Things you may not know about Winnie- the- Pooh

When I was young, I loved Winne-the-Pooh. There was a time when I carried my little volume – illustrated by Shephard, of course – everywhere. This fine article was posted on “The View from Sari’s World” on August 21, Christopher Robin Milne’s birthday. It’s filled with interesting facts about the historical Pooh and Christopher Robin, as well as the real Hundred Acre Wood and Poohsticks bridge. Enjoy!

The View From Sari's World

Christopher Robin Milne was born on August 21, 1920, so what better day to celebrate the world’s favorite bear!

Winnie-the-Pooh is unarguably one of the most recognizable characters in children’s literature, as are his friends: Christopher Robin, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger, Rabbit, Kanga, Roo, and Owl. Generations of children (including my own) have loved Winnie-the-Pooh, the Best Bear in All the World.  To celebrate the birthday of the little boy Christopher Robin Miline and his favorite toy I give you:

Things you may not know about Winnie- the- Pooh

Winnie -the- Pooh was the name of the “Bear of little brain” in the stories created by A.A. Milne. A.A Milne’s son Christopher had a teddy bear who Winnie the Pooh was created after. He named his teddy Winnie after a Canadian black bear he saw at the Zoo in London. The real life bear was actually from the town of Winnipeg…

View original post 602 more words

Tilt A Whirl by Chris Grabenstein: a book review

tilt a whirl

A recent detective novel recommendation from Amazon sent me to Chris Grabenstein’s website.  What caught my attention was Grabenstein’s series of mysteries set on the Jersey Shore, in a town called Sea Haven, a thinly veiled reference to Beach Haven, where my family vacationed during three summers when I was a kid and we lived in upstate New York.  To this day, I have fond memories of those trips.

The second thing that attracted me was Grabenstein’s writing credits.  He won two Anthony and three Agatha awards in seven years, and wrote for The Muppet Show, a truly impressive credential in my estimation.

I decided to start with the first book in the series, Tilt A Whirl, 2006, both because I loved the seedy amusement park in Beach Haven as a kid, and because the kindle edition cost $0.99.

John Ceepak and Danny Boyle, two Sea Haven cops, are breakfasting at the Pancake Palace, discussing a tricycle theft – the usual sort of summer crime in town – when a 12 year old girl runs up the street in a bloody dress screaming that someone killed her father, Reginald Hart.  Someone emptied a 9mm clip into Hart as he sat beside his daughter on a tilt a whirl car in the Sunnyside Playland before it was open.  Hart was a billionaire real estate tycoon though many called him a slumlord.

Ashley Hart describes the shooter as a local vagrant and drug user known as Squeegee because he sometimes works for tips at Cap’n Scrubby’s Car Wash.  But that night, when Ashley is kidnapped from her mother’s gated mansion, Ceepak and Boyle realize there is a military precision to the crimes far beyond the capacity of an aging hippie who is missing too many brain cells.  The puzzle twists and turns and had me guessing right up to the epilogue.

Puzzling mysteries alone are not that rare.  The best detective stories also have settings that fascinate and sleuths we love to hang out with:  221B Baker Street with Holmes and Watson; the Navajo reservation with Chee and Leaphorn;  St. Mary Mead with Miss Marple or the Orient Express with Hercule Poirot.

I enjoy Grabenstein’s Sea Haven, for I share his love of Americana – of ice cream shops called “Do Me A Flavor,” or the “Scoop Sloop,” in a town “best pictured on one of those perky placemat maps dotted with squiggly cartoons of buildings like The Shore Store, Santa’s Sea Shanty, and King Putt Golf.”

Chris Grabenstein and Fred

Chris Grabenstein and Fred

His detectives are a study in contrasts and yet a complimentary pair.  Danny Boyle, the narrator, grew up in Sea Haven.  He’s a part time summer cop, in large measure because it gives him an edge with vacationing college girls in the pubs on Saturday night.  John Ceepak is new in town, fresh from a 12 year stint as an MP in the army that ended after a tour of Iraq.  The son of an abusive alcoholic father, Ceepak lives by “a Code” that his partner, Boyle admires but doesn’t fully understand:  serve and protect; never lie, cheat, or steal – ever.

The two men are bound together by a growing mutual admiration and a love of Bruce Springsteen.  By the end of the Hart affair, Danny Boyle decides to apply for full time duty.

Tilt A Whirl reminded me of a couple of chick-lit detective novels I’ve read.  I think that’s due to the humor and irony of Boyle’s first person narration.  His upbeat, “lemme tell you what happened” tone makes you want to buy him a beer at The Sand Bar and hear all about his latest case.  A lot of Danny’s humor is couched in food references, as when he describes a witness as “a few fries short of a Happy Meal,” or when, after a break in the case, he says, “I’m feeling kind of jazzed, like you do after chugging two cans of Red Bull and snarfing down some Hostess Ding-Dongs.”  I think that’s what the male equivalent of chick-lit would sound like.

The author researching beach food at Beach Haven, NJ

The author researching beach food at Beach Haven, NJ

Danny Boyle has a thoughtful edge as pronounced as his irreverence.  In a key thematic passage, he quotes a math teacher who once explained Chaos Theory in terms of a tilt a whirl:  “if the operator keeps the whole thing going at the proper speed of 6.5 revolutions per minute, it’s practically impossible to predict what will happen next…The teacher called it ‘mind-jangling unpredictability.’ Chaos Theory in action,’  for two tickets a ride.” 

Tilt A Whirl was a page-turning mystery that was also a lot of fun.  I downloaded the next book in the series, Mad Mouse, also published in 2006.  Stay tuned for an update on that.

Inferno by Dan Brown: a book review


I am one of the millions who couldn’t put The Da Vinci Code down when it was published in 2003.  Dan Brown’s breakout thriller went on to become the second best selling book of all time, trailing only The Bible.  Yet after reading his next offering, The Lost Symbol (2009), I swore off the author for good.  Information overload and a two dimensional, comic strip villain made it a disappointing read.

Time weakened my resolution, and happily so.  With Inferno, published this month, the author has found his stride again.  Weaknesses remain, but Dan Brown can tell an enthralling story.

The code that Robert Langdon must decipher this time comes from Dante’s Divine Comedy, and especially the first book of that trilogy, The Inferno.  It’s safe to say that everyone in the western world, Christian or not, has been influenced by The Divine Comedy, which gave us our graphic geographies of hell, purgatory, and paradise.  Artists then painted Dante’s vision, shaping the devils and angels that still lurk in imagination.

One of those paintings, Botticelli’s “La Mappa dell’Inferno” or “Map of Hell,” is a key to the mystery Langdon must decipher in his race to stop the release of an engineered plague designed to “cull the human herd” and prevent over population from destroying us all.

La Mappa dell'Inferno by Botticelli

La Mappa dell’Inferno by Botticelli

There aren’t many thrillers with stakes higher than this, and all the elements of it are real.  The threat of ever more people struggling for fixed or diminishing resources can hardly be exaggerated.  The threat of bio-terrorism is here.  Will genetic engineering open the gates of heaven or hell?  Into this nail-biting mix, drawn from the headlines, Brown adds a pretty and brilliant sidekick for Langdon, an equally brilliant mad scientist, and black-uniformed spooks in pursuit.  We have all the elements of an engrossing thriller, but Dan Brown has ways of subverting himself.

His most obvious flaw is excessive information dumping.  Inferno has two primary speeds, fast-forward chase scenes and slow motion data uploads.  When the pacing is off, both can become tiresome.

In one scene, Langdon searches for a clue in the 25th canto of Dante’s Paradiso.  He borrows an iPhone from a tourist to google the relevant passage, but then, although all the police in Florence and a surveillance drone are on his tail, the action stops for a treatise on different translations of Dante.  Robert Langdon, aka Brown, should take a page from Sherlock Holmes and not crowd his head or ours with facts that do not bear on the case at hand.

I also had a problem with several late-in-the-story surprises.  In any good thriller, things and people are not what they seem.  Sometimes it takes a magician’s sleight-of-hand and clever misdirection to pull off major twists with characters whose thoughts we have shared all along.  Several of Inferno’s revelations were clunky in a “What the…?” kind of way.  

Even with these flaws, I can recommend the book.  It had been a long time since I’ve found myself carried away by a work of fiction; as I read, I put everything I could on hold to keep turning the pages.

Dan Brown, 2007, by Phillip Scalia, CC-By-SA-3.0

Dan Brown, 2007, by Phillip Scalia, CC-By-SA-3.0

Reading Dan Brown convinces me yet again of the absolute primacy of story.  I had the same reaction after a pilgrimage to the home of Jack London, a writer I loved when I was young.  George Orwell, among others, described London’s writing and use of language as “poor,” yet more than 50 movies have been made from his novels and stories.  Not bad for a writer whose life was over at 40.

Fortunately for everyone who enjoys a gripping tale, Dan Brown, like London before him, has every reason to continue following his own star and forget the whining of critics like me.  If he does, he will likely continue to bring us supremely engrossing fiction.

Skinwalkers by Tony Hillerman: A book review


As I worked on a recent post, Favorite Fictional Detectives, I realized I didn’t remember the details of Skinwalkers, a key Tony Hillerman novel that I read soon after it was published in 1986.  I read it again and found it to be a thoroughly satisfying mystery.  I offer this brief review to encourage others who may not know Hillerman’s work to give it a look.


Officer Jim Chee, of the Navajo Tribal Police, tosses and turns one night in the airstream where he lives in the desert.  When his closest neighbor, a feral cat, shoots through the pet door, Chee gets up to peer out the window at what might have scared it so badly.  Probably a coyote, he thinks.  For a moment, thinks he sees a shape in the darkness.  Then the night explodes.  Three shotgun blasts tear holes in the trailer just above the bed where Chee was sleeping moments before.

In the morning, as he cleans up his trailer, Chee makes a frightening discovery.  Among the shotgun pellets that litter the floor is a small bone pellet.  Navajo witches, or skinwalkers, inject bone into the bodies of people they want to kill.  The bone produces the fatal “corpse sickness.”  This bone fragment links three apparently separate killings that Lt. Joe Leaphorn, a senior tribal detective, has been trying to solve without success.  When Leaphorn and Chee join forces, their first problem is persuading anyone to talk, when tradition holds that speaking a skinwalker’s name will attract his harmful attention.

Chee is learning to be a traditional Navajo healer.  With a background in college psychology classes, he understands his role to be restoring people to the core Navajo values of beauty and harmony.  Skinwalkers have fallen away and try to take others with them.

Leaphorn is not a believer, but he learned by hard experience that other people are.  Early in his career, when he ignored talk of witches, three murders and a suicide were the result.  As he and Chee grope through the dark, a very real menace is watching from a direction they do not expect.

This book represents fine storytelling, with characters and a setting that are outside our normal experience.  It’s one of the best mysteries I’ve read, and I suspect it will make you want to read more of Tony Hillerman’s work.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho: a book review

I started reading The Alchemist soon after its publication in 1988, but I didn’t finish it then, for reasons I don’t clearly remember. I picked it up again after author and writing friend, Amy Rogers, recommended the book for its affinity with the folk and fairytales I’ve recently spent so much time writing about.

She was right.  This time the story drew me in with its “Once upon a time” feeling.  It is not a fairytale by any measure; it’s far too sophisticated, yet it’s filled with folklorish magic.  The hero, Santiago, is named just once, when we meet him.  Through the rest of the tale, he is simply “the boy.”  Ironically, this generic quality, so typical of fairytales, allows us to identify with his journey, project our own yearnings into his far more closely than a modern, “three dimensional” characterization would have allowed.  In addition, the plot twist that ends The Alchemist is drawn directly from a folktale that appears around the world.

The Alchemist is a tale of spiritual self-realization.  From the start, Santiago tries to follow his “personal legend,” a term taken from alchemy.  At first, it is an instinct.  His search becomes explicit after a gypsy tells him his treasure lies near the pyramids.  A “chance” meeting with Melchizedek , the mysterious priest and king mentioned in Genesis, sets him on the path after he witnesses the unrequited longing of those who abandon the quest for their legends for the sake of expediency.  In order to follow his personal legend, Santiago learns to listen to the Soul of the World in his heart.  The world soul, or Anima Mundi is one of the key principles in the alchemical manuscripts that survive.

Anima Mundi, or Soul of the World, in alchemy

Anima Mundi, or Soul of the World, in alchemy

Paulo Coelho was born in 1947 in Rio de Janeiro.  When he was a teenager and told his mother he wanted to be a writer, she praised the steadiness of his father, an engineer, and asked if he knew what it meant to be a writer.  After research, Coelho concluded that a writer, “always wears glasses and never combs his hair” and “has a duty and an obligation never to be understood by his own generation.”

At age 16, because of his introversion and refusal to follow a traditional career path, his parents had him committed to a mental institution from which he escaped three times before his release at age 20.  He agreed to attend law school but dropped out to become a hippie and travel through South America, Mexico, North Africa, and Europe.  Upon his return to Brazil, he worked as a song writer, an actor, journalist, and theatre director.

In 1986, he walked the 500 mile pilgrimage road of Santiago de Compostela to the cathedral where St. James the apostle’s remains are believed to be buried.  Since the middle ages, it has been one of three major Christian pilgrimage destinations, along with Rome and Jerusalem.  On the way, Coelho had a spiritual awakening, which he described in his autobiographical novel, The Pilgrimage, 1987.  He published The Alchemist the following year, with a small Brazilian publisher that ran 900 copies and decided against a reprint.  Sales now total 65 million.

Paulo Coelho, 2012, by Sylvia Feudor.  Copyright free.

Paulo Coelho, 2012, by Sylvia Feudor. Copyright free.

I do not clearly remember why I disliked The Alchemist when I first read it more than 20 years ago.  I suspect, to put it in Santiago’s language, that at the time, I feared I’d lost hold of my own personal legend.  I’m glad I picked up The Alchemist again.  Our world is darker, harder, and more cynical now, and more than ever I think we need Coelho’s gentle parable.  However difficult it may be, it’s good to try to remember this conversation between King Melchizedek and Santiago:

“What’s the world’s greatest lie?” the boy asked, completely surprised.

“It’s this:  that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate.  That’s the world’s greatest lie.”

The Annotated Wind in the Willows

“The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home.” So begins one of the great literary adventures of my life, The Wind in the Willows, published in 1908 by Kenneth Grahame.

I’ve written about The Wind in the Willows before:  My parents read it aloud when I was little, and since then, it has been part of my life.  Now the annotated edition, which I got this month, reveals details about the text and the author that I never knew before.

The opening paragraph details the Mole’s spring cleaning.  Soon he has dust in his throat and eyes and splotches of whitewash on his fur.  Then the text says something rather strange:  “Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.”

I’ve been known to put off spring cleaning for months, but from laziness not “divine discontent.”  As a younger reader, this phrase escaped me.  Only now do I realize how Mole’s spirit of longing belonged to the author.  I always imagined Kenneth Grahame as a country gentleman, strolling quietly by the river.  Notes in the annotated edition make clear that while this came later, for much of his life, Grahame lived with a frustrated dream of living like that.

Kenneth Grahame by John Singer Sargent, 1912.  Public domain.

Kenneth Grahame by John Singer Sargent, 1912. Public domain.

He knew and loved the country life, but economic necessity tied him to London.  He abandoned his dream of going to Oxford and took a post at the Bank of England.  He married late in life, and both he and his wife had health problems.  Their only son, Alastair, was born with a congenital vision defect.  One day in November, 1903, a respectably dressed man came into Grahame’s office, pulled out a revolver, and began shooting.  The man didn’t hit anyone and was later sent to an asylum, but Grahame was shaken.  Already a private man, he kept even more to himself, his home, and vacations near the sea.

Grahame was already a popular author of several books of essays, but he stopped writing entirely between the years of 1903 and 1908.  Because of his wife’s health problems, Kenneth was Alastair’s primary care giver.  In the evenings, he made up stories about a mole, a toad, and various other animals, who lived beside a river.  A governess would later recall hearing Alastair ask questions and make suggestions; the two of them worked the stories together.

Alastair Grahame, 1907

Father and son spent the summer of 1907 apart.  Kenneth sent Alastair  a series of 15 letters which continued the tales and became the seeds of chapters for the book he would write the following year.  The letters are included in the annotated edition.  Also in this edition is an introduction by Brian Jacques, contemporary author of the Redwall series of animal stories.  Jacques lets us know what he thinks of the editors and agents who hesitated in printing The Wind in the Willows.  He has nothing good to say about people so short of imagination that they could not imagine a toad disguised as a washerwoman.

Arthur Rackham, 1940

An enthusiastic recommendation from President Theodore Roosevelt helped Grahame’s publishing efforts and the book has been in print ever since.

Some have suggested that Wind in the Willows is two books in one.  The madcap adventures of toad seem geared to please children – they were Alastair’s favorites – while other sections explore deeper emotions like homesickness, fear, wanderlust, and of course the theme of divine discontent.  This takes center stage in chapter 7, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” in which the animals, searching for a lost baby otter, encounter the ancient god Pan.

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Frontispiece to a 1913 edition by Paul Bransom. Public domain.

Grahame first wrote about Pan in 1891 in an essay that appeared in his first book, The Pagan Papers 1893.  His longing for unspoiled nature on the eve of the 20th century was widespread in Victorian and Edwardian society.

As Mole and Rat approached the god, they were seized with the kind of awe and fear that scriptures around the world describe when people encounter angels.  When the vision ended, the animals “stared blankly, in dumb misery deepening as they slowly realized all they had seen and all they had lost.”

Then a little breeze “blew lightly and caressingly in their faces; and with its soft touch came instant oblivion.  For this is the last best gift that the kindly demigod is careful to bestow on those to whom he has revealed himself in their helping:  the gift of forgetfulness.  Lest the awful remembrance should remain and grow, and overshadow mirth and pleasure, and the great haunting memory should spoil all the afterlives of the little animals helped out of difficulties, in order that they should be happy and lighthearted as before.”

Life brought less solace for Grahame. His son, Alastair, who inspired the stories, was a budding artist and creator of his own literary magazine, but he was plagued with emotional problems. He enrolled at Eton but had to leave for this reason. He went up to Oxford in 1918, but didn’t do well with exams. On top of this, numbers of WWI veterans were returning to college, bringing the focus and maturity they had learned in the trenches.

In May, 1920, Alastair Grahame asked for a glass of wine after dinner, then walked to Port Meadow, outside Oxford, where a number of railroad lines merged. During the night, he was hit by a train and died. His father wrote that his vision problems might have led to disorientation.  The autopsy report suggested he lay on the tracks and waited for a train.

The Grahames were devastated. They spent the next four years in Italy. When they returned to England, they moved to a town beside the Thames where they lived for the rest of their lives. Kenneth was able to spend his days by the river, as he had always dreamed of doing, but the joy he once had making stories for his son must have been absent.

Arthur Rackham, 1940

Arthur Rackham, 1940

Some biographers have suggested that Grahame, good at everything he tried, must have been disappointed with his son. Annie Gauger, editor of the Annotated edition says no.  She includes letters and other material to demonstrate that The Wind in the Willows was a joint creation of father and son.  Since the stories were first told out loud, I have to agree – from experience I know that oral storytelling is a complex dance between teller and audience.  Out of their limitations, their longings, and divine discontent, Kenneth and Alastair Grahame  gave readers over the last hundred years a world of peace and friendship, far from “the wide world” trials, where if you listen, you can sometimes make out the music of the gods of nature on the wind.

Fairytales in the 21st Century

Arthur Rackham, untitled, 1904. Public domain.

When you look at our culture, it seems like fairytales have never been more popular.  “Grimm” and “Once Upon a Time” are starting their second television season.  Earlier this year, we had two movie versions of Sleeping Beauty.  Young adult paranormal stories remain popular with readers of all ages, and I’m currently reading a 1994 collection of classic fairytales retold by some of the best modern fantasy authors.  The book, Black Thorn, White Rose, by editors Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, was reissued as a kindle edition and features challenging tales by authors like Nancy Kress, Patricia Wrede, and Jane Yolen.

Snow White begs for mercy. From an 1852 Icelandic version. Public doman.

The old stories call out to us with their promise of depth as the stuff and fluff of modern life fails to satisfy the yearnings of the soul.  Yet according to Wolfgang Mieder, professor of German and folklore at the University of Vermont, we’re missing a critical element that earlier generations possessed, and the loss is related to the flood of tales we have today.  “Everybody reads different stories and we no longer know the same fairytales. The connecting element is lost,” says Mieder.  He is optimistic about the survival of fairytales, but questions the way we now receive them.

Mieder, a German-American, won the 2012 European Fairytale Prize and has studied the social significance of fairytales for more than 40 years.  After high school, he traveled to the US from Germany to study mathematics, but a seminar in German folklore changed his life’s direction.  Folklore became very personal for him.  He recalls that in Germany, “In the 1950s you used to be given a colorful picture as a gift when you bought margarine, which I made a lot of effort to collect and paste in my album. With the album I got to know the world of fairytales.”

Wolfgang Mieder. CC-by-SA-3.0

Mieder, who has authored 200 publications and 500 articles, want his students to find the same personal connection to the old stories.  This can be hampered by the sheer volume of folklore appearing on TV, movies, and the internet.  Will the glut of information detract from the impact of stories that generations of people heard aloud in the flickering firelight?  Mieder is hopeful – he has observed a new interest in oral telling of old stories.

This is something I have experienced, both as a story teller and listener.  All over the world, it was largely during the dark months when the stories were told, and now we have a world-wide celebration of stories each November.

In 1988, J.G. Pinkerton, of the Connecticut Storytelling Center, imagined a night of storytelling, which he called Tellebration, to build community support for storytelling.  That year stories were told in six locations throughout the state.  By 1997, there were Tellebration events on every continent except Antarctica.

Tellebration is held on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, November 17 this year.  You can search for events near you – or even organize and register your own – at this site, hosted by the National Storytelling Network:

You can access the full article on Wolfgang Wieder here:,,16234957,00.html

And finally, to see a wonderful site devoted to fairytales and folklore – the place where I found the Wieder article – visit the “Sur La Lune Fairy Tales Blog,” listed on my blogroll.

And finally-finally, as in really finally, I’ll be devoting next week to exploring some old stories and oral tradition. I’ll be largely or entirely unwired for the duration, but I promise you will hear more about this in upcoming posts.

Arthur Rackham, The Three Bears. Public domain.

Some of my favorite English books

A tweet from Hannah-Elizabeth, who blogs at The Last Classic  inspired this post. She follows my book reviews and recently asked for a recommendation on something to read.

The other inspiration was the Olympics opening ceremony, which got me thinking of English novels and stories.  My greatest literary pleasures, from the first read-alouds I heard as a child until now have come from England.  The riverbank, the Shire, and Baker Street have become the landscapes of my soul.

There’s one key distinction to make:  when I talk about favorite novels, I don’t mean breakout, thrilling, or dramatic novels – necessarily.  I mean stories with  characters and worlds I want to live with and visit again and again.  When I started The DaVinci Code, for instance, I couldn’t put it down, but when I finished, I traded it in for credit at the local used bookstore.  I can’t imagine reading it again.

So here is a list, probably not complete and not in order of preference, of some of the story treasures British authors have given me.  To set the mood, let’s begin with this beautiful hymn that every diehard fan of Masterpiece Theater knows and loves.  “Jerusalem” was inspired by William Blake’s poem, “And did those feet in ancient time,” which was based on the legend that as a youth, Jesus visited England and Glastonbury with his uncle, Joseph of Arimethia.

Favorite English books.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. I reviewed it here: Try to get the edition illustrated by Arthur Rackham, which really gives a feel for the rural England of rivers, forests, and fields that were so soon to disappear in the new century .

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – Here was a man who spent his life giving shape to our spiritual homeland – The Shire and Rivendell.  His son said he suffered from bouts of depression all his life.  Understandable when you reflect that the summer this gentle dreamer graduated from Oxford, he was thrown into the maelstrom of the Somme.  There he saw the Shire, the rural England he loved, along with his college classmates, evaporate in the fires of Mordor, aka, the western front.

The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  I read these detective stories again and again, even though I know who done it. Who doesn’t sometimes dream of life on Baker Street, sharing a pipe with Holmes before the game is afoot again? I could argue that Holmes was an early superhero, using uncanny intellect and powers of observation to save the world from uber-villain, Moriarity.

The Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix. Nix, a former editor, has written a number of middle grade Arthurian adventures for boys.  In the Abhorsen tales, he gives us two fine female protagonists. In doing so, he inspired my first novel, whose main character, Emily, is a lot like Lirael, the heroine of the second and third books of the trilogy.  Nix lives in Australia, but the map of his Old and New Kingdoms looks a lot like the Scottish border, and everyone acts quite British, sometimes to the vexation of the good guys.

T.S. Eliot:  The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909 – 1950 I’ve been reading this book since I took a class on Eliot as a college sophomore. “The first gate” into the world of imagination and dream is an image at the opening of Eliot’s “The Four Quartets,” my favorite poem of all time.  Eliot was an American who spent his writing life in London.

Agatha Christie Mysteries.  Few authors create two characters as compelling as Hercule Poirot, star of 33 novels,  and Miss Marple, featured in 12.  When Christie killed off Poirot in 1975, a year before her own death, the little Belgian detective became the only fictional character to receive an obituary in The New York Times.   Books like Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, will stand with any mysteries ever written.  Here is free download, in all ebook formats, from Project Gutenberg, of  The Mysterious Affair at Styles, 1920, the first Poirot mystery.

In the spirit of things. Yours truly at Avebury, 1991

The Narnia Tales by C.S. Lewis. Tolkien told Lewis not to publish the Narnia stories, saying Lewis would “embarrass himself.” Just goes to show the master of middle-earth didn’t know everything.  Mysterious old wardrobes will always be objects of interest to fans of Lewis’ series.

Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock.  A small patch of primeval forest, one of the last in England that dates from the last ice age, is actually a “mythogenic zone,” a region which manifests the creatures of the deep human psyche and racial memory.  They deteriorate at any great distance from the wood, but near and in it they are very real – sometimes dangerously so.  in 1946, when Stephen Huxley returns from the service, both he and his older brother Christian, strive to enter the wood with the aid of a mysterious journal (don’t you just love those!) left by their father.  Both Stephen and Christian fall in love with Gweneth, who lives deep in the forest.  When his brother begins to assume the attributes of the dreaded “Outsider,” you know Stephen’s journey will not be easy.  Published in the US in 1986, this book had a profound effect on my outlook on fantasy literature.

Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling. I don’t think this needs any explanation

The Mabinogian Anonymous. Welsh tales, full of strange and sometimes ominous magic, that were already ancient when they were written down in the middle ages. Joseph Campbell and Heinrich Zimmer discussed some of these stories. They are best approached with poetic imagination as Fleetwood Mac did with the goddess, Rhiannon, who figures in two of the tales.

Rhiannon riding in Arbeth. Illustration from “The Mabinogian” by Lady Charlotte Guest. Public domain in the US

The Amelia Peabody Mysteries by Elizabeth Peters. Here are some great British mysteries written by a yank. Ms. Peters, now 84, was born in Illinois and received her PHd in Egyptology from the University of Chicago. There’s the connection. Her protagonists – Amelia Peabody, Amelia’s husband Emerson, their brilliant but incorrigible son Ramses, and in later stories, Amelia’s daughter in law, Nefret, are unconventional British archeologists who excavate in places like the Valley of the Kings when they’re not solving murders. There are twenty books in the series, spanning the decades from 1895 through the first world war against the background of mystery and intrigue in the turn of the century middle east. These are among the best beach reads I’ve ever found. Check them out at


I hope this excursion through some of my favorite books leads you to something enjoyable to read.  Lists are fun.  This was a small list, so next time I’ll post some with hundreds of titles to choose from.  Stay tuned!