Diego Columbus: Adventures on the High Seas

Title: Diego Columbus – Adventure on the High Seas
Author: Marni McGee
Illustrator: Jim Hsieh
Pages: 128
Reading Level: 8 – 12
Star Rating: ★★

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A story about Christopher Columbus’ son – how fun! I thought.

The Story.

Diego Columbus is upset. He loves his father very much and is passionately invested in his plans for exploration, but no one else seems to take them seriously! Queen Isabella especially takes advantage of him – baiting him along with partial promises and false hopes.

But then, one day, just as the Columbuses are departing for France, the Queen calls them back to her palace. She offers them three ships and monetary support for their mission! Diego is ecstatic. But he’s also disgruntled – his father refuses to allow him to accompany him on the voyage.

Can Diego convince his father that he is old enough and strong enough to partake in this mission?

Discussion.

I was rather disappointed with this story. I came into it knowing that there would be some degree of tension between Diego and Christopher; after all, Diego wants to sail, Christopher refuses. I figured that this would occupy the first fourth of the story and, though annoying, would become buried in the fun and adventure of the last three-fourths – when Diego and Christopher sail together and explore America.

However.

Instead of occupying only a small portion of the story, this was the story. Now, Diego and Christopher’s disagreement is not savage – there are only two recorded arguments between them, in fact. But the entire plot of the story is how Diego is trying to outsmart his father and join the voyage at the Canary Islands. In order to do this, he sails on another ship which is scheduled to arrive at the Canary Islands at the same time as his father’s fleet, despite the fact that his father has forbidden him to go to sea due to his ill health. He evolves an elaborate scheme to stowaway on his father’s ship, but in the end he doesn’t have to use it because – oh, look how convenient – he unearths a mutiny plot and in gratitude his father allows him to sail.

Now, Diego’s rebellion is different from the typical kid-rebellion story – his rebellion isn’t rooted in a deep disrespect for his father’s person. Instead, he rebels precisely because he respects his father’s vision; he believes wholeheartedly in his father’s quest and wishes to offer his personal support on the quest – stand side by side with his father as he triumphs.

In several ridiculous scenes, Diego defends his father’s mission and convinces adults with his bold words.

After extricating himself from particularly stupid scrapes, Diego thanks God for rescuing him.

Fate and luck are mentioned.

Conclusion. Because it doesn’t focus on Columbus’s journey but rather on a personal (and entirely fictional) quest, I did not find Adventures on the High Seas to be particularly noteworthy.

Reflections of God’s Glory

Title: Reflections of God’s Glory
Author: Corrie ten Boom
Pages: 116
Star Rating: ★★

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Reflections of God’s Glory, subtitled ‘Newly Discovered Meditations by the Author of The Hiding Place’ is a collection of transcripts from several radio broadcasts that Corrie ten Boom conducted with Trans-World Radio.

This is the sixth book that I have read by Corrie ten Boom. The more I read her writings the more I admire her singular courage and commitment to acting as she believes God wants her to, and the more I find that I differ with her theology. But before I mention that, let me explain more about the book and what I liked about it.

There are several different kinds of Christian non-fiction. There is the kind of book that instructs in doctrine, and then there is the kind that instructs in orthopraxy. The best of the best will have a bit of each. And then there’s the devotional style.

Now, I am not a huge fan of devotionals. These are generally filled with ‘astounding truths’ upon which the reader is supposed to meditate and be awed. Their purpose is to strengthen the reader and give him a heightened sense of awareness concerning God. Understand me – I am not against devotionals. I’m sure they have their place. But I prefer books that have more substance to them. Corrie ten Boom, when she is not writing autobiography, writes devotionals. Again, they have their place, but I don’t prefer them.

One thing that really impresses me about Corrie ten Boom is how consistently she showed love to her enemies.

“You never experience God’s love more marvelously than at the moment He gives you love for your enemies.” [pg. 28]

Here is another wise statement from Corrie – “Worrying does not take away tomorrow’s grief; it takes away today’s strength.” [pg. 37]

I really liked this analogy Corrie gave for dabbling in the occult.

A while ago in Germany, before the wall had been built, half of the city was forbidden to West Berliners. Part of the border passed through a forest. If a West Berliner was caught playing in the forest on East German territory, he would be arrested. It would not help if he said, “I was only playing or I did it for a joke.” If you are on enemy territory, then you are in the enemy’s power. The same applies when you jokingly commit occult sins. [pg. 96]

Other than not being a devotional sort of gal, I also disagree with Miss ten Boom on several points of theology. These are just a few of the ones which were mentioned in this book.

  1. Satanic domination.
  2. Free Will.
  3. Dispensationalism.
  4. Universal Atonement
  5. Altar Calls.

Conclusion. More worthwhile material can be found, even amongst Corrie ten Boom’s other writings. I would encourage you to read The Hiding Place to learn more about Miss ten Boom’s great courage and the important role that she played in World War II.

The Mystery of Cloomber

Title: The Mystery of Cloomber
Author: Arthur Conan Doyle
Pages: 146
Reading Level: 13 & up
Star Rating: ★★

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I could hardly believe my eyes when I found The Mystery of Cloomber at a recent library sale. It is written by Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of my favorite detective, Sherlock Holmes. How then had I never heard of this novel?

Hmmph.

The Story.

Due to my father’s eccentric attachment to studying the languages and philosophic volumes of the far east, the family fortune has never amounted to much and had plummeted to an alarmingly meager pittance when my uncle invited our family to live on his Scottish estates and function there as his stewards while he toured the south of Italy. This tour, though extravagant to our way of thinking, was necessary to my uncle’s state of health; his lungs, which had grown quite weak in his residency at Branksome, were in need of fresher, brighter air such as Branksome could not provide. My family was in no position (nor, indeed, were we of a mind) to decline his proposition, and, though mindful that the Wigtown coast is dull at best and bleak at worst, we accepted and were installed at Branksome within the week.

We Wests had only been in the vicinity for a short time when a strange set of circumstances began to unfold.  It began when Cloomber Hall, gloomy and forbidding, was let out to a military man – Major Heatherstone – who moved his entire family into its walls before erecting an outer palisade and shunning all acquaintance with the neighboring inhabitants. This Major was a very nervous man, and he refused to allow his children beyond the boundaries of their own estates. Was the man insane? Or was he guilt-driven…

Discussion.

So… that’s the first time I’ve ever done a story synopsis in first person (and the only reason I did it is because the book’s in first person). Thoughts?

I usually don’t enjoy prefaces to novels. The worst thing about them, is they usually give away the whole entire story. Also, the writer of the preface often attempts to press his own interpretation of the characters onto you. Not fun.

But this time, I’m glad I read the preface. I was jumping into The Mystery of Cloomber with the hopes that it would become my new favorite novel. After all, it was written by the same author that created the imperturbable, wonderfully rational Holmes. But the preface reminded me of something that I had forgotten. A. C. Doyle was a believer in spiritualism. Although the Holmes persona strictly forbade Doyle to include supernatural elements in those stories, Doyle was not the least bit hesitant about including them in his other novels.

All of that fancy italics was to tell you that the solution to The Mystery of Cloomber would not have satisfied Holmes, because it is mystical – supernatural – not explicable by natural causes. This is how it works.

*ONE BIG HUGE NECESSARY SPOILER TO TELL YOU ABOUT THE MIDDLE EASTERN PHILOSOPHY OF THE MYSTERY OF CLOOMBER* Major Heatherstone is indeed a man running from guilt – he has, in fact, committed the terrible crime of killing Ghoolab Shah, an arch adept of the first degree. (Basically, that means that he was extremely learned in the occult sciences and, through their power, had extended his life span by several hundred years.) To quote,

It was irrevocably ordained by laws which cannot be reversed that any one who should shed the blood of a brother who had attained a certain degree of sanctity should be a doomed man. Those laws are extant to this day and you have placed yourself in their power. King or emperor would be helpless before the forces which you have called into play. What hope, then, is there for you? [pg. 125]

Basically, because he has killed a high-up-there occultist, John Heatherstone will have to pay with his life. But that is not the full extent of the mysticism – instead of killing Heatherstone immediately, the three chelas who are responsible for executing Shah’s vengeance hold off. They wish for Heatherstone to understand the full horror of what he did. So, they let him live for a while. But they never allow him to forget his fate. Every day and every night, they cause an astral bell (part of their meditative occultic branch – it’s a bell sound where there is no bell) to be rung over his head, so that he is afforded no real rest, but must live in terror. Pretty nice guys, huh?

In the end, *I’M GOING TO RUIN THE PLOT* these three chelas hire a boat to sail from India to Scotland, and use their occultic powers to raise up a storm and wreck the ship where they wish to disembark. (Why couldn’t they just use their powers to fly there, anyway?) They then visit Cloomber Hall where, instead of using physical violence on Major Heatherstone, they basically hypnotize him and lead him out to his death in quicksand.

Here are a few of the stranger statements made in the book. The first occurs after the three chelas are wrecked in Scotland. The conversation occurs between John and Ram Singh, one of the chelas.

“You have now an opportunity,” he said, in a subdued, reverential voice, “of seeing a spectacle which few Europeans have had the privilege of beholding. Inside that cottage you will find two Yogis – men who are only one remove from the highest plane of adeptship. They are both wrapped in an ecstatic trance, otherwise I should not venture to obtrude your presence upon them. Their astral bodies have departed from them, to be present at the feast of lamps in the holy lamastery of Rudok in Thibet. Tread lightly, lest by stimulating their corporeal functions you recall them before their devotions are completed.

I peered through the open doorway. There was no furniture in the dreary interior, nor anything to cover the uneven floor save a litter of fresh straw in a corner.

Among this straw two men were crouching, the one small and wizened, the other large-boned and gaunt, with their legs crossed in Oriental fashion and their heads sunk upon their breasts. Neither of them looked up, or took the smallest notice of our presence. They were so still and silent that they might have been two bronze statues but for the slow and measured rhythm of their breathing. Their faces, however, had a peculiar, ashen grey color, very different from the healthy brown of my companion’s; and I observed, on stooping my head, that only the whites of their eyes were visible, the balls being turned upwards beneath the lids. In front of them upon a small mat lay an earthernware pitcher of water and half a loaf of bread, together with a sheet of paper inscribed with certain cabalistic characters. Ram Singh glanced at these, and then, motioning to me to withdraw, followed me into the garden.

“I am not to disturb them until ten o’clock,” he said. “You have now seen in operation one of the grandest results of our occult philosophy, the dissociation of spirit from body. Not only are the spirits of these holy men standing at the present moment by the banks of the Ganges, but those spirits are clothed in a material covering so identical with their real bodies that none of the faithful will ever doubt that Lal Hoomi and Mowdar Khan are actually among them. This is accomplished by our power of resolving an object into its chemical atoms, of conveying these atoms with a speed which exceeds that of lightning to any given spot, and of there re-precipitating them and compelling them to retake their original form. Of old it was necessary to convey the whole body in this way, but we have since found that it was as easy and more convenient to transmit material enough merely to build up an outside shell or semblance of a body. This we have termed the astral body.”

“But if you can transmit your spirits so readily,” I observed, “why should they be accompanied by any body at all?”

“In communicating with brother initiates we are able to employ our spirits only; but when we wish to come in contact with ordinary mankind it is essential that we should appear in some form which they can see and comprehend.” [pgs. 98-99]

John (the main character) seems to accept Ram Singh’s statements at face value and feels no doubt towards this ability or any of their other powers.

What bothers me is this – the occultic activity is not incidental; it’s the theme of the story. And there is no escaping it; no room is left for alternate interpretations of the story. I was expecting more of a Turn of the Screw type ending – you decide if the governess is really seeing ghosts or if she is insane. You are allowed to exercise your own credulity in the situation. But in The Mystery of Cloomber there is no choice, no other way out. We are emphatically told on the last page that,

Science will tell you that there are no such powers as those claimed by the Eastern mystics. I, John Fothergill West, can confidently answer that science is wrong. [pg. 140]

Well, thanks, John Fothergill West. That really boosts my confidence.  The tone of the book is almost accusatory – if you don’t believe in astral bodies and ecstatic trances, you’re an unreasoning child. (Why did I think it was the other way around?) The Buddhist/occultic laws are the highest, the most worthy, and we must prove our intelligence by acceding to them.

But to make it even worse, Doyle dragged the Bible in it, claiming that the miracles which it records are in the same family as the occultic practices. There is an addendum to the story which is “written” by one of the characters from the story. The addendum is entitled “The Occult Philosophy”. It reinforces the idea that the occult practices are noble, civilized and more advanced than the rest of us. If nothing else had really bothered me in this book, this single sentence would have done me in.

When Paul of Tarsus says that man consists of a body, a soul and a spirit, he is not indulging in vain surmise, but is stating concisely the conclusions arrived at by the occult school to which there is every reason to think that he belonged. [pg. 143]

Warf.

The Mystery of Cloomber was, I thought, remarkably clean as far as incidentals go. The romance was practically nil – the narrator falls in love with and becomes engaged to a young lady, but there is no romantic interaction between them. I found this, the initial reference to the relationship, to be funny.

Gabriel sits beside me now as I write, and she agrees with me that, dear as is the subject to ourselves, the whole story of our mutual affection is of too personal a nature to be more than touched upon in this statement. Suffice it to say that, within a few weeks of our first meeting, Gabriel had given me that pledge which death itself will not be able to break.

I have alluded in this brief way to the tie which sprang up between the two families, because I have no wish that this narrative should degenerate into anything approaching to romance. [pgs. 27-28]

:D

Major Heatherstone forbade his children to venture beyond his palisade, but they disobey him, believing his measures to be harsh. This isn’t harped on in the story – it just happens. Major Heatherstone quickly discovers their disobedience, but admits that his measures are harsh. He tries to discourage John in his attachment to Gabriel, but only because he believes it will be disadvantageous to John. When John insists, he seems happy.

Different varieties of God’s name – ‘my God’, ‘good God’, ‘God knows’, God-forsaken’ ‘God help me’ ‘God’s sake’, Lord love ye’ are used a total of eleven times. ‘By Jove’ is also used once. A ship’s mate refers to three Oriental men as ‘niggers’ thrice, but he is portrayed as being shallow-minded. ‘Darn’ is used twice, and ‘d-d’ (spelled just like that) is used once.

Conclusion. I liked parts of The Mystery of Cloomber –it’s written in 19th century English and concerns mysterious manors, so that bit was fun – but I wouldn’t especially recommend it, due to its propagation of spiritualism/occultic forces.

Death Comes to Pemberley

Title: Death Comes to Pemberley
Author: P. D. James
Pages: 291
Reading Level: 13 & up
Star Rating: ★★

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Murder mystery meets Jane Austen? Nice…

The Story.

Six years have passed since the wedding which so joyously concluded the narrative of Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth, now mistress of Pemberley and the mother of two robust sons, is assiduously engaged in the minute preparation that the annual Pemberely ball demands. The food must be properly cooked and presented, the decorations lush and fresh, and a hundred other things must be attended to. It is well that Pemberley is plentifully staffed, for Elizabeth’s mind is distracted from her planning by another pressing issue. That issue is the bestowment of Georgiana’s hand in marriage.

Two men, Colonel Fitzwilliam and Henry Alveston, have been discretely courting Georgiana. Elizabeth recognizes that Colonel Fitzwilliam is by far the better match, but she cannot help feeling that Georgiana is more attracted to Alveston. What advice should she give if either Georgiana or Darcy consult her on the matter? What would she do?

But these thoughts are all dispelled from her mind when her sister Lydia tears up Pemberley’s driveway screaming bloody murder. Lydia believes that her husband Wickham has been killed, and Mr. Darcy instantly organizes a search party to verify her claim. What they find is not a dead Wickham, but a dead Captain Denny with Wickham bending over the corpse, deliriously confessing to Denny’s murder.

Did Wickham really murder Captain Denny? And will this grotesque murder pollute the shades of Pemberley?

Discussion.                                    

I was ready to love this book. Seriously. You know how, usually, if you decide how you’ll feel about a book before you start reading it, you can’t change your mind? Well, this was one of the few times that I changed my mind. Or, rather, the book changed my mind. Here’s how.

In a word, it was vapid. I know that’s an awful charge to throw at an author, especially a seasoned, celebrated author, but it’s the truth. Neither the setting nor the characters were James’ own, and it showed. The work felt shy. It has none of Austen’s pulsating emotion. The characters, it is true, speak very much as they did in their Austenite existence, but James never provides us with the passion that provokes these words. It is as though she was scared of misrepresenting the characters and bringing down a horde of angry Austen enthusiasts down on her back. And so, instead of playing a bold hand, she allowed the characters to fade into the back and relied upon the story to hook her readers. Which…

I’m not sure how this happened, but I hold the same complaint against the story. There was no emotion. Captain Denny is murdered. As a matter of propriety we all feel very sorry for Captain Denny. But who is Captain Denny, anyway? A secondary character from Pride and Prejudice who is used mainly as a tool to introduce Wickham into the story. Has anybody ever read Pride and Prejudice and come away raving about Captain Denny? I think not.

So, a person that we don’t really care about is murdered. Now, the story still could have been interesting if we were all in love with the person suspected of committing the murder. But here again, we are disappointed. The only two people who are suspected are Wickham and Colonel Fitzwilliam. The Colonel is a nice enough fellow, but life at Pemberley would continue just as usual if he were hanged. As for Wickham – who feels sorry for him after his lascivious nature was exhibited in Pride and Prejudice? I know I certainly didn’t. When Wickham was imprisoned, I felt that, given his previous sins, murder probably wasn’t beyond his conscience. And even if he didn’t commit this murder, he’s still a bad lot and is probably getting what he deserves.

But no, oh, no, we are told. Wickham would not have murdered a man. He may be a seducer, a gambler, a drunkard, a liar, and an absconder, but he would not have committed murder. All of the characters aver this, from his wife all the way through to the Darcys and Bingleys. Even Lady Catherine does not believe that he has committed this murder. So we believe them. The Colonel is immediately ruled out as a suspect based on his honor, and Wickham, we are told is not a proper suspect either. But there aren’t any other suspects. We are left with no one to suspect and no clues to work with.

And who turns out to be the murderer? A fourthary character who appeared only once a hundred pages before the denouement. Then, the mysterious circumstances are explained to the reader. The resolution was news, yes, but hardly surprising. It fit in perfectly with everyones’ character. There was no twist to redeem the plodding dullness of the narrative. Oh, bother.

Now, don’t get me wrong – Death Comes to Pemberley isn’t horrible as a story. It’s just all right. Perhaps part of why I am so disappointed is because I expected so much from it. It was really a very clean story, which I appreciated.

Cautions.

For a reason too long to explain here, one of the Darcy servants cursed the Darcy line way back when. Since that time, the servants believe that they have seen that woman’s ghost roving the Darcy woodlands. They also believe that her appearance presages a death on the estate. Two of the servant girls claim to have seen this woman’s ghost a few nights before the murder, but it is eventually proven that this was a different woman. The servant girls are sharply reprimanded for allowing their fancies to wander in such an “unchristian and stupid” manner.

Part of the solution of the mystery involves two illegitimate children. A character admits that he ‘seduced’ a woman. The confession occupies several pages, but the story is very mild.

A reference is made to Wickham and Lydia’s unmarried stint in London.

A woman throws herself under a carriage. She is a secondary character, and the reader is not at all attached to her. Still it is said that “she lay, her blood flowing in a red stream to pool under the horses’ feet.” [pg. 235]

God’s name is used as an exclamation nine times. Admittedly, these are in dramatic situations and may (only may, mind you) be interpreted sincerely. The word ‘bastard’ is also applied four times to a person who is truly illegitimate.

Conclusion. I’m glad that I read Death Comes to Pemberley, but as a story it did not engage or interest me nearly as much as either Pride and Prejudice or other mystery novels.

Passenger to Frankfurt

Title: Passenger to Frankfurt
Author: Agatha Christie
Pages: 207
Reading Level: 14 & up
Star Rating: ★★

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The Queen of Crime tries her hand at speculative fiction.

The Story.

Sir Stafford Nye isn’t exactly bored. And he doesn’t lead a dull life – take now for instance. He’s on his way home from a diplomatic visit to Malaya. It wasn’t very interesting, really, but it’s better than doing nothing. It was also better than waiting in a terminal for a re-routed flight to begin…

Suddenly Sir Stafford is jolted out of his apathy. A beautiful young woman is asking for his help. But rather than calling upon him to fight for her, she wants him to do a few simple things – leave his cloak and passport on his chair, then walk to the other side of the airport while she collects these items and assumes his identity for the rest of the trip home. She says that this may save her life. A lover of the dramatic, Sir Stafford agrees and she vanishes onto the plane cloaked in his identity. He returns by another plane to England. The adventure is over.

But Sir Stafford refuses to let this adventure die. He wants to see her again, to speak to her, to discover why her life was in danger and whether he did indeed save her. But he was not prepared to be reunited with her at an important diplomatic party and then invited to join her in the fantastical search for a secret organization which is trying to take over the world…

Should he agree to help in this search? And will Sir Stafford like what he discovers about the mysterious girl?

Discussion.

Passenger to Frankfurt is a member of no particular genre. It could alternatively be classified as espionage, adventure, conspiracy, speculative, mystery, or dystopian fiction. Now, this blending of styles didn’t really mess up the story – I think Passenger to Frankfurt could have maintained all of these genres and still have been riveting, had Ms. Christie’s writing been more cohesive. But the style was a little rattled and a little rattling. It wasn’t the kind of story that you dive into and instantly click with. But before I begin describing the style, let me provide a few more facts about the theme of the story.

Passenger to Frankfurt, set in the 1970s propounds a particular theory. That theory is that a world war, similar to WWII is being planned by a select group of people. These people collectively control oil, armaments, the scientific establishment, drugs, and enormous amounts of money. Their goal is to found a new order marked by a theory similar to that of Hitler – the supremacy of a particular group of people. But instead of exalting the German race, this new order will promote Youth as its ideal. Therefore, these people have sought to convert the youth to their world-view by encouraging them in sexual freedom, drugs, raucous music, and deliberate violence. The goal of Sir Stafford Nye and his friends is to discover who precisely is in charge of the movement and to put a stop to it.

One thing that Agatha Christie got right in this story is the fact that entertainment trends are not random. They are deliberately chosen by their producers. Entertainment is a very influential tool and is being used to perpetuate ideologies. She also nailed it as far as the importance of youth allegiance – whoever has it will likely win control in the battle for civilization.

However, as I read Passenger to Frankfurt, I felt unsatisfied. Knowing that I would be reviewing the story, I sought to pinpoint exactly what it was that was irritating me. I found a few main points.

#1 Sir Stafford Nye’s loyalties are uncertain. When we meet Sir Stafford, he is a man in love with adventure. He never exhibits any strong attachment to principle – on the contrary, his main attachment throughout the story seems to be to Mary Ann, the girl that he helped. Throughout the course of the story, her loyalties are also unclear – she is working with the conservative team, but is she really on that team? Might she be a double agent? Her beliefs are not stated in a satisfactory way. So we wonder. Sir Stafford, attached as he is to the girl, seems ready to float in whatever direction she is going. Thus, the leaders of the conservatives and we, the readers, are led to wonder – who is he working for, anyway?

This uncertainty, while it would have been interesting if attached to a minor character, was irritating on the part of the main protagonist. Because Sir Stafford never clearly stood for anything, I felt that I could not stand with him, and thus was not engaged in the story.

#2 The villains aren’t eminent. We are told of the horrible things that are being planned by the archenemies of peace and freedom, but we don’t experience any of their horrors. No one engages in witty repartee with the enemy. The enemy is a far removed abstract entity, so to speak, as opposed to a breathing-down-your-neck, I’m-about-to-get-you  bully. In the end, when the identity of the final villain was revealed, it was someone who had not previously appeared in the story. He/she (trying not to put a spoiler in here!) just popped up out of nowhere. Hardly a satisfactory conclusion!

#3 The battle plan is unclear. Sir Stafford’s friends are determined to find out who is behind the plot, but they have no idea what they’re going to do once they discover them. They have no counter-attack plan waiting to be launched. They have no interest in seeking to disciple the young generation back into the ways of truth, mercy, and justice – their only plan to influence these people is to alter them genetically/scientifically. In the end, the plan seems to be to diffuse a chemical into the atmosphere that will cause people to feel benevolently towards one another. Seriously? That’s the only peaceful way you can invent to fight your enemy?

Over all, my complaint is over the lack of clarity – it’s unclear who our hero is fighting for, it’s unclear who the villains are, it’s unclear what will be done with the villains. This novel had the potential to be really interesting, but Christie just didn’t think it out well enough.

Cautions.

The word sex is used several times, but only as a hazy label or adjective.

‘Damn’ is used eight times, ‘hell’ seven, and various versions of God’s name are used five times. The word ‘ass’ is used three times to refer to unintelligent people.

Conclusion. Okay. Not defiling, but not engaging. Read Murder on the Orient Express and Poirot Investigates first, then come back for more recommendations. : )

The Littles Go to School

Title: The Littles Go to School
Author: John Peterson
Illustrator: Roberta Carter Clark
Pages: 69
Reading Level: 7-9
Star Rating: ★★

Hi there! As of October 2013, I have upgraded to a new site – The Blithering Bookster – where I have posted all of my old reviews and continue to post new ones. Hoist yourself over to join the fun!

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The Littles have what? Tails? You’ve got to be kidding me…

The Story.

The Littles are very happy to share a house with the George W. Bigg family – after all, it’s not like they bother each other. How could they when the Biggs are normal-sized and the Littles are, well, little sized?

In fact, so little do they bother each other, that the Biggs don’t even know that they share the house with the Littles. Because the Littles live in the walls. They only venture out into the house when they are certain that the Biggs are not about. For the Littles must never be seen by the Biggs. Or else, the Biggs might… freak out. Because the Littles are only six inches tall. And they have tails.

Tom and Lucy Little, the youngest of the bunch, are kept very busy by their school teacher writing book reports and science papers. But Lucy is scared at the thought of leaving her comfortable home to go and spend a week at school. Tom tries to comfort her, but to no avail. She is terrified.

But, while out on one of their romps, Tom and Lucy carelessly allow themselves to be caught while in the hamsters’ cage and taken to school against their wills. Once at school, Tom and Lucy make good their escape and no one sees them. But will they ever return home? And will Lucy overcome her fear of school?

Cautions.

So… the main characters in this book are called ‘Littles’. That is their classification. But what are they, exactly? They are six inch tall people who live in the walls of regular sized people’s houses and have tails. Yeah. TAILS! Ewww.

The Littles function in a miniature human culture, although they hampered by the inconvenient necessity that they can never be seen by regular people. They live in the walls and eat regularly served meals around tables, observe familial connections, and participate in human activities such as exercise, education, and flight.

As a fantasy culture, the Littles weren’t really problematic – there is absolutely no magic, and the world their world is governed by precisely the same laws as humans. They are called people and act like people. The only thing that is different is their size and their tails.

The whole point of the story is how scared Lucy is of going to school, but how she shouldn’t be frightened because it’s really such a wonderful place. All of the grownups are agreed; Lucy must go to school because it will be good for her. After Lucy spends half of a day in school, she decides that she loves it and can hardly wait to go back.

While at school, Tom and Lucy come across a poster with a ‘book report monster’. An illustration is included which is a bit freakish – it even has vampire teeth!

‘Golly’ and ‘darn’ are each used once.

Conclusion. Not especially problematic for someone willing to overlook the fantastical element, but not a book that I would especially recommend.

Cats at the Campground

Title:  Cats at the Campground
Author: Ben M. Baglio
Pages: 132
Reading Level: 8-12
Star Rating: ★★

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Animal Ark!

The Story.

Mandy and James are all caught up in their newest animal-rescuing project. This one? Rescuing a half wild cat and her newborn kittens from starvation. But before they can begin to lavish her with much needed love and nourishment, they must catch her. And before they can catch her, she moves her family into one of Sam Western’s trailers. Sam, a recognized animal-hater, will surely kill her if he finds her. Unless Mandy and James can catch her first…

Will Mandy and James be able to save these four cats? And will they be able to find them homes?

Discussion.

I didn’t enjoy Cats at the Campground as much as I have enjoyed others in the Animal Ark series. I think there were two main reasons for this. 1) The storyline seemed to go nowhere with repetition and 2) It was astoundingly melodramatic.

Most of the melodrama comes from the extremely idealistic view Mandy takes on animals. She views them as creatures that must be protected, provided for, and generally pampered. It is a HORRIBLE thought that some cats might have to sleep outside and scrounge for their own food – they would be much happier if they were locked into a cage in an animal shelter and fed on daily rations. It really drained me to hear Mandy wheezing about how to properly care for pets and harshly condemning those who don’t live in adoration of their pets.

Oh, and do you want to get how terrible our villain is? He’s so horrible, he almost destroyed an entire herd of deer because he wanted to chop down a forest and sell it for money THE GREEDY MAN! Well, yes, it was his property. And yes, the deer actually could have found another forest to live in. But he’s so terrible, HE’D RATHER HAVE MONEY THAN DEER!!!!!!!!!!!!!

:D

Mandy behaves in what I would consider to be a very disrespectful manner towards Mr. Western (the VILLAIN). What’s she got against him? Well, the aforementioned DEER EPISODE and also the fact that he wants to get the four cats out of his trailer. Oh, he’s so evil for not sharing his trailer with the poor little kitty cats. So, there’s this scene in which a horse gets sick. First, Mandy irrationally blames Mr. Western for the illness (she knew at the moment that she was being irrational but didn’t care), accuses him of all sorts of things including *gasp* HATING ANIMALS *ungasp* and runs off in hot anger and emotional turmoil.

Now, I have to be fair right here. Mandy’s mother follows her and convinces her that she needs to apologize to Mr. Western (she mutters ‘I’m sorry’ “trying to sound as if she meant it” because obviously she didn’t) and then Mandy continues to think abusively of Mr. Western. She even glares at him on several occasions (I’m sure that struck him to the heart). What was really funny to me is that Mr. Western seems to think that being accused of hating animals is as serious and awful a thing as Mandy finds it. He repudiates her claim, telling her that he has had a phobia about cats ever since one of them scratched him when he was a child (?!?) but that he doesn’t hate them. He almost gains back her good favour except that he commits the blunder of referring to foxes and rabbits as pests, which causes Mandy’s hackles to rise. She later says to her mother and James,

“I still don’t like him.”

“Me, neither,” James agreed.

“Well, somehow I don’t think that’s ever going to change,” Dr. Emily said. “You both see animals as individuals with thoughts and feelings, whereas Mr. Western simply splits them into two groups: those that are useful to him and those that are pests.” She glanced over her shoulder and smiled at them. “For my money, I think the world would be a much better place if more people thought the way you two do. I’m very proud of you.” [pgs. 128-129]

Riiiggghht. Well, at least Mandy is supporting her parents’ vision of the world! They actually all have very sweet relationships with her. They often tease one another and play around, but they also work together. “Mandy hurried through to the office and slipped on her white coat. She loved helping in the clinics.” [pg. 24]

Mandy and James have a happy-go-lucky relationship. They never bicker, but on one occasion, Mandy jokingly calls James an idiot.

Conclusion. Much sillier than most of the Animal Ark books.

All Alone

Title: All Alone
Author: Clair Huchet Bishop
Illustrator: Feodor Rojankovsky
Pages: 95
Reading Level: 9-12
Star Rating: ★★

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So… I always thought that the Alps were just in Switzerland. It turns out that they stretch across eight different countries.

#embarassing

The Story.

Marcel has been entrusted with a very important job – he is to bring his family’s three heifers up to their pastures on the Little Giant where he will stay for the entire summer watching them. There is only one thing that makes him sad. And this is that his father has forbidden him to speak or interact with the other shepherd boys who will be up in the mountains.

One day, three strange heifers wander into Marcel’s camp. Marcel knows what his father would do – turn the heifers out and not be concerned if they fell over a cliff and destroyed their herd boy’s reputation. But Marcel cannot bring himself to be so cruel – he knows how hard it is to control the unruly heifers. So he keeps the three heifers with his herd, bringing them down to the watering spot where he hopes their owner will be. The owner is there – a little boy named Pierre – and they become fast friends. But while Marcel is with Pierre, a storm brews over his mountain. Eager to escape it, he leaves with Pierre and hastens up Pierre’s mountain, thinking that he can make it back to his mountain after the storm finishes. But the storm creates a landslide and blocks all entrances to Pierre’s mountain.

Will the way be cleared by the villagers or will the boys starve up on the mountain? And if they are discovered together, what will their fathers say?

Cautions.

It is the custom of Marcel’s village that no person helps another person. The villagers think that if they try to help another person and fail, then they might be held responsible for the loss. So they live with an “every man for himself” attitude. Marcel, however, disagrees with this practice and thinks that every man should help his neighbor.

While I agreed with Marcel’s perspective, I found it unfortunate that instead of reasoning or discussing the matter with his father, he simply disobeys him. And I’m not talking about a thirty-minutes-after-the-fact-I-realize-my-disobedience here. I mean that Marcel and Pierre agree not to tell their fathers about their interaction because, “Grownups, they never understand.” [pg. 42]

After Pierre and Marcel are stuck together on the same mountain, they grow afraid. They are afraid that their fathers will punish them. Pierre suggests that Marcel try to fool his father, but Marcel puts down the idea because he thinks it won’t work! Pierre says that he will protect Marcel from his father’s anger when he finds out.

When their fathers find out, they are so happy that both boys and both herds are well that they pass over the disobedience. Then, instead of taking the boys’ example as that of neighborly affection and loving our neighbors as ourselves, they instead turn it into a reason why everyone in the village should work jointly – all tending the one big herd and farming one huge plot of land. Here is the mayor’s speech. It is long, but will show you how socialistic the resolution really is.

“Citizens,” he said, “I’ll try to be brief. But this is a great day for Monestier. We don’t want to forget it – ever. What stands there in the middle of the square, under the tarpaulin, is going to remind us of it for a long time to come. But even that won’t be sufficient to make us remember what made such a day possible. We’ve got to remember what happened and who made it happen.

“First, what happened. A year ago in Monestier, as you recall, it was every man for himself. Each one of us looked after his tiny scattered fields and his few cows the best he could. It was hard to eke out a living that way. So we were afraid of each other, and each of us would have nothing to do with the other fellow. Correct?”

“Correct,” acknowledged the crowd.

“And what’s worse,” went on the mayor, “we were proud of being like that, all alone. We called it being on our own, independent, having no account to render anyone. We said that what was good for our parents was good enough for us.

“But times had changed, only we refused to see it. I dare say that if anyone had so much as suggested that the sensible thing to do was to get together and pool our resources he would have promptly received a punch in the nose!”
(Laughter.)

“And here we are today all gathered together. All of us are going to take a step, which, I dare say, is going to change even the look of this valley. The land of our valley is good, but it has been going to waste for a long time. Why does it not feed us any more? The trouble is that each man’s fields are too small and too scattered. That’s what we ourselves figured as we talked it over all together, time and time again, when we met at one another’s homes during the past winter evenings. And finally we came to a momentous decision. Of our own free will – “ (Applause.) “Yes, of our own free will, without anyone telling us to do so, we, the people of Monestier, have decided to tear down the age-old fences and hedges which enclose and separate our fields, and to work the whole land of the valley together – one common field under the sun.”
(Applause)

“That’s what we have decided. How it can be done best we will have to figure out among ourselves. We know it’s not going to be easy. It’s quite an adventure. There will be plenty of discussing, arguing, planning, organizing. It will mean a lot of hard teamwork all around for every one of us. But it will also be great fun. We know we are on the right track, because we are in this voluntarily, all together, touching elbows and feeling the beats of one another’s hearts.”
(Applause.)

“That’s what happened, citizens. But now we come to the second and most important question. Who made it happen?

“Some people might say that it was all because the mountain fell – that in time of danger or calamity people get together who never did before. And that is true enough. But, citizens, you know as well as I do – mountains, floods, earthquakes, fires, diseases, and wars fall on men. For a short time everybody works with everybody else, everone is friendly, generous, and kind. Then everybody forgets.

“For us, too, the mountain could have fallen in vain, and our rescue work together be but a memory. We could still be the Monestier, resembling many other dying French villages where peole keep to themselves. But we are not. Why?

“Why? Because what counts is not the fall of a mountain but what is in the heart of man. So someone must have lit the spark. Who did? Did I? did you? No!

“A little child did it. If it had not been for this one” – and, to Marcel’s utter confusion, the mayor pulled him up and pushed him in front of the people – “if it had not been for Marcel Mabout, we would all still be crouched in our own dens, peering at each other from behind curtains.” (Laughs and applause.)

“A little child showed the way, the new way of life. How did he do it? It was all very simple. Cows from a neighbor went astray on his pasture. What did he do? According to Monestier’s old custom, he should have shooed them off at once, washing his hands of what might happen to them later. They had no right to be on his pasture, and if anything happened to them while they were there he would be blamed. Of course, if he had chased them off it was ten to one that they would wander and break their necks. But it was none of his concern; it was the neighbor’s, whose fault it was for not watching them properly.” Here Pierre squirmed in his chair.

“Marcel knew all that, and yet he did not shoo the cows off. He took care of them right on the spot, and we can all easily imagine what it meant and how difficult it was. Why did he do that? He thought of his neighbor, later finding his heifers dead at the bottom of an abyss. And though, in keeping watch over the stray cows, Marcel, mind you, endangered his own, his family’s, fortune, yet he decided to run the risk.

“Citizens, a little child took charge of his neighbor! That’s what it amounted to. That was Marcel’s great idea!

“You know the rest – how his friendly gesture not only saved all the cows, but also turned out to be his own salvation, and, I might add, ours too. Because that’s what set us to thinking. It was an eye-opener to us. We began to see that there is a better way of life than each man for himself and the state for all. We began to see that if we would get together of our accord, life might be better in Monestier. And we did get together, and one thing followed another, and here we are today, celebrating, so to speak, the resurrection of our village. That’s what it is – the resurrection of our village. And the resurrection came from a child’s heart. That, citizens, is what we should not forget – ever. A little child led us.” [pgs. 84-90]

Instead of recognizing that as neighbours we should respect and protect each other’s property, the villagers of Monestier decided that each other’s property should become their own property – then they will respect and protect it because it is their own!

When his father asks Marcel if he is afraid of spending the night on the mountain, Marcel says no. To this his father responds by laughing and saying that Marcel is not even afraid of lying. He seems to think it is a good joke.

A little boy calls his sister stupid, which causes her to cry. He then hugs her and comforts her.

‘By golly’. ‘darn’, and ‘mon Dieu!’ are each used once.

Conclusion. I’d say that All Alone is a little on the negative side of okay. It isn’t defiling, but the entire theme of the story is how one boy’s disobedience transformed an unhappy village into a loving commune.

My Father’s Dragon

Title: My Father’s Dragon
Author: Ruth Stiles Gannett
Pages: 77
Reading Level: 8-11
Star Rating: ★★

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Those braids look pretty cute on that lion, don’t you think?

The Story.

Elmer Elevator has always wanted to fly – to fly far away and soar over the cities. But he is far too young to do such a thing; his mother would never let him get on an airplane!

But when Elmer makes friends with the alley cat, he learns that planes aren’t the only way that little boys can fly. They can also fly on dragons! And the alley cat knows where a baby dragon is! All Elmer needs to do is get to Wild Island, avoid or outwit all of the jungle animals who live there (and who boast that no one has ever visited their island and lived to tell of it!) and set the captive baby dragon free! Not too hard, huh? It’s actually every bit as hard as it sounds!

Cautions.

The entire premise of the story is make-believe or fairy tale-ish. Animals and little boys talk with one another. The main part of the action takes part on an imaginary island where tigers love chewing gum and rhinoceroses care about how the color of their horns. As far as fairy tales go, it was fairly clean; there are no ogres, witches, or ‘magic’ (other than impossible things being possible). But it is entirely unreal.

At the beginning of the story, Elmer tries to adopt a cat, but his mother objects. Elmer disobeys her and continues to feed the cat. Later, when Elmer is offered a chance to run away, he responds,

“Oh, I’d love to,” said my father, and he was so angry at his mother for being rude to the cat that he didn’t feel the least bit sad about running away from home for a while. [pg. 18]

We never again see or have reference to Elmer’s parents.

The wild animals’ treatment of the dragon is very unkind, although barely mentioned. It was described enough to make me feel sad, though…

Elmer tells a lie to save his life.

Conclusion. I can’t offer a one size fits all opinion of this story. It was cute but nonsensical. If you allow your children to read fairy tales, then this story should be fine for them. However, if you prefer to present only the soberest of stories to your children, then this story is not for you.

Here Comes McBroom!

Title: Here Comes McBroom!
Author: Sid Fleischman
Pages: 79
Reading Level: 8-10
Star Rating: ★★

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Here Comes McBroom is written by Sid Fleischman, author of Jim Ugly which is one of my favorite stories. I was hoping to find something similar here. Hmmm.

The Story.

Here Comes McBroom actually consists of three stories in the life of Josh McBroom. They are McBroom the Rainmaker, McBroom’s Ghost, and McBroom’s Zoo.

In McBroom the Rainmaker, the McBroom farm is suffering from a drought which has robbed their miraculously fertile farm of its growing capabilities. In fact, things have gotten so dry, that the dirt’s working in reverse order – things are shrinking instead of growing when they touch the soil. And these woodpecker sized zap-zinging mosquitoes are becoming quite the nuisance. Can McBroom think of a way to get rid of the mosquitoes – and end the drought?

In McBroom’s Ghost, strange things are happening on the McBroom’s special farm. Sounds are appearing out of nowhere. They’re familiar sounds – Pa McBroom calling the children, old Sillibub’s cock-a-doodle-doo, and the piccolos from the Sousa record that McBroom sometimes plays. Trouble is, they’re coming at the wrong time. It must be a ghost haunting and imitating them! What can McBroom do to get rid of THIS trouble?

In McBroom’s Zoo, after a tornado blows through the famous McBroom farm and removes all of the miraculous topsoil from its berth (it stole the tomatoes, onions, and vinegar too; turned them to ketchup in the air!), McBroom must think of a way to cart back all of the soil. (They chased the tornado, see, clear to where it plunked down their dirt.) It would take a near fortune to cart back all of their soil. The McBrooms are devastated. What should they do?

But the tornado didn’t just take things; it also left a few things, including a Sidehill Gouger, Desert Vamooser, Spotted Compass Cat, and a Silver-Tailed Teakettler, all very rare animals. So, McBroom decides to set up a zoo where their farmstead used to be. Can the McBrooms raise enough money to cart back their farm, or will the evil hunter destroy their zoo first?

Cautions.

As I’m sure you were able to surmise from the above synopses, Here Comes McBroom is tall tale through and through. Every story is filled with outrageous exaggerations which are obviously untrue and even impossible. While I as an older reader found parts of it funny, I also found it to be very silly. I also believe that because it is so funny, that it would encourage children to tell lies in the name of trying to be funny themselves and of ‘telling stories’. I’ll include the opening passage of the story as an example of the exaggerations.

“I dislike telling you this, but some folks have no regard for the truth. A stranger claims he was riding a mule past our wonderful one-acre farm and was attacked by woodpeckers.

Well, there’s no truth to that. No, indeed! Those weren’t woodpeckers. They were common prairie mosquitoes.

Small ones.

Why, skeeters grow so large out here that everybody uses chicken wire for mosquito netting. But I’m not going to say an unkind word about those zing-zanging, hot-tempered, needle-nosed creatures. They rescued our farm from ruin. That was during the Big Drought we had last year.

Dry? Merciful powers! Our young’uns found some polliwogs and had to teach them to swim. It hadn’t rained in so long those tadpoles had never seen water.

That’s the sworn truth – certain as my name’s Josh McBroom. Why, I’d as soon grab a skunk by the tail as tell a falsehood.

Now, I’d best creep up on the Big Drought the way it crept up on us. I remember we did our spring plowing as usual, and the skeeters hatched out as usual. The bloodsucking rapscallions could be mighty pesky, but we’d learned to distract them. The thirsty critters would drink up anything red.

“Willjillhesterchesterpeterpollytimtommarylarryandlittleclarinda!” I called out. “I hear the whine of gallinippers. Better put in a batch of beets.”

Once the beets were up the skeeters stuck in their long beaks like straws. Didn’t they feast, though! They drained out the red juice, the beets turned white, and we harvested them as turnips.

The first sign of a dry spell coming was when our clocks began running slow. We grew our own clocks on the farm.

Vegetable clocks.

Now I’ll admit that may be hard to believe, but not if you understand the remarkable nature of our topsoil. Rich? Glory be! Anything would grow in it –lickety-bang. Three or four crops a day until the confounded Big Dry came along.

Of course, we didn’t grow clocks with gears and springs and a name on the dial. Came close once, though. I dropped my dollar pocket watch one day, and before I could find it, the thing had put down roots and grown into a three-dollar alarm clock. But it never kept accurate time after that. [pgs. 7-10]

Get the idea? Very funny, but entirely fabricated.

Apart from the tall tale aspect of the book, one of the stories deals directly with ghosts. Sounds are coming from nowhere – imitative sounds, sounds that McBroom and the household sometimes make but aren’t making when they sound. So the McBrooms decide that it must be a ghost who is playing tricks on them. The McBrooms even purchase a dog to root out the ghost, but to no avail. The sounds keep right on sounding. In the end, McBroom comes up with the explanation. All of those sounds had been frozen by the horrible winter they just lived through, and what they heard was the sounds thawing out, not a ghost after all!

‘Tarnation’ is used four times and ‘thunderation’ once.

One of McBroom’s neighbours is called ‘Heck Jones’. Because of this, the word ‘heck’ is used a lot.

Conclusion. Here Comes McBroom is not horrible, but it is very silly and may encourage untruthfulness in children. For this reason I do not recommend it. Much better reading can be found elsewhere and even in some of Fleischman’s other works (Jim Ugly).