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Asterix and the Normans

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Title: Asterix and the Normans

Author: René Goscinny, illustrated by Albert Uderzo, translated by Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge

Publisher: Orion Books

Pages: 48

Format Read: Paperback

So…just to shake things up a little, I’m going to focus on a comic book for this post. I’ve always enjoyed the Asterix comics and there are so many titles I’ve yet to read. They’re hilarious, masterfully drawn and vibrantly inked, and the just the sort of comic relief you need when the chips are down.

In these stories you are basically cast back in time to a not-quite-real little village in Gaul. The little village has, by its sheer indomitable spirit, remained independent of Roman control. The villagers are all indomitable (obviously) and they are hedged in by four Roman camps with soldiers who would rather be anywhere but here.

‘Asterix and the Normans’ introduces one more group of fabulously fearless people – the Normans. Their landing on the beach is discovered by Asterix and his friend Obelix, who are in the middle of entertaining Asterix’s nephew Justforkix. Justforkix is a snooty little rebel with a penchant for loud music. He gets along famously with the bard Cacofonix.

Who also has a talent for loud…what he thinks is music.

He is terrified of the Normans. Who also have interesting names. After all, who wouldn’t be amused by the mighty chief Timandahaf? Or his associates Fotograf and Chiffchaf?

Only the Gauls, including their chief Vitalstatistix, and his comrades Getafix, and Polyfonix, and  Operatix. They’re intrigued by the landing of the Normans and their dreams of conquest.

Justforkix thinks they’re all mad. The Normans are to be feared, not laughed at. They do not know the meaning of fear themselves, and there is nothing, or almost nothing, that can frighten them. Despite their best efforts to scare themselves.

The story all comes together very nicely in a plot that includes the bard Cacofonix. And a young Roman recruit who’s obsessed with preparing reports in triplicate. There are fights and brawls and Asterix eats a lot of meats in cream sauce before the Normans are given an opportunity to pursue their quest – they are here, after all, to discover the meaning of fear.

It is a wildly humorous story that reads quickly. I am not going to compare this title to the other Asterix stories, nevertheless, I found it relaxing. And funny. There is a whole cast of characters to wade through but they’re so uniquely individual that you remember them all, even with their names. There’s a cadence about the whole thing, a richness to the pages that makes every reread a joyous one.

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Witness for the Prosecution and Selected Plays

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Title: Witness for the Prosecution and Selected Plays

Author: Agatha Christie

Publisher: HarperCollins

Pages: 348

Format Read: Paperback

Agatha Christie needs no introduction really. Her books and plays are immensely popular and she is, quite deservedly, the queen of crime fiction. I’ve enjoyed the books by her that I’ve read (although I’m a long long way from reading them all!). Her easy to read style has a natural flow  that really brings suspense to life.

Coming to the book I had in mind for this post…this is a collection of four of her plays. The volume I have has Witness for the Prosecution, Towards Zero, Verdict, and Go Back for Murder. I rather think I enjoy her plays more than the novels.

Witness for the Prosecution is arguably the most famous, and the play that led me to purchase this book many years ago. There’s a murder trial in progress. The wife of a man accused of murder, Romaine, has a few tricks up her sleeve when she testifies against him. But then again, tricks sometimes go awry…

Towards Zero was a novel that was adapted into a play by Christie herself in 1956. This one deals with a murder, a man caught between two women, jealousy, and mystery, all during a gathering at Gull’s Point. It raises a lot of questions about who did what and is a study in suspense and psychology.

In Verdict, the professor Karl Hendryk is a carer to his wife Anya, an invalid. Much tension follows as someone else, a young woman named Lisa, enters the picture. Lisa is, purportedly, here to look after Anya and perhaps help the professor out. And then there’s another young woman, Helen, who seeks private lessons with the professor. Passions simmer.

Go Back to Murder is the last play in this collection, and this one started out as a novel as well titled Five Little Pigs, with Hercule Poirot in it. The play differs a little I think. Caroline is in jail for murdering her husband. Her daughter, Carla, finds a letter from her mother declaring her innocence…and the letter leads her to investigate what really happened to her father.

To sum up…I greatly enjoyed these plays. There’s suspense and a study of human emotions and its impact on rational and irrational behaviour. Fascinatingly written plays that really make you think, and it is, I believe, exactly what made them stay on in my memory after so many years.

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Ivanhoe

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Title: Ivanhoe

Author: Sir Walter Scott

Publisher: Tor

Pages: 531

Format Read: Paperback, Mass Market

Some books, for inexplicably inexplicable reasons, stay on with you for years. Ivanhoe, for me, is one such book. The first time I read it was many years ago and it has stayed with me since – that story of knighthood and jousting and romance and its intricately immersive medieval world that was fascinating . And frankly, the story of Wilfred of Ivanhoe’s redemption was an exciting one.

You follow the feuds and rivalry between the Normans and the Saxons in Ivanhoe. The evil prince John of England wants to crown himself king in the absence of the righteous Richard. And Richard returns from the Crusades, discovers the plot, and must defend his throne. Only he needs allies, and he finds one in Wilfred of Ivanhoe.

The story is pretty fast paced and full of adventure, although I confess I had to read a few pages to really get used to the style. It is a little archaic but eminently readable. Once you do get going though, you’re plunged into a world of bloody feuds and battles, knights and outlaws and a dash of romance. Ivanhoe, that fallen hero, holds strong in his darkest moments and his quest to reclaim his lost glory is as engrossing as it is exciting.

The characters are very well defined, from the tragic heroine Rebecca and the intrepid Richard to the fiery Rowena. As for Ivanhoe, he is a typical knight – chivalrous and loyal and righteous and sometimes infuriating in his steadfast, almost zealous devotion to knightly honour.

And perhaps that is one reason, and the main one, that really hooked me to Ivanhoe – you experience a range of emotions reading the work. The characters (and the events of the story) exasperate, sadden, and draw your sympathy. Some events cheer you up, others not so much.

Through it all, Ivanhoe remains an exciting tale that I enjoy rereading. And that, I think, is what makes this book so very likeable and a classic.

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The First Book of Lankhmar

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Title: The First Book of Lankhmar

Author: Fritz Leiber

Publisher: Gollancz (Fantasy Masterworks)

Pages: 762

Format Read: Paperback

The First Book of Lankhmar is actually a bind-up edition of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories. Not all of them, because there’s also a Second Book of Lankhmar. I’d like to talk about the first bind-up edition in this review.

Basically, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are mercenaries from the world of Newhon. Their tales were written over a period of decades, from the 1930s to the 1980s. The First Book of Lankhmar introduces these two with origin stories and includes many of their escapades in classic sword and sorcery style. There’s adventure and derring-do and a whole lot of scrapes.

Fafhrd is a barbarian warrior from the icily cold and aptly named Cold Corner. He is something of a rebel and he leaves his clan with a seductive stage performer and thief named Vlana. The Mouser is an orphaned wizard’s apprentice who is framed by a duke. He too escapes, with the duke’s daughter.

In ‘Ill Met in Lankhmar,’ the third story in the book, the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser meet in the foggy, decadent city of Lankhmar. They become fast friends, and from then on, adventure follows adventure.

Each of the stories in The First Book of Lankhmar is distinct and only loosely connected with the others. The mercenaries find underwater cities, are recruited by the apparently all-knowing mages Sheelba and Ningauble, and deal with tragedy and death, a misogynistic guild of thieves and shrines to dark powers. They also travel to parallel dimensions and find themselves in ancient Greece. The story I found especially intriguing in this collection is ‘The Bazaar of the Bizarre.’ There’s a play of illusion and greed, and creatures from other worlds selling glittering objects that are not what they seem.

As far as characterization goes, well, it is rather basic. Fafhrd and Gray Mouser are unique but a lot more emphasis is laid on their adventures. Also…there aren’t many female characters here, and if they do make an appearance, they are usually unidimensional. The stories are only loosely connected to each other, and sometimes the past adventures of these two heroes are described in a sentence.

The book is divided into sections, but there should have been a table of contents at the beginning. Or an index at the end. The edition I have has neither, although the sections have their contents listed.

Even so, these stories are very entertaining and fast paced in an action packed, old world style.

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Semiosis

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Title: Semiosis

Author:  Sue Burke

Publisher: Harper Voyager (Kindle Edition)

Pages: 336

Format Read: Kindle

In ‘Semiosis’ a group of settlers leave Earth for a faraway planet to start a new life. But then they overshoot their original destination and are forced to land on a different world, one they call Pax.

Pax is alien and strange and at first glance, devoid of intelligent life. Until the settlers, trying to integrate with their new world and discovering an abandoned city, discover that the intelligence of Pax lies in its plants. Or in particular, one sentient, ever aware bamboo they call Stevland.

‘Semiosis’ is an episodic novel and each long chapter is devoted to a different character from a different generation of settlers. Each generation has its own quirks and customs and those were fascinating to read about.

As for characters in ‘Semiosis’ – I had trouble tracking them and remembering their names. I am not sure if that is because their voices were similar, or because there were so many to deal with at the same time.

Stevland, though, is an utterly unique creation. As a plant who has lived long, he seeks balance and integration with nature. He is in turns philosophical and superior and humble. Contradictory traits that make him a strange force to reckon with.

Exposure to humans allows a wider perspective on the events around him, but the humans are forced to adapt too. Plants, it seems, have their own ways of dealing with new neighbours.

As the episodic chapters go on, the settlers move, resettle, come in contact with another race of alien settlers. Through it all is Stevland – guiding them and giving them food and medicine and occasionally misleading them. The humans resist and rebel and persist, and the novel does not shy away from depicting the brutality of it all. There are murders and intrigue and disturbing scenes of violence.

You are left with questions though, because some of what the human settlers do is strange and unpredictable. Also, why was the abandoned city abandoned in the first place? That wasn’t made clear.

‘Semiosis’ has plenty of unusual, intriguing ideas and the episodic format was a good choice. I liked it, and I wonder where the story will go next.

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Christine of the Fourth

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Title: Christine of the Fourth  

Author:  W.E. Eastways

Publisher: Retro Press (Retro Classics)

Pages: 190

Format Read: Hardcover

Basically, ‘Christine of the Fourth’ is a school story. Originally published in 1949, ‘Christine of the Fourth’ is, I understand, part of a series of books set in a boarding school called Greycourt. Now I haven’t read the other books in the series (I have never found them), but I do have ‘Christine…’ and although this story is a continuation of events from the previous books, I did not have trouble following its narrative.

In some ways, Greycourt is reminiscent of Enid Blyton’s St.Claire’s. Both are boarding schools for girls, and both have an intriguing cast of characters.

Sheila of ‘Christine of the Fourth’ has just returned to the boarding school when the book opens after spending a year away from it, and re-joins her peers in the fourth form. And that is where she meets the impossible, rude, and quick witted Christine her classmates cannot stand. Sheila takes it upon herself to befriend Christine and bring out the best in her, much to everybody else’s amusement and irritation.

As far as protagonists go, ‘Christine of the Fourth’ alternates between Sheila and Christine. Sheila is the quintessential do-gooder with infinite patience. She puts up with Christine’s barbs and insults and veiled attacks and that confuses Christine.

Christine, on the other hand, in a complex character. She resents her school; her father is in jail for a crime she thinks he did not commit; she feels her classmates are snooty and she longs to be back with a group of people she had lived with prior to joining the school. She despises her benefactor, the young and gentle Mrs. Cameron for reasons only she understands.

As the story moves on, Christine goes from being defiant and rude, to confused, to defiant again, and then…the girl discovers that there is more to the world than her narrow, rigid view of it.

‘Christine of the Fourth’ is focused on its characters, especially Christine, and her doubts, and hopes, and fears as she navigates the comfortable and cheerful life at Greycourt. The story does lag a little towards the end and events are paced very slow. However, this is a tale of hope and redemption and happiness that is charmingly old-world.

It makes me want to read the prequels…if only I could find them.

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The Mill on the Floss  

Title: The Mill on the Floss  

Author:  George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)

Publisher: Marshall Cavendish (The Great Writers Library, 1986)

Pages: 511

Format Read: Hardcover

Basically, The Mill on the Floss is the story of a brother and sister told in five segments. The novel was written by Mary Ann Evans aka George Eliot and originally published in 1860.

Tom and Maggie Tulliver are the siblings in question. They are residents of Dorlcote Mill on the banks of the river Floss, and in Boy and Girl, the first section of the novel, they’re children. Maggie is the younger – emotional, impetuous, and always looking for her brother’s approval.

Tom, the elder, is a bit of a bully. He cares for his sister but is stubborn, and his father fears he is not exactly bright.

Maggie on the other hand, is physically darker than the rest her family. They comment on that often. She’s also impulsive. Obviously they think her very strange.

You are introduced to Tom and Maggie’s seemingly peaceful life in Boy and Girl, but there is an undercurrent of tension running through the story. For one, their father has started making an enemy in Wakem. And then there is the problem of Mrs. Tulliver’s bossy, judgemental family. Her sisters are clannish and do not approve of her marriage. They approve even less of Maggie. Girls are not supposed to be impulsive. Or dark haired, it seemed.

Some of their snobbishness rubs Mr. Tulliver the wrong way although the man is too obstinate to admit it. He sends Tom to Rev. Stelling for tutoring. Except that Stelling also allows another student to join him – the son of Wakem, Philip. He is described as a hunchback.

The story is told slowly. As the segments progress, Mr. Tulliver’s obstinacy and tactless dealings leave him in dire straits. Tom and Maggie are thrown into financial difficulties.

I thought the premise was fairly simple, however, there is a lot, and I do mean a lot, of philosophical musings in The Mill on the Floss and the text is fairly verbose. Not exactly an easy read, and the text moves from philosophy to the story and back to philosophy again.

Characterization though is spot on, especially of the she-who-looks-down-her-nose-at-everybody Mrs. Glegg. Tom and Maggie’s relationship is complex but realistic. Maggie’s romantic interest was…strange? I didn’t get it. Probably because Maggie confused herself as much as she did me.

Overall, a slow paced and unexpectedly interesting book with plenty of interspersed and realistic human interactions.

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The Crown Tower

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Title: The Crown Tower  

Author:  Michael J. Sullivan

Publisher: Orbit

Pages: 414

Format Read: Paperback

Now this was a lot of fun.

The Crown Tower is about Hadrian Blackwater, a young soldier trying to escape his past. He is given a task by the venerable Arcadius, loremaster of a prestigious college – to steal a book. Naturally, he cannot steal the book by himself, and the professor decides to team him up with Royce Melbourn, a surly, unapproachable assassin.

Also naturally, Hadrian can’t stand Royce. The feeling is mutual.

Both these characters have nothing to lose, and they are polar opposites. It would give them each no grief if the other died. Then again, there might be a thread of similarity between the two that could lead to friendship. Except they are too thickheaded to see it. All they have to do is survive each other’s company, scale the largest and most formidable tower in the world without getting killed, get the book, and return.

There is something delightfully old-fashioned about The Crown Tower, and the fluid, simple prose makes it extremely readable. Hadrian and Royce are distinctly unique personalities – one’s upright, or thinks he is. The other has no regrets. About anything. At least he says so.

There’s also Gwen, a runaway who finds that kernel of courage to escape an oppressive, exploitative life. Her tale is woven seamlessly into the book. Arcadius is…well, Arcadius. You get the impression that he knows more than he lets on, and his half-revelations do get frustrating.

There’s a fair bit of humour in The Crown Tower as well, and I found the banters between Royce and Hadrian engaging. You really cannot dislike either of them.

The Crown Tower is also a novel of self-discovery; for Royce and Hadrian and Gwen, even Pickles, the maybe-street-urchin. The theft and the book are mere hooks in a study of human nature. There’s not much sorcery going on here it seems – and the world is at once strange and familiar enough as it is.

I understand this novel and its companion The Rose and the Thorn are prequels (that were written later) to the Riyria Revelations. And although I haven’t read the books in the Riyria Revelations yet (I hope to) there’s nothing in The Crown Tower that makes it confusing or incomplete – these are good introductions to the world.

It was a solid read that I enjoyed.

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The Toymakers

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Title: The Toymakers  

Author: Robert Dinsdale

Publisher: Del Rey

Pages: 468

Format Read: Paperback

The concept of toys coming alive has always been a fascinating one to me. As I child, I wondered if they’d come out to play at night, as Enid Blyton’s books suggested. And Margery Williams’s Velveteen Rabbit is one of the sweetest creatures I have encountered in fiction.

As for The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale – this is a book that takes the magic of living toys and crafts it into a beautiful tale.

Papa Jack’s Emporium opens with the first frost of winter. It is a magical toyshop full of secrets, of toy soldiers and dollhouses and ballerinas eager to dance. And also Sirius, the little patchwork dog and my favourite character by far.

Young Cathy Wray, distraught, confused and pregnant, runs away from home and finds herself a job at the Emporium. There she meets the bearlike Papa Jack, master toymaker, and his sons, Kaspar and Emil. Both young men take an interest in Cathy, but it is Kaspar who interests her the most. The Emporium is a place of wonder when it opens at wintertime, a sanctuary of childhood dreams and hope.

However, as Cathy settles in to her new life, she discovers that all is not it seems. Within the enigmas of the Emporium is the bitter sibling rivalry between Kaspar and Emil. Or rather, it is Emil’s low self-esteem and his burgeoning envy of Kaspar and his enchanting toys. His inner turmoil is realistically portrayed. Even Cathy, practical and kind hearted, finds it a bit difficult to deal with Emil and his many moods.

The Emporium, for all its magical toys, is not spared by the two World Wars either. Kasper enlists to fight and returns changed. The book deals with the trauma soldiers go through in a poignant way. Some of their distress and the futility of war is transferred to the toy soldiers. Both Emil and Kaspar make them, and both have very different ideas about war. The brothers’ Long War with each other drives most of the book, especially when the toy soldiers become self-aware and thoroughly erratic.

I kind of wish some of that was shorter.

As time passes, the Emporium changes. There is war and strife and growing families, all of it surrounded by the toys.

The Toymakers is a book I am so glad I read.

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on Archie Comics

Title: on Archie Comics

Format Read: Paperbacks, Ebooks

For a change of pace, I thought I would write about a series of books (comics!) that accompanied me through my childhood and teenage years – Archie Comics.

I was really young when I was introduced to my first Archie comic. I confess some of it went over my head at the time, but I was fascinated by the whole thing – Riverdale and the characters and the splash of colour on the pages. The first Archie I received was a winter edition – almost all the stories were set in December, there was snow, and fluffy jackets, and snow fights. Since then, I’ve collected several more. There was hungry Jughead and absentminded Archie and irritating Reggie. Dilton with his genius and reams of advice. Betty, ever practical. Veronica, always vain and impractical. And Hot Dog, who was, and still is, a favourite.

They were probably one of my best escapes during my time at school and college. Riverdale was a refuge, a happy dreamland of weird and interesting characters. I was pretty intrigued by the dresses Betty and Veronica wore, even Sabrina, and I really liked Dan deCarlo’s art. Some stories did not resonate with me, it is true. There were some particularly weird ones that left me baffled.

There were some that fascinated me as well. One was about Archie discovering a Dream Shoppe. They sold dreams, like a baker would sell cakes. It was a story that left Archie throwing a tantrum at the end. Naturally. Another storyline that I’ve come across only once and never seen since was about Veronica discovering an ancestor named Jezebel. This was, if my memory is correct, a strange tale, and a little creepy. I have no idea why I haven’t been able to find it since I first read it.

I do think Archie comics helped me keep my mind during stressful times. At least there was a happy place to escape to, and Riverdale was absolutely ideal. I have all my old comics, and I intend keeping them. They bring back some happy memories and besides, I do like rereading those whacky tales.

Archie Comics have made me laugh, and smile, and think. Everything I could ask for in a good book.