Category Archives: Books

And Then I Read: IN SEARCH OF THE CASTAWAYS by Jules Verne

An early edition of this book in English, probably from 1873. The original French edition was first published in 1867-68, it was Verne’s fifth adventure novel. I read a free digital version on iBooks.

Like “Five Weeks In A Balloon,” this is an episodic travel adventure, but this time with a more important goal, to find and rescue the captain and two men of a wrecked Scottish ship. As the story opens, Lord Edward Glenarvan, his wife Lady Helena, his cousin Major McNabbs, and the ship’s crew under Captain John Mangles are on board The Duncan, a new sailing/steam ship owned by Glenarvan. It’s on a trial run in the Firth of Clyde. A large shark is spotted, and on a whim, they decide to catch it. Inside the shark is a worn but whole and sealed bottle, and inside the bottle is a handwritten message from Captain Grant of a long-missing ship, The Britannia of Glasgow, asking for help. The message is tattered and much is missing, but one thing is clear, Grant and his ship have been wrecked in the southern hemisphere on the 37th parallel, which runs primarily through southern South America and Australia, as well as New Zealand and some smaller islands.

Lord Glenarvan puts notices in the papers looking for information about Captain Grant, and soon his two children arrive, Mary and Robert. Mary is an older teen, Robert a younger one. Lord and Lady Glenarvan, touched by the children’s hopes and fears for their father, decide to take their ship, The Duncan, in search of the castaways, and Mary and Robert convince them they should come along. Once they’re well underway to South America, where they’ve decided to search first, an unwitting stowaway turns up: French Geographer Jacques Paganel, who it turns out got onto the wrong ship in the night, and has been asleep for several days. When Paganel finds out the ship’s mission, he volunteers to join their expedition willingly, adding his knowledge of the world to their resources. Paganel is a cheerful, somewhat absent-minded fellow who produces some laughs and is soon a friend to all.

This is a very long book with three main sections: the searches in South America, Australia and New Zealand. There are many exciting adventures and thrilling events. The party (or some of them) cross the Andes in South America, then the pampas, where a flood strands them in a giant tree. Later the tree catches fire in a thunderstorm! In Australia they are beset by bandits, one of whom has infiltrated their party, and they have great difficulty returning to their mission. Finally, in New Zealand, they are caught up in a Maori war against the British and taken prisoner. They escape with the help of a volcano. Those are just a few of the more memorable events.

This was a fun adventure story, despite the unlikely starting point. How did a shark from the south seas get to Scotland, for instance? The characters are memorable, and the many twists and turns of the plot surprising and often improbable, but entertaining all the same. I liked it more than “Five Weeks In A Balloon,” and intend to move on to more Verne novels soon.

Recommended.

And Then I Read: CHILDREN OF THE LAMP #4: THE DAY OF THE DJINN WARRIORS by P.B. Kerr

Cover illustration © Petar Meseldzija.

The “Children of the Lamp” series of fantasy novels for young readers, is now up to seven books. I read the first book, published in 2004, and enjoyed it. The series is clearly meant to appeal to fans of the Harry Potter books, but it does have enough unique elements and good writing to make them fun to read. The  characters in the books are largely members of a secret Djinn (genie) population of magical beings who live among us ordinary humans undetected for the most part. John and Philippa Gaunt are two apparently ordinary English children, but actually Djinn, and they live and operate in a world of magic, often very dangerous magic.

I haven’t read books two and three of the series, but recently bought books four and five at a library sale. One good test of a series is whether you can read it out of order and understand what’s going on. Book four did present some challenges at first, as there are a lot of new characters, but everyone was explained and introduced well enough that, by the time the action began to unfold, I felt comfortable in the story.

And there’s lots of plot here. Twins John and Philippa are in New York with their father, who is suffering from an aging curse that has turned him into a doddering ancient. Their mother is the Middle East trying to assimilate her new role as the powerful Blue Djinn of Babylon, and the twins want to rescue her by finding the true Blue Djinn heir who is missing. Meanwhile, in museums around the world, ancient Chinese clay warriors have been brought to life and are capturing all kinds of spirits, including those of the Djinn. No one knows what evil force is behind this, but the twins aim to find out. Then there’s their friend and fellow Djinn, young Dybbuk, who has gained sudden huge fame by becoming a stage magician on TV, backed by the long-time rival magical beings of the Djinn, the Ifrits. These are only some of the many plots and storylines explored in the book that takes us to Venice, Babylon, China, Las Vegas, and other points of interest around the world.

While the books are plot-driven, the characters are well-rounded and interesting too, and the adventures and danger they get into are imaginative. The series is fun, not too heavy or memorable, but good summer reading. I’ll get to book five soon.

Recommended.

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: 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.

And Then I Read: SUMMERLONG by Peter S. Beagle

Cover illustration by Magdalena Korzeniewska.

I have long admired the writing skill of Peter S. Beagle, and this new novel is a prime example.

Abe is an elderly writer living on Gardner Island in Puget Sound, Washington. He’s in a long-term serious relationship with Joanna, an aging stewardess, who keeps her own apartment on the mainland when not with Abe. Joanna’s daughter Lily is single,  and can’t seem to hold on to a relationship, though she’s tried with many women. All three of their lives, and the very world around them, are changed by the arrival of Lioness Lazos to Gardner Island. Lioness takes a waitress job at the local diner where Abe, Joanna and Lily are all struck by her timeless beauty, her sweet yet mysterious ways, and the sudden panic attacks that bring her to live in Abe’s garage. Strange weather has arrived with Lioness that brings an early spring to the island, one that never seems to leave. Lioness has dark secrets, and is being sought by powerful beings who know her true story. It’s one that will draw Abe, Joanna and Lily into the world of myth and magic slowly and surely, and change all of them forever.

If you’re a fan of Neil Gaiman’s novels, Beagle is an author you should explore, and this is a good place to start. If you’re already a Beagle fan, don’t miss this one.

Highly recommended.