The Mad Scientists’ Club

Category: Children’s fiction

Rating: G

As a preteen, I loved Bertrand R Brinley’s The Mad Scientists’ Club. As an adult, I read these pre-MacGyver, Do-It-Yourself stories to my daughter, and still loved them.

In these stories, a group of boys, including one wild dreamer, concoct and carry out stunts like building a sea monster, haunting a house, winning a hot-air balloon race, and making a man fly. The stories are fiction, but they aren’t science fiction; these kids were handling real engineering problems. The technology, ranging from ham radios to ultra-violet lamps to army surplus balloons, was readily available when they were written in the 1960s, and Brinley, with a background in science and technology, knew what he was writing about. When the kids created their remote-controlled sea monster, my fingers itched to join in, and I believed that, with a little effort, I could build one of my own.

By today’s standards, the technology is outdated low-tech, but I’d like to hope the Can-Do attitude never goes out of date. Do these stories still appeal to today’s young readers? Hard to know, based on my limited sample, but the fact that they’ve been reprinted multiple times and are still available new says someone besides me likes them.

I should point out that they are slightly subversive; they are not about following the rules. They are about imagination, initiative, and teamwork, but these kids were running around unsupervised (small chance of that, these days), sneaking out of the house at all hours of the night, and in a few cases, causing non-trivial trouble for their elders. But I can’t get too excited over the cost of their antics. For the most part, this was good, clean fun, as well as laugh out loud funny.

There are no girls in this club—unfortunate, but that’s the way it was. That may be a stumbling block for some girls, but some, like me, will love them. There’s very little in them that’s gender-specific, and I identified with these kids as kids.

Twelve of these stories were short stories originally published in Boys’ Life magazine and then collected in two volumes, the original The Mad Scientists’ Club and The New Adventures of the Mad Scientists’ Club. The other two were separate book-length stories, The Big Chunk of Ice and The Big Kerplop! They are available in those four separate books, or in one omnibus collection. I read all but The Big Chunk of Ice to my daughter, but the ones I remember from my childhood, and that still seem the best, were the ones in the original The Mad Scientists’ Club volume.

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October Sky

Category: History

Rating: PG. Non-violent and clean, except for one fade-to-black scene in the back seat of a Dodge.

On 5 October 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik, and a 14-year-old boy in a coal mining town in West Virginia began a long journey towards being a NASA engineer. Homer H Hickam Jr’s memoir October Sky, originally published under the title Rocket Boys, recounts the next three years of his life, as he and a small group of friends learn how to build and fly rockets.

Between 1957 and 1960, Hickam and his friends scrounge for scrap metal and rocket fuel, study trigonometry, chemistry, and girls, and form the Big Creek Missile Agency (BCMA). Along the way they destroy his mother’s rose garden fence, nearly kill themselves, are accused of setting a forest fire, and fight their school to get a course in offered in calculus. (Calculus? You don’t need calculus to mine coal!) In their final year of high school, these small town, coal miners’ kids take first place in the 1960 National Science Fair for their entry on rocketry.

It is, however, about more than just rocketry. The way of life the town was built on was, even then, dying. Hickam’s parents are at war with each other; his father, the mine supervisor, is proud of his work; his mother sees the cost to his father’s health and is determined neither of her sons will work in the mine. That same conflict is reflected throughout the town, and in both the pride and anger the boys’ antics inspire in their elders. In the end, these boys triumph. If they had not had the support of a few good teachers, parents, and even machinists and garbage truck drivers, they might not have.

This heartfelt memoir was made into a movie in 1999. Funny in places and sad in others, it adds up to an inspiring story.

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Category: History

Rating: PG

Endurance was the name of a ship. The Endurance is the title of a book, American author Caroline Alexander’s spellbinding account of the British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to the Antarctic aboard that ship.

On 5 December 1914, the aptly named Endurance, with twenty-eight men aboard—sailors, scientists, explorers, and a photographer—set out from South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic. Shackleton intended for the ship to set him and his exploring party ashore at Vahsel Bay in the Weddell Sea, and from there to cross Antarctica on foot.  If they had succeeded, it would have been one of history’s last great feats of exploration. They never reached the continent. The pack ice in the Weddell Sea never broke up in that southern summer, and by the middle of January 1915, the Endurance was trapped in it.

The story of the next twenty months is an epic tale of survival against the odds. They drifted on the currents for hundred of miles before the ship was crushed by the ice in October 1915, then camped on ice floes, crossed open ocean in lifeboats, and endured storms, starvation, hypothermia, and frostbite. Miraculously, all twenty-eight men survived.

The account of that saga includes true events that, if this was a work of fiction, would have you shaking your head and thinking, Oh no, you can’t expect me to believe that. The accompanying photographs—remarkable in themselves for surviving a journey in an open lifeboat and months buried in snow—help bring the story to life. We see these men as real people, and glimpse the grandeur and bitter cold of the Antarctic.

The book raises some questions about the wisdom of the expedition’s aims, and their readiness for Antarctic conditions, but the focus is on Ernest Shackleton’s leadership abilities, and what it took to bring all of them home. In the end, this is more than just an adventure story, it is a paean to the human spirit.

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Edward Eager

Category: children’s fiction / fantasy

Rating: G. A very small amount of cartoon violence

The captivating children’s books by American author Edward Eager are among the classics in children’s literature. I remember being spellbound by them when I was first introduced as a young reader, and my then seven-year-old daughter enjoyed them when I read them to her.

The seven books are, in order, Half Magic, Knight’s Castle, Magic by the Lake, The Time Garden, Magic or Not?, The Well-Wishers, and Seven-Day Magic. Not really a series, there are overlapping characters, and it’s best, but not necessary, to start with Half Magic.

As fantasies, these might count as forerunners to the modern urban fantasy genre, being grounded in the real city of Toledo, Ohio. There are no paranormal creatures; the magic comes into play from a coin found on the sidewalk, or from a book borrowed from the library. Some of the stories are set in the 1950’s, when Eager was writing, but Half Magic and Magic by the Lake are set in the 1920’s, when he was a teen, and abound with period detail, from Model-T Fords to the songs played by the orchestra at a dance pavilion.

I’m sure you’re all familiar with one of my favourite tropes: Be careful what you wish for. The theme of needing to think through the consequences before you speak or act runs throughout the set of books, but is most evident in Half Magic, where the coin the children find grants only half a wish, and they endure painful mistakes before learning how to phrase their wishes to get what they want. I enjoyed this problem-solving aspect of the books as a child—maybe related to the fact that I grew up to be a programmer—and as a parent, have an even better appreciation of the lessons so gently imparted here.

The illustrations by N M Bodecker are delightful, and humour and wordplay add to the charm. In Magic by the Lake, four siblings spend the summer in a lakeside cabin with a nameplate by the door saying Magic by the Lake. When one of the girls says,

“Don’t you wish it were true?”…

The turtle stuck its head out of its shell. “Now you’ve done it… You couldn’t be sensible, could you, and order magic by the pound, or by the day?…You had to be greedy, and order magic by the lake…”

These books aren’t without faults. There are a small number of scenes of cartoon violence that might disturb the more literal-minded young readers, and the 1950’s attitudes towards race and sex, though mild for the time, make me wince. Use them as opportunities for discussions on how attitudes change, and you should be fine. The faults aren’t serious enough to avoid these stories over, because these books are gateways to more serious reading. Eager invites his readers in to a richer, wider literary world through frequent references to other books and authors his characters are familiar with, and if that leads other children to the tales of King Arthur, or Little Women, or E Nesbitt, or any of dozens of others, then that’s surely a good thing.

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An Instance of the Fingerpost

Category: Historical mysteries

Rating: NC-17. Violence, sexual assault, gore.

This, my friends, is a fingerpost:

How often do you get to learn a new word just by reading the title of a book? I love historical mysteries, but I was intrigued enough to read An Instance of the Fingerpost, by Iain Pears, just to make sense of the title.

This heavily-researched novel, ostensibly about a young woman’s conviction for a murder she didn’t commit, is told by four narrators, the first three of which are clearly unreliable. The 4th, claiming to be the fingerpost—the reliable guide showing the true way—does seem the most trustworthy, as he does a better job than the others of acknowledging his shortcomings, and sheds light on the plot twists and turns made increasingly murky by the 2nd and 3rd narrators. But on watching him fall into religious mysticism, and after being led so badly astray by the other three narrators, there’s room to doubt even him.

So while the true murderer is unmasked, I was left scratching my head on some other aspects of the story. This story’s plot is, if not the most complicated I’ve ever dived into, certainly one of the top five. Despite being nearly seven hundred pages long, it was dense, with little wasted or repetitious. Whenever I found myself skimming, I had to back up and re-read sections to make sure I didn’t miss some plot point. Having a scorecard would have helped. If I hadn’t discovered at the back of the book the list of characters, nearly all historical individuals, I would have gotten quite lost.

The book has been compared to the movie Rashomon, with its conflicting points of view. I don’t know; I haven’t seen it. The movie that came to mind for me was Memento, with its under-current of delusion, and constant, disorienting reassessments.

As far as historical novels go, this is one of the most effective I’ve ever read, bringing 17th century Restoration England to life with a wealth of detail and consistency of voice. (The detail is the sort to make a reader glad to be living in an era benefiting from electric lights, basic sanitation, and—in enlightened countries, anyway—publicly funded health care. This is not the kind of story that inspires romantic yearnings to return to some picturesque and unrealistic days of yore.)

As gripping novels go, however, it isn’t as effective. The reviewer who said it “has you reading by torchlight under the bedclothes” didn’t match my experience. It was a bit of a slog to start with, until the first section turned into an eye-witness account of the experimentation with blood transfusions and other anatomical discoveries that began the transformation of medical practice, and then it took off. That narrator was a charming fellow; it was a shame to discover he was an out-and-out liar.

The 2nd and 3rd narrators didn’t fare as well. Both were so cruel and self-centred I didn’t enjoy the time spent with them (nearly half the book). I came close to giving up halfway through the 2nd narrator, but by then I really wanted to know how it resolved, and other reviewers said it picked up again with the 4th narrator. They were right; it did.

The 4th narrator was the most sympathetic of the four, and the one with the strongest emotional connection to the young woman at the centre of the story. The last quarter was enough (barely) to make up for the long dry section in the middle.

Earlier I said this was about a murder. That’s the plot driver, but the book is really about the nature of truth and delusion. What, if anything, that any of the four narrators have said can we believe? Are they lying outright, or are they self-deluded, and how do we ferret out the real truth, if there is one?

The reviews that call this book a tour de force are right, but it’s not to everyone’s taste. If you’re looking for light, easy escapism, forget it. But if you have a deep interest in either history, particularly English history, or the nature of truth, and don’t mind a challenge, then give it a go.

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Windy Wellington

On a fine day, Wellington is a wonderful place to be outdoors. With the sun shining and the air calm, it’s gorgeous. Occasionally, the wind dies completely, and the harbour is as smooth as glass, not a ripple in sight.

And then there are days like today, when the wind rattles the windows and tries to knock you down when you go outside. While stopped at a traffic signal, my little car quivers like a frightened bunny as the wind plays with it, and tries to skitter across the westbound lanes of Cobham Drive when sea water slaps its windshield—water that leapt over the pedestrian walkway, bicycle path, the band of rocks and vegetation between, plus two lanes of eastbound traffic and a grassy median.

Today, of all days, the window washer came by, cleaning the outsides of the windows on the building I work in. Seemed like a futile gesture.

In the eight years we’ve lived in Wellington, the wind has snatched the glasses off my face twice. The first time was at a busy intersection; my husband chased after them into traffic, his arms windmilling. The traffic stopped for him; he and the glasses both made it back unharmed. (I was glad he was with me. If it had been up to nearsighted me they would never have been seen again.) The chip in the lenses is from the second time, when the wind grabbed them and flung them against the side of an office building. Now I hold on to them whenever the wind picks up.

But even with the problems it causes, I love it. I lived for a while in a place where it was warm and sunny, day in and day out for months, and I got bored. I missed real weather. We need days like today to make us appreciate the nice ones. Here, I’m more aware of the weather—the shapes of the clouds, the colours of the sky, the rainbows, the constant changes—than I remember being in anywhere else I’ve lived.

Sometimes, living in Wellington is a real blast.

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Julie and Romeo

Category: Chick lit

Rating: PG-13. Mild sex, violence, and profanity

Can you imagine Romeo and Juliet retold with the two lovers being 60-year-old grandparents? I wouldn’t have either, but I’m glad Jeanne Ray did, because her novel Julie and Romeo is the lighthearted result.

Julie Roseman is a divorcee, Romeo Cacciamani a widower. They are both florists in a Boston, Massachusetts suburb, and when they fall in love things get complicated. Star-crossed lovers aside, this story is as much about tangled family relationships as it is about romance: mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, ex-husbands, and, of course, the generations-long hostility between the Rosemans and the Cacciamanis. When both sets of children act to keep their parents apart, and the 90-year-old Cacciamani matriarch sticks her oar in, the cold feud escalates into war.

The story has a happier ending that Shakespeare’s play. I won’t give away anything more, but I did enjoy this funny, easy read about passion and romance between mature adults—who don’t always act like mature adults. Why should the kids have all the fun?

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The Witches of Karres

Category: Science fantasy

Rating: G. No sex, minimal violence, a few mildly scary bits

The Witches of Karres, a whimsical space opera by James H Schmitz, is an old favourite. I think I must have first read this in high school, but it still appeals.

A young man, Captain Pausert, is on his way home from his first trading run, having made enough profit to begin paying off his heavily mortgaged spaceship. Pausert, while not overly bright, is honourable and kindhearted, and when he runs across a man abusing a teenage female slave, he intervenes. A few minutes later, so does the law, and soon he finds himself with a good deal less profit in his pocket and a troublesome girl in tow. Rescuing her two younger sisters eats up the rest of his profits.

On their way home, the three girls use magic to give his ship a boost to outrun space pirates. When he delivers them to their home planet, Karres, the grateful inhabitants attempt to repay him by restocking his ship with their luxury goods. On leaving Karres with his cargo holds full of contraband, a young stowaway witch, and both legal authorities and pirates after his rumoured new drive mechanism, his troubles really begin. When he finally settles down to read the Space Regulations to find out what he’s gotten himself into, he doesn’t find the information he needs under either ‘W’ or ‘K’. The key word is PROHIBITED.

An adventure follows, in which Pausert, out of necessity, develops his own newly-awakened magical talents, shows more intelligence than was obvious at the beginning, and saves the human race from an alien menace—a feat for which he is unlikely to receive any credit, except on Karres. This is lighthearted, undemanding entertainment, with no grounding in real science, and a plot that doesn’t hold up to hard scrutiny. Don’t expect to be intellectually challenged, just relax and enjoy the ride.

One of the most appealing—to me, anyway—aspects of this romp is the relationship between Pausert and his young witch companion. Once over some initial friction, they treat each other with mutual respect and work well as a team. (In everything I’ve read by Schmitz, his female characters are terrific—smart, competent, brave, and proactive—and he was writing half-a-century or more ago. I prefer them over the women in a lot of more recent fiction. Sigh.)

The worst bit? The end sets the stage for a sequel that Schmitz never got around to writing. A trio of other writers teamed up much later on a sequel, The Wizard of Karres, that I haven’t gotten around to yet. (After waiting decades for it, it lost its urgency. It’s on my TBR pile; I’ll get to it someday.)

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Introductions to SFF, again

Going back to a subject introduced in an earlier post, Introductions to SFF, here are some of the speculative fiction works my daughter (and the rest of the family) enjoyed. The age provided is only a guess at a lower-bound for when children might read them on their own; many of these books continue to appeal to much older readers. Similarly, they may appeal to younger children with a parent reading to them.

  • The Magic Tree House books by Mary Pope Osborne (beginning readers),
  • Edward Eager’s children’s book: Half Magic, Magic by the Lake, The Well-Wishers, Seven-Day Magic… (elementary school readers),
  • The Oz stories by Frank L. Baum (elementary school readers),
  • The Dr Doolittle books by Hugh Lofting (elementary school readers),
  • The Phantom Tollbooth by Norten Juster (elementary school readers),
  • The Silver Crown and The Rats of NIMH by Robert C O’Brien (elementary school readers),
  • The Hobbit (preteens) and The Lord of the Rings (mid teens) by J R R Tolkien,
  • The Mad Scientists’ Club stories by Bertrand Brinley (Preteens. Strictly speaking, these stories aren’t science fiction at all. The teens in them were solving real engineering problems.)
  • The Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan (preteens),
  • The first few Artemis Fowl books by Eoin Colfer (preteens),
  • Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones (preteens),
  • The Harry Potter series (early teens),
  • Heinlein’s juvenile novels, particularly Red Planet and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (early teens),
  • The Witches of Karres by James H Schmitz (early teens),
  • A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K Le Guin (early teens),
  • Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C Clarke (mid teens),
  • Watership Down by Richard Adams (mid teens),
  • Graceling by Kristen Cashore (mid teens),
  • Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson (mid teens),
  • A Spell for Chameleon, by Piers Anthony (mid teens),
  • The Lord Darcy stories by Randall Garrett (mid teens).

By the way, I have to mention that some adults complain children these days have no attention spans, and pronounce that books that appealed to their parents are not exciting enough for the generations brought up on the internet and smart phones. When I introduced my daughter to the Dr Doolittle and Oz books at the age of nine or ten, I felt they were dated and slow, but she loved them, and wanted more. Go figure.

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On Reading Aloud

I began reading to my daughter before she could talk. I’d sit her on my lap with the simplest of picture books and page through, describing what we were seeing, just to get her used to the routine. We worked our way up from there, reading chapter books to her while she was still in preschool. I always assumed that when she had progressed to reading on her own, she would tire of me reading to her.

She never did. I kept reading.

As she got older, some of the books I read aloud were her choice—books she was capable of reading to herself (Percy Jackson and Artemis Fowl, among others, in the middle grades) but that she claimed she got more out of from hearing me read them. Other books I chose because they were slightly ahead of her reading level, or were ones I remembered from my own childhood and wanted to pass on.

In hindsight, it seems as if I read to her all the time: at bedtime, while Dad fixed dinner, in the car (Dad drove) on our weekly 45-minutes-one-way trips to my mother-in-law’s. Dad listened, too (he couldn’t avoid it, stuck in the car with us), and would get interested in the story, whatever it was, and started coming to sit on the end of her bed at bedtime so he wouldn’t miss out.

I kept on reading. Now, when she’s home from University, when I call out “story time,” my daughter comes and sits on the end of our bed with her needles and yarn, and knits while I read for 15 to 30 minutes. Then we say goodnight, turn out the lights, close the door, and go to sleep. She stays up for another hour or three, playing video games and chatting with her boyfriend.

When she’s not home, I read more adult fare to my husband.

Weird, eh?

Well, we are, but not just because I read out loud to the family. I thought we were the only ones that did that until a friend said she read to her adult family. (Thanks, Lisa!)

In the nearly two decades I’ve been reading aloud, I’ve read, among others:

  • The Lord of the Rings trilogy (not including the appendicies!),
  • The Harry Potter canon,
  • More of Piers Anthony’s Xanth books than was probably healthy,
  • Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (loved The Golden Compass, didn’t love the others),
  • A hefty assortment of Edward Eager, Bertrand Brinley, Hugh Lofting, Larry Niven, Robert Heinlein, Christopher Stasheff, Mary Stewart, Ellis Peters, Mercedes Lackey, Randall Garrrett, Louisa May Alcott, Rick Riordan, Eoin Colfer, …
  • And, naturally, multiple drafts of the stories I’m working on.

The stories we’ve read—both good and bad—have been jumping off points for long discussions of religion, ethics, science, history, politics, sex, philosophy. You name it, we’ve probably touched on it. And regularly laughed ourselves silly. As a mechanism for family bonding, and passing on our family’s values, it’s hard to imagine anything that could have been more effective.

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