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Book Review: The Sword in the Stone

Book Name: The Sword in the Stone
Author: T.H. White
First Published: 1938

T.H. White was born in Bombay, British India, to Garrick Hanbury White and Constance White. His parents separated when he was fourteen years of age and he returned to England to finish his schooling in Gloucestershire. He later studied at Queens’ College in Cambridge where he was tutored by scholar and author L.J. Potts. Potts would become his friend and correspondent throughout his life. White considered him to be “the great literary influence in my life.” It was at Queens’ College that White wrote a thesis on Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and was exposed to the legends of King Arthur.

After his graduation in 1928 he began teaching and to write. His first novels were science fiction. Earth Stopped in 1934 and its sequel Gone to Ground in 1935 concerned dystopian themes. Once they were completed, White was searching for a new subject to write about. He wrote to a friend in 1937, “I got desperate among my books and picked [Malory] up in lack of anything else. Then I was thrilled and astonished to find that (a) The thing was a perfect tragedy, with a beginning, a middle and an end implicit in the beginning and (b) the characters were real people with recognizable reactions which could be forecast[...] Anyway, I somehow started writing a book.”

This book was The Sword in the Stone, which White considered a preface to Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur that he had written his thesis upon. It would bring a child’s delight to the story of Arthur’s early days and was influenced by Freudian psychology and White’s love of natural history. The book became a Book of the Month Club selection in 1939.

In 1939 White moved to Ireland where he remained during the second world war as a conscientious objector. During his time there, he wrote the sequels to The Sword in the Stone, The Witch in the Wood and the Ill-Made Knight.

White died of heart failure in 1964 while aboard a ship en route from Piraeus, Greece after a lecture tour in the United States. He is buried in Athens and his papers are held by the University of Texas at Austin, USA. White had no children and was never married.

Whoso Pulleth Out This Sword of this Stone and Anvil, is Rightwise King Born of all England.

The Sword in the Stone began as a single novel, but later became the first tome of the classic series The Once and Future King. Of all five books, it is the most lighthearted and could be considered a young adult novel. The rest of the series is darker and clearly for adult readers. The Sword in the Stone follows the story of a young orphan boy who is nicknamed “Wart”. He lives with Sir Ector, a knight of the King and works as a page in medieval Great Britain. One day, while retrieving one of Sir Ector’s birds, which his foster brother Kay has lost, he meets Merlin, a wise wizard who lives his life backwards, growing young as the years go by. Merlin knows Wart’s true heritage and has come to tutor the boy. He becomes both Wart’s and Kay’s teacher.

Merlin and Wart go on a series of learning adventures, each one designed to teach Wart the skills necessary to become a great and wise ruler. Wart rescues people with Robin Hood and Maid Marian, goes on a quest with King Pellinore for a beast, and turns into a wide variety of animals to experience the world in new and more interesting perspectives. In the end, he gains enough knowledge and wisdom to fulfill his destiny, to pull Excalibur from the anvil and be proclaimed the rightful King of England. For Wart is actually King Arthur of Camelot and he will become the stuff of legends.

The Once and Future King is a reworking of Sir Thomas Malory’s 15th Century romance, Le Morte d’Arthur. In fact T.H. White wrote in a cameo appearance for Malory as one of the historical figures that populate the tales. While the first book is light-hearted and has a boy protagonist, White follows the entire life of King Arthur including many of the darker aspects of his life in the later books. This is not a series for children, although The Sword in the Stone can be thought of as a young adult novel. The books are full of medieval references that could be confusing to those that are not familiar with common terms of the time period, yet the writing style is quite readable and as the story continues, the darker side of man is revealed.

The Sword in the Stone was made into a famous cartoon by Walt Disney in 1963. The movie features a famous battle between Merlin and the Sorceress Madam Mim. This battle was removed from later editions of the novel by the author and usually is not found in the later collections of the series. Lerner and Loewe’s 1960 musical “Camelot” is based on the last two books of The Once and Future King series and later this musical was turned into a movie of the same name in 1967.

You’ll find references to these stories woven into our pop culture from the Broadway musical and the movie, to its being an inspiration to author J.K. Rowling as she wrote her Harry Potter series and to Neil Gaimann’s character of Tim Hunter. If you enjoy the legends of King Arthur or stories about the middle ages and have some familiarity with the time period, you will find this series of books to be enjoyable.

The Sword in the Stone Book CoverThe Once and Future King

The Sword in the Stone (1938)
The Queen of Air and Darkness (1939, original version The Witch in the Wood)
The Ill-Made Knight (1940)
The Candle in the Wind (1958)
The Book of Merlyn (1977)

Book Review: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Book Name: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Author: Douglas Adams
First Published: 1979

Douglas Adams was born in Cambridge, England in 1952. When his parents divorced in 1957, his mother, sister and himself moved to live with his grandparents in a Brentwood, Essex, RSPCA animal shelter that they ran. It is here that he must have developed his affinity for animals and later inspired him to become an animal activist.

Adams grew to be very tall, he was over 6’ by the time he was twelve. His height made him the butt of jokes. Yet, it was his early ability to write stories that helped him make his mark at Brentwood School, an independent prep school that he attended. His former schoolmaster, Frank Halford, said of him:

“Hundreds of boys have passed through the school but Douglas Adams really stood out from the crowd—literally. He was unnecessarily tall and in his short trousers he looked a trifle self-conscious. “The form-master wouldn’t say ‘Meet under the clock tower,’ or ‘Meet under the war memorial’,” he joked, “but ‘Meet under Adams’.”

The author’s early writings was published at Brentwood, writing that helped him earn enrollment at St. John’s College in Cambridge to read English. During this time, Adams desired to join the prestigious “Footlights”, an invitation only student comedy club where he hoped to hone his comedy writing skills. It took him two years of writing and performing with others to earn his place at the “Footlights”. Adams graduated in 1974 with a BA in English literature.

In the early 1980s, Adams had an affair with a married woman, novelist Sally Emerson, who had been separated from her husband. Later, Adams would dedicate his novel Life, the Universe and Everything to her. When Emerson returned to her husband, Adams was introduced to Jane Belson by friends and they carried on a stormy on again, off again, relationship. The two lived in Los Angeles as Adams worked on a movie deal for the Hitchhiker series and then both moved back to London when the deal fell through. In 1991, they married and had one daughter, Polly Jane Rocket Adams. The Adams family then found a home in Santa Barbara, CA, where they lived until Adams died of a heart attack in 2001. He was only 49 years old.

Adams is best known for the Hitchhiker Guide series, which started as a radio comedy series before being developed into a “trilogy” of five novels that sold more than 15 million copies during his lifetime. The books were then adapted into a television series, many stage plays, a comic book and a computer game. In 2005, Hitchhikers became a feature film. The author is also known for being a story editor on the BBC television series, Dr. Who. He worked on Dr. Who for two seasons, sending actor Tom Baker into a whirlwind of story arcs that are still watched by avid fans. He had a second radio series known as Dirk Gently which was also adapted into a novel, much as his first series was. Adams work in UK radio is commemorated in the Radio Academy’s Hall of Fame.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a story about a book within a book. The Guide is an ebook that is powered by an intelligent computer that contains all the information that a traveler might need when bumping around the Milky Way. Interwoven in the novels, the Guide pops in and gives interesting and hilarious facts about various places, people and the flora and fauna of the planets you might visit. You might say that the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a main character all to itself and is the driving force of the story.

The story begins just before the Earth is about to be demolished to make way for a galactic freeway. Arthur Dent is about to lose his house and is fighting with the demolishing crew that has shown up on his doorstep in order to save his home. Enter his long time friend of 15 years, Ford Prefect, a man that Arthur had known as an out of work actor. Actually, Ford is an alien and a researcher for the revised edition of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Ford has been informed that the Earth is about to be destroyed and whisks Arthur off world in time to save his life. Thus begins the pair’s journey through space, aided by helpful quotes from the Hitchhiker’s guide. For instance: “A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.” More zany and mind bending quotes ensue as the hitchhikers, Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent, go about the galaxy trying to learn the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

Arthur and Ford are joined in their travels by Zaphod Beeblebrox, a two headed and three armed ex-flower child who also happens to be the president of the galaxy; Trillian, who is Zaphod’s girlfriend and also a girl that Arthur had tried to pick up at a cocktail party in England; Marvin the depressed robot; Veet Voojagig, a graduate student who searches for the ball-point pens he has lost down through the years; and Slartibartfast, a planetary coastline designer who was responsible for the fjords of Norway. They travel in Zaphod’s spaceship, called The Heart of Gold, which runs on an improbability drive.

What I find interesting about the development of this book is that it started out as a radio play and from this, the novels were born. Quotes from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy appear all over pop culture and it became a large influence in the science fiction community of the last few decades. We still talk about these books, laugh over them, and wonder if we should call them classics. Are they too silly to be considered a classic book or not? I don’t think so. Any book that impacts a culture, that makes you think and re-evaluate the world you live in, is certainly a novel to think of as a classic. I can whole heartedly recommend this series of novels as ones you should add to your reading list.

Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy Book CoverThe Hitchhiker’s Guide Series:

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
Life, the Universe and Everything
So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish
Mostly Harmless
And Another Thing…
(written by Eoin Colfer by request of Adams’ widow Jane Belson)

Book Review: Lord of the Rings

Book Name: The Lord of the Rings
Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
First Published: 1954-1955
International Fantasy Award – 1957
Prometheus Hall of Fame Award 2009

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was an English writer, poet, and university professor. He was born in South Africa of English parents, but moved back to England with his mother and brother when he was three years old. Soon after, his father died of rheumatic fever, leaving the family without income. His mother moved in with her parents and later moved around to live with various relatives. Young Ronald spend his formative years exploring Sarehole Mill and Moseley Bog and the Clent, Lickey and Malvern Hills, which would become inspiration for scenes in his future books, including his Aunt Jane’s farm of Bag End, the name of which he would one day use for the home of his protagonist, Bilbo Baggins. His mother Mabel taught her two children the basics of education and added in a healthy portion of the study of botany and of Latin. Mabel Tolkien converted to Catholicism in 1900 and was quickly cut off by her Baptist family. Four years later, she would die of diabetes at the age of 34. Ronald Tolkien was a boy of twelve and given into the guardianship of his mother’s close friend, Fr. Francis Xavier Morgan of the Birmingham Oratory, who was charged to bring Ronald and his brother Hilary up as good Catholics.

When Tolkien was 16, he met Edith Mary Bratt, a woman three years his senior, who lived in the boarding house where Ronald and his brother Hilary lived. They started out as friends, meeting at teashops and getting into mischief together. Both of them orphans, they found much in common, and soon were very much in love. Father Morgan was not pleased by the young romance. He felt that Edith was a distraction to Ronald’s studies and did not care for the fact that Edith was Protestant. Father Morgan made Ronald swear that he would not meet with, talk to or even so much as send Edith a letter until he was 21 years of age. If he did not obey, Morgan threatened to cut off Tolkien’s university career. Tolkien obeyed his guardian and threw himself into his studies at the university, but he could not erase Edith from his heart.

On Tolkien’s 21st birthday, he wrote to Edith, declared his love for her, and asked her to marry him. Edith wrote back that she had agreed to marry someone else because after all this time, she thought that he had forgotten her. After a meeting at a railway station where the pair renewed their feelings for each other, Edith cried off her engagement and announced that she would marry Ronald Tolkien.

The United Kingdom joined World War I a year after Tolkien had proposed to Edith. He did not immediately volunteer for service as the other young men of his age, instead he entered a program that allowed him to delay enlisting until he completed his degree and could enter the war as an officer. In 1915 he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers. After training as a signal officer, he was transferred to the 11th Battalion with the British Expeditionary Force, arriving in France in June of 1916. Tolkien served in several battles as a signal officer.. During the Battle of Somme, he lost several of his childhood friends in a single day. However, in the end, it was not the Germans that took Tolkien out of the war, but lice. Tolkien came down with trench fever which is carried by the vermin and was invalided back to England in 1916. Tolkien married Edith in 1916, three years after he had proposed to her.

Tolkien spent the remainder of World War I recovering in hospitals or doing garrison duty. It was during this time that he began to work on what he called The Book of Lost Tales, which was an early version of what would become The Silmarillion. One day, while he and his wife went walking in the woods, Edith began to dance for him in a clearing among the flowering hemlock trees. This moment was the inspiration for the meeting of the characters of Beren and Luthien of The Silmarillion. Tolkien remarked upon the incident years later stating:

“I never called Edith Luthien – but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief part of The Silmarillion. It was first conceived in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire (where I was for a brief time in command of an outpost of the Humber Garrison in 1917, and she was able to live with me for a while). In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing – and dance.”

After the war, Tolkien’s first civilian job was with the Oxford English Dictionary where he worked on the history of words of Germanic origin beginning with the letter W. By 1920, he had taken a post as Reader in Leeds and was the youngest professor at the university. In 1925 he returned to Oxford with a fellowship at Pembroke College. It was at Pembroke where Tolkien wrote The Hobbit and the first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings. In 1945, Tolkien took a post at Merton College and he became a professor of English Language and Literature. He fit in well at Oxford and in the ivy tower world of teaching and research.

Tolkien’s family life was normal enough where he and his family made their home in North Oxford. Edith bore the last of their four children in 1929. Tolkien would write the four children annual illustrated letters as if from Father Christmas in addition to his usual bedtime stories. A selection of these were published in 1976 as The Father Christmas Letters. In adulthood, his son John would enter the priesthood, sons Michael and Christopher would serve in the Royal Air Force and his daughter Priscilla would become a social worker.

It was during this time in Oxford when Tolkien became one of the founding members of a group of friends with similar interests in writing. They were known as The Inklings. Other members were Mr. Coghill, Mr. Dyson, Own Barfield, Charles Williams and his closest friend, C.S. Lewis. Tolkien was responsible for returning C.S. Lewis to Christianity, although he was disappointed that he could not convince the man to convert to Catholicism. The Inklings met for conversation, drink, and to read and critique their works-in-progress, much as a modern writing group meets in present day. It was during this time period that Tolkien completed The Lord of the Rings. The book would publish in 1954 under his author name of J.R.R. Tolkien.

In 1959, Ronald Tolkien retired from Oxford. During his time in retirement the sales of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit steadily increased and gained him much public attention and literary fame. The fan attention grew intense and to escape it, Tolkien and his wife moved to Bournemouth, a seaside resort. There his status as a best-selling author gave he and Edith entry into polite society. Edith loved Bournemouth, but Ronald missed his old Inklings friends at Oxford. An old family friend wrote:

“Those friends who knew Ronald and Edith Tolkien over the years never doubted that there was deep affection between them. It was visible in the small things, the almost absurd degree in which each worried about the other’s health, and the care in which they chose and wrapped each other’s birthday presents’; and in the large matters, the way in which Ronald willingly abandoned such a large part of his life in retirement to give Edith the last years in Bournemouth that he felt she deserved, and the degree in which she showed pride in his fame as an author. A principal source of happiness to them was their shared love of their family. This bound them together until the end of their lives, and it was perhaps the strongest force in the marriage. They delighted to discuss and mull over every detail of the lives of their children, and later their grandchildren.”

Edith was the first to pass in 1971. She was 82 years of age. She would miss seeing Queen Elizabeth II appoint her husband a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and receive the insignia of the Order at Buckingham Palace later in 1972. That same year, Oxford University gave him an honorary Doctorate of Letters. Twenty one months after her death, Tolkien died at the age of 81. Tolkien had the name Luthien engraved under Edith’s name on their shared tombstone. He had the name Beren carved under his own name when he joined her.

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

The Lord of the Rings begins in the land of the Hobbits, known as The Shire. A land of verdant innocence, peopled by people that do not look beyond their borders. A young hobbit by the name of Frodo Baggins inherits the One Ring from his uncle, Bilbo Baggins when the elder hobbit disappears at his birthday party. Gandalf the Grey, a powerful human wizard, advises Frodo to remove the ring from the Shire. The young hobbit takes off with only his gardener, Samwise (Sam) Gamgee, but they are joined later by two of Frodo’s hobbit cousins Meridoc (Merry) Brandybuck and Peregrin (Pippin) Took.

The group travels on to the town of Bree where they meet a man named Strider. He becomes their guide and protector, and later is revealed to be Aragorn, Isildur’s heir. The evil Nazgul attack the hobbits several times, in the end wounding Frodo with a Morgul blade. Aragorn leads the group to the Elven refuge of Rivendell where Frodo might be healed by Elrond, the leader of the Rivendell elves. As Frodo recovers, the hobbits learn the history of the ring, of Sauron and about how Sauron had corrupted Gandalf’s friend and fellow wizard, Saruman. The elven council declares that the ring that Frodo carries must be destroyed, but that can only be done where it was forged, in the fires of Mount Doom in the land of Mordor. Frodo offers to bear the ring to the mountain and to destroy it. A fellowship of the ring is then formed to protect him. It consists of Merry, Pippin, Sam, Gandalf the Wizard, Aragorn, Gimli the Dwarf, Legolas the Elf, and the human Boromir, who is the son of the ruling steward of Gondor.

The Fellowship face many challenges on their way to Mordor. They fail to cross the Misty Mountains via the pass and are forced to take a more dangerous path through the dwarven Mines of Moria. There they face the Watcher in the water and later a monster known as a Balrog. Gandalf manages to defeat the Balrog, but in the struggle with the beast, both fall into a deep chasm. Gandalf is presumed dead. The rest of the Fellowship leave Moria and take refuge in the Elven forest of Lothlorien.

Frodo is counselled by Galadriel, one of the elder elves of Lothlorien, and the Fellowship are gifted with boats to take them down the River Anduin to the hills of Amon Hen. It is there that Boromir falls for the siren song of the One Ring and tries to steal it from Frodo. The attempt convinces Frodo that he should continue on his quest along. Only Sam guesses what is on Frodo’s mind and forces Frodo to take him along. The Fellowship of the Ring is now broken.

After Frodo leaves, a group of Orcs sent by Saruman and Sauron to capture Frodo, kill Boromir and kidnap Merry and Pippin. As the orcs travel though Rohan, a kingdom of horsemen, they are ambushed and killed by the Rohirrim. Merry and Pippin flee into Fangorn Forest where they befriend Treebeard, the oldest of the tree-like and powerful Ents. Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas track the hobbits to Fangorn, and it is there they discover the resurrected wizard of their fellowship, now known as Gandalf the White.

The Ents, stirred from their normally peaceful and slow ways by the two hobbits, are convinced to attack Isengard, Saruman’s stronghold and to trap the wizard. Gandalf and Rohirrim reinforcements arrive in time to scatter Saruman’s army. Gandalf faces Saruman and strips him of his wizard’s rank and powers.

Meanwhile, Frodo and Sam capture Gollum, who was following them all the way from Moria. Gollum agrees to guide the hobbits through Mordor to Mount Doom, hoping to catch Frodo off guard and steal back the One Ring. The One Ring had once belonged to him before Frodo’s uncle, Bilbo Baggins, had taken it decades ago. Instead of leading the hobbits to Mount Doom as promised, Gollum leads the pair to the great spider Shelob in the tunnels in Mordor. Frodo falls to Shelob’s sting, but Sam manages to free himself from the giant spider. Frodo lies so still from the spider’s poison, that Sam believes his friend is dead. He takes the One Ring and takes on Frodo’s quest as his own. He continues on toward Mount Doom. However, when he is near a group of orcs, he overhears that Frodo was merely unconscious and the ever faithful servant and friend follows the orcs in the hope that he can rescue his friend.

Sauron and his army attack the Kingdom of Gondor. As the city is under siege, the Regent is fooled by Sauron and commits suicide, almost taking his last son Faramir (Boromir’s brother) with him. Aragorn feels that he has little options left. He and the rest of the fellowship go to raise and army of oath-breaker ghosts that had been bound by and ancient curse. In exchange for doing battle with Sauron, they will be freed of their curse and able to go to their rest. With the help of the ghost army, the forces of Gondor and Rohan do real damage to Sauron’s orc army. They push back the enemy forces and defeat them. With the end of the war of the ring, Aragorn is crowned Elessar, King of Arnor and Gondor. He marries his love interest, Arwen the daughter of Elrond, leader of the elves of Rivendell. Saruman escapes from Isengard and seeks to re-establish himself in a new land. He chooses to invade the hobbit homeland, The Shire.

During this time, Sam rescues Frodo, and they set out across Mordor. Reaching the lip of the fires of the volcano, Frodo is overwhelmed by the power of the One Ring and claims it for himself. It is at this moment that Gollum returns, and fights to reclaim the ring. Gollum bites off Frodo’s finger, ring and all. As their twisted guide celebrates his victory, he stumbles and falls into the lava, taking the One Ring with him. The destruction of the One Ring has removed Sauron’s power for good. The Nazgul die and Sauron’s army becomes easy prey for Aragorn’s forces at the Black Gate of Mordor.

Frodo and Sam are reunited with Merry and Pippin in Gondor. They long to return home to The Shire. To their horror, they find their home has been transformed by Saruman. Together, the four lead the hobbit people in rebellion against the former wizard, removing his threat from their homeland. Merry and Pippin are declared heroes for saving The Shire. Samwise spots a comely young hobbit lass and decides to get married. He uses his gifts from Galadriel the elf to help heal The Shire. Frodo never seems to recover from his wounds and from the burden of having to carry the One Ring for as long as he had. A few years later, he sails on to the western isles of the elves, in the hope to find peace for his soul at long last.

The Lord of the Rings was originally intended to be a two-volume set, the other volume to be The Silmarillion, but the author’s idea was dismissed by his publisher. Instead, he was asked for “more hobbit stories” due to the success of his first novel, The Hobbit. After 12 years of writing, Tolkien delivered The Lord of the Rings, a six part volume, which the publisher broke up into three parts. The first book is The Fellowship of the Ring, followed by The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. It can also be found as a single book. The Lord of the Rings is in the top five highest selling books of all time and has been translated into many languages. The story has been turned into the now famous trilogy of feature films created by Peter Jackson. Eventually, The Silmarillion would be published after the author’s death along with other assorted writings, the guiding force behind this action being one of Tolkien’s sons. At last, the volumes that Tolkien had originally envisioned are available to the world.

Like many people, I embarked on the journey of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings when I was fairly young and still in middle school. I remember being caught up in the adventure of the tale, but didn’t care for the poetry. I also did not understand many of the nuances that are part of this novel as I now do as an adult. It is subtle, but once you understand the depth of what the author has created, you simply feel amazed. There are shifts in the tone and style of the book that are deliberate echoes of the different mythic and language forms that the author used as a basis for the many cultures of Middle Earth and even for the pattern of naming his characters and locations. This is part of what makes the book special, the characters live in their own mythos, as intricate and complex as our own. There is also a shift in the voice of the novel, depending on the point of view. The chapters that focus on the hobbits have more dialogue and detail. The chapters showcasing the Rohirrim have a poetic rhythm echoing Middle English works. The elven chapters have a mystical quality that is hard to get a clear picture of, distant and beautiful as the elves that the author writes about. These shifts in style and tone are not the work of a novice writer, but are intentional characterizations of races and groups through language. Tolkien perhaps was not the greatest writer of dialogue, but he substitutes this lack for style and action.

Lord of the Rings is the founding corner stone of the high fantasy genre as we know it today. His ideas have been copied many times, but there is only one great original. Lord of the Rings will always have a place on my bookshelf and hopefully on yours as well. The novel has become the second best-selling novel ever written, with only A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens selling more. The Hobbit comes in as the fourth best-selling novel of all time. It is said that there are two different types of people in the world. One type has read The Lord of the Rings, the other is waiting to do so. Which are you?

The Lord of the Rings Book CoverThe Hobbit
The Fellowship of the Ring
The Two Towers
The Return of the King
The Silmarillion

Book Review: Tarzan of the Apes

Book Name: Tarzan of the Apes
Author: Edgar Rice Burroughs
First Published: 1912

Edgar Rice Burroughs was born in Chicago, Illinois. He attended many schools in the area and when he came of age, enlisted with the 7th U.S. Calvary in Fort Grant, Arizona Territory. After being diagnosed with a heart problem, he was discharged in 1897.

Burroughs had trouble finding and keeping a job during his younger years. He worked many low paying jobs including that of being a pencil sharpener wholesaler. During this time he began to read pulp fiction novels in his spare time. He felt that he could turn out a story as good as what he was reading and began to write stories of his own. His first novel became the first of the Barsoom series, A Princess of Mars, which was followed quickly by two sequels. They were his break-out novels and brought him fame as a pulp fiction author. At the same time, he also created the Tarzan of the Apes series and it would prove to be his most popular character and series overall. He would go on to write 24 Tarzan novels during his writing career and the series would not only spawn many movies, radio dramas and comic books, but the character of Tarzan would become an icon of pop culture. Tarzan made Edgar Rice Burroughs writing fortune.

In 1915, Burroughs purchased a large ranch in north Los Angeles, CA which he named “Tarzana” in honor of his Tarzan novels and there he lived with his family and wrote his books for many years. In 1927, the community that sprang up around his ranch voted to adopt that name for their town and it still holds that name to this day. The Tarzana ranch is currently run by the Burroughs estate.

Burroughs served as a war correspondent during World War II, but after the war ended, his health problems caught up with him and he died of a heart attack in 1950. During his life-time, he wrote and published almost 80 novels.

Tarzan of the Apes is the first of a long series of novels about John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, who is born in the western coastal jungles of Africa to marooned parents who are killed shortly after his birth. Clayton is adopted as an infant by the she-ape Kala and is renamed “Tarzan” which means “white skin” in the ape language. He is raised as an ape. The apes in the novel are not gorillas, but a species of ape that was invented by the author, who have a complex culture and language of their own. Tarzan feels alienated from the other apes due to his physical differences. Eventually, he discovers his biological parents’ cabin where he learns of other humans like himself from picture books. Tarzan teaches himself to read and write via a dictionary that was part of his parent’s meager library.

As time goes by, an tribe of humans settles in the ape’s jungle and Kala is killed by one of their hunters. Tarzan takes revenge for the death of his adopted mother and begins an antagonistic relationship with the tribe, raiding their village for weapons and pulling cruel pranks on them. The humans are unnerved by Tarzan and regard him as an evil spirit. Tarzan’s reputation among the apes grows and Kerchak, the leader of the apes, grows jealous Tarzan’s prowess. Finally, the two do battle and Tarzan kills Kerchak and assumes his place as king of the apes.

Meanwhile, a party of Europeans are marooned on the coast, including Jane Porter, the first white woman that Tarzan has ever seen. Tarzan saves Jane from the dangers of the jungle and falls in love with her. He does not know that he is an English lord in his own right, nor that another in Jane’s party is his cousin, William Clayton, who has claimed Tarzan’s title and ancestral estate since John Clayton is presumed dead.

Tarzan rescues a French Naval Officer named Paul D’Arnot who teaches Tarzan how to speak French and how to behave among white men. He also serves as a travel guide to Tarzan to take him to the nearest colonial outposts when Tarzan decides to follow after Jane. It is D’Arnot that discovers Tarzan’s true identity by studying the remains of Tarzan’s parent’s cabin.

Eventually, Tarzan follows Jane all the way to Wisconsin where she is planning on marrying William Clayton. There Tarzan must make a choice, claim his inheritance as an English Lord, or conceal and renounce his heritage for the sake of the woman he loves.

My introduction to Tarzan was a simple one. I grew up in a small town on the edge of nowhere. There was not much to do as a teen, but fortunately our public library was an hour’s bicycle ride from my home. I spent many an afternoon staying out of the rain at the library reading books. One of the authors that had a great deal of influence on me as a young reader was Edgar Rice Burroughs. During this time period, his novels had been going through a major reprinting and our public library was filled with all of his series. So my rainy world was filled with stories of Barsoom, The Land that Time Forgot, and Tarzan of the Apes. I found the first Tarzan novels to be good, especially Tarzan’s origin story, but later I feel that the series lost some of its steam. ERB mixed Tarzan in with the other series that he wrote, including Barsoom and Pellucidar, which watered down the original concept of the apeman. Also, perhaps as a young woman, I did not relate to Tarzan as much as my male counterparts, although I did enjoy reading about Jane Porter. I had learned of Tarzan via the movies first, the character has become an pop culture icon of our time after all, and yet the actual novel is richer and more interesting than what the movies distilled. It is a book well worth reading even if you are not a fan of pulp fiction.

Tarzan of the Apes Book Cover 1912Tarzan of the Apes is available for free download at Project Gutenberg. I hope that you will consider adding it to your reading list as well as other Edgar Rice Burroughs novels. His ideas have stuck around for a long time and you’ll see signs of his original ideas laced in many of the novels and movies we create today. You owe it to yourself to view the original material where these concepts came from.

Book Review: The Forever War

Book Name: The Forever War
Author: Joe Haldeman
First Published: 1974
Nebula Award winner, 1975; Hugo and Locus SF Awards winner, 1976

Joe Haldeman, an American author, traveled a great deal as a child, living mainly in Anchorage, Alaska and Bethesda, Maryland. He married Mary Gay Potter (who inspired the name of the main character’s love interest in The Forever War) in 1965. Haldeman received his BS degree in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Maryland in 1967. That same year, he was drafted into the United States Army as a Combat Engineer and served a tour of duty in Vietnam. He was wounded in combat and received a Purple Heart. The ideas of the military and the culture shock that soldiers go through when returning from war in his award winning novel The Forever War were inspired by this combat experience. In 1975, he earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Currently, Joe Haldeman resides in either Gainesville, Florida or Cambridge, Massachusetts. Since 1983 he has been an Adjunct Professor teaching writing at MIT. He is a lifetime member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), and a past-president. In addition to being an award-winning writer, Haldeman is also a painter.

The Forever War begins with Private William Mandella, a physics student who is conscripted for an elite task force in the United Nations Exploratory Force that is being put together to fight a war with an alien species known as the Taurans. These aliens had discovered a human colony ship and attacked it and the people of Earth want revenge.

Mandella is sent first to Missouri and then to Charon, the last planet in our Sun’s solar system for basic training. Many of the young, genius soldiers are killed due to accidents in the hostile environments and the use of live ammo in training. Once they are certified for combat, they are sent into battle via wormholes called “collapsars” which allow UNEF ships to travel thousands of light-years in an instant for the passengers, but with relativistic consequences.

The UNEF’s forces first meeting with the Taurans takes place on a planet orbiting the star Epsilon Aurigae. It becomes a massacre, with the unarmed and unresisting Taurans being wiped out. The fighting continues with the Taurans gaining on them as the aliens deploy increasingly advanced weaponry against the earth soldiers. Mandella lives through his first two year tour of duty and is discharged back to Earth, along with his fellow soldier and lover Marygay Potter. The 21st century soldiers discover that while only two years have passed for them, several decades have passed on Earth. Mandella experiences culture shock as he attempts to re-enter a world where unemployment is high, rationing and violence is more commonplace, and homosexuality is encouraged by most governments as a hedge against overpopulation.

Mandella tries to find work as an instructor on Luna, but the military reassigns him to combat command, treating him more like a cog in a machine. He accepts the return to combat as being better than remaining on a planet where he doesn’t fit in and many of his fellow soldiers feel the same way. He survives the next four years of military service, almost more due to luck than any other reason. In time, he becomes the oldest surviving soldier in the war, gaining high rank due to seniority. He is separated from Marygay by UNEF’s plans and awaits to command soldiers who speak a language unrecognizable to him, who have a homogenized ethnicity and are exclusively homosexual because of the centuries of time he has passed via relativity. The men hate him because they must learn 21st century English to speak with him and the other senior staff and because he is heterosexual.

Returning to combat, Mandella and his soldiers battle to survive what is touted as the last conflict of the centuries long war. The time dilation continues back home. In the centuries that pass while Mandella fights, humankind develops cloning which results in a new collective species that calls itself Man. The new collective discovers that the Taurans are also a species of clones that communicate in a similar way that the new humans do. When Man gains the ability to communicate with the Taurans, it discovers that the Taurans were not originally responsible for the destruction of the colony vessels that led to the start of the war. The information renders the millennium-old conflict meaningless and the war is over. The soldiers are decommissioned, but there is no real place for them in the new order since they are not clones.

Man decides that a backup plan is needed in case the new cloned species of human proves to be a mistake. Several colonies of old-fashioned, heterosexual humans are established. Mandella travels to one of these, called “Middle Finger”. There he is reunited with his love, Marygay who had been using time dilation to age at a slower rate so that she might have a chance of being alive when Mandella arrives.

The Forever War remains as bright and relevant today as it did when it was written 35 years ago. At the time, it must have been thought of as a satirical send-up to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, considering that it was about a futuristic military with spaceflight, futuristic weapons and written from the point of view of a soldier, yet retained an anti-war theme and even featured a romance. The explanation of the effects of relativistic time dilation on the lives of the soldiers that experienced it was a first, making this a brilliant piece of hard science fiction. It is a book that has stayed with me for many years since I first read it during college. If you are a reader or writer of science fiction, it is a novel that you need to experience. It is a true classic.

The Forever War Book CoverThe Forever War series:

The Forever War (1974) (Nebula Award winner, 1975; Hugo and Locus SF Awards winner, 1976)
Forever Peace (1997)
Forever Free (1999)
“A Separate War” (2006, short story)
“Forever Bound” (2010, short story)