G. A. Henty – Classic Adventure Stories

G. A. Henty has been one of my favorite authors since I was about 10 years old. A master of historical fiction, Henty’s works have endured for nearly 150 years. And with good reason – despite a few flaws, his books are some of the finest examples of juvenile adventure stories in modern history. Most of his books follow a simple, classic formula: a fictional adolescent protagonist living in a troubled historical period. Quite a few involve British imperial wars which G. A. Henty witnessed firsthand as a war correspondent. Others draw upon the annals of history – the American Revolution, Sir Francis Drake, Wallace and Bruce, the fall of Jerusalem, ancient Egypt, the Crusades etc.

G. A. Henty

Henty’s books are outstanding for a number of reasons. He is unsurpassed in historical accuracy, especially concerning the events he lived through himself. And he meticulously researched those events and eras before his time to ensure the greatest accuracy possible. His heroes are always just that: heroes. Not perfect, of course, but still inherently good. Brave, kind, loyal, chivalrous, with a healthy dose of good sense, each character is someone you can root for. And let’s not forget the stories themselves. Exciting and engaging, they captivate from the first page to the last.

No one is perfect however, and the same holds true for books. There are a few flaws in Mr. Henty’s writing. One of which is his overly detailed descriptions of battles, sometimes several pages long. And usually the hero is not mentioned at all. It’s this regiment did that and that regiment did this and the cavalry charged over here and on and on. I find it tedious, but it is quite easy to skip over those passages. And then too, his imperial zeal is a bit overpowering at times. For these 2 reasons, I tend to prefer the books that deal with ancient times – before the British empire and the many imperial wars that appear in quite a few of his books. The third problem I have with G. A. Henty’s stories is his racial prejudices. I do not blame him as his attitude was quite prevalent in his day. And it’s not pervasive – sometimes I get the impression that he wasn’t entirely sold on the idea himself.

Overall, I approve of G. A. Henty and his books. They are well-written, engaging stories with an old-fashioned moral code. I thoroughly enjoy reading each one at least once – and there are several I read over and over.

Robert A. Heinlein

Robert A. Heinlein and wife Virginia in Tahiti, 1980

Yet another of my absolute favorite authors is Robert A. Heinlein. Perhaps the greatest science fiction writer ever to put pen to paper, he is certainly one of the most influential. I have not read all his books yet, but every single one I have read has been awesome. The first Heinlein book I ever read was Red Planet, his classic tale of the Martian colony, and how a boy and his pet save the day. I picked it up at our local public library when I was maybe 10 and I was instantly hooked. On both the works of Robert A. Heinlein and on sci-fi stories.

I think what I like best about his stories is how the hero is always someone you can root for. His heroes are flawed, and they do make mistakes, but their heart is always in the right place. It might be a touch old-fashioned, but that’s exactly how I like it. Of course, good characters are meaningless without a good plot and a brilliantly-crafted world to put them in. Mr. Heinlein delivers that in spades. His stories never fail to delight and enthrall.

I also admire Mr. Heinlein for his courage and boldness. He was not afraid to address social problems and themes in his books; in fact the opposite is true. Three themes in particular show up frequently in his work: personal liberty and self-reliance, a complete lack of racism, and the importance of freedom of thought and philosophy. (A sub-theme of personal liberty, the right to bear arms also makes several appearances in his stories.) Considering that most of his books were published in the 40’s and 50’s, this is a rather remarkable feat. Mr. Heinlein seems to me to have been an unusual paradox in his thinking – both ahead of his time and a throwback to another era. For fun, escapist reading with a sound political worldview, you can’t do much better than a Robert A. Heinlein book, especially one of his early novels targeted at young readers.

Moon Maid Trilogy

Well, I was wrong. Not all of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books have the same feel – his Moon Maid trilogy is a notable exception. The Moon Maid, first of the set, is kinda like his other books, but not quite; The Moon Men and The Red Hawk are radically different from his usual style. Moon Men, in particular – it’s almost a post-apocalyptic thriller. One of the primary differences from his usual work is that books 2 and 3 are set in North America, albeit reimagined as being under the oppressive rule of savage invaders from the moon.

This series is also different in that the 3 stories happen hundreds of years apart, not back-to-back about the same hero as most of his series do. He wrote The Moon Men first, and it wasn’t originally about Lunar, but Communist invaders. First written in 1918, when the Bolshevik Revolution was so recent as to not even be part of history yet, “Under the Red Flag” was rejected by editors 11 times. So he sat down one day and rewrote it, turning Bolshevists into Kalkars from the moon. A few months later, he’d written both a prequel and a sequel and all 3 had been published – in the proper order, of course.

In The Moon Maid, Earth has finally discovered space travel and the first spaceship is sent out with a crew of 5: Julian 5th, Orthis, and 3 others. Through Orthis’s treachery, they crash-land on the moon – or rather inside it, where they find a strange world. A somewhat typical Burroughs story follows; capture and escape; Orthis allies himself with the “evil” race, Julian with the “good;” Julian falls in love with Nah-ee-lah, the maiden of the title; and Julian, Nah-ee-lah, and the 3 other crew members repair the ship and return to earth.

About 100 years later, Julian 9th (Julian 5th’s great-great-grandson) lives in what used to be Chicago under the oppressive rule of the Kalkars. In the introduction to The Moon Men, we learn that Orthis helped his allies the Kalkars build a fleet of spaceships with which to attack earth. Under Kalkar rule, everyone is “equal,” no one owns anything, marriage is illegal, and freedom is a thing of the past. Julian 9th leads a rebellion that ends in the slaughter of those who fight with him and his own death, but not before he gets his pregnant wife to safety. This sets the stage for the 3rd and final installment of the Julian saga.

Another 300 years pass before the events of The Red Hawk occur; Julian 20th is the great chief of the Julian clans and is known as the Red Hawk. During the intervening 300 years, the “Yanks,” as the Kalkars derisively call them, have driven their oppressors ever westward until their backs are to the Pacific Ocean. Here, in California, the Kalkars have held the tribe of the Julians at bay for 100 years. The Julians are a tribe of 100 clans living in the Mojave Desert. What used to be the United States is now a vast wilderness dotted with “ancient” ruins and peopled by various tribes whose social structure and culture is very much like Indian tribal culture. When Julian 19th dies and Red Hawk becomes chief, he determines to drive them into the sea and end this nearly-500-year-long feud. How he goes about this, allying himself to descendants of Orthis and even falling in love with an “Or-Tis” along the way, is the story told in the final book, which I think is my favorite of this awesome trilogy.

Clive Cussler

Another of my most favorite authors, Clive Cussler is one of the hottest fiction writers today. He consistently and frequently makes the bestseller list, the quality of his books matched only by their quantity. I buy every Clive Cussler book published, no questions asked. Every single one is good enough to read and reread. Some I like better than others of course, but they all are good. That’s pretty impressive. I like the Fargo Adventures, the Isaac Bell Detective Series, and the Oregon Files the best of all.

All of Cussler’s books share a few common features – plenty of action, a connection between the story and some event in history, a protagonist who is flawed yet heroic, a comedic sidekick, and a drop-dead gorgeous heroine. It’s a classic story-writing formula – injected with a fresh, exciting plot each time, it’s a surefire winner.

The Fargo Adventures is a series of stories about husband and wife team Sam and Remi Fargo, archaeologists and philanthropists. Treasure-hunters, to use a more everyday term. Their adventures take them all around the world, finding rare treasures, solving ancient mysteries, and usually having one action-packed adventure after another. It’s non-stop adventure at its finest; I love every minute of it.

Clive Cussler’s only historical fiction series, the Isaac Bell Mysteries are detective stories that rank with the very best. In the early twentieth century, Isaac Bell is a tall, lean detective working for the Van Dorn Detective Agency. No thief, killer, or even criminal mastermind can long escape justice with Isaac Bell on their tail. The intricacy of Cussler’s plots is mind-boggling; it’s often not till near the very end that I know who the villain is or what’s going on. Marion Morgan, Bell’s romantic interest, plays a prominent role in both his cases and the series.

The Oregon Files differ from his other novels in that they are not about the adventures of a few individuals. They are, essentially, the chronicles of a ship. The Oregon appears to be a worn-out rusty derelict, but this is only a façade to conceal the state-of-art equipment and weaponry she is carrying. Housing a band of mercenaries with ties to the US government, the “Corporation,” as they style themselves, can go where the arm of the law cannot. Led by their dashing, one-legged leader, Juan Cabrillo, they consistently get in and out of dangerous situations around the globe.

And lastly, a few words about the Dirk Pitt Adventures and the NUMA Files, Cussler’s first 2 series. Dirk Pitt, ex-Air Force officer, now works for NUMA, the underwater counterpart to NASA. The NUMA Files relates the adventures of Kurt Austin, head of the NUMA Special Assignments Team. In these roles, both men and their associates find themselves in adventures both under and on top of the waves, and occasionally on land as well. Both storylines are awesome, but get me just a half-notch less excited than his other three. I still devour – and love – every single one.

Introducing Tarzan of the Apes

Tarzan of the Apes and Return of Tarzan, for all intents and purposes, are one book. A single narrative, the first part ends in a cliffhanger where the second novel begins and then wraps up the story. So this article is about both novels. At the beginning of the tale, we are introduced to newlyweds Lord and Lady Greystoke, who are en route to Africa. John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, has been appointed by her majesty to a post in one of the British Empire’s African colonies. They never reach their destination. Mutiny leaves them stranded on the west coast of Africa.

John does his best to protect and care for Alice, building a stout log cabin and foraging for food. All his care, however, cannot save her from the dangers of the jungle. Shortly after bringing a son into the world, she dies of a fever. Her husband soon follows her to the grave at the hands of an ape. The ape would have killed the infant in the cradle as well, but for the intervention of a young female ape whose own son has just died. She names him Tarzan and raises him as her own.

Remarkably, he survives to manhood. As he grows, so do his intellect and emotions. With little in common with his ape “family,” he eventually forsakes them for a life of solitude. While still a boy he had discovered the cabin where he was born. He did not know nor care who the 2 skeletons within those stout walls had formerly been. But the cabin and the curious things in it intrigued him. He quickly mastered the use of a hunting knife, but it took a little longer to discover the secret of the little black “bugs” covering the pages of the books and diary he also found. In time, however, he taught himself to read and write English, in spite of not speaking a word of it.

His life is forever changed by the arrival of another group of stranded castaways, also the victims of mutiny. Professor Porter, his daughter Jane, his assistant Mr. Philander, Jane’s maid Esmerelda, and William Cecil Clayton, young Lord Greystoke. Their arrival sets in motion a chain of events that will forever change both their lives and the jungle life of Tarzan. Both Tarzan of the Apes and Return of Tarzan are gripping and suspenseful; holding a reader captive until the tale is told.

Audrey and Don Wood – Great Children’s Literature

When I was little, one of my most favorite things to do was read picture books with Mama. Any time she would sit down with me or us and read books was the highlight of my day. Several of our biggest favorites were written by the world’s most ingenious storytelling couple: Audrey and Don Wood. Their stories and the accompanying illustrations are unsurpassed in the world of picture books.

King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub, by Audrey and Don Wood, was a particular favorite. The tale of a fun-loving king who refuses to leave his bathtub will have you in stitches. Each member of his court tries a different approach to entice him out of the water; each fails spectacularly. The story is funny enough by itself, add the outrageous illustrations and this book is just over-the-top hilarious.

Another great classic Wood tale is that of The Big Hungry Bear. And the little mouse and the red ripe strawberry of course. I can still hear Mama’s voice reading those perfect lines. It was ever so exciting and thrilling – the suspense of whether the mouse would be able to safeguard his precious strawberry from the big hungry bear.

A newer addition to the Wood lineup, Ten Little Fish (by Audrey Wood and son Bruce) is not one that Mama read to me. She and I picked it up one day when I was nearly grown at our local thrift store. I think we paid a quarter for it. I intend to read it to my own little ones someday. A rhyming under the sea counting book with an adorable story of family, I am sure this book will someday be as beloved by my children as the rest of the Wood collection.

Although I’ve never met a Wood book I didn’t adore, my special favorite will always be Silly Sally. “Silly Sally went to town, walking backwards upside down.” Silly to the point of zaniness, this is probably the most fun read-aloud book in the history of read-aloud books. A solo book from Audrey Wood, both words and pictures are perfection. At one time, I could recite the entire book from memory.

And there are many more Wood masterpieces that I have not the space to cover here. Some I’ve never even read myself. Someday though, I intend to raise my kids on a complete Audrey and Don Wood (and Bruce Wood too) collection. I hope every kid everywhere is introduced to the spectacular talent of the Wood family and I hope they continue to produce great children’s literature for many years to come.

The Scarlet Pimpernel

“Sport, Madame la Comtesse, sport,” asserted Lord Antony, with his jovial, loud and pleasant voice; “we are a nation of sportsmen, you know, and just now it is the fashion to pull the hare from between the teeth of the hound.” – The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy

So, casually and almost flippantly, does Lord Antony, a member of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s league, explain their motives for doing what they do. I have to say that I have never encountered a more superbly-written book than Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s classic The Scarlet Pimpernel. Every sentence is phrased so exquisitely; she is truly a master craftswoman.  And each line draws you deeper into the beautiful yet sinister world of the Scarlet Pimpernel and his daring band.

In a nutshell, this is the story of a fictional group of English gentlemen who pull French aristocratic hares from between the teeth of French revolutionary hounds. Led by their enigmatic leader, whose nom de guerre is taken from a humble flower common along English roadsides, they risk everything to save a few lives from certain death. Every time a cursed aristo is rescued from the insatiable bloodlust of the guillotine, a scrap of paper with the signature image of a red flower finds its way into the pocket of a French official. Our hero finds a worthy antagonist in the form of Monsieur Chauvelin, a high-ranking official in the revolutionary government.

Our hero, the daring Scarlet Pimpernel, and his band of devil-may-care companions disguise their identities by playing the role of foppish aristocratic dandies. Caring only for fashion and the gaiety of court life, their ruse works so well that no one, not even the Pimpernel’s own wife, suspect their true natures. This, I think, was the most difficult aspect of their charade for Sir Percy – to allow himself to be seen as a fool even by his wife. The wife he loved dearly and was willing to die for – to know that she despised him must have been a bitter pill to swallow. And yet, for the sake of saving a few strangers from the guillotine, he was willing to endure even that. That, my friends, is true untarnished heroism and honor.