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"Debuting author Angus builds this fantastical premise with well-placed scenes in which Henri's own deep skepticism cleverly encourages the reader to join willingly in his discoveries. . . .accessible for new fantasy readers while offering something different to established fantasy fans." Booklist, April 2013
"Angus, an artist who creates installations using bugs, excels with her insect characters. They liven things up with their often-humorous commentary and fierce loyalty to Henri." Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 2013
"Roald Dahl meets Franz Kafka in this charming and unpredictable debut novel, which is set in the 1890s. . . .With respect and clever characterization, she makes fleas and other creepy-crawlies downright sympathetic, leaving readers to rethink their relationship with the insect world." Publishers Weekly, January 14, 2013
Henri Bell and the residents of Woodland Farm
Henri sat by the window in Great Aunt Georgie's old, creaky house, gazing out to the pasture through the falling rain. All was quiet beyond the sound of the pitter-patter of raindrops and a fly's annoying buzz as it made futile attempts to gain its freedom by breaking the window's glass barrier. Stupid fly! thought Henri.
Henri is French for Henry. It is pronounced "On-ree." Henri thought it was inexplicable that his parents named him that. Neither of them spoke French, nor did he seem to be named after a distant relative. Everyone who knew him pronounced his name "Henry," but those who didn't often asked, "Parlezvous français?"
Henri lived in the country on Woodland Farm with his Great Aunt Georgie, his father's aunt. It wasn't a working farm anymore. There was a house, a cheery two-story redbrick building that the ivy was threatening to disguise completely. The fields had lain fallow for years and the barn was empty. In short, the farm seemed to have fallen on hard times.
Despite the lack of activity, there were lots of places to explore—particularly down by the creek—and there were many good places to build forts. The problem was, there was no one Henri's age to lay siege to his fort. The only person he had to converse with was Great Aunt Georgie, whose primary interest in life was collecting buttons. Most of her conversation centered around buttons, which meant that their discussions were fairly one-sided since Henri didn't know anything about them. A typical exchange at dinner went like this:
"Henri, did you know that the earliest button was found five-thousand years ago?"
"No, I didn't."
"Did you know that buttons were first used to fasten clothing in Germany in the thirteenth century?"
"No. But if that's true, what did they use them for before then?" asked Henri, perplexed.
And so on and so on. Henri feigned polite interest, knowing that if he did not appear to be somewhat attentive, there would be little to discuss beyond the weather.
To Henri, Great Aunt Georgie looked like she must be a hundred years old. Whether she was or not, Henri would never know for sure because he knew it was impolite to ask a woman's age.
Now, many would expect an English boy with the name Henri to stand out or be remarkable in some way, but there was nothing in particular to distinguish him. He was just under five feet tall. He had brown eyes and brown hair that he parted in the middle. He didn't have any scars, although he wished that he had because there's always a good story that goes with a scar. Really, not very much had happened to him—just one thing: he was sent alone without his mother or father to live with ancient Great Aunt Georgie three thousand miles from home.
Prior to the long steamship voyage to America, he had lived with his mother in a small flat in London. It was just the two of them because Henri's father had departed nearly three years before to take up a position as a superintendent on a rubber plantation with the British East India Company in Malaya. Looking in an atlas, Henri discovered that Malaya was a tropical country, south of Siam, and nearly halfway around the world! Henri had to close his eyes and concentrate very hard to picture his father's face. It had been so long since there had been any news from him.
Henri gazed out the window and watched the raindrops hit the already-formed puddles. The fly continued to buzz in frustration at its inability to penetrate the window glass. Henri recalled happy memories of his father. His most cherished was his seventh birthday outing just before his father had left for Malaya. The family had gone to the zoo. They spent most of their time in the Asian pavilion because Henri's father wanted to show him the animals that were native to Malaya.
Henri had admired the sleek, majestic tigers that padded about their cage, ever watchful, as if waiting to pounce. Huge saltwater crocodiles blinked their eyes from time to time, which was the only way you could tell they were alive so still did they lie. When asked what his favorite animal was, Henri responded, "Elephants." One of the few postcards that Henri received from his father in Malaya showed a grand procession of elephants through a village.
Now he pulled a ragged stack of postcards tied with string out of his pocket. On top was a yellowed newspaper page, folded neatly, that Henri had kept because he had found an article entitled "Tiger Tales" about wildlife in the Malay jungle. He removed it from the pile and put it aside. He picked up the elephant postcard and turned it over. He didn't need to read it—he could recite it from memory. Anyway, it didn't say anything more than one expected from a postcard. It contained the usual sentiments such as "love you" and "wish you were here."
Henri turned back to the window. The rain seemed to be slowing down. The fly continued to buzz against the glass, looking for a way out. From time to time it stopped and, for lack of a better word, fidgeted. If a fly had hands, it would be scrubbing them together. It was a greedy type of movement, as if it were about to swoop down upon something particularly tasty. If Henri was to do that at the dinner table in front of a meal of roast beef, potatoes, and green beans, Great Aunt Georgie would surely rap his knuckles. Great Aunt Georgie was a devoted reader of Beadle's Book of Etiquette and often quoted passages she felt were relevant to Henri's proper upbringing. Salivating and "carrying on" were definitely considered bad manners.
He watched the fly as it continued to buzz about, stopping from time to time to fidget. The constant buzzing and scrubbing was annoying.
Finally Henri said out loud, "Could you stop that?"
From below on the windowsill came a faint sound, not buzzing. Henri would later realize it was a chuckle.
He looked down and there was another fly, but this one was quiet, not buzzing, nor scrubbing ... It was moving quickly back and forth across the newspaper page Henri had set on the sill. Henri moved closer. Could it be? The fly appeared to be reading the newspaper!
"You know it's rude to read over someone's shoulder," said the fly.
"Sorry!" said Henri, greatly taken aback. Had he heard that right? In an effort to get the fly to speak again, he said, "Excuse me, I hope you don't mind if I ask, but ... are you actually reading?"
"Yes, I do mind," said the fly. "Don't you think it would be proper if we introduced ourselves first?"
"Oh, I'm sorry," said Henri. "I am Henri Bell, and I am Great Aunt Georgie's nephew."
"Yes, I know. She mentioned you," said the fly.
"She mentioned me!" exclaimed Henri. "You talk to Aunt Georgie?!"
"Yes, of course. She is the owner of this house, and I am a housefly, after all."
"Oh, um ..." How could he respond to that? "Um, you didn't mention your name."
"I am Musca domestica, but you may call me Dom," said the fly.
"I am very pleased to meet you," said Henri, and he actually meant it. Dom was the only person—or rather, thing—that he had spoken to since he had arrived at the house. Other than Great Aunt Georgie and her very unfriendly neighbor, the widow Black. The latter didn't count since she had spoken the entire time, not even allowing him a word in edgewise.
"Hmph," said Dom, which Henri took to mean that the feeling was not shared.
"And his name?" asked Henri, pointing to the other fly on the windowpane.
"That is my nephew, one of my thousands of nephews actually. You can just call him Nephew. Not unlike you, he is anxious to get outside and get a breath of fresh air. I have told him to settle down and wait for the rain to pass, but ... young people. Always so impatient."
This last comment could have come straight out of the mouth of Great Aunt Georgie. "So you and Great Aunt Georgie are friends?"
"Yes, of course, boy! Why ever would we not be friends? We share this house, don't we?"
"Oh yes. It's just that most people don't seem to like flies in their house," Henri said reasonably.
"A common prejudice I fear to say, but Great Aunt Georgie is an enlightened woman, a great friend of the insect world, and really a very accomplished collector," said Dom.
"Oh, the buttons? Are you interested in them?" asked Henri. "No, not particularly, although my friends and I have often posed for them," Dom answered with a note of pride in his voice.
"What do you mean?" asked Henri.
"Well, haven't you noticed? Most of the buttons in the library have been made by Great Aunt Georgie. She's quite a marvelous painter and sculptor. Nearly all the buttons there have insect themes. From time to time she asks me to pose or to invite one of my six-legged associates in for a sitting."
"Oh," said Henri, making a mental note to look at the buttons in the library the first opportunity he got. He put his head down on the windowsill, and from this vantage point, he had a better view of Dom standing on the folded newspaper. Henri gazed at his immense fly eyes and asked again, "Dom, can you read?"
"Of course!" said Dom. "Quite a fascinating article this is too! It's news from the Orient."
"Oh, the tiger article?" asked Henri.
"No, no. Below that. Look at this. It's news from the insect world." Dom pointed with a leg to a small headline that read "Vicious New Species of Insect Reported."
Dom read aloud: "From the highlands across Southeast Asia come numerous reports of a man-eating insect. The species, Latin name Goliathus hercules, is said to be nearly twelve inches long, with jaws capable of snapping off a man's finger."
"Barbaric!" exclaimed Dom. "This is the kind of individual that gives the rest of the insect world a bad name."
"Funny, I read the tiger article. I don't remember the one about the insect," said Henri.
"Never underestimate a creature because of its size, Henri. Though this one is huge by six-legged standards!" said Dom. The fly sighed—or at least it sounded like a sigh—and looked up at the other fly buzzing at the glass. "The rain has stopped. Nephew! You're getting on my nerves. Come along, you fool. You'll never get out that way. Follow me!"
And with that, Dom launched himself in the air and headed for the door. Nephew quickly followed him. Henri jumped up to pursue them, but they flew so fast from Henri's room, through the hallway, and down the stairs that it was quite impossible to keep up.
"Wait!" called Henri, but the flies paid him no heed.
Henri raced down the stairs in time to see the two black specks disappear down the hallway and toward the kitchen, where he knew the window was always open at least a crack.
"I'll never find them outside!" said Henri to himself. He sat down on the bottom step dejectedly. What a strange day, he thought.
* * *
The longer Henri sat on the step, the less sure he was that his conversation with Dom had really happened. In stories, people talked to animals like rabbits and dormice. Or they conversed with the various fairy folk, but not flies!
Henri got up and walked into the library. On one side were shelves from floor to ceiling filled with leather-bound books. Henri had browsed through them during his first week there, but the titles had not tempted him at all; however, now he noticed a book entitled Insect Transformations. He pulled it out to take upstairs for bedtime reading.
On the other side of the room were Aunt Georgie's many buttons. In fact, they covered all the walls of the rambling house from top to bottom, with only a few spaces left for painted portraits of long-dead relatives. However, Henri's room didn't have any buttons. He supposed that Great Aunt Georgie didn't completely trust him with her precious collection of buttons—her darlings, as she called them. If a small child were to enter the house, he or she probably would have thought it was built of buttons!
Henri considered leaning back against the wall in the hall so that the buttons would leave round impressions on his back. He would be spotted like a leopard. However, Henri didn't do it for two reasons: firstly, there was no one to see his leopard spots other than Great Aunt Georgie, and secondly, if she caught him, there would be big trouble.
There had already been trouble. She had found him one day in the living room touching a button that looked like it had a huge diamond in the middle.
"Look with your eyes, not your hands!" Great Aunt Georgie had said. His punishment was to sit and polish a half-dozen newly acquired cricket cage buttons. At first, cricket cage buttons sounded like fun. Henri thought he could go out, catch some crickets, then put them in the buttons and wear them on his coat. He would have friendly, chirping companions as he explored the fields of Woodland Farm.
However, it turned out that cricket cage buttons were singers. It would have been quite impossible to fit a fly in one, let alone a cricket. So it was indeed a punishment to sit with the tin of Brasso, meticulously polishing each of the six buttons to Great Aunt Georgie's satisfaction.
It may sound like Great Aunt Georgie was a mean old lady. She was not at all, and Henri knew that. The problem was that when someone is a hundred years old—or at least looks like she is—and another person is ten years old, they don't have a lot in common.
Great Aunt Georgie felt sorry for Henri, so far from home and all by himself. The reason he was staying with Great Aunt Georgie was quite serious and sad. More than a year had passed since Henri's father had been heard from. No letters, no postcards, no telegrams and no news. Henri's mother's inquiries to the offices of the East India Company produced no results beyond this reply:
Due to the limited shipping traffic between British Malaya and England, it is not uncommon to have several months without communication from agents stationed in the colony. We are confident that everything is fine and that in time you will receive news. At present, it is best if you remain calm and patient.
Manager, London Office
British East India Company
This was hardly a satisfactory response, and Henri's mother could remain neither calm nor patient. She'd become more distraught with each passing week, and although Henri tried to assure her that everything was fine, he didn't believe it himself. When they had not heard from his father for more than a year, Henri's mother announced with forced gaiety in her voice that Henri would be taking an exciting holiday to America.
"America?" Henri had replied. "I don't want to go to America!"
"Didn't you say that you would like to travel and see the world?" asked Henri's mother.
"Yes, but by myself? And only to stay with an aged great aunt I don't even know?"
"Well, don't you think it will be fun to live on a farm?"
"Well, yes, but ... why don't you come along too?"
"No. I must stay in London and wait for news from Father."
Despite all his pleading, a steamer trunk was purchased. In addition, his mother bought him a diary to keep a record of his adventure. It was blue with gilt decoration and lettering that said Five-Year Diary. Five years! Was he to be away for five years?
"No, no," said his mother. It just happened to be a five-year diary. "When will I come home?" Henri pleaded. "When we have news from your father," she replied, and
Henri could not bear to say anything, for it seemed quite possible that they would never hear from his father again, and he didn't want to cry. He threw the diary in his trunk and vowed that he would not write a single word in it because he knew that if he did, it would be like counting the days, and time always goes slower when you do that.
So that is how Henri came to stay with an aged great aunt that he didn't even know at Woodland Farm in the house of buttons. Henri never developed more than a passing interest in buttons, but what he did like about them was that each came with a story. He liked to sit by the fire at night and listen to Great Aunt Georgie tell him about how she came to acquire a particular button or the exotic place the button came from. It was at this time that Henri and Great Aunt Georgie had perfect understanding, for she was the storyteller and he was the eager listener.
One of Great Aunt Georgie's most precious buttons was from the coat worn by the Duke of Wellington in the Battle of Waterloo.
"Henri, are you familiar with the Battle of Waterloo?" she asked him one night at dinner.
"Yes, Great Aunt Georgie. We studied it at school."
"Tell me about it, please."
Henri gulped. He felt like he was taking an oral history exam. What would happen if he failed? "The Duke of Wellington was the commander of the English forces that battled Napoleon Bonaparte's troops. Um ... the French suffered a humiliating defeat, and that brought an end to Bonaparte's career." Henri hoped she didn't want more detail because at the moment he could think of nothing to add.
"Indeed," said Great Aunt Georgie with a pleased look upon her face. "It just so happens that my godfather was a friend of the Duke of Wellington, and upon the Duke's death, the button came into his possession. He very graciously presented it to me on my sixteenth birthday. I already had quite a collection back then. Collecting is a passion, Henri.
Excerpted from In Search of Goliathus Hercules by Jennifer Angus. Copyright © 2013 Jennifer Angus. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted May 9, 2014
What a strange book. I can't say I liked it, but I definitely didn't hate it either. It was weird, different, and definitely not what I expected.
Henri is sent to live with his Great Aunt Georgie after his father goes missing. While at his Aunt's house, Henri discovers he can speak to insects. He runs away to join a flea circus, and eventually ventures to Asia in search of both his father and the legendary beetle Goliathus Hercules. All this time, Henri experiences peculiar physical changes. He tries to explain away these changes until he can no longer hide them.
Like I already mentioned, this book is unusual. The antagonist is frightening, yet the problems with her are left unresolved. The reader never finds out what her motives are and why/how she goes to such great lengths to cause trouble for Henri. I expected more resolution there. As for Henri, I don't know what to think. It was such a strange ending to a book. Bonus points for being different, I guess, but I can't say I loved the way Henri's story turned out. That being said, I couldn't have put this book down if I'd wanted to. I was glued to the page, and that counts for something.
This book is definitely for a specific type of reader. If you are looking for something highly unusual and kind of creepy, give it a shot. If weird isn't your thing, give it a pass.
Content: Some violence, but I consider it clean.
Posted December 14, 2013
If you know a young reader whose is fascinated by insects, this is a must read. Author Jennifer Angus takes us back to Victorian times in the story of 12-year-old Henri Bell who is sent from England to America and discovers a strange and amazing skill: he can talk with insects. This sets off a series of adventures that reminded me of Talking with Elephants (yes, there is a circus), the Lost City of Z (the story of a Victorian search for a mythical Amazonian Atlantis), with a layering of more fantastical stories such as Kafka's Metamorphosis. As a bonus it is filled with the author's wonderful insect illustrations and lots of entomological knowledge. I would have loved to curl up with this book as a 12-year-old after a hard day of chasing insects with my homemade net of cheesecloth, coat hanger and broomstick.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.