Category Archives: Reviews

Rereading: TALES FROM MOOMIN VALLEY by Tove Jansson

The seventh longer Moomin book is a collection of nine short stories. I found I didn’t remember it at all, though I liked it on this reading.

In “The Spring Tune,” Snufkin the wanderer is camping alone in the northern woods trying to find a new tune to play when he returns to Moomin Valley in the spring. He meets a small Creep, a creature who has been noticed so little that he doesn’t even have a name. Snufkin helps him find one.

In “A Tale of Horror,” a young Whomper finds he has a talent for telling scary stories that terrifies his baby brother. He’s so good at it that he convinces himself they are true, and gets in trouble with his father for telling lies. Then the Whomper meets Little My, who is even better at telling scary stories.

In “The Fillyjonk Who Believed in Disasters,” a creature who is prone to thinking about all the worst things that can happen has rented a house on the beach from a Gaffsie, but finds little solace there, as she continues to worry about what will go wrong next. The Gaffsie tries to be her friend, but finds it difficult. When a real disaster arrives, the Fillyjonk’s worst fears are realized, but how will it affect her?

In “The Last Dragon In The World,” Moomintroll unexpectedly catches a small dragon in the pond with a jar when he was after waterbugs. At first he tries to keep it a secret, but soon everyone knows about the tiny dragon, as it flies around and catches insects with its fiery breath. The dragon takes a strong liking to Snufkin, who doesn’t want it, which makes Moomintroll sad.

In “The Hemulen Who Loved Silence,” a creature of that sort who works in a noisy amusement park punching tickets longs for a more interesting job. When a flood ruins the amusement park, the Hemulen is out of a job and goes off by himself to find a new life. He takes residence in an abandoned garden, and with help from children, gradually builds his very own amusement park where everything is beautifully silent.

In “The Invisible Child,” a creature called Ninny has been made invisible by mean treatment, and the Moomin family takes her in to try to restore her visibility. This causes trouble for everyone.

In “The Secret of the Hattifatteners,” Moominpappa’s fascination with the small electrically-charged creatures who constantly wander the earth and sea leads him to try to join them on their wandering. For a while he forgets all about his family as he learns the ways of the Hattifatteners.

In “Cedric,” Sniff gives away his most prized toy, and that makes him sad. Snufkin tries to comfort him by telling him stories, but Sniff keeps interrupting.

In “The Fir Tree,” a Hemulen wakes the Moomin family from their winter hibernation to tell them about Christmas. Soon they are running around busily like everyone else in Moomin Valley trying to prepare for a holiday they don’t understand, and decorating a fir tree as best they can.

These are all well-told stories that expand on the lives and natures of the charming creatures in Jansson’s stories. Recommended.

Rereading: WHO WILL COMFORT TOFFLE? by Tove Jansson

In addition to the Moomin novels I’ve been rereading, Tove Jansson also wrote and illustrated three charming picture books for younger readers that are part of the Moomin series. They were unknown to me when I was young, but have been reprinted in America in this century, and I have added them to my library. This is the second, and it tells of a sad, lonely young Toffle who is afraid of all the other creatures who live around him, including Hemulens, Fillyjonks, even Moomin friends Mymble and My, but especially the truly frightening Groke, whose presence freezes the very ground it walks on. This book follows Toffle as he searches for a friend, while trying to avoid all the boisterous activity around him. Even solitary Snufkin, playing his flute in a field of flowers, is too scary for Toffle to approach. At last he arrives at the seashore, and he finds a note in a bottle from a young female Miffle, who is also looking for a friend, and asks for help. Toffle decides he must finally be brave and seek out Miffle. He sets out on the wide ocean in his suitcase to look for her.

If you have only seen Tove Jansson’s black and white illustrations for the Moomin novels or even her comic strips, the gloriously bright and charming large illustrations for these picture books will give you new insight into her artistic talent. The story is equally charming, and is ideal to read to a young person, if you know one. The translation is by poet Sophie Hannah, and the lettering (in the style of Tove) is by Peter Blegvad.


And Then I Read: LOLLY WILLOWES by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Cover art: Witches’ Heads (detail) by August Neter, 1919.

This book was chosen as a favorite by Neil Gaiman. I own and like two other books by the author and decided to try it, her first novel.

Laura Willowes is a shy child of late nineteenth century England who loves country walks in and around her family estate, collecting herbs and making herbal teas. The family owns a brewery and is secure enough for her to not worry about money. As she becomes a young woman, prospects for marriage seem slim, something she seems unconcerned about. Laura is happy with her life, and takes care of her father in his later years. On his death, Laura is moved to her brother’s home in London almost without her having a say in the matter, and for twenty years she becomes a household helper and nanny for her brother’s children. Laura, renamed Lolly by those children, comes to feel increasingly stifled by her life and duties, and longs to return to the countryside. A visit to a florist is the final spark. She decides to move to the small, isolated village of Great Mop as if by chance choice, though the choice proves to be an important one. Laura’s family is against this move, but she stubbornly carries out her plans, renting a room in a cottage in Great Mop, and beginning a new life.

Great Mop is a strange place, and Laura gradually begins to uncover its secret life and make new friends there. That process is interrupted when her nephew Titus decides to also move to the town to become a writer, and soon has Laura under the thumb of family obligations again. What Laura does in her desperation makes up the final section of the book, and is the only part involving an element of fantasy. Laura makes a pact and becomes a witch.

This book is much more about the place of women in English life than about magic, and that surprised me a bit. In fact, it ended just when I thought it was about to really begin. I enjoyed reading it all the same. Laura is a type of woman I know from my own family, and one that exists in many families. The unmarried helper, assumed to be always ready and willing to do whatever is asked of her by family. It’s a role unmarried men can usually escape, but women often can’t, at least in times past. Perhaps that’s changing through the influence of writers like Warner and the feminist movement. The writer’s own life was unconventional, and this book must represent many of her own feelings, I think. It’s well written, but I would have enjoyed seeing the story go further. It certainly kept me thinking about what might have happened next.


Rereading: SPACE CADET by Robert A. Heinlein

Cover art and illustrations by Clifford N. Geary

This is the second of Heinlein’s “juveniles,” a series of books for younger readers, first published in 1948. With it, he hit his stride in the series, producing a fine story with well-integrated scientific and moral themes and appealing characters.

As the book opens, Matt Dodson is reporting to a center in Colorado as a cadet trainee in the Interplanetary Patrol, an organization which acts as a police force and deterrent throughout the solar system of the year 2075, a solar system which includes several colonies on other worlds. The Interplanetary Patrol controls a satellite-based nuclear weapon system that acts as a deterrent to war and conflict on Earth and elsewhere. As the story develops, we learn that cadets must be willing to put their loyalty behind the Patrol over their home planet, home country, and even family. Matt is soon befriended by cadets Tex Jarman from Texas, Oscar Jensen from Venus, and Pierre Armand from Ganymede. Their training is a winnowing process where they must pass many kinds of tests, both physical and mental, and the large class of trainees gradually dwindles. Those who are deemed space-worthy continue training on the school ship James Randolph in permanent orbit around Earth.

The training process is well told, based on Heinlein’s own training in the U.S. Naval Academy but with additional challenges like weightlessness, space navigation, and the airless vacuum of space. Matt’s path is not always easy, and he considers leaving to become a Space Marine, where battle and glory are the goal, while a roommate opts for the Merchant Service, dedicated to commercial shipping. In the end he stays with the Patrol and is assigned to a working Patrol ship, where he must learn more. His first mission is to the Asteroid Belt in search of a missing ship. Later he is part of a mission that lands on Venus, where the training and skills of Matt and his friends are put to a real-life test dealing with angry natives, and their landing craft is lost, sinking into the swamps of Venus.

I enjoyed this novel just as much this time as when I first read it as a boy. I had no interest in a military career, the closest I came to the kind of experiences Heinlein describes was being in the Boy Scouts for a few years, and I wasn’t particularly good at that, though I liked some things about it. Even though the military life was not for me, Heinlein makes it understandable and appealing through his skillful writing, and the moral choices presented to the characters are ones I understood and appreciated. The science and glamor of space travel is well represented, even though it’s now largely outdated by modern computers and technology. It feels real, and there are a few prescient hits, like the use of cell phones. Heinlein’s title, “Space Cadet” led to an unrelated TV show and successful media property, “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet,” which never had the appeal of this book for me, and the phrase became common in our language, though not always with positive meaning.

Recommended, and a good place to sample Heinlein if you haven’t before.

Rereading: MOOMINLAND MIDWINTER by Tove Jansson

Cover and illustrations by the author.

Continuing my reread of these delightful books for young readers, this is the sixth novel in the series, published in 1957.

Moomins always hibernate for the winter. The familiar family of Moominpapa, Moominmama, Moomintroll, and their friend The Snork Maiden (possibly others) are hibernating in their house in Moomin Valley this winter when Moomintroll suddenly wakes up and can’t get back to sleep. He decides to go out into the very odd and different world of winter to explore it. Snow is completely new to him, and when he is able to escape the house through a hatch in the roof, he is soon wandering around the frozen landscape looking for anyone to talk with. He finds Too-ticky, who spends the winter living in the Moomin’s bath house at the edge of the sea with some invisible helpers. Meanwhile, Little My has also awakened in her winter quarters, a cave, and is also out exploring. She is much quicker to adapt to things. Other creatures arrive in Moomin Valley including a skiing Hemulen, and a Little Creep. Everyone is hungry, and Moomintroll offers them jars of jam from Moominmamma’s fall preservings. It keeps everyone going. When Moomintroll hears about Christmas, he doesn’t understand it, but feels he should try to wake his family so they can all participate in what sounds like a thrilling event.

This book has a darker tone than the previous Moomin novels, as Moomintroll struggles to understand and survive in unknown winter, but it also has good doses of humor and many charming moments and characters. Any of the Moomin novels can be enjoyed as one’s first, but they are best read in order.