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.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

A classic golden-age musical, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a rousing good time. Set in Oregon territory during pioneer days, it tells the story of the seven Pontipee brothers and their quest to find brides. They have to compete with the men in town for the few eligible young ladies; the remoteness of their mountain farm puts them at a disadvantage. Their rugged good looks and skill on the dance floor even the odds.

The adventure begins when oldest brother Adam (Howard Keel) goes into town on his yearly trading trip. Besides laying in a year’s worth of supplies, he intends to find a wife and take her back with him. To the horror of the married women and chagrin of the single men, he is successful. Young, strong, and beautiful to boot, Millie (Jane Powell) is just what he’s looking for. Little does she know what she’s letting herself in for.

Adam takes his bride home, her head full of sweet dreams of marital bliss. To her surprise and dismay, she discovers that the wife of Adam Pontipee is also expected to be a surrogate mother to his six scroungy siblings. Benjamin, Caleb, Daniel, Ephraim, Frank, and Gideon aren’t much to look at when she arrives and their manners are worse, but she rolls up her sleeves and goes to it with a will. Determined to clean up the place and the boys, she forces them to bathe, shave, and help her around the house. She also teaches them proper etiquette and sees to it that they attend the local social events like barn raisings.

It’s at their first barn raising that the fun really begins. The local girls evince an obvious preference for these beefy, handsome backwoodsmen. This pits the Pontipees against the young townsmen – first in a dance-off, then in an all-out brawl. This is probably the best scene in the whole movie and certainly the most fun. Battered but victorious, they return home, their loneliness matched only by the townsfolks’ dislike. In an attempt to lift his brothers’ spirits, Adam concocts a plan to reunite them with their lady loves. His harebrained scheme draws the proverbial line in the sand, pitting the townsfolk against the Pontipees, the girls against the boys, and Milly against Adam. How the final showdown plays out is both hilarious and sweetly romantic. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a beloved classic musical for good reason.

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.

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.

Book Reading Contest

A friend recently challenged me to a book reading contest. Or maybe it was my idea – the details are a bit fuzzy. Anyway, he and I tend towards very different kinds of books. My bookshelves are primarily filled with works of fiction – adventure and sci-fi stories mostly, with a slight emphasis on the classics. Cookbooks would be my second-largest category, with a few non-fiction and political books to round things out. His reading history, on the other hand, is full of non-fiction – religious, political, and biographies. Supplemented with a healthy dose of young adult fiction. So we each made a list of 5 books – it wasn’t hard for either of us to think of 5 that the other hadn’t read – and swapped lists. The first one to read all 5 gets a prize from the other (we finally agreed on truffles since we both love chocolate).

So, properly motivated, I tackled his list. I have to say, I wasn’t expecting to like more than maybe one of his books. I mean, if they were worth reading, they would have already been on my never-ending reading list – right? The first two have pleasantly surprised me. I really enjoyed both. Number 3 is a little bit weird; I don’t yet know how I feel about it. Books 4 and 5 look alright – I read a chapter or two of each whenever I get bored with #3.

I have no doubt that I will win our little book reading contest. I am highly competitive and a very fast reader. (I once read an 800-page book in less than 24 hours.) On the other hand, he could surprise me. But that’s not really the point. The point is having fun. And reading good books that neither of us would have picked up on our own. I know I never would have looked twice at any of these books had I come across them at the library or bookstore. And he’s never heard of any of the books I put on his list. And new reading material is never a bad thing.

This is why I typically say “books” when someone asks me what I want for my birthday or Christmas. Sometimes I’ll point them in a particular direction, sometimes I’ll leave it wide open. The latter is riskier because you never know what you’re gonna get, but it’s also way more fun. I can always tell who’s a reader and who isn’t by the book they choose. The non-readers play it safe with a generic uplifting piece like “The Power of Positive Thoughts,” or something like that. They pick something based on its cover. Something easy to read and just as easy to forget. The readers, on the other hand, that’s where things get interesting. Nine times out of 10, the book they choose is one they’ve read and loved themselves. And I love it. It’s so cool to pick up a book that someone you know has selected for you. It’s both a glimpse into who they are and a chance to expand your reading horizons. A double win in my book.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. One of the greatest books ever written and one of my personal favorites. Certainly my favorite romance novel. Exceptionally well-written in an easy conversational tone, Brontë’s choice to use a first-person narrative style was spot-on. She, speaking as Jane, makes the reader feel as if she were an old friend who dropped in for a pot of tea and a nice long talk.

Perhaps one of the reasons for the poignancy of Charlotte Brontë’s writing in Jane Eyre is the semi-autobiographical nature of the story. As a child, she attended a harsh boarding school which she would later base Lowood upon. Both of her older sisters died there of tuberculosis, just as Jane’s young friend Helen Burns died at Lowood. Charlotte blamed the harsh and unhealthy conditions of the school for her sisters’ deaths. Charlotte and her younger sister Emily were removed from boarding school after Maria and Elizabeth died. They returned home to their clergyman father, younger sister Anne, and brother Branwell. Charlotte later attended a much better boarding school, where she eventually became a teacher. Again, this correlates with Jane Eyre’s history. So too, does the fact that Charlotte worked as a governess when her days as a teacher were over.

Published under the nom de plume of Currer Bell (both for anonymity’s sake and to hide her gender), Jane Eyre was initially a huge success. Critics adored it and it was immediately a commercial smash hit. Once the critics suspected that Jane Eyre had been penned by a woman, the reviews were less than favorable. Sales remained strong, however, whether in spite of or because of the criticism no one can say. I maintain that Jane Eyre’s success is due to its first-rate writing, gripping plot, and innovative first person style.

Our story begins with young orphan Jane, her hateful Aunt Reed, and 3 horrid cousins. Cast off by Mrs. Reed and sent to Lowood, a charity school, Jane Eyre survives hardship and privation and the wretched Mr. Brocklehurst for 10 years (8 as a student and 2 as a teacher). When she advertises her services as a governess, she is hired by Mrs. Fairfax to teach Adele Varens, ward of Edward Rochester. Thornfield, the Rochester estate, is a grim and gloomy place; and Adele, but lately arrived from France, speaks little English and has even less discipline. But Mrs. Fairfax is kind and Adele is sweet and Jane is determined to make the best of it. At the end of 3 months, Adele is much improved and Thornfield has begun to feel like home. Just as a comfortable routine is formed, the absent master returns and tumbles Jane’s world topsy-turvy.

Intelligent, well-educated, and widely travelled, Edward Rochester is life and nourishment to Jane’s hungry soul. She, in turn, is a breath of sweetness and innocence to world-weary and heart-sick Rochester. They two form an unlikely friendship and, as time passes, settle into a new routine. The first upheaval comes in the form of Miss Blanche Ingram and her party of friends and family, who come for a several-week stay at Thornfield. Mr. Rochester seems much taken with Miss Ingram, and rumor has it that the engagement will be announced any day. The second twist is Mrs. Reed’s deathbed request to see Jane. Before she dies, she confesses to Jane that she has a wealthy uncle who, through Mrs. Reed’s deception, believes Jane to be dead.

When Jane returns to Thornfield, the Ingram party has left, but there is no talk of an impending marriage. This puzzles her for some time, until Edward Rochester declares his love for her and asks her to be his wife. One month of nearly-perfect bliss follows. Until, on her wedding day, a secret is revealed that tears Jane irrevocably from her beloved’s side. Dark days follow for our plucky heroine, but she ultimately finds peace and, eventually, happiness, although not in the way one might expect. Jane Eyre is truly a masterpiece of narrative fiction.