Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, November 30, 2018


Abu and the 7 Marvels by Richard Matheson (2001)

Richard Matheson's first (and, I believe, only) children's book is a charming oriental fantasy that begins in a certain long-ago city in Northern Persia where the beautiful Princess Alicia is rejecting every suitor who comes calling.  This frustrates he father, the Sultan, because each offer comes with munificent offers of payment for her hand but he had promised Alicia she would have the final say in whom she would marry -- so what can a doting father do when his hands are tied?  One person who is not frustrated is the scheming Grand Vizier Zardak, who wants Alicia for himself.

Zardak's plan is to rescue Alicia from a "lion attack" while she is out for her morning ride, making the lovely princess beholding to him.  The lion would be his two bumbling toadies dressed in a lion costume.  Since Murphy's Law is at work in ancient Persia as it is everywhere else, a real lion shows up and Zardak skedaddles, leaving the princess to her fanged fate.  Luckily, Abu, a poor wood cutter, shows up in time to rescue Alicia.  They instantly fall in love as only characters in fairy tales do.

The Sultan is forced to accept his daughter's wishes...but he adds a caveat (suggested by Zardak, of course) -- to prove his worthiness, Abu must seek out the 7 Marvels of the world and bring back a token of each.  The 7 Marvels are:

  • The Enchanted Castle
  • The Flame Bird
  • The Frost Dragon
  • The Crown of Neptune
  • The Witch of Candy Kingdom
  • The Giant of Zubu Mountain
Wait.  That's six.  It seems that no one knows what the 7th Marvel is.

Determined as only a poor woodcutter could be, Abu sets out on his quest, aided by a very old and very tired genie whose magic has seen better days.

Although geared for kids, Abu and the 7 Marvels is an enjoyable romp for readers of any age.  Published by Gauntlet Press, the book features a plethora of great artwork by William Stout -- both full color art and black and white line drawings.  As with everything I have seen from Gauntlet, this volume is a magnificent piece of work.  And Matheson (as many of you know) is a magnificent writer.

One thing that stands out is the Matheson deliberately (and against standard writing advice) substitutes many words for "said."  A conversation on the second page of the book has the characters crying, appealing, shouting, answering, entreating, murmuring, raging, advising, crying (again), shouting (again), muttering, and roaring through each bit of conversation, adding weight to the fact that this is, in essence, a children's book.

And there are anachronisms, and slapstick, and perils aplenty.

Matheson remembered what is was like to be entertained as a child, and older readers will gleefully remember also.


Friday, November 16, 2018


Secret Under Antarctica by Gordon R. Dickson (1963)

With apologies to Donovan:  First there is a kraken, then there is no kraken, then there is...

Turns out there is no kraken, but what then could have made a twenty foot slashing wound on the giant blue whale?  Thirteen-year-old Robbie Hoenig believes a kraken exists; his father, a marine zoologist, disagrees and demands proof before he will accept the existence of the mythical beast.

It's an undetermined year n the near future and Doctor Hoenig, a member of the International Department of Fisheries, Salt Water Research Division, has taken his vessel to Antarctica to research how cow blue whales "talk" to their whales calves.  To aid in the research, Hoenig uses Control Caps, devices that allow animals to be controlled (of sorts) through pleasure and fear impulses.  Robbie is allowed to come on the trip as a reward for his part in capturing Vandals who invaded a research station located off the west coast of Mexico -- which happened in the first book of this juvenile series, Secret Under the Sea.

An alarm sounded indicating that Blue Mountain Bill, a member of the whale pod that Hoenig has been studying, was in extreme stress.  Motoring out to the scene, they discovered the large wound on the whale -- the wound that Robbie was convinced had been made by a kraken.  Robbie's father calms the giant beast and treats the gaping wound with some sort of near-future medical stuff.  Returning to their vessel, the two discover that it had been burgled.  They also discover their friend Mr. Lillibulero, a small wiry Scot who is an operative of the International Bureau of Police.  Lilliburero had been tracking a group of Tropicans when he had boarded the research vessel just shortly after it had been burglarized.  Missing were a large number of Control Caps.

Just who are the Tropicans?  They are a dangerous group of fanatics led by a (genuinely) mad scientist named Brownlee Patterson Waub.  Waub's goal is to create a tropical Earth, a warm paradise from pole to pole, as well as recreating the ancient continent of Gondwanaland by bringing South America, Africa, Australia, and India to merge with Antartica to form once again a massive continent.  The specious plan does not make sense and is completely unworkable, but since when did that stop a mad scientist?  The very real first step in the plan is workable however:  to destroy the Antarctic ice shelf.

Now aware of the danger, Hoenig decides to send Robbie home by way of McMurdo Station.  Lillibulero will fly Robbie to McMurdo and then return to continue his hunt for the Tropicans.  This best laid plan went gang alay, when the Tropicans shoot down the plane.  Robbie parachutes out but does not know whether Lillibulero was able to escape on time.

Alone and stranded on Antactic ice, Robbie is chased not only by the Tropicans but by a deadly leopard seal.  He is captured, escapes, and is recaptured as he learns that Waub plans to destroy the ice shelf within twenty-four hours, potentially killing millions of people...

The stakes are high, but of course Robbie prevails.  (This is the second book of a three-book series, you know.)

Gordon R. Dickson was one of the most entertaining science fiction writers in the last half of the twentieth century.  Inducted into the Science fiction Hall of Fame shortly before his death, Dickson won three Hugo Awards, a Nebula Award, and an August Derleth Award as well as being presented with a Skylark Award for his contribution to science fiction.  He published some sixty novels and half again as many collections, along with a number of anthologies.  Dickson published well over 150 short stories.  The Robbie Hoenig trilogy were his only foray into juvenile fiction.

So what about this book?  It's dated, flawed, awkward, and predictable.  It's also entertaining as hell and well researched.  As a thirteen-year-old, Robbie makes thirteen-year-old mistakes but tries to learn from them.  Dr. Hoenig is a stereotypical concerned and dedicated scientist.  Lilliburero is a tough and eccentric hero who injects a bit of humor and warmth into the story.  And what of our mad scientist, Brownlee Patterson Waub?

According to Liliiburero, "[I]t was only a notion with him at first.  But then he started acting as if it might be true, and the' more involved he got, the bigger excuses he had to make t'justify it.  Until finally nothing would do but he must try to change the world to make it fit his own ideas."

And according to Robbie's father, "[I]t shows what can come of shutting your eyes to true facts rather than give up a belief in something you happen to wish were true."

Sounds like someone from today's headlines rather than the future.

Friday, November 9, 2018


Star Over Bethlehem and Other Stories by Agatha Christie Mallowan (1965)

Halloween and Election Day are both over, so it is kosher for me to post about a Christmas/Christian-themed book, although when I was a kid Christmas season never started until after Thanksgiving.  (But then, in those by-gone years, Black Friday and Cyber Monday did not exist and we did not celebrate the father if our country with mattress sales -- indeed, Washington and Lincoln had separate holidays dedicated to them.  As Bill Crider famously and repeatedly said, "I miss the old days.")

We press on to the book in question.  In order to differentiate from her murder mysteries, Ms. Christie published this one under her married name...well, second married name, something she had done only once before and that with her account of joining her husband on archaeological digs, Come Tell Me How You Live.  Because of its content, its length (a mere 79 pages), and the fact that it was not published under the Christie name, Star Over Bethelem is perhaps the author's rarest collection, although there was a trade paperback edition from Berkley Books in 1991.  The book has not been reprinted in this country during this century.  (It fared better in England; in 2008 it was released in an omnibus that contained two other rare Christie titles, The Road of Dreams and Poems.)

Star Over Bethlehem contains six stories and five poems:

  • A Greeting (poem)
  • Star Over Bethlehem (in which the virgin Mary is tested by an angel shortly after the birth of Jesus)
  • A Wreath for Christmas (poem)
  • The Naughty Donkey (in which a recalcitrant donkey sees the light in a certain Bethlehem stable)
  • Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh (poem)
  • The Water Bus (in which Mrs. Hargreaves learns that she actually likes people after an encounter with a heavenly figure)
  • In the Cool of the Evening (in which a boy finds a mutant animal [half frog/ half bird, perhaps] and makes a special friend in his garden)
  • Jenny by the Sky (poem)
  • Promotion in the Highest (in which fourteen saints walk the earth again and give modern twists to their powers)
  • The Saints of God (poem)
  • The Island (in which Mary gives comfort in times of doubt)

A slight collection, best received by Christie purists and the curious perhaps, but an interesting one.  Some of the stories are very clever, imaginative, and entertaining, and sometimes chrisite's christian message comes across as heavy-handed.  All in all, I'm glad I read it.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018


Today is the day, my friends, when Americans get to decide what sort of country we want to be.

I think I've made it fairly obvious how I voted this year but, whether you agree with me or not, please exercise your right to vote.  I firmly believe we are stronger together -- no matter what our political stance -- and by voting we can show each other that we do have a common bond, that we all want what is best for our country, our neighbors, and our families.  The road to our future will be determined by all of us.  If you have note voted already, please do so now.

Here's a song to spur you on:

Or, perhaps this one:

Take your pick...and vote.