Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road? : L. Frank Baum – “The Emerald City of Oz” (Oz #6)

The Road to Oz is paved with L. Frank Baum’s cruel intentions. Much like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could barely restrain his murderous tendencies toward Sherlock Holmes, Baum hates Oz, and his desperate need to  wipe out the land is manifest in “The Emerald City of Oz,” the sixth book in the series, published in 1910.

The Emerald City of Oz

ABOVE: Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road

There’s two stories here.

On the one hand, you have the Nome King, Roquat the Red, who is recruiting an army of discontents to tunnel his way to Oz in order to destroy the city. (Roquat’s need to put an end to the land for no real reason other than “its presence bugs me” parallels Baum’s own urge.)

On the other hand, you have Dorothy’s symmetrically-opposed journey, one in which Baum displays one outburst of creativity, not unlike that of the supposed re-gathering of energy that precedes death. Wonder follows nonsensical wonder as we meet living paper dolls and pastries; kangaroos without mittens; zebras that argue geometry with crabs; Rigmaroles and Flutterbudgets; jigsaw puzzles that attempt to assemble themselves. One utters this admirable bit of wisdom:

“Madam, you have perhaps noticed that every person has some peculiarity. Mine is to scatter myself. What your own peculiarity is I will not venture to say; but I shall never find fault with you, whatever you do.”

ABOVE: She meant to say, “I’m the Kook.”


Baum unleashes a barrage of painful puns as we get to the land of Utensia, where kitchen utensils live as if in anticipation of future Pixar movies. Sample:

“Why is the colander the High Priest?”
“He’s the holiest thing we have in the kingdom.”

None of the encounters add anything to the plot; the author is simply unloading every half-formed, Oz-related ideas on the way to a conclusion of intense finality, one that shuts off all possibility for sequels:

Of course, after a three-year hiatus, L. Frank Baum said: “Screw it. Papa needs a brand new Ford Model T. Oz, here we go again!” 8 more books followed.





Timey Wimey : J. K. Rowling – “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (#3)

Image result for harry potter and the prisoner of azkaban

ABOVE: “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!”

(Re-read). They’d been good from the go, but it was with “The Prisoner of Azkaban” that J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter truly revealed itself as an expanding, multi-layered saga  about how the past dictates the future. “The Sorcerer’s Stone” and “The Chamber of Secrets” were children’s lit at its best, but “The Prisoner of Azkaban” was the first of the novels to definitely prove that Rowling could conjure the kind of seriousness and complexity that allowed adults to embrace the series with little shame. “The Prisoner of Azkaban” is as much about grown-ups as it is about the children who are left in the shadows of grown-up drama. Missing parental authorities are standard in children’s fiction; it’s much less standard for those departed parents to become vivid characters in a book that takes place more than a decade after their death. The past is not dead, and it’s not even past, not in a place with as many ghosts as Hogwarts. It’s no coincidence that a time-traveling spell  turns out to be the solution to one of the novel’s many mysteries: this is a novel about time and the tricks it plays on us. “Doing time,” after all, it’s the prisoners’ euphemism for their plight.

Captains Courageous # 4 : Emilio Salgari – “Captain Tempest”

(Re-read from childhood.)

Literature does not care for lieutenants and rarely for generals, but captains were saluted for most of the 19th century. Emilio Salgari’s “Captain Tempest” is the first in a two-volume cycle, (along with “The Lion of Damascus”). Plot-wise, it sticks to Salgari’s heroic formula, with one notable twist that finds the author at his most “progressive”: the titular captain is actually a cross-dressing Neapolitan woman, Leonora of Eboli, out to rescue a mansel-in-distress, the Vicomte de Hussiere, from the claws of the Islamic Estate, or its 16th century equivalent.

EXOTIC SETTING: 1571, Venetian Cyprus,  under siege from the Turkish forces of Mustafa Pasha.

TOPICS OF INTEREST: That old “Christians vs. Muslims” trope. One thing that Salgari’s novels have, and this I also valued in Jules Verne, is that for all the crude national stereotypes, the characters are more into globalization than into parochialism. Here, we have Neapolitan, Venetian, Cyprian, Turk, French, Greek, Polish, Arab, and Hindu characters fighting side by side and throwing slurs at each other with cosmopolitan abandonment.

HEROES: Captain Tempest, a heroic woman who has joined the Venetian resistance in drag; the imprisoned Vicomte de Hussiere; and Muley-el-Kadel, the handsome Muslim warrior who makes the Vicomte de Hussiere look extra loserish by comparison.

SIDEKICK: El-Kadur, the converted Turk who repeatedly offers to kill himself for the sake of pretty Captain Tempest; a large number of Venetians, Greeks, and Arabs who vow to do the same.

VILLAINS: Haradja, the curvy, capricious, blood-thirsty daughter of a Baja who only cares about the Coran when absolutely convenient to her plans, and who falls for both Muley and Leonor, (neither of those romances work out for Haradja, which is kinda surprising, because Salgari writes her as a genuinely hot femme fatale); Slaczinski, a coat-turning Polack.

ACTION SCENE: The siege of Famagusta is a marvel of a massacre; several thrilling scimitar fights; burning, exploding galleys.


TORTURE SCENE: The torture scene in this is one of Salgari’s creepiest: Christian prisoners are forced to earn their keep by turning into leech-fishers, an occupation that involves sinking into a swamp until their leech-covered bodies are allowed to emerge and valuable leeches are plucked from their wounded flesh. This exciting activity continues until the exsanguinated prisoners stop becoming attractive to the leeches.



“Lay down your swords, you dogs! Don’t you see this man is a Christian, like us? We are not murderers! We only kill people from different races or religions!”

CULTURAL/RACIAL INSENSITIVITY: “I knew that the Turks were God-forsaken savages; but little did I know that Polacks were even closer to the animal state.”


Pot-Boilers : “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” (#1 and 2)

(Re-read) Before J. K. Rowling was aiming for a stolid “Masterpiece Mystery!” slot, she was doing what the good Lord intended her to do with the fantasy books that set the template for almost two decades of children (and Y/A) series.

ABOVE: Pottermore than you bargained for.

On re-read, the Harry Potter books lose none of their charms.  The term “world-building” now evinces winces from most sane people, but “world-building” is something Rowling did wonderfully: Hogwarts is, without argument, one of the most vivid, re-visitable environments in imaginative literature, up there with  “Oz” , Narnia, Middle Earth, or Westeros. “Harry Potter and the Philosopher/ Sorcerer’s Stone” introduces everything efficiently: the school, the houses, the teachers, the students, and the Quidditch (a game whose rules I’m still not convinced by). Only the “who” in this first “whodunit” is weak; if Hogwarts had had a butler, he might as well have gotten the blame. Harry was still likable at this point in the game; Ron still a featureless side-kick, Hermione still shrill. Things would change quickly, as Hermione’s personality deepens, Ron develops a spine, and Harry becomes an insufferable, entitled twat only distinguishable from Draco by his hair color. “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” ups the ante by developing an even more cinematic sensibility: the enchanted flying car, the monstrous Aragog, the final epic confrontation in the titular chamber… they all seem designed with an eye toward the eventual big-screen adaptation.

I love this crap, is what I’m saying. I’m currently re-reading the series more or less back to back before my birthday, (*cough cough* Just like I was re-reading ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ for my birthday last year *cough cough* I’ll finish one day, George R. R. Martin, you will see! *more cough-cough-coughing*)


“Labyrinth? More like BLAH-byrinth” : James Dashner – “The Maze Runner”


Image result for the maze runner

ABOVE: NOT a-maze-ing; run away.

Let’s not wear out my fingerprints typing too much about James Dashner’s “The Maze Runner,” part one of a YA trilogy that raises one of the most important questions of our time: : how does one get that hallowed, masonic Brandon Sanderson endorsement that seems to get these unpublishable  hack-works published? This is the story about a blank-and-bland Chosen Boy with amnesia who wakes up in sort of a Maze where there’s other equally generic boys  living in a “dystopian” community that leans heavy on cussing for communication; naturally, this is clunking mother-shucking “future” slang, least the book land on a banned pile at the middle school library that is its preferred habitat.

Any blurb that refers to this as “‘The Hunger Games’ meets ‘Lord of the Flies’ meets ‘Divergent’ meets ‘What-Have-You'” needs to clarify: that’s not a compliment but a condemnation. “The Maze Runner” is fan fiction without the fun element of enthusiastic incompetence that makes fan-fiction so much fun – unless one argues that there’s a certain transgressive charm to the way the author disregards all sorts of literary rules, like “show don’t tell” or “a character needs CHARACTERISTICS to be considered a character” or “don’t have the solution to a central mystery come to the hero in the form of a convenient dream.”  From that angle, this is a brazen post-modern experiment.

Positive things: this IS a quick read (but then so is “The Hungry Caterpillar”.) Dashner knows not to insert any polysyllabic words or complicated nuances that might slow down the book’s intended audience:  manly young men who fear that there are too many girls with cooties getting lead roles in our YA post-apocalyptic fantasies. Weirdly enough, they prefer to read about imprisoned sweaty boys being catty to each other, running around in their maze like hormonal hamsters, being probed by robots, and then retiring together to their bunks after a day of intense aerobic exercise. When the novel’s ONE female character finally appears in the midst of these lawless post-apocalyptic teenagers, you would think she triggers intense battles for the girl’s affections. Indeed, any realistic psychologists would be brazing themselves for a rapey “Game of Thrones” episode, or at least an increase in involuntary erections. But, none of that. Instead, the threatened boys conclude that the  incoming womb-bearer is a sign of the REAL apocalypse. This is the way the world ends: not with a gang-bang but with a wussy whimper.

ABOVE: “Holy crap! Is that what’s called a feemail? RETREAT”


SPOILER: Eventually Chosen Boy (I honestly forget his name a mere 24 hours after I put the book away) gets out of the maze by LITERALLY falling into a Hole in the Plot, but then the truest of all horrors is revealed: the trilogy has MOVIE VERSIONS that guarantee this amateurish mess will haunt TBS for at least another decade.