Unsolved! II: More Famous Real-Life Mysteries

Title: Unsolved II
Author: George Sullivan
Pages: 119
Recommended Ages: 10 & up
Star Rating: ★★★★

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I find mysteries absolutely fascinating. So, when I found this book of unsolved real-life mysteries, I was more than intrigued.

The Cases.

Murder at Random. On September 29, 1982, a man named Adam Janus took the prescribed dose of Tylenol to relieve chest pain. He died before the doctors could determine the cause of his illness. Later that same morning, Mary Keller felt a cold coming on and took the proper dose of Tylenol to ward off the symptoms. Minutes later she was taken seriously ill and she too died before the day was out. There was a rash of similarly mysterious and unconnected deaths. Unconnected, that is, until someone noticed that each of the cases involved Tylenol… Could someone have slipped poison into the capsules?

The Brief Life of a Superhero. Bruce Lee, the King of Kung Fu, was beloved by millions when he unexpectedly died on the set of his latest film. A few doctors thought that they had explanations – all contradictory – but each explanation left questions unanswered. Why did Bruce Lee really die?

The Hindenburg Disaster. It was a glorious moment. The Hindenburg, the biggest airship ever built, was preparing to land in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Its passengers were waving from the windows, the press was gathered in force to observe the landing of the giant aircraft. And then, the unthinkable happened. While still hovering in the air, the craft burst into flames! How was this fire started?

Movie Star Mystery. Natalie Wood was not an unhappy woman. And she had no enemies – at least none who would’ve had the opportunity to push her off of her husband’s yacht and leave her to drown. But that’s exactly how she was found – floating in the water, dead. Was it an accident? Murder? Suicide? No one knows.

A President’s Mysterious Death. President Warren G. Harding, the first president to be elected after the completion of World War I, found himself in an administration that was being engulfed by corruption and scandal. Rumor had it that he, Warren Harding, was involved in the dishonorable intrigues. Two years into his presidency, Harding was taken violently ill and died. The official report was that he had died from food poisoning, but his wife, a power-seeking woman, refused to allow an autopsy on his body. Many still believe that she poisoned her husband to avert guilt being placed upon him.

Vanished! Helen Brach was a wealthy woman. One day she traveled from a hotel in Minnesota to her home in Glenview, Illinois. Her caretaker, Jack Matlick, reports that he picked Mrs. Brach up at the airport in Chicago and brought her to her home. She remained there for four days before catching a flight to Florida. He is the last person to claim to have seen Mrs. Brach – no one else saw her during the time that he claims she was at home. After her disappearance, the police investigation discovered that Mrs. Brach had written several large checks out to Matlick; but when examined, the signatures proved to be forgeries. Was Matlick responsible for Mrs. Brach’s disappearance?

Death of a Big Shot. Sam Giancana ruled the Mafia in Chicago before being imprisoned in 1965. When he was released in 1966, he found that his power was gone – he had been replaced on the syndicate – no one was afraid of him now. But when the government offered Giancana immunity in exchange for revealing all he knew, the gangsters began to get uncomfortable. The only solution was to get rid of Giancana…

“Remember the Maine!In 1898, the American battleship, Maine, exploded in the harbor of Havana, Cuba. While the cause of the explosion was unclear, it was clear enough to send America into a war with Spain. But experts still wonder – was the explosion of the Maine accidental or purposeful?

Who Killed Karyn Kupcinet? Karyn Kupcinet was an actress; sweet, happy, and definitely not of a suicidal bent. But when she was discovered, dead, in her apartment, there were no signs of a struggle. Therefore, either it was suicide, or her murderer was someone she knew…

Discussion.

As a lover of mysteries, I knew I was going to love this book. And did I? Yes and no. I love the idea of real-life mysteries – real people, real actions – instead of entirely fictional ones. However, in this case, they were unsolved. Yes, that was obvious from the title. No, I didn’t fully realize what that would mean.

For some people, the lack of resolution would fire their imagination, which would thence race at once to seventeen different possible conclusions. (I’m looking at you, Sherlock.) But for me, it just left me feeling a bit unfulfilled. There’s no possible way I can solve the mysteries – experts have tried and failed, I’d have to wade through pages and pages of evidence, conjectures, reports, et cetera, and in the end, I don’t think I’d be smart enough to come up with a theory to fit the facts. However, children love this pursuit of the unknown.

Of the nine mysteries, only two really captured my attention – Murder at Random and Vanished! I would love to do more reading about these two cases.

Cautions.

In the Bruce Lee case, a film is described in which “a murdered rock star, through supernatural power, takes the form of a bird to avenge his girlfriend’s death and his own.” [pg. 25]

In Vanished, it is mentioned that Helen Brach was interested in “automatic writing” – communication with the spirit world.

In Movie Star Mystery, it is mentioned that Natalie dated several famous men and was divorced.

The words ‘hell’ and ‘God’ are each used once. These are in quotations from the actual cases, not inserted by Mr. Sullivan.

Conclusion. Interesting – conspiracy / mystery oriented children will enjoy it.

The Book of Presidents

Title: The Book of Presidents
Author: Orville V. Webster
Pages: 128
Reading Level: 9 – 14
Star Rating: ★★★★

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I’ve recently begun to look upon listing all the names of the Presidents as a sort of hobby – an entertainment, a tour de force. However, I was unable to list them in chronological order – until I read The Book of Presidents and memorized their order in one sitting. #yesimproud

Anyway, that was just a side effect. The book itself follows a definite pattern – the name of the president was presented, then the years of his service as President. Next came his nickname (or motto, whichever was more popular), then the dates of his birth and death. Thence followed a two-to-five page biography of the president. His life in a nutshell, so to speak.

Of course, having been published in 1991, The Book of Presidents fell rather short of the description “up-to-date”. The book ends with President “George Bush” (no H. or W. in sight! Shocking.) However, its reports on the other Presidents were not falsified by this lack of foresight. :)

Here are a few interesting facts

  • Abigail Adams is the only woman in U.S. history to be the wife of one President and the mother of another.
  • When he died in 1836, James Madison was the last surviving signer of the Constitution.
  • Of the five Presidents who participated in the American War for Independence, three of them – Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Monroe – died on a Fourth of July.
  • Andrew Jackson participated in approximately 100 duels during his lifetime.
  • Martin Van Buren was the first President born after the United States became an independent nation.
  • William Henry Harrison is known for having given the longest inaugural address in U.S. history – it consisted of 8,578 words and lasted for one hour and forty-five minutes – and for having the shortest Presidential term!
  • John Tyler’s second wife was thirty years younger than himself.
  • One of Zachary Taylor’s daughters married Jefferson Davis!
  • Ulysses S. Grant finished his autobiography just four days before his death.
  • Garfield was able to write with both of his hands simultaneously – in different languages!
  • Teddy Roosevelt was the first President to leave U.S. soil while in office. He was also the first President to ride in an automobile, fly in an airplane, and submerge in a submarine.
  • Franklin Roosevelt was related to eleven former U.S. Presidents.
  • Gerald Ford was the first man to become President without having run for the office of either President or Vice-President.

Lincoln haters should be informed that, although practically nothing is said about the War Between the States, Lincoln is referred to as “one of the greatest men in all American history.” [pg. 51]

Conclusion. An excellent resource.

Sheriff at Waterstop

Title: Sheriff at Waterstop
Author: Andy Thomson
Illustrator: Timothy Davis & Stephanie True
Pages: 125
Recommended Ages: 9-12
Star Rating: ★★★★

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Western for kids!

The Story.

Micah Huggins was used to livin’ alone. As a surveyor, he had done a good bit of solitary riding in his time. Of course, that all changed when Joseph turned up at his door. The boy had lived with both cowboys and Indians, if his manners and cooking were anything to go by. He was quiet and clever – a perfect companion. But when a cowboy comes to the ranch claiming to be Joseph’s cousin – a claim which Joseph acknowledges – there’s nothing Micah can do. Joseph rides off, leaving Micah lonely – a new feeling.

In the nearby town of Waterstop, a search has been conducted – a search for a new sheriff. And the town thinks they’ve found just the man they’ve book looking for – Felix Jensen. He’s just ridden into town, but boy can he fight! He’s quick on the draw, too.

A new Christian, Felix is determined to turn Waterstop into a town of law and order. But some of the ranch hands would prefer a bit of rough-housing to a new, preachin’ sheriff.

Will Micah and Joseph be reunited? And will Felix survive the murderous threats of the unruly cowboys?

Discussion.

Although I didn’t have the chance to mention him in my synopsis, Felix’s son, Bret, is one of the main characters in Sheriff at Waterstop. The relationship between him and his father is a key element of the story.

When we first meet the Jensens, Felix is a new convert to Christianity. Prior to his conversion he worked at a bar, serving liquor to troublemakers, then thrashing them when they started to make trouble. He was a hard man for whom neither his wife or son had any respect.

But then he became a Christian. He realized that he needed to be a better example for his son and a better leader for his wife. He set about trying to win back their love and respect. When we join the story, Felix’s wife trusts him again, but Bret is unsure. He’s been so hurt by his father’s absence and meanness that he isn’t even sure that he wants to try to reestablish a relationship with him. And besides that, he’s sure that it’s just a temporary improvement.

But as the story progresses, Felix’s principled commitment to bringing justice to the community and humble attitude wins Bret over. They become close friends, each respecting the other. They are proud to stand side by side as Felix enforces the law and Bret assists him.

I really enjoyed watching as their relationship progresses. So often stories depict relationships where the children are either unrealistically willing to forgive past abuse or they harbor bitterness for petty wrongs. I thought Sheriff at Waterstop showed a good balance – Bret wasn’t bitter. He just didn’t trust his dad, and for good reason. His father had proven himself unworthy of being trusted. But he wasn’t obstinate in his distrust; as his father became more and more respectable, Bret began to give him the respect he had earned. In the end, resolution has been achieved.

The Christianity in Sheriff at Waterstop feels more modern than is likely would have been preached at the times, but it has several good points. For one thing, no one is ever urged to “ask Jesus into their heart”. Instead, they are urged to repent for the sins that they have committed and place trust in Christ’s promise of salvation. Also, instead of just “becoming a Christian” and moving on with life, those who convert actually begin to implement the word of God in their lives. I appreciated this bit from Felix when he was explaining to his wife why he had excepted the position of Sheriff.

“If a person believes in living decent, Nance, he might just have to make a place decent. If Christian folks want to live where there’s law and order, then some of them Christian folks have got to be the law and order. We can’t let other people do all the dangerous work while we set back at ease.” [pgs. 22-23]

Apart from the bad grammar, I agree wholeheartedly! : )

Conclusion. Good. Boys especially will enjoy this story.

Cards on the Table

Title: Cards on the Table
Author: Agatha Christie
Pages: 213
Reading Level: 14 & up
Star Rating: ★★★★

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The little Belgian with the mustachios returns.

The Story.

An interesting man, Monsieur Shaitana. A man most enamored of himself – a man who derives an obsessive delight from his bizarre collections. He is an eccentric – not a benevolent one, but a dangerous one. A scheming one…

His newest collection, he informs Monsieur Poirot, is a collection of murderers. He now has four of them who frequent his home for parties and dinners. They are not professing murderers, no, no nothing so obvious as that. But he, Shaitana, great perceiver of the sins of others, he can tell. And he has an idea for a little game.

He invites Monsieur Poirot and three other detective friends – Ariadne Oliver, Colonel Race, and Superintendent Battle – to join him for a dinner. His four murderers – Dr. Roberts, Mrs. Larrimer, Major Despard, and Miss Meredith – will be there as well. Together they can enjoy an exciting evening together.

All eight guests duly arrive at Shaitana’s mansion. As they visit over dinner, it is hard to imagine that half of the guests are murderers. But it is not until the guests are divided to play bridge that the real adventure of the night begins. Because when the games are over, Monsieur Shaitana is found – murdered.

All of Shaitana’s pet murderers – and no one else – were present in the room from the moment that Shaitana seated himself near the fire to the time that his corpse was discovered. But which of these murderers has returned to the game of murder?

Discussion.        

As Christie herself says in the Foreword to Cards on the Table, it is easy to approach a mystery novel from the perspective that the ‘least likely’ person to have committed the murder is probably the murderer. I admit to having operated that way myself – Who is the author trying to keep in the background of this scene? Who hasn’t been mentioned in a while? So-and-so hasn’t appeared for several scenes. I bet SHE’S the murderer!

But Cards on the Table rebelled against such a simplistic reading. It is a story which boasts four suspects – suspects who have each murdered before, who each had opportunity to commit the murder, and who each had a desperate motive for killing the victim. The solution of this case lies, not in the discovery of clues, but in the background and psychology of each of the suspects. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so uncertain when trying to pin down the murderer. But Poirot managed to. Magnificent little man!

I really enjoyed meeting Mrs. Oliver. She’s hilarious. She is reputed to be a tongue-in-cheek portrait of Christie herself, and I can easily believe it. I have included a quote from Mrs. Oliver later in my review, which I am sure is straight from the heart from Christie. Now, Mrs. Oliver is an interesting character. She is reputed to be a “hot-headed” feminist, and she does occasionally vociferate upon the superiorities of women. But her character – a combination of down-to-earth bluntness and dunder-headed oblivion – almost mocked at her position. While she occasionally blunders upon an important piece of evidence or a freakishly accurate character assessment, she usually is far wide on her predictions.

The question of justifiable murder pops up several times in this story. Mr. Shaitana, the early victim of the story, calls murder “an art” and says that he believes that a “really successful murderer” should be celebrated. Monsieur Poirot, although agreeing that there are some people who deserve to be murdered, nevertheless, disapproves of all murder because of the effect that it has on the murderer. He believes that it is dangerous for a man to “exercise the right of private judgment” in the punishment of a crime because then one has “usurped the functions of le bon Dieu.” [pg. 134]

Quotes.

What I love about Poirot is that although he is a proud little man of great brain, he behaves and speaks exactly like a child on some occasions.

“We all make mistakes, Monsieur Poirot.”

“Some of us,” said Poirot with a certain coldness possibly due to the pronoun the other had used, “make less than others.”

Despard looked at him, smiled slightly and said:

“Don’t you ever have a failure, Monsieur Poirot?”

“The last time was twenty-eight years ago,” said Poirot with dignity. “And even then, there were circumstances – but no matter.” [pg. 106]

: ) Quite. Others are less impressed with Poirot’s skills. This after Poirot summons Anne to an interview.

“I don’t see why he wants to see me.” Anne was obstinate.

“To put one over on the official police, of course,” said Rhoda impatiently. “They make out that Scotland Yard are all boots and brainlessness.”

“Do you think this man Poirot is clever?”

“He doesn’t look a Sherlock,” said Rhoda. “I expect he has been quite good in his day. He’s gaga now, of course. He must be at least sixty. [pg. 160]

When Superintendent Battle points out a few inaccuracies in Mrs. Oliver’s latest novel, Mrs. Oliver responds thus.

“As a matter of fact I don’t care two pins about accuracy. Who is accurate? Nobody nowadays. If a reporter writes that a beautiful girl of twenty-two dies by turning on the gas after looking out over the sea and kissing her favourite Labrador, Bob, goodbye, does anybody make a fuss because the girl was twenty-six, the room faced inland, and the dog was a Sealyham terrier called Bonnie? If a journalist can do that sort of thing I don’t see that it matters if I mix up police ranks and say a revolver when I mean an automatic and a dictograph when I mean a phonograph, and use a poison that just allows you to gasp one dying sentence and no more. What really matters is plenty of bodies! If the thing’s getting a little dull, some more blood cheers it up. Somebody is going to tell something – and then they’re killed first! That always goes down well. It comes in all my books – camouflaged different ways of course. And people like untraceable poisons, and idiotic police inspectors and girls tied up in cellars with sewer gas or water pouring in (such a troublesome way of killing anyone really) and a hero who can dispose of anything from three to seven villains singlehanded. I’ve written thirty-two books by now – and of course they’re all exactly the same really, as Monsieur Poirot seems to have noticed – but nobody else has; and I only regret one thing, making my detective a Finn. I don’t really know anything about Finns and I’m always getting letters from Finland pointing out something impossible that he’s said or done. They seem to read detective stories a good deal in Finland. I suppose it’s the long winters with no daylight. In Bulgaria and Roumania they don’t seem to read at all. I’d have done better to have made him a Bulgar.” [pg. 55-56]

Cautions.

Mild innuendo – several of the previous murders committed by the suspects were related to romantic situations, but nothing along those lines happens within the story.

‘Damn’ is used seven times, ‘hell’ twice. Several versions of God’s name are used a total of four times.

Conclusion. Fun, fun, fun, and (I thought) cleaner than most of Christie’s stories.

… If You Lived at the Time of the Great San Francisco Earthquake

Title: …If You Lived at the Time of the Great San Francisco Earthquake
Author: Ellen Levine
Illustrator: Pat Grant Porter
Pages: 64
Recommended Ages: 8 & up
Star Rating: ★★★★

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The If You… series.

Q & A.

What did San Francisco look like after the earthquake?

Everything was a mess! There were cracks in the streets that looked like giant zigzags. If you stood in one, it might be as high as your waist.

Telephone and electric wires had snapped and were hanging down from the poles. Cable car tracks that were in the ground were suddenly sticking up like huge, bent paper clips. And trolley car tracks lay twisted in the street.

Some trees had been pulled up by the roots. Branches were cracked and scattered around.

Chimneys had broken off rooftops throughout the city. Some chimneys had fallen inside homes; others were lying in the streets. In parts of the city, whole buildings had collapsed.

Walls of the new city hall building had fallen down. The dome was left standing on top of steel pillars. It had been the largest building in the state of California. After the earthquake, it looked like a skeleton.

The front wall of one hotel fell off completely, and the bedrooms looked like rooms in a doll’s house. Can you imagine sitting in your bed and looking outat the street – with no windows in between!

Some buildings that were three or four stories high sank almost all the way into cracks in the ground. One nine-year-old girl remembered that her father took her out of their hosue through the attic window right onto the street.

Houses moved forward, backward, or sideways. If you went to bed on April 17th on one side of the street, you might have gotten up on April 18th across the street.

After the quake, one man climbed to the top of a hill and looked down on the city. From up high, people in the streets looked as if they were “running about like… excited insects.” [pg. 7-8]

Were any babies born during the disaster?

Yes. One man wrote to his relatives outside of San Francisco. He said that more than thirty babies were born in Golden Gate Park on the very day of the earthquake. A newspaper reported that triplets were born in a tent. And every day during the week after the quake there were stories about more births.

Babies were born in the streets, in the parks, in doorways, and just about any place you can think of except hospitals. [pg. 48]

Where would you live if your house was destroyed?

In the first days after the earthquake, more than half of all the people in San Francisco had to sleep outdoors. The quake and fires had ruined their homes.

Many went to the parks around the city, spread their blankets, and slept outdoors on the ground. Some people made tents. They tied ropes between poles and hung rugs, blankets, sheets, or even tablecloths over them.

Refugees are people who leave their homes because it’s not safe to stay there any longer. They find new places to live. After the earthquake and fires, the homeless people of San Francisco were called refugees. Many stayed in camps that were set up in the parks all around the city.

At first, most of the refugees lived in homemade tents. But then President Theodore Roosevelt and the United States Army Commander in Washington, D. C., ordered Army forts all around the country to ship tents and blankets to San Francisco.

The Army also built barracks for some of the refugees. These were large wooden buildings that had a number of small apartments in them. In the fall, in became too cold and rainy to stay in tents. And there were not enough barrack apartments for everyone who had lost a home. So the city built little cottages, which were called refugee shacks. The smallest had only one room, and the biggest had three rooms. The shacks were painted green and were lined up in rows in the parks.

The city let you keep the shack if you would move it out of the camp. You had to get the shack lifted up and wheels put underneath. Then horses or mules would pull it away. By the summer of 1907, more than a year after the great earthquake, many people began to move their shacks. Everywhere you went, you saw little green houses traveling up and down the streets.

People moved their shacks to small plots of land that they bought or rented. They set the houses down and sometimes painted them, or added porches. Some people even put two shacks together to make bigger houses. A few of these old refugee shacks are standing today, and people are still living in them.

But there was housing even more unusual than tents or barracks or shacks. Cable cars!

The earthquake had broken the cable car tracks. They had to be fixed before the cars would run again. The cable car company moved its cars to an empty lot, and the refugees moved in. Your family might have set up house in an empty cable car. The platforms in front and in back of the cars were perfect as porches. [pgs. 36-39]

Could you mail a letter after the earthquake?

The post office was one of the few buildings in the center of San Francisco that was still standing after the earthquake and fire. Ten brave post office workers fought off the fires day and night, and by April 10th, they were ready to send out the mail again.

There was only one problem. Almost no one had paper or envelopes or stamps. But that didn’t stop anybody.

People wrote messages on the collars or cuffs of their shirts and blouses. They wrote on pieces of wood, scraps of newspaper, pages of books, and pieces of wrapping paper. So long as you had written down the correct address, the post office would send whatever you had written. You didn’t even need a stamp. [pg. 52]

Conclusion. Entirely worthwhile and very helpful. Could be read in conjunction with Earthquake! and The Earth Dragon Awakes.

 

The Loner

Title: The Loner
Author: Ester Wier
Pages: 151
Recommended Ages: 9 & up
Star Rating: ★★★★

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Newbery Medalist.

The Story.

He’s always been an outsider, a loner. He had never known a mother or father, a home, or even a name. He was just ‘Boy’ who hitched rides from state to state picking whatever crop was in season. No one had ever welcomed him. No one had ever loved him.

Then came the day that the woman and her dog, Jup, rounded him in while they were out herding their sheep. She, a large, commandeering woman, is known simply as ‘Boss’. She invites him to stay with her for a while and help out with herding the sheep, but insists that he choose a name by flipping open the Bible and pointing his finger at the page. The name he pointed to was David, keeper of the sheep.

David soon learns that not all has been smooth in Boss’s path, either. She suffered the loss of her son, Ben, just a few years ago – he was mauled by a grizzly bear, the same grizzly bear that she is now determined to hunt down and kill. Will her desire for revenge endanger her entire herd? And has David finally found his place – among the sheep?

Discussion.

David is a boy who has never known the love – or discipleship – of parents. His approach to life is entirely pragmatic – do what you do to get what you can get and keep yourself alive.

Boss is a woman who has never been good at expressing her emotions verbally, and who has become even more reticent since the loss of her son, Ben.

When these two come together, two needs are met; David’s need for a mother, a person to love him, and Boss’s need for a dependent – someone for her to take care of. She trains him to be a good sheepherder and he gives her the vibrancy of young life. Throughout the story their relationship grows and by the end of the book they are firmly attached to each other.

When David chooses David to be his name, he wants to know as much as possible about his namesake. So, Boss reads the stories of David out loud to David and he soaks them in. He often compares himself to the David of the Bible and wonders what he would do in particular circumstances.

Through silence, David tells a lie, of which he later repents.

David and Boss celebrate Christmas.

Conclusion. An excellent story which features a sympathetic protagonist and demonstrates positive relational growth.

The Case of the Baker Street Irregular

Title: The Case of the Baker Street Irregular
Author: Robert Newman
Pages: 216
Recommended Ages: 9-14
Star Rating: ★★★★

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Imitation fiction.

The Story.

Andrew’s always wondered about his parents. They’ve both been a mystery to him – his father dead, his mother absent. And now that Aunt Agnes is dead, it seems that he’ll never discover the secret of his parentage.

He’s just arrived in London with Mr. Dennison, his tutor and guardian. The two of them have never been close, but when Andrew sees Mr. Dennison being forced into a cab driven by a mysterious broken-nosed man, he’s alarmed. His alarm turns to fright the next night when that very same cabman returns for him and chases him through the heart of London…

Why is this man determined to catch Andrew? What is the purpose of the mysterious bombings occurring in London? And can Mr. Holmes solve both of these mysteries in time to save Mr. Dennison?

Discussion.

I’ve read at least five pieces of imitation Sherlock Holmes fiction. These were written with varying degrees of stylistic accuracy ranging from exceptional to outright horrid. The Case of the Baker Street Irregular is not quite as simple to classify.

To begin with, Holmes and Watson are not themselves the main characters – Andrew and his friends, Screamer and Sam (members of Holmes’ band of Irregulars), function in that role. Holmes and Watson follow as close seconds and, in that position, do not receive the same amount of attention that Doyle gave them, and are not the fully developed characters of canon Holmes.

However, the book was saved by the fact that I could hear Basil Rathbone’s voice ringing through the clipped dialogue of Holmes. Newman may not have created the original, more philosophical Holmes of Doyle’s works, but he (purposefully or accidentally, I know not which) conjured up good old Rathbone to the pages.

Oh, and one last quirky positive for me – Andrew comes from a small city which he describes as being ‘near Penzance’. On the last page, Watson regales Holmes with the song “A Policeman’s Lot Is Not a Happy One” from the Gilbert & Sullivan musical ‘The Pirates of Penzance’. HOW FUN IS THAT?!?

One of Holmes’ clients comes to him begging him to find her daughter, whom she says her husband has taken with him to the continent. When asked why he did this, she responds that it was because she wanted to divorce him because she had discovered that he was having an affair, and he took the daughter to keep her from beginning the divorce.

‘Damn’ is used once.

Conclusion. A fun read for detective-oriented children or committed Holmes fans.

…If You Lived in Williamsburg in Colonial Days

Title: …If You Lived in Williamsburg in Colonial Days
Author: Barbara Brenner
Illustrator: Jenny Williams
Pages: 79
Recommended Ages: 8 & up
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 If You series.

Q & A.

How did people pay for what they bought?

In colonial Virginia, you could pay for goods with coins. The coins had been made in other countries and were brought to Williamsburg by merchants and traders. The most common coins were Spanish silver.

The value of the money was based on the English system. Merchants weighed foreign coins to figure out their value in pence (d), shillings (s), and pounds (L). To make change, they would cut up a coin.

A pound in any form was a great deal of money. It was several weeks’ pay for many people. If you were lucky, your parents might give you a few pence to spend at the market. You could but a pencil for 3.25 pence or a pack of playing cards for 7.5 pence. But a pound of chocolate would have been beyond your budget at two shillings and sixpence (2/6).

The most common way grown-ups made a big purchase, such as a horse, was by using a tobacco certificate. A tobacco certificate was something like a check. But instead of being backed by a certain amount of money in a warehouse. You could buy a horse, a wagon, or a whole set of furniture with a tobacco certificate.

You could also trade, or barter, instead of using money. If you were selling corn and you wanted to buy a rooster, for example, you might give so many bushels of corn for the rooster. [pgs. 12-13]

Did children have storybooks to read?

There were no lending libraries in Williamsburg in 1770. Your parents could order books from England or buy them at the Printing Office on Duke of Gloucester Street. A Bible was the only book some families owned, although others had books for both children and adults.

In addition to nursery rhymes, you might have read classic English children’s stories such as Jack the Giant Killer. As you got older, you would have graduated to popular novels – Gulliver’s Travels and The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. [pg. 49]

What kind of clothes did men and boys wear?

Baby boys and girls of colonial Williamsburg wer dressed almost alike, in a long gown (dress), a shift (a nightgownlike garment), or a shirt. Early on, parents began to train their children to stand up straight. As a toddler, you would have been put into stays, a kind of cloth brace stiffened with whalebone, which would keep your back straight and give you good posture.

When a boy was about four years old, he was breeched. He graduated from babyhood to boyhood by getting his first pair of breeches, pants that came down just over the knees, the way mens’s beeches did. The stays came off, and the boy dressed like a smaller version of his father. [pg. 16]

What was an apprentice?

Being an apprentice was a kind of work-study program. In colonial times, a boy was sent to work without pay for a tradesman – a carpenter or printer, for example. In return, the man taught the boy his trade.

The apprentice lived with his master for as long as seven years. At the end of that time, he was considered a journeyman. He could now get a paying job with another master or go into partnership with the man who had trained him. [pg. 61]

Discussion.

I’m not sure if this was intentional or not, but I appreciated a choice of words that Ms. Brenner made. Instead of referring to those in slavery merely as ‘slaves’, she called them ‘enslaved people’. I thought this really emphasized the active nature of slavery – the state of being enslaved – as opposed to the more passive ‘slaves’.

Another very clever choice on the part of Ms. Brenner was to place historic jingles under questions concerning the same topic. For example, underneath the question concerning the duties/occupations of women in colonial Williamsburg was the rhyme –

My Maid Mary, she minds the dairy,

While I go a-hoeing and mowing each morn;

Gaily run the reel and the little spinning wheel,

While I am singing and mowing my corn. [pg. 62]

One question reads,

What happened when a child misbehaved?

A great many parents of the eighteenth century still believed in paddling, spanking, and whipping with a cane. [pg. 69]

While this is true at face value, it makes the practice of corporal punishment sound old-fashioned and obsolete.

One question mentions a few superstitious cures.

Conclusion. Wonderful. A great addition to any study of Colonial American.

The Adventures of Old Mr. Toad

Title: The Adventures of Old Mr. Toad
Author: Thornton W. Burgess
Illustrator: Harrison Cady
Pages: 72
Recommended Ages: 8-10
Star Rating: ★★★★

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Green Forest!

The Story.

Jimmy Skunk and Peter Rabbit don’t know what to think. Why, Old Mr. Toad has just hopped by in the greatest hurry announcing that he is on his way to join the spring choir down at Smiling Pool. What a preposterous idea! Why, ugly Old Mr. Toad couldn’t have a voice worth listening to… could he?

Jimmy and Peter soon learn that they don’t know as much about Old Mr. Toad as they thought…

Discussion.

There were two primary character lessons in Old Mr. Toad – one, never assume that just because you know a person, you know all there is to know about them. Do not judge them based on a limited understanding of them.

“Never think that you have learned
All there is to know.
That’s the surest way of all
Ignorance to show.” [pg. 14]

Two, vanity is destructive, not only to one’s character, but also to one’s reputation and friendships.

“Pride is like a great big bubble;
You’ll find there’s nothing in it.
Prick it and for all your trouble
It has vanished in a minute.” [pg. 66]

““You know nothing can puff any one up quite like foolish pride. Old Mr. Toad was old enough to have known better. It is bad enough to see young and foolish creatures puffed up with pride, but it is worse to see any one as old as Old Mr. Toad that way.” [pg. 60]

I thought that Peter Rabbit showed a marked humility in learning the first lesson. Although he initially mocks the idea that Old Mr. Toad has a fine voice, he later realizes how wrong he has been.

“Funny,” mused Peter, “how we can live right beside people all our lives and not really know them at all. I suppose that is why we should never judge people hastily.” [pg. 39]

“Never again will I call anybody homely and ugly until I know all about him,” said Peter, which was a very wise decision. Don’t you think so?” [pg. 19]

Admit your fault when you’ve done wrong,
And don’t postpone it over long.” [pg. 42]

“The trouble with you, and with a lot of other people, is that you speak first and do your thinking afterward, when you do any thinking at all,” grunted Old Mr. Toad. [pg. 43]

Mother Nature is mentioned / credited three times.

Old Mother West Wind is mentioned twice.

Conclusion. I liked Old Mr. Toad a little less than Chatterer the Red Squirrel and Paddy the Beaver, but it’s still sweet.

Who Was Ronald Reagan?

Title: Who Was Ronald Reagan?
Author: Joyce Milton
Illustrator: Elizabeth Wolf
Pages: 106
Recommended Ages: 8-12
Star Rating: ★★★★

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Who was Ronald Reagan? What did he believe? What did he stand for? What did he do with his life? All of these questions and more are answered in Who Was Ronald Reagan?

Praises.

Many fun facts are given from Reagan’s life. For example, did you know …

…that during the six years that he served as a bodyguard at Rock River, Ronald Reagan rescued seventy seven people?

… that although Reagan’s first name was always Ronald, he was called ‘Dutch’ Reagan until he became an actor at the age of twenty-six?

… that Reagan acted in over sixty movies and thirteen TV shows?

… that Reagan turned seventy less than a month after he was elected, making him the oldest person to become President?

One thing that I really liked in Who Was Ronald Reagan? were the little boxed notes that it featured on different historical events – Prohibition, the Great Depression, The Cold War, the Berlin Wall, etc. These helped give context to the events in Reagan’s life.

Reagan was initially a big fan of FDR and his plans to help America, he later decided, “that the government had gotten too big. The government in Washington, D.C., kept starting new programs. But, Reagan complained, few of the were ended even after they had served their purpose. Reagan came to believe that, in the long run, government created as many problems as it solved.” [pg. 56-57] Woohoo!

Cautions.

Reagan’s Grenada invasion is discussed briefly and his opinion (that “what happened in the Middle East was ‘everybody’s business’“) is given.

Reagan’s first marriage and subsequent divorce are mentioned.

It is reported that on their first date Nancy and Reagan stayed out until three in the morning.

On illustration shows a woman in a bathing suit.

Conclusion. An excellent introduction for young students.