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55 Classics Review # 13 – The Peril At End House by Agatha Christie


At the risk of sounding like an old woman, I will tell you shamelessly that I love Agatha Christie’s work. I know many people who keep the Sherlock Holmes passion alive, but I don’t know many Christie fans and I honestly have no real idea of whether I fall into a normal demographic for current readers. I’m not generally a voracious reader of mysteries, but I am always eager to understand what is great in any fiction that has become classic in some way, so I long ago found myself dabbling in and delighted by the second best selling author of all time.

I chose Peril At End House for this list because it is one of the highest rates titles I hadn’t yet read. I have to admit that after I got a few chapters in I realized that I had seen the David Suchet adaptation, but it had been long enough that I was still completely without a clue throughout the story. I actually remembered just enough to further throw myself off the scent as the plot thickened.

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This story follows the famous Hercules Poirot, Belgian detective turned British private investigator. At the onset of a seaside vacation with his good friend Captain Hastings, Poirot announces that his is retiring entirely from the detecting business, sighting his age as sufficient reason for stepping out of the game. Within minutes he smells foul play, taking personal interest in preventing what he suspects is a murder in the making, and recanting his retirement. From here, the book quickly spins out a cast of versatile and interesting characters and events designed to completely baffle the reader. Christie is great for crisscrossing the tracks of an ensemble of possible perpetrators, motives, and incomplete events. It is up to the reader to beat the detective in piecing together what was sinister and what was circumstance.

Christie has a great style. She writes in a very simple, matter-of-fact way that seems almost effortless but actually brings out the genius of her work. Anyone who has tried their hand at writing fiction knows that writing something in a way that makes it impulsively readable is often the most difficult task to accomplish. Her simplistic style makes it easier for the reader to latch on to the ideas and emotions of the characters and overlook the important details dropped here and there. She writes to lull you away from critical thinking. That being said, her stories are written more to keep you on the edge of your seat than to make perfect sense. She will usually give you a twist ending that works, but one that leaves a few weak plot points. If you’re frustrated when you don’t have sufficient information to beat the sleuth to the conclusion, you might find this book, among her others, just a bit aggravating.

Overall, Christie makes for a great read. I once read an espionage thriller she wrote near the end of her career and found it horrible. The Mysterious Affair At Styles is still one of the most remarkable books I’ve ever read, and it was her first. Overall, Christie does a remarkable job of writing extremely well, creating enjoyable characters, and finding a balance in plots that come back together well while maintaining a truly complex, twist endings. Anyone who likes a bit of mystery should enjoy The Peril At End House.

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Further Reading

“On Stories” by C.S. Lewis

“Heavy Weather” by P.G. Wodehouse

“The Man Who Was Thursday” by G.K. Chesterton

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Harold Foster On Story V. Illustration


Fred Schreiber: Do you consider yourself primarily a cartoonist or an illustrator? And where do you draw the distinction?

Hal Foster: There’s no distinction. One runs into the other. Of course, I can’t “cartoon”; I am an illustrator. But where the cartoonist ends and the illustrator begins is pretty hard to say; it all hinges on the writing, on the story. In my estimation the story is the most important thing. The illustrations are just meant to give another dimnension to a story, which has to be cut down into little captions; the illustrations are necessary to carry the story on from captions. But, of course, it doesn’t make any difference how well you illustrate the story–you can get away with a good story poorly illustrated, but not vise versa.”

FS: What is your opinion of the current state of the comic strip? How would you compare it to that of the old days?

HF: It’s not as individual. Before, in the early times, each cartoonist had his own individual ideas and carried them out alone; one man did the whole thing. But now so many facets have come into it that you need assistants to do backgrounds and other things. Sometimes the work is divided between writer and illustrator. But as you take it down to each degree, it loses some of its personality, so that no matter how beautiful the drawings, no matter how good the story, somehow there seems to be something lacking that was present in the old comics. Of course, these were crude–but somehow they had more personality than they do today.”

– Interview for SOCERLID, 1969
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Although his name has passed into obscurity today, Hal Foster is the definitive force behind action comics strips. He single-handedly created the crossover success of Tarzan and then went on the write and illustrate his own work in Prince Valiant, the longest running action comic in the newspaper business. As you can see, the man’s artistic skills bring an incredible level of realism to the art form. The quality of his work makes the panels seem to move with the action.

It is fascinating, then, to see such an awe inspiring illustrator who is more interested in the telling of the story than the stunning visuals. “The story is the most important thing.” He goes on in this interview to explain that his preference of working in action comics over humor strips is not that he prefers reading them so much as it is that he loves being a story writer first and foremost. It is obviously this quality which has kept his strip alive long after his own demise.

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In even a quick overview of the original great comics, it is easy to see the honesty in Foster’s qualifications of “the old days.” The old comics were, first and foremost, essentially quirky. Each had its own surrealism, it’s own fantasy that transcended dreamscapes and talking animals. A comic strip created and sustained by one man offers a unique look into the world within another man’s head.

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Keep Reading

Bill Watterson, Michaelangelo, and Play

Samuel Beckett and The Value Of Depression

Bill Watterson On A Creative’s Ethics

55 Classics Review # 12 – The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster


I found quickly that The Phantom Tollbooth is one of those books that defined many people’s youthful reading. When I started it I found that it started conversations for me. This is a book that true fans read over again and often. It can be tricky to read something like this for the first time as an adult, but I think my slow start to the text actually helped to prepare me for the unique content of the book.

The Phantom Tollbooth is unlike any text I’ve read before. It feels surreal like Alice In Wonderland, fast and expansive like A Wrinkle In Time, and allegorical like Pilgrim’s Progress. Yet somehow it works in a way I wouldn’t have expected if you had simply explained these elements to me. It fits into a space in literature that seems wholly unique. I read The Dot And The Line a few years ago and loved it. After that I began to learn more about Norton Juster, and I find him to be a fascinating creative. There is something wonderful about people who make great work in a field they don’t consider to be their career. Juster was a career architect who also happened to write a definitive children’s book. He is an author not because he thought it was his calling but because he knew he had to write a certain story. The story found him.

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The Phantom Tollbooth is a great story. It follows a bored little boy called Milo as he uses a mysterious gift to travel to a land filled with allegory and puns. Along the way he hears all kinds of non-sensical advice and learns that there is more to words, numbers, common sense, art, and logic than he ever imagined. He even helps bring a little order back to the lands that have lost their Rhyme and Reason.

I really enjoyed the characters in this book, though the nature of the book really keeps them shallowly depicted. The story moves so quickly through so much space that its a sensory overload for both the characters and the reader, which probably contributed to how slowly I read this relatively short book. I delighted in many of the puns, but I also found myself constantly wondering if I had totally missed some of them when I didn’t find one where I might have expected to. The main idea is simply that there are a thousand directions to explore knowledge of all sorts, and that’s one message that is always exciting to behold. The main thrust of the discovering in the book is of the use of words, numbers, and the sensory. I loved the idea of the colors in the world being brought out through the silent playing of an entire orchestra, and I personally would have enjoyed more of these artistic fantasies rather than the mathematic and scientific ones.

Overall, I was delighted by The Phantom Tollbooth. I realized from the first chapter that if this book exists as a quintessential classic to so many people, I can hold on to hope for my own creativity. Often I am dissatisfied with my own creative endeavors for the reasons I’m dissatisfied with some classics. There are things that I don’t enjoy about books like this one and Alice In Wonderland and A Wrinkle In Time, but I’m always delighted that there are people out there with different tastes that go beyond my simple appreciation for this type of work to outright passion and accolade. The Phantom Tollbooth wasn’t written for someone like me, but I can greatly appreciate how much people love it and why.

 

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Keep On Reading!

What I Learned From My First Book Review

Norton Juster Says Creating Is Hard Work

Wandlung, by M. Landers

55 Classics Review # 11 – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by Ian Fleming


Like Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a book I was most interested in because of my enjoyment of the film adaptation and one I found absolutely and entirely different from the film adaptation. Unlike Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is as superb a read as it is a film.

I loved the book and the film. That said, I am honestly at a loss for the bizarre variance of the film adaptation. The book was published the same year that Ian Fleming died. The film was produced only four years later by Albert Broccoli, the same man who contiually brought Fleming’s James Bond to the screen with such success. The prodigious Roald Dahl was one of the screenwriters who adapted wrote the film, which accounts for the spectacular and unique story. The only obvious similarities between these two film adaptations is that Dick Van Dyke stars in each and that those shifty geniuses the Sherman brothers wrote all the music for both films. “Me Ol’ Bamboo” stands firmly as my favorite choreographed number of all time. While there can’t be a correlation through their involvement, one does wonder at the willingness of such a creative duo to sign on with projects that trample on the writing of other great artists.

The book is short, and the story feels a little short. Perhaps this sensation is heightened by the contrast of the multiple plots in the Roald Dahl screenplay. The book, set about 50 years after the film adaptation, follows the Potts’ family (living mother included) as they pour effort and love into refurbishing an ancient and decaying car, which turns out to be magical. A day at the beach becomes a spirited and dangerous adventure at sea, which in turn leads to the discovery of a burglars’ hideout. Heroics ensue.

The story is a tidy tale of a stout-hearted little family, fearless adventurers and ingenuous everyone. The writing style is the extremely comforting narration style found in many of the best classic children’s chapter books. Oddly enough, Fleming’s voice in this book is reminiscent of much in Roald Dahl’s popular titles. Overall, the story is extremely original, full of likeable protagonists, and full of all sorts of danger in turns, with just a hint of the spooky here and there. Anyone looking for an original read aimed at kids will be pleased.

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Further Reading

“In The Night Kitchen” by Maurice Sendak

Norton Juster Says Creating Is Hard

C.S. Lewis On Writing For Children

 

C.S. Lewis And Lilith: What Does Blending Myths Do For You?


Last fall, I was reading The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe aloud to my wife. We reached the passage in chapter 8 when the beavers are explaining the nature of things in Narnia, when we hit a snag. I read this.

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“That’s what I don’t understand, Mr. Beaver,” said Peter. “I mean isn’t the Witch human?”

“She’d like us to believe it,” said Mr. Beaver, “and that’s how she is trying to call herself Queen. But she’s no Daughter of Eve. She comes from your father Adam’s first wife, Lilith. She was one of the Jinn. On the other side she comes from the giants. No, there isn’t a drop of real human blood in the Witch.”
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My wife stopped me. She was frustrated. She was confused. She couldn’t understand where this Lilith reference came from, and it annoyed her immensely.

Curious for details myself, I looked it up and found that Lilith was a type of female demon in Hebrew literature. “Lilit” was originally used to mean “night monster” or “screech owl.” In Isaiah the term is used in a listing of animals. Medieval Jewish mysticism popularized the idea that Adam had had a wife before Eve, who was created out of dust at the same time he was. She wouldn’t submit to Adam, left the Garden Of Eden, and started dating angels and what not. Lewis has her mating with a Jinn or genie.

Personally, I like these sorts of things. I love mythology mash-ups that create entirely new fantasy realms. My wife, on the other hand, was not satisfied by this information. She was more annoyed to hear this alternative version of the popular Biblical account. The idea of changing the foundation story and even adding new cast members was disruptive rather than inventive.

By all accounts, Tolkien felt the same way about his friend’s books. While they agreed more than most on many things, the flavors of the two men’s writings show clear distinctions in their personal tastes in how myths and fairie should be approached. Lewis was constantly getting creative energy from smashing together ideas from various sources for new sensations. The man was an omnivorous reader and you can see shadows of thousands of older ideas in his fiction works.

Tolkien also finds much inspiration for his work in the great pieces he cherishes. Gandalf is occasionally a mirror of the older, more obscure mythical creations Tolkien loved. The big difference is really the level of perceived coherency and the depth of pursuit. Tolkien, like many others, seems to find the willful suspension of disbelief in Lewis too great. He is equally enamored by magic and dragons and even silly children’s stories, but mixing characters from preexisting universes seems too much to be enjoyable for him. What is Father Christmas doing in Narnia? How did the descendant of Lilith, the original mother of our world, end up as the Queen of Charn?

I can understand these frustrations well. I find The Magician’s Nephew to be the most satisfying of the Narnian books in large part because it ties so many origin stories and loose ends together in such a neat fashion. Lewis writes like many authors, so that the stories can feel almost stunted at times in their openings and closes. Everyone is suddenly rushed into alternate realities at break neck speeds.

On the other hand, a large part of what makes Tolkien’s legendarium so fulfilling and believable is the expansive way in which so much untold backstory is expanding in every direction. Tolkien himself was constantly fleshing out his worlds throughout his lifetime. Perhaps he thought pulling so directly from previous material was too quick and cheap, unsatisfying to him as a creator and suspicious in others.

There is something enjoyable in both the whimsical adventure of being swept away by foreign magic and in the adventure of fulfilling a long forgotten destiny in a mythical world of unspeakable beauty and impending evils.

Which one thrills you more?

 

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Further Reading

 

C.S. Lewis’ Literary Essays

Dave Eggers On The Fear Of Publishing

Jules Feiffer Encouraged Us To Fail

55 Classics Review #10 – Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers


Up to this point, I’ve been delighted by the books I’ve read for the 55 List. I mostly chose books for the list which I already hoped to love. This will be the first to break that streak of satisfaction. There are few books I expected to enjoy more than Mary Poppins, and not many have so greatly disappointed me.

I was disappointed on multiple levels by Mary Poppins. I grew up delighting in the Disney film and, like the multitudes, saw the recently released film Saving Mr. Banks which proposes a version of the history surrounding the author’s tumultuous relationship with Walt Disney. I found the Disney version of the history suspect from the start, but I was all the more eager to read the original text for myself. Reading with all this in mind further complicated the experience.

Mary Poppins is written as a series of short adventures in the world of Mary Poppins, the conceited, magical, aloof nursemaid who shows up and continually mesmerizes and criticizes the Banks’ children. Each chapter stands alone and some were really very wonderful. I especially loved a certain chapter concerning the language baby’s speak before they get their teeth. Travers alludes to a few mythological themes and lullaby-type fancies that were very original and which I really enjoyed.

Overall, if I had no previous knowledge of the concept, I would have thought the book was decent. If there was no movie and you asked for a quick thought, I would tell you that everything about the book was enjoyable except Mary Poppins herself. She is the wet blanket in every magical theme. She is aloof and self-obsessive at best and rude and condescending at worst. She steals from the children, does what she wants regardless of their petitions, and constantly tries to leave them out.

All of this wouldn’t be felt so harshly if Disney hadn’t made a film which constantly emphasizes whimsy that Mary Poppins is constantly attempting to stay stern against. In the film, she begrudgingly participates in the whimsy which constantly springs up at her magical heels. She is the exact hope a child might have for a magical adult who doesn’t prefer non-sense but accepts and appreciates joyful magical experiences. The movie sells a version of the unhappy and disconnected Banks’ family, relatively wealthy but without emotional ties until Mary Poppins tricks them and unites them. In the book, the Banks’ home is the poorest on their middle-class street and their father is a cheerful, optimistic sort who seems to take hardship in stride. I haven’t read the other books in the series yet, but the idea of Mr. Banks being saved by Mary Poppins seems to come completely from the Disney rewrite, which makes the entire theme of Saving Mr. Banks, even its very name, a complete fabrication of the Disney brand.

So Mary Poppins is originally a less agreeable figure and Mr. Banks seems like a pretty ideal father figure. Then Disney turns the entire story on its head and douses it in heavy quantities of whimsy.

The most frustrating aspect of the entire debacle is that I can’t help but prefer the film version to the book. I actually think that Disney’s rewrite made the story more engaging and agreeable. I liked the book, but I love the movie. I’m sure that some of that is due to sentimentality, but I so strongly identify with a parenting and mentoring style that emphasizes respect of the minds and emotions of children that I found everything about Mary Poppins off-putting. She represents a harshness and stupidity toward children that you wouldn’t expect from someone who knows the stars as personal friends and receives birthday parties from zoos full of talking animals.

The book ends with Mary Poppins disappearing and every adult in the house complaining about her vanity and egotism and how much damage control they have to do. The children ignore these complains, more eagerly wondering if she will ever come back to grace them with her wonderful presence again. I couldn’t help closing the book agreeing with the adults, feeling that the fun times didn’t quite pay for the constant snubbing and threats.

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Further Reading

Norton Juster On The Perils of Writing

The Railway Children by E. Nesbit

C.S. Lewis On Writing For Children

Norton Juster On The Agony Of Creating


Norton Juster on writing and The Phantom Tollbooth from Maria Popova on Vimeo.

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As I make my way through the whimsical world of The Phantom Tollbooth for the first time, I am delighted as a reader and reassured as a writer. To hear that such genius minds as Maurice Sendak and Norton Juster had fears in the creative process and still managed to endear themselves to others through their mad ideas gives me hope and freedom to believe that we can continue to connect through silly stories.

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Further Reading

Dave Eggers’ Fear As An Author

In The Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak

J.R.R. Tolkien On Creativity And Fear

Author Quotes: Dave Eggers On Why Publishing Is Scary


“Publishing other people’s work is a hell of a lot more enjoyable than publishing your own. Publishing your own work is fraught with complicated, even tortured, feelings. Invariably you believe that you’ve failed. That you could have done better. That if you were given another month or another year, you would have achieved what you set out to do.
Actually, it’s not always that bad.
But usually it is.
Publishing someone else’s work, though, is uncomplicated. You can be an unabashed champion of that work. You can finish reading it, or finish editing it, and know that it’s done, that people will love it, and that you can’t wait to print it. That feeling is strong, and it’s simple, and it’s pure.”

– Dave Eggers, Introduction to the new collected volume The Best Of McSweeney’s

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I’m sure anyone that writes fiction and takes this action seriously experiences at least fleeting questions of whether everyone else with think they are crazy for what came from their mind. It is somehow easy to feel, simultaneously, a very deep human connection with a story and a fear that no one else will connect with the same elements. It’s much easier to read a new manuscript, know that it’s wonderful, and instantly validate it because we are not responsible for it and because we have already made a human connection with the author. Two people that grasp the value of a work is all that is needed to be sure of its merit.

I recently self-published an odd little children’s book that I have come to love. Self-publishing has been a really fun and positive experience and using Kickstarter to fund it provided a lot of community support that made all the difference, but having very little outside editing and really only printing on my own approval made me all the more apprehensive about the reception of the story.

People have finally started receiving and reading the book with a lot of positive responses, but the most impactful came last night, when my aunt contacted me and expressed a deep understanding of the simple story. Having at least one person grasp the human elements makes all the difference.

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Excerpts from my aunt’s response to Wandlung.

“Got your book today. Read it five times to six different people. . .It took me until the third read to really warm up to it partly because I like happy endings. Yet, in life, especially when our lives interact with others, we can’t always expect a happy ending. Sometimes friendships are only for a season and we go our separate ways. It’s not always a pain we acknowledge or even stop to properly grieve.”

55 Classics Review #7 – The Giver by Lois Lowry


I expected to enjoy The Giver more than I did. Then I enjoy it more than I suspected I had.

Almost everyone else read this book in like 5th grade. I missed it. My impression has long been that most people hold a relatively positive memory of the book, so I have been looking forward to it for some time. All I really knew is that it was set in some type of dystopia; I always get excited to start a classic title whose plot is relatively unknown to me.

Although I wasn’t too discouraged, I was immediately put off by the writing style Lowry employs. I tend to have trouble reading dystopian stories because of their sterility and Lowry’s style felt more sterile than her fiction environments. It was easy and interesting reading though, so I had little trouble continuing. She really does a good job of keeping you guessing on a lot of the details of the future world she creates and of making you begin to wonder whether the characters will ever even grow discontent with the world they have been given. I caught myself nervously wondering if perhaps she was actually promoting this world when I reached the halfway point in the text and still no one was revolted by the strictly-governed world at hand. Then, in the blink of an eye, the book became a roller coaster of emotions, rebellion, and deep, impactful character decisions.

Eventually, I realized that Lowry had tricked me with her disturbingly sterile writing style. I expected her characters to revolt immediately. She made me understand them in their original state for so long that I was afraid I would be asked to approve of their world. She also forced me to approach the very old questions of death, war, beauty, art, and human relationships from an altogether new direction. I think about these issues constantly, yet I found myself looking at them from a different vantage point. I asked myself “If art and war require one another, would it be better to forgo both or accept both?”

Without giving away the plot, I will say that the end of the book is both jarringly abrupt and quite open to interpretation. I turned the page expecting the text to continue and read THE END. Then I flipped back again. Then I wet my fingers and tried to separate the pages. No, that’s just the way it ends. And it’s actually a great and important way to end the book.

I thought I would enjoy The Giver as a thoughtful and youthful read, but it turned out to be a bit trickier. As I read on, frustrated at every turn, I looked back and realized that all the things I didn’t enjoy made immense sense in retrospect.

Although it’s hard to find another category for it, I would argue that The Giver is not a dystopian story in the classic sense. Most dystopias are strife-filled quasi-allegories meant to highlight the extreme errors available to humanity if there is not a healthy political and technological balance. The Giver makes its new, relation-less world look, well, okay. Once we can begrudgingly agree to this, it asks us if okay is something we can settle for.

Then we wrestle.

55 Classics Review #4 – “The Railway Children” by Edith Nesbit


I am especially eager that anyone who wanders into this review should become eager to read The Railway Children, so I will endeavor to give nothing away and also to refrain from over-selling it. But I found it quite rivals any other children’s book I have loved.

I’ve been meaning to start reading E. Nesbit for a couple of years now. I’m also really glad to have started among them with The Railway Children. Most of her popular works are fantasy stories of children discovering mythical creatures and magical objects. While I’m quite a proponent of these forms, this book somehow manages to propose nothing supernatural any still impress the reader with a fairie euphoria.

Put broadly, The Railway Children is a serial tale following three young siblings who suddenly find their father taken away from their family and their easy, middle-class city life mysteriously replaced by a poor country existence. The children bounce back and the story is a serialization if the extraordinary events of their new life near the railroad.

I don’t want to tell you too much more but I’m bursting with praises for this book. It is the story of brave, intimate parenting and young children who have been inspired to do good anywhere they go. Regardless of their own hardships, the children are constantly aware of and actively intervening in the midst of the sorrows or dangers present to their mother and literally every other person they meet. The unnamed narrator speaks with a smooth, whimsical style reminiscent of A.A. Milne and C.S. Lewis, as a rare adult who is completely understanding and taking seriously the thoughts and opinions of children. If you have a desire to influence children to act out of brave love toward others, this book will probably bring you close to crying many times over. (Warning – I had to fight back tears multiple times in public reading spaces. You might want to read this one at home.)

The book is not without its debatable flaws. One necessary and even relieving flaw is that the children still manage to fight amongst themselves often, although they usually end up forgiving one another well. I call this necessary because they wouldn’t be conceivable otherwise and it gives me hope for myself and my own kids to become more loving.

Another feasible flaw in the book is the extraordinary number of unique circumstances they find themselves in. Some of these are initiated by the children’s mischief and are easily plausible, but many are just events in which they are in the right place at the right time to save the day. The book was apparently originally written as a magazine serial, which makes more sense of its chapter-by-chapter, mini-adventure episodes. I personally don’t fault the book for the questionable number of unique scenarios, as their volume is really the only unnatural aspect of the entire book.

Ultimately, the book is tour de force train ride to see how much “loving-kindness” (as one character describes their activities) mischief a group of kids can pull off when their life is tragically upturned and they are left to explore a new countryside. An absolute must read for every parent, aspiring parent, and child. It truly inspires charity and excessive good-will.