Category Archives: Books

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: SHADOW & CLAW by Gene Wolfe

“The Book of the New Sun” was originally published in four parts from 1980-1983, this is the first two, “Shadow of the Torturer” and “Claw of the Conciliator.” It has been called a tetralogy, but seems to really be one long story. It won many awards, and was on a list of Neil Gaiman’s favorite sf/fantasy books.

Severian, the narrator is an orphan taken in by the Guild of Torturers in the massive ancient city of Nissus, and trained in the skills and duties of that guild. The world of Nissus is known as Urth, and gradually through the book we come to understand it’s our own Earth far in the future when the sun has cooled and many civilizations and empires have come and gone. The one Severian finds himself in has many medieval overtones, but there are always bits of ancient technology and lost knowledge coming to light in the margins. For instance, the tower that’s home to the Guild is made of metal, and is recognizable as a former space ship. Inhabitants of Urth include some familiar plants, but also unfamiliar ones, the same with animals, and among the people are those who seem to be from other planets, though they are uncommon. Nissus is a place of ancient traditions and rituals in a crumbling infrastructure that no one seems to be completely in charge of, though the nominal ruler is an unseen Autarch. Many guilds are present, each with duties and territory, and they are sometimes rivals and sometimes partners in the events of the day. Above them is a ruling class who are mostly absent from Nissus, many live in another huge dwelling to the north, and below them are the common folk who get by as best they can with what little resources they have.

Severian is smart and brave, learning well the skills of his guild and loyal to it until a chance encounter with a revolutionary aristocrat named Vodalus sets his mind on a different course. Later, a beautiful young woman, Thecla, also an aristocrat, is brought to the dungeons and torture chambers of the guild for punishment. She and Severian are attracted to each other, and the Guild assigns him to be her companion. All goes well as Severian rises in the guild until the time for Thecla’s torture arrives, and Severian must take part. His soul secretly rebels, and he finds a way to give Thecla a release.

Severian expects this to lead to his own torture and death by the guild, but instead they send him away to work as an executioner in the far north. Severian’s journey there is difficult and complex. He finds new companions who wish him well and ill, and goes through a fascinating series of adventures that not only inform his own life but fill in many details about the world of the New Sun. At the end of the first book he is just about to exit the massive city of Nissus through a gate in its mile-high wall. In the second book, he takes on his first work as an executioner, but still far from the city of his goal, and in his possession is the Claw of the Conciliator, which seems to have amazing healing powers at times. Severian has come by it accidentally, and one of his aims is to return it to the religious sect which worships it. Severian and some of his companions eventually reach the House Absolute, home of the Autarch and the ruling classes, where more adventures happen, and by the end of the second book they have traveled further north, as Severian is still heading toward his assignment in Thrax.

There’s too much here to really summarize it well, but I enjoyed reading this, and am now working through the second half of the epic. To say Severian is a complex character would be to oversimplify, and having him as narrator is sometimes difficult, as he tends to leave things out and only gradually reveal what really happened at critical moments. Many other characters are equally complex and interesting, and the plot is constantly inventive and surprising. This is a book I find myself thinking about when I’m not reading it.

Highly 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.

And Then I Read: THE WRIGHT 3 by Blue Balliett

Cover illustration by Brett Helquist

This is the second in a series of mysteries for young readers that revolve around famous artists and their work, it’s a sequel to her Chasing Vermeer. In that book, residents of Hyde Park, Chicago and classmates Calder Pillay and Petra Andalee solve the mystery of a missing painting by Vermeer and become friends in the process.

In this book, Calder and Petra are joined by Tommy Segovia, another friend of Calder who has been away from Hyde Park for a while, and is now back. The three are told by their teacher, Mrs. Hussey about plans to demolish a famous architectural landmark in their neighborhood, the Robie House, one of designer Frank Lloyd Wright’s favorite projects, now in financial trouble. A plan has been made to divide up the house into sections and ship them to museums around the world that can exhibit them, but Mrs. Hussey, and soon her students, find this a horrible idea. The class is soon on a visit to the house, and while there, strange things began happening to the three protagonists. It almost seems as if the house itself is asking them for help.

Part of the fun of this book is the exploration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work on the house and in general, part is the strange and sometime dangerous adventures the three children have trying to save the Robie House from destruction and from art thieves, and part is the dynamics of their friendship. Tommy and Petra do not like each other, though they both like Calder, who is caught in the middle trying to please both. Each of the children has flaws, but each also has special talents and insights useful for their investigation. Mrs. Hussey plays a role, as does their elderly friend Mrs. Sharpe, their parents, and even Tommy’s pet goldfish whose bowl is used to hide an important artifact. Before the end, the children are trapped inside the Robie House with men who want to kill them, leading to a suspenseful pursuit.

Recommended. More of these to come.