Category Archives: Books

And Then I Read: THE MAGICIAN OF HOAD by Margaret Mahy


Cover art © Gene Mollica.

Margaret Mahy is a New Zealand fantasy author whose works are full of complex characters and plots, always rewarding reading. She has won the Carnegie Medal twice as well as the Hans Christian Anderson Award.

Heriot Tarbas is a troubled boy living on a remote country farm in the land of Hoad, far from the capital city of Diamond. His mind and even his body are subject to strange pains, odd visions, frightening dreams, and the feeling that another mind is there with his own, and one that means him harm. Through a long and eventful life he strives to solve these mysteries as well as the puzzle of his own magical powers, which come along unbidden and at first unwanted.

Hoad has a King and royal family, and also a Hero, equal in power to the King, who lives on an island just over the hill from Heriot’s farm. What Heriot experiences there as a boy almost ends his life, but also begins the growth of his own abilities. Those in power in the King’s household are somehow aware of Heriot’s magic too, and try to gather him in, but after an attack by the Hero, Carlyon, Heriot flees the farm and ends up on a battlefield where Hoad and their rival neighbor Dannorad are trying to negotiate peace. Wounded and ill, Heriot is rescued by the King’s third son, Dysart, and a strange connection is revealed between them. Before long, Heriot is living in the royal palace in Diamond learning about his powers, but still troubled, and uneasy about the struggle for power all around him. At times the friendship of a street orphan boy, Cayley, is the only solace he can find.

That’s just the first third or so of this engrossing book, and I enjoyed reading it, though at times the many mysteries in the main characters’ lives make understanding them difficult. It does all get sorted out in the end.


And Then I Read: THE BIG CHUNK OF ICE by Bertrand R. Brinley

Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 7.03.42 PMIllustration by Charles Geer.

The final story featuring the Mad Scientists’ Club, published posthumously in 2005. Like “The Big Kerplop!” it’s a novel, but unlike any other adventure in the series, it takes the Club far from Mammoth Falls, to the Alps in Austria.

Professor Stradivarious, the scientist introduced near the end of the previous novel, drives the story this time. He has a research trip planned to a glacier in the Alps which he wants to study, measuring the speed of the ice flow among other things. He needs help, and enlists the entire Mad Scientists’ Club, who will get a free trip with all expenses paid in exchange for their work. Also going are two students of the Professor, Angela and Angelina. The method of travel is unusual, they go by blimp! It seems the Professor has a blimp that he used to escape from Europe during World War Two, and it still works. Not surprisingly, all the parents, and indeed the entire town, are fine with this trip, and give the group a good send-off. The blimp flight is already filled with some unusual adventures, and when they arrive in the town of Heiligenblut, where they will be staying, the entire town there turns out to welcome their old friend, the Professor, too.

Once they get started with their research, things become stranger and stranger. People keep warning them of the dangers around them, and several groups seem to be watching and following them. Indeed, three of the party are trapped in a crevice by an avalanche, one that seems to have been started intentionally by gunshots. When the team moves their base to an ancient, haunted castle overlooking the glacier, things get weirder still. The castle caretaker is a very small man with a malicious bent who likes to play tricks on them. Henry Mulligan and the other Club members soon find plenty of mysteries to solve: who is living in the sealed room and watching them with a telescope? Who is making broadcasts from the castle? What do four lawyers who keep following them want? And what about the mystery of the diamond smugglers who fell into a glacier crevice and died a hundred years earlier reportedly while possessing the world’s largest diamond? Is that what everyone is after? Is that the real big chunk of ice?

I have to say that I didn’t enjoy this book as much as “The Big Kerplop,” for several reasons. First, by taking the group out of their home territory and putting them under the charge of others, much of the group’s independence and initiative is lost. Henry Mulligan still comes up with some good scientific ideas, but it’s not quite as much fun as when they’re free and on their own. Second, Brinley has made heavy use of dialects that get annoying, particularly the German/Austrian one of the Professor. One of the girls speaks in “hippy lingo,” which seems very dated, and the girls also introduce a game of making geographic puns that continues through the book and gets tiresome. The adventures and mysteries are fun, but are wilder and harder to believe than most of the previous ones in the series.

That said, I did enjoy some aspects and parts of the story, and if you are a fan of Brinley’s Mad Scientists’ Club, you’ll certainly want to read this final adventure. Mildly recommended.

And Then I Read: THE BIG KERPLOP! by Bertrand R. Brinley

BigKerplopIllustration by Charles Geer.

About a month ago I read and reviewed “The New Adventures of the Mad Scientists’ Club,” a second collection of stories about a group of boys in a small 1960s town, Mammoth Falls,  who have clever and funny adventures. I’d first encountered the stories in the pages of “Boys’ Life” magazine as a child myself, and have long owned the first collection of those stories. The club is generally led by their head tinkerer and scientific genius Henry Mulligan, and they seemed to have all kinds of resources for creating amazing inventions, or adapting existing scientific ideas. These were often used to play practical jokes on their town and a rival gang, though at other times the Club helped solve crimes and assisted authorities. In researching that earlier review, I found Brinley had also written two novels about the Club, and I quickly ordered e-book versions of both. This is one.

“The Big Kerplop!” did see print in 1974, but shortly afterward the publisher went out of business, and not many copies made it out to readers. It was reprinted in 2003 with new pictures by Charles Geer, who had illustrated the two books of short stories, and I’m here to tell you it’s the best thing I’ve read in a long time. First, there’s the nostalgia factor: it brings me back to happy childhood days, not only because I was reading about the Mad Scientists then, but the way the kids are given the trust and freedom to do all the crazy things they get away with is very much like my own childhood in the 1960s. Second, you never know if a short story writer can succeed with the same characters in a novel, but Brinley does so brilliantly. Third, this book fills that fannish desire, it’s an origin story! In its pages we learn how the Mad Scientists came to be in a very satisfying way.

As in the short stories, the narrator is Charlie (last name finally revealed in this book), but Henry does not appear for some time. Charlie and his friends are out on a foggy Strawberry Lake fishing when they hear fighter jets from a nearby Air Force base making practice runs over the lake. Unexpectedly, something large and heavy falls from one plane into the lake. The boys don’t see it, but feel the waves of its impact and hear the kerplop. Right away they go into action, figuring out how to mark the place where the object fell. Later, back in town, word is out that the Air Force is restricting access to the lake while they investigate something. Before long, the boys figure out a nuclear bomb was the thing that fell from the plane, and the Air Force is looking for it. The boys decide they are going to find it first, and in some daring night excursions through the patrol lines, they succeed. Henry Mulligan’s scientific knowledge and ideas help a lot with that. The next problem is convincing the Air Force, or any responsible adult, that they actually have found the bomb, a task which takes up a good part of the book in many hilarious incidents.

This was so much fun. It would have made a great Disney TV series in the 1970s, and could still be a pretty good one today. Now I can’t wait to read the other Brinley novel, and will soon.

Highly recommended!

And Then I Read: A KNIGHT OF THE SEVEN KINGDOMS by George R.R. Martin

KnightSevenKingdomsCover art by Larry Rostant.

This hardcover collects three novelettes about the hedge knight Ser Duncan taking place in the land of Westeros about 100 years before the beginning of Martin’s “Game of Thrones” saga. Dunk, as he calls himself, had been taken from the slums by an older hedge knight, Ser Arlan, as his page. Ser Arlan was well past his prime, but had plenty to teach the boy, who grew into something of a giant in his apprenticeship, nearly seven feet tall and strongly built. Size does not help one in the knightly skill of jousting, however, and when Dunk enters a tournament at Ashford Meadow, he knows he has a tough road to victory. First, he has to sell one of his two horses to get enough money to buy armor, and if he should lose, he will forfeit both armor and horse. It’s a big chance he wants to take.

Dunk is helped more than he expected by the boy Egg who attaches himself to the novice knight as his new squire. Egg is small, slim and bare-headed, but he does seem to know a great deal about knights and the landed families of Westeros. When Dunk lands in hot water at Ashford Meadows, Egg helps him find a way to escape prison and punishment through a trial by combat. And Egg turns out to be much more than the peasant boy he seems.

Two other adventures take Dunk and Egg south as hired sword to an elderly land-owner, Ser Eustace Osgrey, who is in dispute over water rights with his more powerful neighbor. Then Dunk and Egg are enticed into another tournament that is a secret gathering for a group of knights plotting against the king. All three adventures are wonderfully written. Martin seems to have absorbed medieval culture so completely he can write about it as if he lived it. More than that, Martin excels at showing what that culture could really be like when human nature found the cruel side of chivalry. This is not the uplifting tales of King Arthur I grew up on, but it’s much more real, and Dunk and Egg do find some good in the people they meet as well as bad.

GianniEndpapersI’m not too fond of the cover art seen above, but the art inside the book by my friend Gary Gianni is very much to my liking! Here’s the beautiful endpapers painting by Gary that depicts Ser Dunk’s shield much more correctly for one thing.

GianniArtThroughout the book are 160 of Gary’s wonderful line drawings that are nearly as important in bringing the story and characters to life as the writing. Gary is the perfect choice for this type of story, especially after eight years on the “Prince Valiant” newspaper strip. Kudos to Martin for bringing Gianni to the project, it makes it all the more excellent.

Highly recommended!

And Then I Read: TUNNELS by Gordon & Williams

TunnelsCover illustration © David Wyatt.

The Burrows family (get it?) has a father and son who share a similar obsession: digging holes and tunnels. Dr. Burrows is the curator of a small museum, and always looking for artifacts and lost bits of history, while his fourteen-year-old son Will simply enjoys the process of digging into the earth. Will’s mother seems to be addicted to watching television and does little else, and his sister Rebecca, the most practical member of the family, is stuck with the cooking, cleaning and scheduling, which she’s not happy about. Will and his father make a dig into some remarkable ruins, but their progress seems to be constantly thwarted by someone or some group that keeps filling up their tunnels. Meanwhile, Dr. Burrows is on the trail of mysterious characters lurking in their neighborhood who might be connected to their findings.

One morning the family awakes to find that Dr. Burrows has disappeared from his own basement study. Will and his friend Chester begin to investigate, and Will is determined to find out what happened. They discover a hidden tunnel entrance in the room, but it’s again filled in. Undaunted, Will and Chester re-dig the tunnel until it opens out into an underground world they can barely believe. That’s only the beginning of their troubles. Soon, they’re caught and imprisoned in a secret underground city that has been cut off from the surface world for many decades. Most curious of all, some of the citizens there declare that Will is their long-lost relative!

I enjoyed this book in general, but there were two areas that I had problems with. First, the scope of the underground world beneath modern London is so vast and complex it strained belief. Fortunately the characters and story line otherwise were engaging enough to overcome that for me. It’s a long thrill ride through inventive creations and underground perils of all kinds, and in that way, a good read. The other problem is there’s no satisfying resolution at the end of the 472 pages, just unresolved problems that are “to be continued” in the next book. That’s okay for a 22 page comic, but I expect more from a novel, especially one this long. Because of that, I can only mildly recommend the book, but if it sounds appealing to you, and you’re willing to sign on for the entire series, go for it.