Category Archives: Books

Rereading: THE TWELVE AND THE GENII by Pauline Clarke

This excellent book had different titles in the UK (left) and the US (right). By either title it’s a gem.

Max and his family have moved to a new home, but an old house in rural northern England not far from Leeds. Max discovers a hidden treasure in the attic, a set of twelve wooden soldiers, clearly very old, worn, and much loved. To his great surprise, as he plays with them, they begin to come to life. Each has a name, rank, history and distinct personality, and they treat him as a sort of god, or genii, as they call him. Max learns they once belonged to four other genii, he guesses children like him, who created elaborate stories and adventures for them. Somehow that creative energy brought the wooden soldiers to life.

Max’s sister Jane discovers the secret by spying, but soon joins in the game. Max’s older brother Philip is more interested in the possible value of the toys, especially when he hears that a wealthy American is offering a large reward for any set of similar toy soldiers found in the area. The American is looking for the soldiers once owned by the Brontë family in nearby Haworth. The four Brontë children; Branwell, Charlotte, Emily and Ann, wrote extensive stories about “The Young Men,” as they called them, a prelude to the literary fame and careers of the three Brontë sisters. Philip, Max’s older brother writes to the American to say they have such a set of soldiers, and Max is furious when he finds out. He explains the danger to the Twelves, and they decide on their own they must make a dangerous journey to their old home, the Haworth parsonage, now the Brontë Museum, where they will be cherished and protected from being taken overseas.

Not even Max is witness to their escape from the attic and the beginning of their journey, but he and Jane soon figure out what is happening, and help the soldiers along when they can. Still, the Twelves must face many perils in the oversized human world, from automobiles that want to squash them to people who have heard of the reward and want to capture them and collect it themselves.

This is a great story full of imagination and literary relevance. When I read it in my own childhood, it led me to fine books like Charlotte’s “Jane Eyre,” and Emily’s “Wuthering Heights,” as well as biographies of the talented but tragedy-prone family. It won Britain’s Carnegie Medal in 1963. I recommend it highly.

And Then I Read: THE VIEW FROM THE CHEAP SEATS by Neil Gaiman

Photograph by Allan Amato, cover design by Adam Johnson.

This is a collection of essays, forwards, introductions, speeches and other similar short non-fiction. If you’ve been a Neil fan for a while, you’ve probably read some of them before, but it’s great to have them collected. It’s a large collection at 522 pages, and divided into ten sections, so while perhaps not perfectly complete, close enough, at least until the next one.

You can learn a lot about Neil from reading his fiction, and plenty of interviews are out there too, but if you want to know more about what Neil likes, and what he thinks about what he likes, or what he dislikes (ditto), this is the place. There are also many personal anecdotes that fill out Neil’s story in one way or another, assuming a life is a kind of story. There is some repetition. Some anecdotes are told more than once or even more than twice, but as they are relevant to the context, that’s okay, and the retellings are all a little different anyway. Neil is a complex person with a wide variety of interests, and a life-long voracious reader, so there’s lots to discover and enjoy in that area. Neil has strong opinions about big subjects too, and his speeches and essays about things like the importance of libraries, the harm of censorship, making good art, and the crisis in Syria are here too.

Perhaps the pieces I liked the most were on authors and artists we both love, as it reminded me of conversations we used to have about such things in the early days of SANDMAN, when we were both getting to know each other and had the time. There are also entries on authors and artists I don’t know, which make me want to read or explore them.

I perused this over a long number of days, one or two entries per evening, and it was a delightful way to spend some time in the mind and words of a friend I rarely get to see, but one I feel I know even better now. As a rule, I am not a non-fiction reader these days, but this book is a wonderful exception.

Highly recommended.

Rereading: THE VOYAGES OF DOCTOR DOLITTLE by Hugh Lofting

Above is my much loved and much battered copy of this book. It was already battered when I bought it for five cents at a book sale, an ex-library copy from my own grade school in Bedminster Township, New Jersey. The book was first published in 1922, the second published book in the Dolittle series by Lofting. This was the 11th printing in 1929, so clearly it was popular and sold many copies from the start. It is, in my opinion, the best of the series.

The kind, bumbling but strong-willed human doctor who learns the languages of the animals through his parrot Polynesia and becomes the most successful and well-known veterinarian in the animal kingdom (at least among the animals themselves) was introduced in 1920’s “The Story of Doctor Dolittle,” reviewed by me in the link. It’s a fun, if improbable story with lots of great characters, many of them the animals that the Doctor considered his family. What the second book added that greatly improved the concept was the character of Tommy Stubbins, who narrates this book. Tommy is a young boy in Dolittle’s home town of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh in rural England. He’s the son of a cobbler, but he has a desire to see the world, a wanderlust that is unlikely to be fulfilled until he meets the Doctor and becomes a part of his family too. By seeing the unusual man and his animal companions through fresh, wondering eyes, Tommy Stubbins gives us, the readers, a new, deeper understanding of all the characters, and allows us to become part of the story. Tommy’s parents are puzzled by his new friends, but when the Doctor offers to employ Tommy in his own home as his assistant, with room and board included, and seeing their son wants this very much, they agree. Soon Tommy, with the help of Polynesia, is learning the animal languages too, and is a vital part of the Dolittle household.

Tommy knows that Dolittle and his animals have made several ocean voyages of discovery and adventure, in Africa and elsewhere, and more than anything he wants to go on one of them. The perfect reason for a new voyage arrives when the Doctor learns that his fellow naturalist, the native American Long Arrow, has disappeared on Spidermonkey Island in the south Atlantic Ocean. Dolittle decides he must sail there and try to find Long Arrow, who he greatly admires but has not yet met. Spidermonkey Island is a strange place: it’s a floating island that moves around the South Atlantic, but with help from his animal friends, and a sturdy ship he buys, the Doctor is sure he can get there. This begins an epic voyage that is a delight to read and full of exotic adventures, great characters, humor and wonder, enhanced by Hugh Lofting’s quirky but appropriate drawings. Forget the movie versions, this is the real deal.

Highly recommended!

And Then I Read: CANYONS by Gary Paulsen

Cover illustration by Kazuhiko Sano.

A desert canyon near El Paso, Texas is the scene of two stories in different times. In the past, we follow Coyote Runs, an Apache boy who wants desperately to take on the privileges of manhood, including having a horse of his own. He’s invited to join a raid on a herd of horses over the border in Mexico, but to get there and back, his small band of raiders must cross through territory patrolled by US soldiers who want the Apaches out of their area. In the present we follow Brennan Cole, a solitary boy with few friends who likes to escape his dull life by running, not to compete, but simply to get away. The stories alternate until they intertwine. Coyote Runs and his raiders capture a large group of horses, but stumble into an Army patrol on their way back. Separated from the group, Coyote Runs tries to escape into Dog Canyon where he hopes the soldiers will not follow. In the present, Brennan goes on a camping trip to Dog Canyon and finds an object that seems full of memories and visions. He brings it home with him, but soon finds his life haunted by the memories of Coyote Runs. Eventually he realizes that he must return the object, and runs away from home to do so. As the two stories merge, Brennan makes a desperate attempt to set right an old wrong, with police on his tail.

This was an exciting read once I got into it and understood the premise. Well done, reminds me of the books of Will Hobbs as well, but with just a touch of mysticism.

Recommended

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.