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Family, Movie Reviews

The Sword and the Rose

Family / Drama 1953 / 92 minutes Rating 7/10 When I first found this film and read in the description that the hero was Mary Tudor, that was too much for me. Mary Tudor was a Roman Catholic queen of England in the year 1553 to 1558 who gained her nickname, Bloody Mary, for her vicious persecution of the Protestant Church. This was the Hollywoodization of history gone too far, and I had no interest in watching a film about her romantic life. But then I realized that this Mary Tudor wasn't that Mary Tudor. This film was about the sister of Henry VIII, rather his devilish daughter. And so I took a look. Content As the sister to the king, Mary has some gumption, and is much admired by all the young men of the court. But as the sister to the king, her marriage prospects are tied up with her brother's political machinations, and there's no advantage to him, to marry her off to an Englishman. He wants her to marry the aged King of France. She, however, is a very stubborn lady, so it's an open question as to whether she'll do as he says. It's only when she falls in love with the Captain of the Guard, and tries to sail off to the New World with him, that the king gains the upper hand. The couple is caught, and her knight in shining armor is going to be hung for treason... unless she submits to her brother's wishes and marries the French king. There are some exciting twists and turns in the plot that I won't give away, but I will note there is, ultimately, a happy ending for all. Cautions The broad outlines of the story are based on history, and if that is how the film is enjoyed – as very loosely based on a true story – then it is quite a tale. But for those who are more concerned with accuracy, they may object to Henry VIII being portrayed as a rascal more than a rogue, or to the unsympathetic portrayal of his first queen, Catherine of Aragon, who was later treated shamefully by him. There are some sword fights, but this is an old-fashioned Disney film so there is no blood or gore. Conclusion Our whole family quite enjoyed it, though our youngest, at 7, needed the film to be paused at times, so we could explain the historical context of what was going on. (She didn't get how a brother could decide for a woman who she would marry.) This is a "Disneyfied" version of history, and that is both its strength and weakness, suitable for all ages, but kinder and gentler than the events really were. ...

Animated, Movie Reviews

The Phantom Tollbooth

Animated 1970 / 89 minutes Rating: 7/10 This is a peculiar movie based on a peculiar book, and as such, will have only peculiar appeal – this is not for everyone. Things begin in "live-action" with Milo, a boy bored by everything, returning home from school to discover a mysterious package in his bedroom. It's a tollbooth – a talking tollbooth! – that invites him on an adventure if he has the gumption to go. So Milo hops in a miniature car, and the moment he drives through the tollbooth, the whole film switches over into animation, taking him to a weird and wacky world that couldn't be depicted any other way. Both the book and the film are a morality tale, but of a secular sentiment. The bored boy is going to learn that all those things he's being taught in school – numbers, and letters, addition and spelling, subtraction and writing – are far more interesting than he's ever realized. He'll make this discovery by visiting the kingdom of Digitopolis, where numbers rank at the top, and the kingdom of Dictionopolis where words are said to be supreme. But this is a topsy turvy world, where a watchdog actually has a watch inside him, and a spelling bee, is a bee that can spell! Some of that craziness is the way this world has always been, but things got worse after the kings of Digitoplosis and Dictionoplois banished their sisters, Rhyme and Reason. As the kings should have known, without Rhyme and Reason, things can get too silly, too quickly! That's why they task Milo with rescuing the princesses, equipping him to contend with the demons of ignorance that he'll meet along the way. These demons include the Terrible Triviam, who tempts people to do unimportant tasks now, instead of the thing they really should get to. Then there's the Demon of Insincerity, the Hideos Two-Faced Hypocrite, the Over-bearing-Know-It-All, and the Threadbare Excuse, all able to derail industry and the search for Truth. But Milo is ready to fight! Caution One caution would concern the demons, which might be scary for children. But these aren't Satan's minions – these are personifications of temptations (like in Pilgrim's Progress) that are trying to ensnare and delay Milo. The other caution concerns the princesses Rhyme and Reason. Logic is an outworking of God's character, but in this secular story, logic – Rhyme and Reason – are the "gods" of the film (though they aren't described as such) able to completely transform the kingdom and save the day. It will be worth pointing out to kids how logic is not itself foundational, but lies on the foundation of God Himself. Conclusion This will be of interest to any who've read the book. For those not already familiar with the story, the closest thing I can liken it to is Alice in Wonderland, not in plot, but – I'll say it again – peculiarity. If your family is the sort that would be up for the surreal Alice, then they may love this adventure too! That said, this takes a bit to get into - you might need to watch half an hour before you get a feel for what sort of movie this is. And also note, this is a film to be paused and discussed to be properly appreciated, whether to explain the wordplay to kids, or to point out to them the lesson Milo is learning. ...

Book Reviews, Children’s picture books

Tikki Tikki Tembo

retold by Arlene Mosel 1968 / 48 pages My full first name is Jonathan, but long ago I learned there were benefits to using a shorter form. In basketball, for example, if a teammate was streaking up the sidelines and yelled for a pass, by the time he got out all three syllables of Jon--a--than he wasn't open anymore. But "Jon!" would get my attention, and him the ball, much quicker. Tikki Tikki Tembo is about this same lesson but in a very different setting. We are told that long ago Chinese families would honor their firstborn sons with long names, and give their other sons very short names. Our story takes place in a small mountain village where a mother had two sons. The second was simply called Chang while the first was named Tikki Tikki Tembo-no Sa Rembo-chari Bari Ruchi-pip Peri Pembo. If these two played sports we can be sure who'd be making all the great passes and who wouldn't even make the team (try fitting that name on a jersey!). Of course, they didn't have basketball in ancient China, so their names come into play a different way. This is a charming book so I don't want to give away the ending. Let it suffice to say that as in basketball, so too in aquatic events it is better, and less hazardous, to have a shorter name. The story is wonderful, the illustrations fun, but more than anything else this is such a joy to read out loud: Tikki Tikki Tembo-no Sa Rembo-chari Bari Ruchi-pip Peri Pembo is not only a long name, but a lyrical one, and each time it gets repeated in the story it gets funnier. This is a classic for a reason!...

Adult biographies, Book Reviews, History, Teen non-fiction

Listen! Six Men You Should Know

by Christine Farenhorst 161 pages / 2021 The six men we get introduced to here are given 25-30 pages each which is enough space to get a very good feel for them. It's also short enough that it avoids completely the indulgence evident in many a bigger biography of telling us what the subject ate for lunch on the third Tuesday of October, one hundreds years ago. The half dozen that author Christine Farenhorst introduces us to are: Martin Luther King Jr. Albert Schweitzer Rembrandt Dutch Samuel Morse Sigmund Freud Norman Rockwell I enjoyed the eclectic nature of the selections – these six holding little in common outside their fame and influence, but all are worth knowing better. I was more curious about some of them than others, particularly the very first, the American icon, Martin Luther King Jr. But after learning a little about his thoughts, and the political and cultural battles of his time, I skipped ahead to the profile of Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud who spent most of this life in Europe, and died when King was just 10. I'd read biographies on both men previously, but Christine's solidly biblical perspective brought new light to both subjects. For the four others, I knew little more than their names – or their artwork, in the cases of Norman Rockwell and Rembrandt – and I enjoyed this opportunity to delve into their backgrounds, their age, and place. I enjoyed learning about Samuel Morse in particular, as he is the only one of these six who was clearly a Christian. Christine shows that some of the others, like Freud, clearly were not, while Rembrandt, had, at best, an odd relationship with his Maker. Overall, this is a very quick enjoyable read – I think I finished it in a day. It was sad reading about many of these men's outright rejection of God, so I might recommend reading the profiles out of order so that you can conclude with Samuel Morse, and end on a happy note! Children who enjoy history, and reading, would likely enjoy this as young as 12. The short, 30-page profiles, would also make this a great title for adults who want to know their history, but are put off by the tomes that some historians publish. Christine Farenhorst is a regular columnist for Reformed Perspective, so if you want to get a feel for her writing, that is as easily done as clicking here. You can order "Listen! Six men you should know" at many online retailers....

Documentary, Movie Reviews

Beyond the Gates of Splendor

Documentary 96 min; 2005 Rating: 7/10 In 1956 a team of five missionaries were killed by the Waodani tribesmen they were trying to befriend. The murders caught the attention of the world, but what happened next wasn't widely reported. Beyond the Gates of Splendor tells the story of what happened when one of the missionaries' widows and a sister came to live with the very people who had killed their loved ones. They did so at the risk of their own lives. At the time of the missionaries' contact with them, the Waodani were a murderous people, not only to newcomers but with each other too. The documentary drives home that point with one native recounting his family tree by pointing out where each member of his family had been speared to death – his uncle over there, his dad a few years later by that bigger tree, another uncle further away in the bushes. “Waodani children grew up understanding they would spear and live, or be speared and die.” No one died of old age. But as brutal and vengeful as the Waodani were, the bloodshed stopped when the women's example was used by the Holy Spirit – some of the tribe turned to God. Caution Readers should bear in mind that, due to the native style of dress, there are frequent, though very brief moments of National Geographic type nudity, including topless Waodani women, and a lot of naked backsides. There are also some descriptive conversations about violent deaths, and some imagines shared of the missionaries' dead bodies. Conclusion While an animated video, The Jim Elliot Story, and a dramatized feature film, End of the Spear, have also been made about the missionaries, this documentary was needed to fill in the rest of the story – how the tribe lives today – and to bring more to the fore the spiritual transformation God worked, changing these rebellious murderers into repentant children. While some Christian films can be preachy, Beyond the Gates trusts that the facts of the matter will speak for themselves. That makes this a very good presentation of an astonishing story. Be sure to check out the trailer below. ...

Book Reviews, Graphic novels

Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood

by Nathan Hale 128 pages, 2014 A few decades ago a cartoonist decided to tell the story of the Jewish Holocaust in World War II via an animal metaphor. He made the Jews mice, and the Germans cats, the good folk dogs and the collaborators were pigs. It was a dark story, of course, but the use of the animals made it slightly less gritty, and thus more bearable. In Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood, author Nathan Hale has done something similar for World War I. Each nation is assigned an animal: the Germans are eagles, the English are bulldogs, the Belgians are lions, the Ottomans are otters, the Russians bears and the Americans get stuck being bunnies, because eagle has already been taken. Hale does a good job of laying out the facts, and detailing the slaughter that amounted in the millions, but also lightening things up with doses of humor whenever he can. I knew the basic facts of World War I already, but learned a lot from this overview. Of course a comic, particularly one presented in metaphor form, shouldn't be regarded as an authoritative source, but it does provide a useful overview. Now if I want to find out more, I've now learned enough to know what I might want to read more about. This book is one of in a series of "Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales" referencing both the author Nathan Hale, and the more famous American spy Nathan Hale who lived 250 years ago, and who appears in this series as the narrator. A couple cautions to share: this is a historic account that details the death of millions, so even though it is in animal/comic form parts of it would be too much for the very young. I'm not talking about gore - there isn't any - but rather the story itself. Also a language advisory: a couple of "good heavens"s pop up, a "holy moley" and in one instances a character says, "ye gods" (page 73). I'd recommend this for children 12 and up, though some kids might be able to handle it as young as 10....

Book Reviews, Teen fiction

The Revolt: a novel in Wycliffe's England

by Douglas Bond 269 pages /  2016 I was never a fan of Church history in school, but I've come to realize that this was really the textbook's fault. It was a series of dry and weary titles, with lots of dates and facts, but no story to them. So I owe a debt of thanks to Douglas Bond for reviving my interest in what is really a most important topic, and he has done so by telling great stories. Sometimes, as he has in this novel, that story-telling involves weaving in fiction among the facts, so I can just imagine someone saying, "But then you're not really learning Church history, are you? Not if lots of it is made up!" Ah yes, but I know more Church history than I once did, and it was painless! And what's more, Bond's fictionalized biographies – he's tackled Calvin, Knox, C.S. Lewis, and now Wycliffe – left me wanting to know more about these men. So after read a Bond book I've followed it up with reading non-fiction books about, or by, all of them. My old Church history textbook never inspired me to do that! In The Revolt, Bond takes on an early Reformer, John Wycliffe, who lived and died more than 100 years before Martin Luther nailed up his 95 theses. Like Luther, Wycliffe was a man very much on his own – he had followers, but not really colleagues. He was the trailblazer who decided that, contrary to what the Pope and Church has pronounced, the common people needed to hear the Bible in their own tongue. One thing he had going for himself is that he lived in a time when there was two popes at the same time, which made it easier to question the need for submission to the pope. Wycliffe doesn't actually show up until page 62, so this is more a book about the England of his time than about him. The story begins with a young scholar on the battlefields of France, where the English army is surround by a much larger French force. The scholar has been assigned the task of recording the events, so while everyone else has a bow, or a battle axe, or something with some sort of sharp steel end, he is armed only with his quill. It's a great beginning, and from then on we follow along with this scholar who serves as the story's narrator. Through him we meet peasants, other scholars, and finally Wycliffe himself. The Revolt is a novel most any adult would find an easy and enjoyable read. I'm not sure, though, that this would be a good book for a teenager who is only a casual reader. It is a very good story, but it's not the non-stop "thrill ride" that so many Young Adult books try to be these days. To put it another way, this is far from a heavy read, but it's also not a light read either. However, for anyone with any interest in Church history, this is an ideal way to learn more. I sure hope Douglas Bond keeps on coming up with these great fictionalized "biographies"! ...

Book Reviews, Teen non-fiction

Nero

by Jacob Abbott 2009, 202 pages How do you make history come alive for teens? Sometimes it means turning to an author long dead. Jacob Abbott died 125 years ago, but a quick read through this volume explains why his books endure. The original 1853 edition of Nero is available for free in many places online, and is well worth downloading to your Kindle. But it does benefit from the updating that publisher Canon Press has done to their version. Some longer 70-word sentences have been broken up and editor Lucy Zoe Jones has also replaced a few obscure words like "declivities," "salubrity," and "preternatural." Little else was required. Now, Nero's life might not seem like appropriate material for a biography aimed at teens – this Roman emperor indulged in every sort of immorality. However Abbott is both a tactful and talented writer. He doesn't delve into the salacious details, so younger readers will only encounter a broad overview of Nero's wickedness. But Abbott does tuck in a bit more information in between the lines, there to be read and understood by older, less naive readers. It's an impressive feat. Like many good teen books, adults will enjoy this as well - it is a engaging introduction to a key figure in both Church and Western history. For Canadian readers, this edition is available at Christianbook.com. In the US you can find it at CanonPress.com. where you can find more of these great updated Jacob Abbot biographies like: Cyrus Xerxes Alexander the Great Hannibal Julius Caesar Cleopatra Alfred the Great William the Conqueror Elizabeth I ...

Book Reviews, Teen fiction

In the hall of the Dragon King

by Stephen Lawhead 1982 / 370 pages This is an old-fashioned fantasy tale, with a loosely Christian underpinning. Quentin is a young man who has had a quest thrust upon him. He was going to spend his life behind the walls of a temple, so this turn of events isn’t unwelcome. But he has to figure out how he can see the queen. And someone needs to rescue the king. Oh, and there’s a dark wizard that needs to be dealt with. Is this really a job for a young former priest-to-be who doesn’t know one end of a sword from the other? The young Quentin, looking for help, meets a hermit of sorts, who serves not the gods, but the one God. That’s an ongoing theme throughout, as author Stephen Lawhead is trying to point readers to the true God. Cautions However, Lawhead sometimes gets it wrong. Quentin is told that God leads by “hunches and nudges” and “very rarely by direct command.” But our God does give us clear direct commands, in His Word, though some who profess to be Christians reject His Word in favor of hunches. Also, when a soldier is dying and asks how to go to heaven, the hermit tells him to just believe, but doesn’t mention anything about repentance. Conclusion While those are notable flaws, and worth bringing up with younger readers, they amount to only a few paragraphs in a rollicking adventure. There is a true and proper villain who had delved deep into the dark arts – he's a necromancer even! – which sharpens the contrast with the hermit, who has turned away from magic to serve his Lord. One feature I really appreciated is that, while this is the first book of a trilogy, it is a full and complete story – this is not the sort of trilogy that is actually one story split over three books. But readers can look forward to Quentin's further adventures in The Warlords of Nin and The Sword and the Flame. Like any great children's book, this will be a great read for adults too – I'd recommend it for 12 and up....

Documentary, Movie Reviews, Watch for free

God of Wonders

Documentary 85 min / 2008 Rating: 7/10 This is a nature documentary that starts at the stars, and touches on just about everything else: lightning, squids, hummingbirds, snow crystals, DNA and butterflies are just a few of the highlights. That’s both the strength and the weakness of the film. The footage is often as remarkable as anything seen on the Discovery Channel, or a National Geographic special, but each time a creature is investigated, we learn only enough to know we would really like to learn more… and then we’re on to the next bit of nature. But there is a method to this madness. The theme of God of Wonders is straight out of Romans 1:19-20: God has revealed Himself in the wonder of his creation. If we reject God, we can’t claim we did so out of ignorance – God, through his creation has left us “without excuse.” Cautions Wonders gets off to a slow start, and at times there might be a few too many talking heads, however, once we're about ten minutes in, it gets rolling. That does mean that even as this would be a great film to watch with a questioning friend – it could be a wonderful evangelistic tool – it won't work if that friend isn't at least a little patient. Conclusions For families used to watching documentaries, this will be another fun one to check out. The breadth of this presentation means there's sure to be something new to learn for everyone watching, from the youngest to the oldest. You can watch it for free in two different ways. It is available in "chapters" on the film's own website GodofWondersvideo.org/chapters.htm. The advantage to watching it in chunks is that it'll create the breaks needed for good discussions. But if you want to watch it for free in one go, you can find it (probably for only a limited time) here at the YouTube channel Christian Movies. Check out the trailer below. ...

Articles, Book Reviews, Children’s picture books

David Wiesner: weird and wonderful

Super creative? Ultra creative? Mega creative? Every good picture book author is imaginative, but somehow David Wiesner (1956- ) manages to be all the more so. His living clouds, flying frogs, and artistic lizards always provide a surprise – a reader starting one of Wiesner's stories will never be able to predict how it is going to end. That's a joy for parents to experience right along with their kids: a children's story that isn't predictable! And since several of Wiesner's works are wordless, they can also be great books for reluctant readers to tackle alongside mom or dad. Wordless doesn't mean it's an easy "read" but together parent and child can put their detective skills to work to figure out all that's going on! What follows are my family's recommendations – our favorites – and then a few that we've read but which for this reason or that, I'm not going to recommend like the rest. Finally, there are three that really aren't worth bothering with. RECOMMENDED Free Fall 1988 / 32 pages A little boy falls asleep and we get to come along in his dream. As dreams often are, this is wordless throughout, one page streaming into the next as the boy goes from meeting a dragon to growing giant-sized, to flying home on a leaf. It makes sense only in the ways that dreams do. But the smart-eyed reader will be able to spot on the last page, when the boy wakes up, all the objects in the room that inspired the different parts of his dream. This is one to “read” slowly and enjoy every picture. Hurricane 1990 / 32 pages Two brothers are worried about a coming hurricane. But when the lights go out, and the family is still together, the boys realize it's not so bad after all. It even gets quite good the next day, when they discover a huge fallen tree in their neighbor’s yard. In the days that follow the huge trunk becomes their spaceship, and the branches a jungle, and the both of them together a pirate-hunting sailboat. Tuesday 1991 / 32 pages The only words we see tell us the time, and that it is a Tuesday. For reasons that are left entirely mysterious, at around 8 pm, a swarm of frogs suddenly starts flying (or is it their lily-pads that are doing the levitating?). They flock into town, chase some birds for fun, watch a little telly, and then, just as they are heading back, dawn breaks, and the sun's rays seem to sap their flying powers. That leaves the whole lot of them hopping back to their pond. This is silly nonsense and kids are sure to love it. Sector 7 1999 / 48 pages A boy on a field trip to the Empire State Building meets a rambunctious cloud (he discovers that clouds are people!) who takes him back to “Sector 7” high up in the sky where the clouds get their orders about what shape of cloud they should be. But the clouds seem a bit bored with these shapes and appear to ask the boy to draw them up some alternatives. And what fun to see clouds mimicking the sea creatures he draws! Eventually, the rambunctious cloud returns the boy to the Empire State Building, but his visit to Sector 7 might have some lasting impact, as the clouds quite like being fish-shaped. This is another of Wiesner’s wordless books and another one that parent and child will have pouring over to see all that the pictures have to say. The Three Pigs 2001 / 40 pages When our middle daughter discovered this one she just had to share it with her younger sister right there and then. This is a creative spin on the old tale as the Big Bad Wolf blows the pigs right out of the story and into some others (including Wiesner's own The Loathsome Dragon). As they travel from storybook to storybook the pigs decide there is no place like home, but also decide to bring along a guest from another story – a dragon! – to give this pesky wolf quite the surprise. Art & Max 2010 / 40 pages This might be my favorite picture book. It involves just two characters, which makes this one easy to read out loud to the kids, and there’s so much energy on each page that performing it becomes so easy to do. Art knows how to paint, and Max desperately wants to learn. (Both are lizards, but aside from the fun way they look, that doesn't really matter.) But who should Max paint? When Aurthur suggests himself, Max literally starts to throw paint on Art. And that’s when it gets wacky! As Max tries to clean the paint off Art, he starts to clean all the color off him. Art is see-through; he’s just lines! Then, when that line starts to unravel, Art becomes just a scribble. Fortunately, his friend Max is on it, and proves, as he turns that scribble into a work of Art, that he has some mad skills too. I Got It! 2018 / 32 pages Once again David Wiesner lets the pictures do (almost) all the talking, When a long flyball is hit into the outfield, a boy declares, “I’ve got it!” which are the only words in the story. But does he really have it? One dropped ball is followed by another, and it’s almost like there are obstacles (getting bigger and bigger) just reaching out to trip him up. His repeated drops have his teammates moving in closer to catch it for him, since he can’t. But then, in one last stretching leap, our boy in red jumps past the obstacles and beats his teammates to the ball for a wonderful game-winning catch. This is a very fun story, but I could see some kids needing a little help to understand what’s going on. But hey, reading together is fantastic! TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT The Loathsome Dragon 1987 / 32 pages An evil queen/stepmother casts a spell which turns a princess into a loathsome dragon. Along comes a brave prince who has to kiss the dragon three times to break the spell. The only twist in this tale is that the brave prince is her brother, and not a husband-to-be, but that’s not enough to make this seem fresh. I should add that while I was unimpressed, my girls liked this a lot more than I did. June 29, 1999 1992 / 32 pages A young girl, Holly, sends vegetable seedlings into the ionosphere for her science project just to see what might happen. Soon after giant vegetables – house-sized and bigger! – start floating down from the sky. But wait! Some of these vegetables are not the sorts that she sent up. So where did those come from? At book’s end we discover the giant vegetables came from a giant alien chef accidentally losing his ingredients while flying above Earth. Very fun to see the giant vegetables all over the landscape but I think it would have been better without the aliens tacked on at the end. Flotsam 2006 / 40 pages When a boy discovers an old-style underwater camera washed up on the beach, he brings the film in to be developed. There he discovers pictures, seemingly taken by underwater creatures themselves, and the world that they live in when we aren’t looking is certainly something to behold: little mermaids and mermen, robotic fish, giant turtles carrying shell cities on their backs, and even what looks like aliens taking rides on the guppies. Done without any text at all, each picture is another discovery. The very last snapshot is of a girl holding up a picture. And in that picture is a boy holding a picture of a girl holding a picture of a boy. A look through a magnifying picture shows this goes deeper still, and further back in time. The boy’s microscope reveals more still layers to the photo. This is inventive and fun, with the only cautions being that the young target audience may have to be informed that though the photos look quite realistic, the aliens and mermen are fantasy, not fact. DON'T BOTHER Mr. Wuffles Tiny tiny aliens have landed, but unfortunately for them, their ship attracts the attention of Mr. Wuffles, who thinks it’s one of his cat toys. To repair their ship the little aliens recruit help from ants and bugs – their treasure trove of lost marbles, pencils, loose change, and paperclips turn out to be just what the aliens need to fix things up. There's some vague religious-type imagery written by the bugs on the house walls that, along with the aliens, makes this one I'd rather just skip. Fish Girl Wiesner’s only graphic novel is the story of a mermaid girl kept captive in an aquarium by the owner who she believes is the god Neptune. It’s odd all the way around, and that she is swimming around topless for most of its 192 pages (though always with strategically placed hair, or fishes) makes this another good one to skip.  Robobaby Robots get their babies in a box, with some assembly required. This story has its quirky charm, but when Mom and Dad, Uncle Manny, and even the Robobaby tech service can’t assemble Junior properly, but the child amongst them knows just what to do, this become just one more adults-are-dumb-and-kids-know-everything story that we can really do without (Prov. 20:29, 22:15). CAUTIONS David Wiesner is an incredibly imaginative picture book author, which makes him very fun to read, but it's that same active imagination that seems to lead him into a bit of over-the-top weirdness now and again. I couldn't figure out what Wiesner's worldview/philosophy is, and it'd be a bit much to conclude he must not be Christian just because he features aliens on occasion, though aliens (at least the intelligent sort) would seem to be incompatible with Christianity (but demons masquerading as aliens would not be). However, there's nothing in his books that would give us reason to conclude he must be Christian. In lieu of evidence one way or the other, that's good reason for parents to approach his future output with some caution. CONCLUSION If you have a creative kid, Wiesner's best could be just the spark they need to think bigger and bolder. And if you have a not-particularly-creative kid, Wiesner might be an inspiration for them too, showing them how there are all sorts of possibilities to explore and fresh ways of looking at things. Finally, if you have a reluctant reader, Wiesner's wordless books – Freefall, Tuesday, Sector 7, and I Got it! – might be an encouragement for them to page through, especially if mom or dad comes alongside....

Book Reviews, Teen non-fiction

Solomon Says: Directives for Young Men

by Mark Horne 148 pages / 2020 If you are not governed by God's Word, which calls you, by the work of the Holy Spirit, to govern yourself, then you will not be more free. Instead, you will be governed by your own urges, and will also lose the ability to govern God's creation, as we were originally called to do (Gen. 1:28). In Solomon Says, Mark Horne shows how Proverbs reveals to young men just how to work out that creation mandate. Here are some of the headings of the chapters and sections Horne writes to show the superiority of wisdom demonstrated in Proverbs over many of the methods our society thinks will get us ahead: Handguns Can't Shoot Down Poverty Immorality Impoverishes You Solomon On Cyberporn Control Chaos, Don't Inflame It – about the power of the tongue Leaving Toxic Talk Culture – a great warning about our social media feeds Wisdom Is Better Than Folly Even When It's Risky Let Go and Let God? – on the need to train in godliness Total Ownership – about the need for making a genuine plan for change Horne's book shows just how practical and up-to-date the wisdom of Proverbs is. There is little explicit mention of Christ, but for young men seeking to live out their commitment to Christ, there is great guidance on "building a better man."...

Adult fiction, Book Reviews

The Last Disciple

by Sigmund Brouwer and Hank Hanegraaff 2004 / 428 pages It’s the year 65 AD, and Gallus Sergius Vitas is one of the last principled men in Rome. He’s also a confidant of Emperor Nero which means his daily life is conducted on a knife’s edge: indulging the emperor’s perverse demands might keep Vitas safe but would compromise the man that he is; yet to openly oppose the emperor would lead to his immediate introduction to the Coliseum’s lions. Our story beings with Vitas attempting this balancing act once again. Nero has dressed as a beast, his outfit comprised of lion and bear skins, complete with collar and a chain held by a servant. His night’s entertainment is to terrorize a group of prisoners while playing the part of a beast. Enjoying their fear, the emperor quickly works himself into a killing frenzy. Vitas sees this all from the shadows and can’t let it happen, knowing, though, that to oppose the emperor is to die. So Vistas yells at the chain-holding servant instead: “If the emperor knows you are involved in illegal torture, he will have you destroyed!” It is, as Brouwer writes: “an all-or-nothing bluff, pretending that he did not know Nero was inside the costume. Trusting that Nero would be too ashamed to admit it. Now. Or later.” Vitas’ bluff works, but not just because of his daring. An earthquake sends Nero scurrying away, convinced that the shaking ground is a sign of divine judgment. It’s a great opening, highlighting the depth’s of the emperor’s perversity, the heights of Vitas’ courage, and the certain presence of God even in these pagans’ lives. In less talented hands, the earthquake’s unlikely timing could have come off as cheesy, since in real life God more often uses “ordinary means” (like doctors’ talents or wise friends’ advice) than miracles to accomplish His ends. But miracles do occur, and Brouwer makes it believable. It’s a good thing too, as this is but the first miracle in a story that’s all about how God used miraculous means – the prophetic words in the book of Revelation – to warn his Church to flee the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. What Brouwer and his writing partner, theologian Hank Hanegraaff, have done here is write an alternative to Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ popular Left Behind series. Where Left Behind places the beast of Revelation 13 in our near future, Brouwer and Hanegraaff place him in the first century, in the near future of those who first received John’s letter. And they identify the beast as Nero and the bloody empire he led. This “partial preterist” (partial past) interpretation of Revelation holds that the book was written before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and the city’s fall is a partial fulfillment of much of the prophecy in Revelation. This, then, is fiction meant to teach as well and entertain, and it does both brilliantly. Brouwer has crafted a story that takes us all around the Mediterranean, with Jews, Romans, and even troubled Christians wrestling with the question of “Who is Jesus?” There’s also political plotting, assassination attempts, sieges, gladiators, and just a touch of romance. The slowest bits are when theologian Hanegraaff has characters take a page or two to teach Vitas and others what a particular passage in Revelation means. If you’re reading it only for the story, these sections might drag, but they are well spaced out. And if you’re interested in learning about the partial preterist interpretation of Revelation, these will be your favorite passages. Cautions One caution: Nero’s depravity, though described with restraint, still means this is not a book for younger teens. If The Last Disciple series has you eager to read more of Sigmund Brouwer’s work, be aware that he is a proponent of theistic evolution, and also an Arminian. That doesn’t come up in this series (or his best book, Innocent Heroes, a treat for kids, teens, and parents alike) but it does come up in some others. Finally, readers should be aware that partial preterism probably isn’t the majority view in Canadian Reformed churches (though I’m not sure what the majority view might be, as Revelation seems to be only rarely discussed). Some do hold it though, and it's also held by Reformed pastors outside our circles such as RC Sproul, Douglas Wilson, and Jay Adams. Conclusion The Last Disciple is a great book, kicking off a great series. The cast of characters is large, so if you’re like me, make sure you get the whole trilogy – The Last Disciple, The Last Sacrifice and The Last Temple – right away, because if you wait too long between books, you may start forgetting who is who. I’d recommend this to anyone who enjoys historical fiction – Sigmund Brouwer has got skills. And if you’d love to have partial preterism explained, well, this is the most entertaining way you could ever learn about it!...

Book Reviews, Children’s fiction, Teen fiction

The Bark of the Bog Owl

by Jonathan Rogers 2014 / 248 pages Our hero, Aidan Errolson, is a medium-sized twelve-year-old with dreams that are far bigger. When we join his story he's just putting the finishing touches on a letter: My Dearest King – You will be glad to learn that I am still available for any quest, adventure, or dangerous mission for which you might need a champion or knight-errant. I specialize in dragon-slaying but would be happy to fight pirates or invading barbarians if circumstances require. I would even be willing to rescue a fair maiden imprisoned by evil relatives. That would not be my first choice, since I am not of marrying age. Still, in peaceful and prosperous times like these, an adventurer takes whatever work he can find... For Aidan, it's all that peace and prosperity that's the problem. While his father was a great warrior, and his grandparents carved out a settlement on Cornwald's wild eastern frontier, Aiden's only excitement comes from the imagined foes he fights in defense of the flock he's been tasked to tend. However, things quickly take a turn. First, Aidan hears the bark of the Bog Owl, a creature that has never been seen. Then the Bog Owl turns out to be one of the feechiefolk, who are no less the stuff of campfire stories, akin to impish elves, or fierce boogeyman, and like them both, entirely made-up. But this feechie boy is anything but... and he wants to wrestle. Second, Bayard the Truthspeaker makes an unannounced stop at the Errolson farm to see, so he says, the "Wilderking of Corenwald." And Bayard declares that it is none other than little brother Aidan. That's quite the surprise, and quite awkward too, because Corenwald already has a king, and the Errolson family are his most loyal supporters. Now, if you're a bit quicker than me, this last bit might be ringing some bells, reminding you of Samuel's visit to the house of Jesse (1 Sam. 16). This is where my middlest caught on, but I needed several more chapters. I finally figured it out when Aidan fights a giant. With a sling. And five stones. In my defense, this is only very loosely based on David – Aidan has to deal not only with a giant, but cannons too, and there's no feechie folk in the original either. That it is inspired by, but does not pretend to be, the story of David is part of what makes this so intriguing. While there'll be no confusing the two tales, Rogers' account will have you reflecting on what a tough position David was in, the king not yet crowned, loyal to, and yet chosen to replace, the failed king. Requirements I usually list any possible cautions for the book being reviewed, but there are none for Bark so I'll list one requirement instead: this absolutely needs to be read aloud. The feechie folk dialogue, as it is paced and misspelled, will have you speaking with the most delightful accent, without even trying. Jonathan Rogers makes it easy for a dad to sound good. Conclusion I really can't praise this one enough. I started reading it on my own, and had to stop midway and start again with my girls because this was simply too good not to share. The Bark of the Bog Owl has been compared to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, not so much for story similarities, but because both are clearly Christian and utterly fantastic fantasy. Bark of the Bog Owl is a book that, if you do read it to your children, you can be sure that one day your grandkids will hear their own parents reading it to them too. The two sequels – The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking – complete the story. This is really one epic tale split into three parts, so be sure to buy the set. You can preview the first 2 chapters here. And for a second opinion, read Hannah Abrahmason's take at Reformed Reader....