lofting.

This book continues straight on from “Dr. Dolittle’s Zoo,” and is in four parts, with the first part reading like leftover material from that book. It’s another story from the Home for Crossbred Dogs, one of the sections of the Dolittle Zoo in his expansive garden, and is mainly the story of a terrier named Quetch who sets out to live on his own in the wilderness completely apart from humans. His story is interesting and full of incidents that eventually bring him to the Zoo. Tommy Stubbins is once more the narrator and the Doctor’s assistant, taking down Quetch’s tale.

The rest of the book is a build-up to Dolittle’s next great adventure: a trip to the moon, though that trip is only just begun by the end of it. Part two has the Doctor exploring the language of insects, to the great annoyance of his household, as he brings in all sorts to try in his listening machine. Eventually he succeeds and hears many stories of the insect world, even back to prehistoric times “before there was a moon.” Stories about giant moths fascinate everyone, and culminate with one arriving in the Doctor’s back garden one night. It turns out it’s an envoy from the moon, where many giant insects live, and they have invited Dolittle to visit them on the moth’s back, with the help of some giant flowers that give out large amounts of oxygen.

Soon the Dolittle household is convinced the Doctor is going to go off to the moon without them, or most of them, and Tommy Stubbins hatches plans to go along too, even without permission. Who can blame him? But the presence of the giant moth, and rumors of what’s been going on in Dolittle’s back garden, have attracted a large crowd of peepers and reporters trying to get more information, upsetting everyone’s plans.

While the opening section of this book is a little slow, the rest builds in excitement and interest. One does have to put aside what we know about the moon and possible travel there in this fantasy from 1927, and enjoy the adventure as it unfolds.

Recommended.

And Then I Read: EQUAL RITES by Terry Pratchett

This is the first book in the “Witches” sub-series of Pratchett’s Discworld grand opus, and the third Discworld book published. In Discworld, magic falls into two separate camps divided along gender lines…at least until the events of this book. Wizards are all male, and deal with various kinds of transformative spells and grand magic. Witches, all female, deal with smaller but possibly more important knowledge and magic relating to birth, death, family life and healing. They are the mid-wives, the country doctors, the holders of knowledge about things that the common people need help with.

As the story opens, a dying elderly wizard has made his way to a rural area in the mountains where he hopes to grant his power and magic staff to a child with promising indications. The power is passed, but the fact that the child is female is something he overlooks. The local witch, Granny Weatherwax, tries to help the family of Eskarina, the chosen child, who want nothing to do with the magic staff left in their home, or the power granted, but as the child grows, her magic begins to surface, build, and accumulate, spilling out into the world in dangerous and unexpected ways. As Eskarina reaches her teens, Granny Weatherwax realizes she is out of her depth, and she and Eskarina embark on a long journey to the Unseen University, training establishment of the Wizards, to see if they can and will help. Along the way, Eskarina and Granny meet with large amounts of disbelief and criticism for even supposing a woman could ever be a wizard. The  very fabric of magic in Discworld is about to be changed by Eskarina, and who ever wants change?

It was interesting reading this early Pratchett book not long after his last published one, “The Shepherd’s Crown.” This early writing is quite entertaining, with lots of humor crammed in wherever it can be in the narration, almost as if Pratchett was afraid of any dull or solemn moment creeping in, and at times a bit too frantic to please. The later books of his I’ve read are more balanced between humor and seriousness, less frantic, and more confident. The light-hearted writing is fine, though, and I found it captivating and entertaining. The inventiveness of the author is impressive, as is his knowledge of human nature, the characters are appealing (even when sometimes appalling), and the story satisfying. I look forward to more, and am happy to know there are lots more to read.

Recommended.