Category Archives: Books

And Then I Read: THE ISLANDS OF THE BLESSED by Nancy Farmer

I read this book some time ago and apparently forgot to review it. It’s the third book of a trilogy, the first two are reviewed here:

The Sea of Trolls

The Land of Silver Apples

The Saxon boy Jack lives in a small town on the coast of England around the year 800 A.D. He has been drawn into perilous magic adventures first through an old magician named The Bard, then with his friend the Viking shield-maiden Thorgil. Jack is at the center of three belief systems: Christianity, Norse mythology and Celtic mythology, all of which seem to be in contention for the hearts and minds of the people around him, and the latter two are embodied in very real beings and places he’s visited.

This third book begins when a storm destroys Jack’s small town, and he must go on a quest to set things right with Thorgil and The Bard. It’s an adventure full of danger and unusual characters, including mermaids, hobgoblins, sea hags, and Norse gods, and takes them to the magic land of the title. I know I enjoyed this book just as much as the first two, though I no longer remember many of the details, but all three are full of well-researched lore and legends, impressively creative magic, wonderful characters, and exciting plots.


Rereading: STARMAN JONES by Robert A. Heinlein

Cover illustration by Clifford Geary

Max Jones lives in a future America where technology is advanced and space travel to distant stars is a reality. Max’s uncle had been an astrogator on a starship, a highly skilled and valued position right below the captain, and had left Max his astrogation manual and a promise to vouch for him with his guild when he was old enough. But both Max’s uncle and father are gone, and his mother has remarried a man Max hates. The boy runs away from his rural farm home heading for the nearest spaceport where he hopes to begin a career as an astrogation trainee. Sadly, when he asks at the guild headquarters, he finds his uncle had not left any word about him. A man named Sam that Max met on the road had stolen his astrogation manual and tried to use it to gain entry to the guild himself. That didn’t work, and both man and boy meet again outside. Max is reluctant to take help from Sam, but has no where else to turn. An apologetic Sam helps Max find food and shelter, and soon manages to get illegal access for both of them as crew on a departing starship, the Asgard. While spending many months on the ship in menial jobs, Max gradually makes friends, learns all about space travel, and eventually becomes the astrogation trainee he dreamed of, but not without many difficulties and roadblocks to overcome. Max is helped by his unusual memory that allows him to remember everything he reads exactly. When the ship goes off-course and is lost, Max will have a crucial role in the crew’s last hope for a return home after the planet they find is not as welcoming as it first seems.

I loved this book when first reading it, and have loved it every reading since, this is probably at least the fourth. Of the Heinlein juvenile series of novels for young readers, this is one of the most appealing. Any reader can understand and empathize with Max’s hopes, fears and dreams, and Heinlein makes it a pleasure to root for him. The characters are appealing (or horrible as required), and the insights into human nature are spot on. The science is dated, but it’s easy to overlook that and go with the flow.

Highly recommended.

Reviews of other Heinlein books can be found on the Book Reviews page of my blog.

Rereading: COMET IN MOOMINLAND by Tove Jansson

After reading the first Moomin book by Jansson, The Moomins and the Great Flood for the first time, I’m now rereading the rest of the series in order. This is the first of those. My copy of the book is the original English translation. Jansson revised the book afterward and that new version is now the standard one. I’ll talk about the revisions later in this review. The creations of Tove Jansson are unique fantasy animals in a northern European natural setting that is inspired by her home in Finland and in some cases by the myths and legends of that area. Though they are animals, they act much like humans in many ways, and are sometimes funny, sometimes annoying, but usually charming.

The Moomins: Moominpapa, Moominmama and Moomintroll have been living in their new home in Moomin Valley for a few weeks since the flood when strange signs and portents signal something unusual is coming their way, a huge comet. Moomintroll and his friend Sniff decide to make an expedition to the Lonely Mountains where there is an observatory. They hope the professors there will tell them all about the comet and what it means. Along the way they meet Snufkin, a wanderer who plays the harmonica, and together they get into trouble and are rescued by a Hemulen on a butterfly-collecting trip. Snufkin joins the expedition, and when they reach the observatory, a professor tells them that the comet, which is already growing much brighter and hotter, is going to hit the Earth in a few days. Moomintroll and his friends decide they must hurry back to Moomin Valley to tell everyone and help them prepare. On the way they find the Snork and the Snork Maiden being attacked by a poisonous bush and rescue them. These creatures seem to also be Moomins by their appearance, and Moomintroll is attracted to the Snork Maiden. She and her brother join the expedition, and they all must make a dangerous crossing of the sea-bed, which has been dried up by the looming comet. More adventures follow, and it seems they’ll never get back to Moomin Valley in time.

I think this is probably the most exciting Moomin novel, with its end-of-the-world plot and many thrilling moments. The introduction of new characters that will return in many books of the series helps make it a good starting point even if you haven’t read the first short novel. The relationships between characters is handled well making them fun to follow, and everyone has their moments to make mistakes and to overcome them and shine.

In THIS Wikipedia article you can read about the changes made to the story in the later edition, which I haven’t read. After learning about that, I think I’m just as happy to stick with this one. There’s more danger and more character flaws here, from what I gather.

The Moomin series is fun reading, and this one is highly recommended.

And Then I Read: THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER by Mark Twain

First edition courtesy of Heritage Auctions,

I like Mark Twain’s writing but somehow I managed to miss reading this 1882 novel of his until now. I guess I felt I knew the story from the Disney version I saw on TV in 1962 at age 11. I also lettered a comic book version of the Mickey Mouse version in the 1990s. What I thought I knew about the story was mostly wrong beyond the initial idea that two identical boys from the year 1547, one the crown prince of England and one a poor lad from the slums of London, change places.

Tom Canty is the poor boy, and his life is a hard one, though he’s used to it. His job is to beg on the streets of London and bring back any coins he gets to his father and grandmother, a pair of unsavory characters who will whip Tom at any excuse, though Tom’s mother and sisters try to comfort and help him. Edward Tudor, the son of Henry VIII is the other boy, who Tom tries to see up close in front of the royal palace. He’s beaten by the guards for his trouble, but the prince calls them off and invites Tom into the palace to his rooms. Once there they realize how exactly similar they look. Edward offers to let Tom try on his royal clothes, and decides to don Tom’s rags as a lark, but once they’ve done that, the Prince is ejected from the palace as an interloper, and neither he nor Tom can ever convince anyone of their true identities, not even their parents. (This is the hardest part of the story to swallow, but necessary to make it work.)

The rest of the book follows each boy trying to understand and fit into the very different life and world they find themselves prisoners of. The prince refuses to take any crap from Tom’s father, and of course is beaten for it. He runs away the first chance he gets, and ends up with a former soldier returned to England from Europe, Miles Hendon. Miles is a good man, but nearly as poor as the penniless Edward, and the two are thrown into bad company, painful treatment and jail as the prince learns about the lives of his poorer subjects in a way he can’t forget.

Tom, meanwhile, is thought to be temporarily insane or to at least have amnesia since he knows so little about his life as the prince, but he gradually learns from Edward’s sisters and servants, and eventually does a credible job with things he previously knew nothing about. Decisions he makes in judgement in royal audiences impress the court. But the death of his father throws Tom into a panic. Soon he will be crowned King, a job he does not want.

This is not only entertaining and at times exciting reading, it’s thought provoking and educational. Highly recommended.

About the book on Wikipedia.

And Then I Read: THE MOOMINS AND THE GREAT FLOOD by Tove Jansson

Written and illustrated by Tove Jansson.

I first encountered the Moomins in novels written for children by their creator Tove Jansson in libraries in the late 1960s-early 1970s. Jansson was a Swedish-speaking citizen of Finland, and her characters are not only charming and funny, they inhabit an environment and are part of a mythology very different from any I had found elsewhere. Moomin Valley is full of odd characters and an atmosphere of the far north in Europe. Their adventures are inventive and sometimes thrilling. It’s fantasy unlike any other, having little to do with Norse or Celtic myths or any other European traditions. Most of it comes from the imagination of the author. There was also a long-running Moomin comic strip in English that ran in newspapers in Great Britain, but I didn’t see that until it was reprinted in America a few years ago. The strip is fun, but lighter in tone, and restricted mostly to satire and comedy without the deeper thoughts and atmosphere of the books.

I bought or borrowed Jansson’s Moomin novels when I came across them, but I was never sure of the reading order, and the relationships of the main characters to each other was often puzzling. Moominpapa and Moominmama had a son Moomintroll, that was clear enough. The three of them are pear-shaped with long snouts something like a cross between a cow and a hippo perhaps, but more agile than either, walking on hind legs, and acting like humans in many ways. Then there’s the Snork and his sister the Snork-maiden who look the same. Are they Moomins? I was never sure, but it seems so. All the other characters look quite different from them, and each seems to be of a tribe or species of their own.

The first book Jansson wrote about Moomins is this one. It’s short, what’s now called a chapter book, sixty pages with Tove’s charming illustrations on nearly every page. She wrote it during World War Two in Finland, and there is an atmosphere of anxiety and fear hanging over the story that now seems likely to have been caused by real world fears. This book was not translated and released in English until 2005, and I didn’t know about it until recently. In it we meet Moomintroll and Moominmama on a quest through perilous terrain and past dangerous creatures in search of Moominpapa, who has gone off wandering with an odd tribe called the Hattifatteners. They are joined by a small fearful creature (called Sniff in the other books) and for a while by a flower fairy, Tulippa. Despite the short length of the book, it’s full of incident and characters, and the dangerous journey seems long, culminating in a storm at sea. It ends well in Moomin Valley, where the lives of the Moomins will continue in the other books, now a bit more clear to me. I am reading through all of them in the correct order this time, and will review the others here too.

This one is recommended and a good place to start.

Tove Jansson on Wikipedia.