Category Archives: Books

And Then I Read: THE WHIZ MOB AND THE GRENADINE KID by Colin Meloy

Cover art by Carson Ellis.

Charlie Fisher has been around. His father is a diplomat, and Charlie travels with him. When they’re assigned to the city of Marseille on the French Riviera, Charlie is astonished one day to see a group of clever pickpockets working a crowded tourist square. One of them, Amir, even steals his monogrammed pen, but is caught by police. Charlie helps Amir, and in return, he’s invited to visit the Whiz Gang’s secret hideout, and soon allowed to join them on their pickpocketing adventures. Charlie has no local friends, and desperately wants to become one of the gang. Gradually they teach him how, even though some gang members think he can’t do it. Charlie works hard, and finally is allowed to pick pockets too. It all seems like a harmless, fun adventure until the day it becomes something quite different. That day Charlie learns he’s been carefully led into a really big con that will change everything. The only way to fix it is probably suicidal, but Charlie has to try.

In the first half of this book I kept feeling there was something wrong with the whole situation but couldn’t put my finger on it. When the penny dropped, this became an even better book, thrilling and hard to put down. I liked Meloy and Ellis’s “Wildwood” trilogy, but think the writing here is even better.

Recommended.

And Then I Read: GIANT BONES by Peter S. Beagle

Cover design by Ray Lundgren.

This short story collection from 1997 is one I had missed until now. I remember loving “The Innkeeper’s Song,” to which it’s connected, but not very much about that book. As Beagle says in his introduction, the stories here are not closely tied to the earlier novel, just on the same world.

All of the stories but one are narrated by someone with a distinctive, and at times almost too omnipresent voice that tends to get in the way of the storytelling, but each story is interesting and involving all the same. “The Last Song of Siril Byar” is about a talented song-writer and bard in his final years, and how he finally comes to resolve the mental anguish of an old lover. “The Magician of Karakosk” is about a man with a natural talent for strong magic, and how it forces him from the simple country life he wants to dwell in a king’s castle and serve a ruler he does not like. “The Tragical Historie of the Jiril’s Players” follows a theater company into the halls of power, where they become pawns in the political games of the king’s family, each with a lust for the throne. “Lal and Soukyan” is the one not narrated in first person, and the one with the most connection to the earlier novel, as it follows two freelance warriors on a last mission together to settle old debts. “Chousi-wai’s Story” is connected to that one by the narrator, and tells of a thief who is hired to steal a bride. “Giant Bones” is about an ancient race of giants that is dying out, and the regular-sized person that becomes part of their final days.

As with much of Beagle’s work, there is a thread of melancholy and regret, but also humor and clever ideas. Recommended.

And Then I Read: THE BLACK BUCCANEER by Stephen W. Meader

I’ve read many of Meader’s adventure novels for young readers, but not this one, his first, from 1920.

Jeremy Swan is staying overnight on a small island in Penobscot Bay, Maine in July of 1718 to take care of a herd of sheep for his father, who plans to return the next day. That evening, Jeremy discovers he’s not alone. On the other side of the island a pirate ship has landed. The pirates discover Jeremy spying on them, and carry him off with them to work aboard their ship. Thus begins a harrowing tale of pirate life along the eastern coast of America at a time when there were no protections for cargo ships other than their speed and guns, if any. The Revenge, captained by Major Bonnet, was speedy and well-armed, and her cruel crew were not adverse to boarding a vessel they had disabled with their guns and killing anyone aboard. Jeremy has a rough time of it, especially when crewman Pharaoh Daggs takes a notion he’s bad luck. When the crew kidnaps the son of a wealthy merchant to hold for ransom, at least Jeremy has someone his own age to talk to, and when the two of them find out about Daggs’ secret treasure map, they become even more desperate to escape his evil influence.

A great read that owes much to Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” and “Kidnapped,” but has plenty to thrills to offer. Meader at this early point in his career is more willing to tell the truth about pirate life as he’s researched it, and this book is the bloodiest of any he wrote, I bet. The plot is unpredictable, the characters are appealing, and everything feels authentic.

The illustrations are by Meader himself, and poorly reproduced in this public domain reprint, but even so, it’s clear that his writing was better than his drawing.

Recommended.

And Then I Read: PEBBLE by Julia Jones

Cover illustration by Claudia Myatt

Since 2012, author and sailboat owner Jones has been quietly building a great adventure line, the “Strong Winds” series. This is book six, featuring a large family of children and their friends in England’s East Anglia district on the island’s east coast. All of them include sailing adventures as well as gripping suspenseful plots with themes from today’s world, and very real characters with serious problems to overcome. This one includes Russian spies and the possible beginning of a new Cold War.

Liam is the youngest family member at age 10, and his understanding of the world is informed by the things that have happened to his family, which often include danger from the sea. He tries to watch out for them, but is having an ever-harder time at it. A trip with his friend Donny in the Chinese junk sailing ship “Strong Winds” seems like a good escape from his worries, but problems with his vision that he hardly even admits to himself lead the boat astray and create a whole new level of trouble, including a mysterious box of radioactive material and Russian hit-men on their case. Liam’s sister Anna’s Russian boyfriend and his family are involved, and soon the rest of the family are too, including Liam’s famous musician mother and physically impaired father. Meanwhile, Heike, on a work visa from Eastern Europe, is restoring a small sailing dinghy for Anna and decides to deliver it by sailing it down the coast to the family’s home. She’s soon involved in the spy trouble, too, and her hatred for Russians isn’t helping.

Julia Jones began this series inspired by Arthur Ransome’s “Swallows and Amazons” books about kids and sailing, several of which take place in the same area, but she has found her own path by making these stories about the world and problems of today as well as kids having fun, and being resourceful and brave. I highly recommend the entire series, but any of them can be read on their own.

And Then I Read: KILDEE HOUSE by Rutherford Montgomery

Jerome Kildee had spent his solitary life as a tombstone carver who rarely spoke more than a few words to anyone. The money he saved for retirement helped him buy a plot of land on the northern California coast, and at the base of a giant Redwood, he built his small retirement home, where he expected to take things easy. The wild animals became his friends, and they liked his house too. Before long he had a family of raccoons living with him, and a family of skunks living under the floor. As those families grew, Joseph became rather desperate to find homes for them. His new friend, Emma Lou from down the hill tries to help him, though they are both troubled by rich neighbor boy Donald, who sees the animals only as hunting prey for his dog.

This charming story was a Newbery Honor Roll book in 1950. I’d never heard of it, but a story about a solitary man and nature sold me, and I enjoyed reading it. This reprint is from 1993. Recommended.