Category Archives: Reviews

And Then I Read: THE SMALL MIRACLE by Paul Gallico

Illustration by Reisie Lonette.

Paul Gallico is an author I like mainly for his cat books: “The Silent Miaow,” “The Abandoned,” and “Thomasina,” filmed by Disney as “The Three Lives of Thomasina.” His best-known book is probably “The Poseidon Adventure.” This is one of several small books by him, short stories published in book form, that I never read until now.

Pepino is an orphan boy living in the town of Assisi in post-World War Two Italy. His only family is his donkey, Violetta, and together they make a scant living carrying things for shop keepers, and running errands. Their bond is close, and when Violetta shows signs of illness, Pepino comes up with a plan he hopes will help her. He wants to bring Violetta into the shrine of Assisi’s most famous son, St. Francis. Assisi was an animal lover, and Pepino hopes his spirit might help Violetta. The problem is that the old way into the shrine has been bricked up, and the new way will not accommodate a donkey. Pepino appeals to his local priests, but they say they cannot open the old doorway. That leaves Pepino only one option: go to Rome and appeal to the Pope himself for help.

Charmingly written, not sappy, heartwarming. Just what I needed to read. Highly recommended.

And Then I Read: CAVE CARSON #8

Image © DC Comics.

I haven’t been a fan of this title, really, but I keep reading it. I guess I keep hoping it’s going to be more than it has been. The comic I want to read would be more like the original series from DC in my childhood (it ran only in SHOWCASE and THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD). Then and now, the idea of a crew of underground adventurers with a car that could drill through anything was interesting and exciting. This series starts there, takes a few odd twists and turns, then seems to be going the same direction, but never arrives, at least so far.

As this issue opens, Cave and his daughter are standing in a graveyard talking about their wife/mother, though no one is named, and the intent is not clear. The place cap says, “Fawcett City. A different Earth.” Fawcett suggests Captain Marvel, but there’s no evidence of any Fawcett characters. Cave and his crew have apparently emerged on a different Earth’s surface, one that is war-ravaged, its citizens being mentally controlled by The Whisperer, a Lovecraftian creature in cahoots with Carson’s old boss back on his own Earth. They meet Carson’s mentor, a college professor, or at least the version in this reality, and are attacked by The Whisperer. As usual, the visuals are bright, psychedelic, but somewhat simplistically drawn and hard to follow at times. The story is not much easier.

Perhaps the best thing here is two faux pages of a Geologist magazine at the end, which are quite funny.

I can’t really recommend the issue as a whole. I will probably keep reading the series anyway. Not sure why.

And Then I Read: ASTRO CITY #44

Image © Juke Box Productions.

Has writer Kurt Busiek written this issue specifically to appeal directly to ME? Sure seems that way! A super-cat, Kittyhawk, is the star character, nicely portrayed on the cover here by Alex Ross, and equally well inside by Rick Leonardi. He was a stray taken in by Nightingale, petting him here, who with her partner Sunshrike fights crime in 1980s Astro City. They don’t know yet that Kittyhawk has powers, but the strangest things keep happening when he’s around and wants something. The story title, borrowed from Robert A. Heinlein, “The Cat Who Walked Through Walls,” may give you an idea what kind of strange things, but it gets better: Kittyhawk even enlists the help of a superDOG: Rocket Dog, to help her track down the criminal Nightingale and Sunshrike are after, unknown to them. That criminal is Popinjay, a man with the partial head of a Blue Jay. And, of course, Nightingale is another bird, as is Shrike (no real Sunshrike). The best part about the animals in this book? They don’t talk. They act intelligently, but we don’t know what they’re thinking, either. This works much better than the way super animals are often handled.

I’m positive this book is written just for me, but hey, you might like it, too.

Recommended!

Watching FIVE WEEKS IN A BALLOON (1962)

After enjoying the Jules Verne novel (just reviewed here), I was curious about the Irwin Allen Technicolor film. I’ve rarely liked anything Allen did, so I wasn’t expecting much, but even my low expectations were not met. I found the film on YouTube, not a great copy, but good enough to learn that I could only watch about a quarter of it. The film draws very little from the book, just the basic idea of a balloon voyage across central unexplored Africa, the name of the balloon inventor, Fergusson, and a few greatly distorted events from the book. Visually, the effects are cheap and ineffective from the first frame, as we see the balloon on a demonstration flight for the Royal Geographical Society (not in the book). The gondola of the balloon is laughable, one end looks like the head and neck of a giant unicorn for no good reason. Cedric Hardwicke plays Fergusson ineffectively, he’s dull and uninteresting. His assistant Jacques (replacing black manservant Joe in the book) runs the balloon machinery, thereby giving Hardwicke little to do other than act stuffy and officious. Jacques is played by teen idol Fabian in an obvious ploy to attract a young audience. He’s fine, but completely out of place in this story.

Before the balloon launches, the mission is changed by Britain’s Prime Minister from exploration to a silly military/patriotic one where Fergusson must secretly plant the British flag on the west coast of Africa to thwart some slavers there. In charge of this, and going along is Sir Henry Vining (not in the book) played by Richard Haydn. Haydn’s comic performance was the one thing I did like about the film. A British character actor, he’s best known today as the voice of the Caterpillar in Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland,” he’s always fun to watch and listen to. Other cast members of note like Barbara Eden, Peter Lorre and Billy Gilbert were wasted on nonsense and looked uncomfortable. Red Buttons was awful as the reporter sent along to cover the flight for an American newspaper. In the book, there were only three passengers on the balloon…two for a while when Joe jumps overboard into a lake to help keep the balloon aloft. In the film we end up with about eight people on the balloon, none of them interesting except Haydn. I will admit I skipped through a lot of scenes looking for something enjoyable, so I might have missed a few worthwhile moments, but I doubt it. Even the final thrill ride from the book is made silly and dull here.

Verne’s book is not great literature, but it’s a lot more fun than this awful film!

And Then I Read: FIVE WEEKS IN A BALLOON by Jules Verne

I read it digitally, but this is a nice example of an early cover in English. The original was published as Cinq semaines en ballon in France in 1863. Note that Verne’s name is not yet on the cover, it was the first of his great adventure novels that helped make him famous.

Dr. Samuel Ferguson, a noted British world explorer and inventor, has planned a trip into the unknown center of Africa, searching for the source of the Nile, and information about other expeditions that have been lost. This was a popular sort of adventure at the time, and about ten previous expeditions had been launched and failed. Rather than go on foot or horseback, Ferguson plans to float into Africa in a hydrogen balloon of his invention. Ferguson’s breakthrough is a double balloon, one inside the other, that can be regulated by heating the gas and transferring it from one layer to the next and back, allowing the balloon to stay aloft for much longer than others of the time. With him will go his faithful manservant Joe, and his friend, the expert marksman and hunter Richard Kennedy. With the backing of the Royal Geographical Society, Ferguson and his crew and equipment are delivered to a small island off the eastern side of Africa for their launch. Kennedy is against the idea, but his friendship with Ferguson wins him over in the end.

Many adventures are had as the balloon drifts over Africa. Verne clearly did his Africa research, and makes the physical journey interesting and believable. By raising or lowering the height of the balloon, and finding different winds, Ferguson is often able to direct their course where he wants to go, but not always. Sometimes they are becalmed over the desert, or swept up in mighty storms. Adventures are had with the animals and natives of Africa, who are mostly hostile and afraid of the balloon. When the crew needs to land for water and game, they are always in danger, as a well-placed spear, arrow or bullet can permanently ruin them. Ferguson is smart and keeps calm in all adversity. Joe is cheerful and sure his master will triumph, and Kennedy is there to back his friend with gunfire when needed. The adventures and thrills are many and fun to read, and the success of the expedition is often in doubt. Indeed their final struggle to reach the west coast of Africa, or at least a part of it controlled by France, is the most hair-raising of all. The balloon is losing hydrogen, and to keep them aloft, the crew has to jettison all their belongings one by one, with an angry tribe hot on their heels as they scrape along just over the higher hills.

This book is very much a product of its time and prejudices. The natives of Africa are seen as superstitious, cruel, warlike, and ignorant, with barely a good word for them in the book, never mind the fact that the balloon is essentially a small invasion of their homes. African animals are there as something to eat, or that wants to eat the crew, little more. In fact, a group of condors destroys the outer balloon at one point for no good reason except to further the plot. Joe, Ferguson’s manservant, appears to be a black man, and may be an actual slave, though neither point is clear, and even he shows no sympathy for the African natives.

The science of the book is convincing, but it does have a hidden flaw: the amazingly unending power source for the heat needed to keep them aloft. In a way, Verne is setting the standard for all future science fiction there by making the science plausible, but not letting real physics get in the way of a good story!

I enjoyed reading this, and plan to read more Verne adventure novels in the near future. Recommended.