Category Archives: Reviews

And Then I Read: THE CALDER GAME by Blue Balliett

Cover and illustrations by Brett Helquist

The third in a series of art-related mystery novels for young readers, following “Chasing Vermeer” and “The Wright 3,” this one focuses on the mobile art of Alexander Calder. In Chicago, the three friends, Tommy, Calder (named after the artist) and Petra, are having a hard time dealing with their new teacher, Ms. Button, who is absurdly strict. When they attend an exhibition of the art and mobiles of Alexander Calder at the Museum of Contemporary Art, she hardly lets them enjoy it at all. Despite that, all three are fascinated by Calder’s ever-changing mobile art and an interactive section called the Calder Game that allows visitors to design their own mobiles on paper.

Calder (the boy) is leaving for a trip to England with his father, who is attending a conference in Oxford. They stay in a bed and breakfast in the town of Woodstock just outside the national treasure Blenheim Palace, which Calder hopes to explore while his father is in Oxford. Both Pillays are surprised to see a large red Alexander Calder sculpture in Woodstock near where they’re staying, recently donated and installed by a wealthy person who wishes to remain anonymous. Most of the book follows Calder as he investigates this mystery, encountering much suspicion and anger from Woodstock residents who don’t like the sculpture, and it’s possible connection to the exhibit in Chicago. Calder also explores the features of Blenheim’s grounds, like a hedge maze, and as he’s beginning to find clues to the mystery, he suddenly disappears. Calder’s father invites Tommy and Petra to join him in Woodstock to try to find his missing son, as the police seem baffled. Will they be able to succeed when the police can’t?

A fine read, and again an interesting way to learn more about an artist. Recommended.

Rereading: FARMER IN THE SKY by Robert A. Heinlein

Cover and illustrations by Clifford Geary

Heinlein’s fourth in his series of science fiction novels for younger readers was published in 1950, it follows Rocket Ship Galileo, Space Cadet and Red Planet. Though the books published by Scribners are not a series, and do not take place in chronological order, there are connections. This one mentions the Space Patrol from the second book, for instance. It also mentions the song “Green Hills of Earth” from the story of that name in Heinlein’s connected stories for adult readers known as his Future History.

The Earth of this story is struggling with overpopulation causing many to go hungry. Bill enjoys rare visits to wilderness areas with the Boy Scouts. He lives with his widowed father George and finds creative ways to get enough calories for them, but their life is stifled and claustrophobic. George has an escape plan: a colonist ship is soon leaving for Jupiter’s moon Ganymede where colonists will be given land and an opportunity to farm it. Ganymede is in the process of being terraformed to allow that. George plans to leave Bill behind to attend college, but Bill will have none of it, and is determined to go too. To make himself more eligible, George meets and marries another potential colonist, Molly, who has a daughter Peggy, younger than Bill. The boy is hurt by this move, seeing it as a betrayal of their deceased mother and wife, but in the end, all four are allowed to join the colonists. On board and underway, Bill connects with other Boy Scouts and makes new friends while learning a lot about the ship and the project. He’s almost killed when a small meteorite pierces his bunk room, but Bill manages to save himself and his bunk mates with quick thinking.

When the colonists arrive on Ganymede, they find a very different situation than they expect. The colony is struggling to get started, and the last thing they want is more colonists. They were hoping for a ship full of farming machinery and other needed resources, but do their best to make room for everyone. As Bill and the others learn the realities of their situation, Peggy turns out to be unable to adjust to the low pressure, and George and Molly talk about returning to Earth. Bill is determined to claim his homestead and begin farming it, and with much hard work he’s finally able to get started, but many challenges stand in his way.

Like all of this series, a great read, full of interesting characters, situations and science (even if some of it is now inaccurate). This was originally serialized in Boy’s Life magazine, so Scouting is a theme throughout. Recommended.

And Then I Read: PUDD’NHEAD WILSON by Mark Twain

First edition with related short story, 1894.

This is a problematic story to read and write about today because it’s a story largely about pre-civil war slave life in the Missouri of Twain’s boyhood, yet the story is engaging, the characters are well-developed, and this is probably the most thoughtful book of Twain’s since “Huckleberry Finn.”

David Wilson is an intelligent young lawyer who moves to the town of Dawson’s Landing on the Mississippi River hoping to establish a law practice. Instead, a remark he makes is misunderstood by townsfolk, and he is labeled a “pudd’nhead,” or harmless idiot, dashing his career plan. His hobby of collecting and studying fingerprints does not help his case. He lives next door to the wealthy Driscoll family who own a black (though by birth mostly white) woman named Roxy to take care of infant Tom Driscoll after the death of his mother. Roxy has her own child the same age, and fearing he will be sold “down the river” by her master, she changes the places of the two infants, allowing her birth son to become the heir of the family, while the real heir is raised as her slave child. This plan backfires when her son grows up spoiled and mean, careless with money, and spiteful to Roxy despite her early care for him. When Mr. Driscoll dies, Roxy is given her freedom, and she gladly leaves town for a career working on steam boats. Tom is taken in by his uncle, another rich man, and continues to get into money trouble through gambling and drinking. Tom becomes a thief to keep up with his debts, even stealing from his uncle. When Roxy returns having lost all her savings, how will Tom react to her news about his true origins? Two Italian twins arrive in town, causing a sensation, what role will they play in Tom’s plans? A murder is committed, and only Pudd’nhead Wilson has the evidence that can unveil the true murderer and set things to rights, but he doesn’t even know he has it.

As Twain explains in an afterword, this was originally planned as a farce about the twins, but other characters took over the story, and their tragic tale did not work with the humor, so Twain took the farce out and made the book more about Roxy and her son. Elements of the farce became his short story “Those Extraordinary Twins,” also in the first edition, but not read by me. There are difficult elements to the book, even though Twain was making valid satirical points, but I enjoyed it and recommend it.

Rereading: ROCKET SHIP GALILEO by Robert A. Heinlein

Cover art by Thomas W. Voter, first edition, 1947

This is the first of what would become a lengthy and celebrated series of science fiction novels for young readers nicknamed the “Heinlein Juveniles.” Heinlein had not yet settled into the style and subjects that made many of the others in the series memorable and excellent, and when I first read this in my twenties, I didn’t like it very much, and haven’t read it since. That made it almost a new book for me, and I enjoyed it more this time.

Ross Jenkins, Art Mueller, and Maurice Abrams are three high-school boys who are experimenting with small rockets as a hobby. Their knowledge and mechanical skills show they know what they’re doing, but that doesn’t prevent an accident when their test rocket explodes on the test pad. Worse yet, something from the explosion seems to have hit a man entering their test field, who turns out to be Art’s Uncle Donald Cargraves, a scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project developed atomic bombs for the U.S. government. When Cargraves recovers and examines their work, he’s impressed enough to make a startling proposal. Cargraves is planning a rocket test of his own in the desert of New Mexico. He has a plan to outfit a mail rocket with an atomic engine of his own invention and take it to the moon. He invites the three boys to become his assistants and crew, if their parents will let them. Eventually they do, and the crew begins work at the desert site, but before long find they are under surveillance and even attack by some unknown operatives. They push ahead with their plans and their ship, the Galileo, takes off for the moon before anything can stop them. Unfortunately, once they arrive, they find even more dangerous interference and trouble.

There are a lot of things that seem overly simplistic about this story today, including the idea that amateurs could build and fly a moon rocket on hardly any budget, but the story is still exciting and interesting. The enemy they find on the moon is a predictable one for the time it was written, just after World War Two: Nazis. Overlooking that aspect, the book is an exciting page-turner with interesting twists and turns and a satisfyingly heroic storyline. Heinlein’s series improved markedly after this, but it’s not a bad start, and I would have loved it if I’d read it first as a child. Recommended.

Listening to: JONI MITCHELL ARCHIVES Volume 1

© images Rhino Entertainment and Joni Mitchell

I asked for this five CD set for Christmas, and received it from my inlaws, thanks Ann and Dave! I’ve listened to it all several times now, and I love it. This is the Joni Mitchell I fell in love with in the late sixties after buying her first few albums, but it was all recorded before that, from 1963 to 1967, in home recordings, radio stations and coffee house appearances. The booklet includes a recent interview of Joni by Cameron Crowe about the music, and she is as feisty as ever, telling him she was in no way influenced by Joan Baez, for instance, when he suggests it. The first CD is all traditional songs with a few by Woody Guthrie and the like. After that it’s nearly all original Joni songs, about half of which were never recorded or released elsewhere. You can hear her finding her way, some songs that were recorded by her have earlier lyrics or tune sections that were improved on before recording. Some songs are unfinished, some use tunes that turned up in later songs. Throughout, Joni’s voice is strong and confident, with the wide range of her early work. Intro talk about some of the songs is revealing and interesting, setting the time and place and what she was doing then, or who the song is about.

There’s a fair amount of repetition of her own songs in live performance, but I don’t mind that, they’re all a little different. The sound quality is good, though in a few spots the clink of glasses and plates is too audible. If any of you are Joni Mitchell fans, as I am, you will definitely want this. I’m not sure about later volumes of the Archives, I’ll have to see what’s on them, but this one is excellent. The first link is the CD set, the second is for mp3 downloads.