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Adult fiction, Book Reviews, Teen fiction

The Winter King

by Christine Cohen 351 pages / 2019 15-year-old Cora lives in a time of horses, and swords, and meat pies. It's also a time of poverty, and bitter winters, and threadbare clothing, and not enough food to make it through to Spring. To make things even worse, ever since Cora’s father was killed, the village has treated her and her family as if they are cursed, and as if that curse is contagious. But no matter, Cora is resourceful, and she’ll do just about anything to ensure her family lives through the winter. But how does a young girl stand up, by her lonesome, to the village god, the tyrannical Winter King, who is taking their food? I didn’t know quite what to think of this book in the early stages. While the village other villagers were religious, Cora was not. And she was the hero. So how was this a Christian book, then, if the god in the story seemed to be the bad guy? Well, as one reviewer noted, this is a very Protestant book in that Cora rejects a false religion in favor of the true one. She rejects the false representation of the Winter King that the village’s religious authorities maintain. But then she uncovers a book that tells a very different story about this King, presenting instead, a God who loves. CAUTIONS Cora is bitter and sometimes manipulative, and so driven to keep her family fed that she does stuff that she should not. There's good reason for her desperation – death is reaching for her whole family – but that it is understandable makes it tricky ground for the younger reader to tread. This is not a heroine in a white hat, and for the pre-teen, or even younger teen reader, used to simpler morality tales, they might not have the discernment skills yet to be able to cheer on a hero whose actions are not always praiseworthy. I feel like I'm making Cora sound darker than she is. There is surely darkness in her – but there is also a darkness around her that she is fighting, futilely at first. And then hope comes. CONCLUSION From the cover to even the way the pages are laid out, this is a gorgeous book, with a deep and satisfying story. I'd recommend it for 15 and up, but I know adults will find this has real depth to it that they'll enjoy exploring. ...

Book Reviews, Teen fiction

The City of Ember

12-year-old Doon wants to save his city but he’s got quite the problem because he has no idea how to do it. The even bigger problem? Unbeknownst to him, his city is under a mountain. More than 200 years ago, when humanity was facing some type of impending doom, a decision was made to hide away a remnant deep underground for 200 years in a specially prepared city, the City of Ember. But when 200 years have passed no one alive remembers there is another world out there – the only light that Doon and the other Emberites know is provided by light bulbs powered by their mighty generator. But there’s another problem: that generator is starting to break down. The biggest problem of all? No one will admit what’s happening. To the rescue comes Doon’s friend Lina, who uncovers some long-lost and only partially intact instructions from the city’s original Builders. The two friends need to pierce the instructions back together if they are going to save their families before all of Ember’s lights go dark. Caution The only caution concerns religion. The Builders – those who first created the city – are revered in a vaguely spiritual way by a small number of citizens, but they are only mentioned in passing. More noticeable is how God isn't ever mentioned, even as the Emberites worry about their world coming to an end. Conclusion A post-apocalyptic tale is not your typical pre-teen/teen fare, but this is more an intriguing-mystery than it is a tense-drama. I think anyone over 10 would enjoy it, and that includes their parents. I know I sure enjoyed it! There are two very good sequels (though the original is still the best) called, The People of Sparks, and, The Diamond of Darkhold. There is also a fourth book, a prequel set more than 200 years before Doon and Lina are born, and while I haven't yet read it, from most accounts, it is not very good....

Adult fiction, Book Reviews, Teen fiction

The Seraph’s Path

by Neil Dykstra 2019 / 475 pages Maybe I should have gotten someone else to review this, what with me sharing the same last name as the author. But this is a fantasy title, so I had to take a peek. And once I got started I wasn’t going to hand it off. Besides, the two of us aren’t actually related. I know Neil, but only well enough to recall he is the superior volleyball player, and nowhere near well enough to have had an inkling he could serve up something like this. It’s remarkable! The Seraph’s Path has quite the cast of characters, but it is mostly the story of Dyrk, a young horse trainer who wants to make something of himself, in part, because his parents don’t seem to think about him much at all. Our story begins with Dyrk determined to enter a competition his father won’t even let him watch. Somehow he finagles his way in, and reaches the final round, a free-for-all among 16 mounted soldiers-in-training, with the last man standing guaranteed entry into the King’s own College. I won’t tell you what happens, but I will say that for every good thing that happens to Dyrk something bad soon follows…and vice versa. The wonder of fantasy fiction is that anything can happen. Young children can open a wardrobe and get transported to a world of talking beasts. Or little fellows with hairy feet can be trusted with a mission that the most powerful could never accomplish. Or a horse trainer can suddenly find himself delivering the mail mounted on a flying tarn. The problem with fantasy fiction is just the same: anything can happen. That means if the author doesn’t have a tight hold on the reins the story can run amuck, and quickly lose all connection with the real world. If you haven’t read much fantasy, you might think a world of dragons, gryphons, and flaming swords couldn’t possibly ring true. But the author has pulled it off. In The Seraph’s Path, Dyrk doesn’t understand the opposite sex, and he’s prone to dig himself deeper via ongoing procrastination, and then he can’t figure out how best to ask for forgiveness. There’s something very real about this made-up world. I was also impressed with how patient the author is and I’ll give one example. In this world, the god Arren is served by seven Seraphs. Dyrk sends his prayers via those angelic servants because he thinks Arren is too holy to approach directly. If that strikes you as Roman Catholic-esque, I’d agree. But isn’t Dyrk our hero? So how can he, via his repeated prayers, be teaching us something so very wrong? Well, a few hundred pages in Dyrk has his first encounter with people who talk to Arren directly. And he doesn’t know what to think about that.  By the end of this book, the issue is still unresolved, but our hero has been given something to think about. Caution I can only think of one caution worth noting. At one point a key character faces sexual temptation, and while the passage is not lurid – there’s nothing here that would make grandma blush – it is sad and realistic enough that pre-teen readers might find it distressing. Conclusion Dykstra has engaged in some downright Tolkien-esque world-building, with not only exotic creatures and nations to discover, but layer upon layer of legend and history shaping the events. If you never made it through The Hobbit, or you haven’t read a fantasy book with a glossary in the back to help you keep track of the characters, then this might be too intense a read for you. But if you want a whole new world to explore, and a story that’ll not only entertain but really get you thinking, you’re going to love The Seraph’s Path. I finished this nearly 500-page tome in 3 days, and the only downside to it was the cliff-hanger ending. So I was very happy to discover that the 700-page sequel, The Seraph’s Calling has just been released. I look forward to finding out what happens next! You can buy both books at Amazon.com and Amazon.ca....

Adult fiction, Children’s fiction, Teen fiction

After Lewis and Tolkien

A conversation about Christian Fantasy with Bell Mountain author Lee Duigon It’s hard to believe but C.S. Lewis has been gone from this earth long enough for his works to have entered into the public domain – in Canada that happens 50 years after the author’s death. His good friend J.R.R. Tolkien outlived him by a decade, but has been gone now for four. How is it, then, that their fantasy fiction remains as popular as it ever has been? The answer, in part, is because the secular fantasy fiction doesn’t understand the way the world really is. That’s the secret to great fantasy writing – it has to be anchored in reality for it to have an impact. Yes, there can be wizards and elves and all sorts of unreal creatures, but at its core a fantasy novel has to say something truly true. So, while Tolkien was far more subtle than Lewis about the inclusion of his Judeo-Christian worldview, it was this worldview that allowed him to see and share truths about the pull of temptation, the strength of humility, and the nature of love. Lewis’s series is intriguing for children, but it is his Christian understanding of man’s failings and God’s grace that give the books enough depth for adults to read again and again. However, if it was these two men’s Christian worldview that elevated their fiction, then why, in the decades since their deaths, haven’t we seen other Christian writers joining them at the top of the fantasy genre? Why, in fact, is most of the fantasy you’ll find in a Christian bookstore simply dreadful? These are good questions, and Lee Duigon is the right man to ask. He’s not only blogged about how to improve the state of Christian fantasy (see www.LeeDuigon.com), he set out to do something about it himself. Since 2010 he’s published eleven books in his Bell Mountain fantasy series about a boy and a girl and an assassin and a wise clever squirrel-like creature who all set out on a quest. A review will be coming, so it will suffice here to say, these are a better brand of Christian fantasy fiction then we’ve seen in a long time. Mr. Duigon graciously agreed to an interview and what follows is an edited version. Magic, wizards, elves, and dragons are core elements of most fantasy. But your Bell Mountain series doesn’t have any of them. Why not? For one thing, wizards, elves, and dragons have all become clichés. Fantasy is supposed to ignite your imagination, but clichés have the opposite effect. Wizards, elves, and dragons have been so overdone it’s like, “Oh, well, ho-hum, there’s some elves.” They’re so common in the literature, they might as well be checkout clerks at your local supermarket. In my books I have replaced these with figures which I hope readers will find refreshingly unusual. Instead of elves, I have little, hairy, manlike creatures – like Wytt – who fulfill the literary function of being “other than human,” but are intelligent and able to interact with humans. Instead of dragons, I have creatures patterned after little-known prehistoric animals. And instead of wizards, I offer some dangerous and nasty human beings who play at being wizards and create the illusion of having magical powers. As for magic, well, the reason I don’t use it is because it seems a lazy writing device. Things in a story that get done by “magic” might also be accomplished by hard work, ingenuity, faith, hope, or love, and wouldn’t that be far more interesting? We are God’s creation, living in the world He created and subject to His laws of nature, whether we like it or not. Genuine “magic” – as opposed to technology or trickery that only looks like magic – would circumvent or overturn those laws, thus making the magician himself a kind of god. So on the one hand, the writer who resorts to magic is lazy, using it as a shortcut to getting things done. On the other, he is imagining something which is not allowed. God has not permitted us to do real magic. It would disorder His Creation – and surely we already make enough mischief without any magic whatsoever. So would you still classify your books as fantasy, and if so, how would you define fantasy as a genre? I say my stories are fantasy because they describe an imaginary world, different from ours but still subject to God’s laws. The whole point of fantasy is to fire up the reader’s imagination: to gain access to regions of the heart and mind not easily reached by other kinds of fiction. An excellent example of this is the classic fantasy movie, The Princess Bride. There’s nothing in that story that violates God’s laws of nature. But it’s certainly full of unusual people, places, and things. To that formula I have added the presupposition that God reigns in my imaginary world just as He reigns in our own. And following the trail blazed by C.S. Lewis in his Chronicles of Narnia, I have the characters in my fantasy world interacting with God’s will and coming to know Him better – although their interaction with God is more like it is in our own world than in Narnia. God speaks to them through scripture, prophecy, and promptings of the spirit – with the occasional use of a spiritual messenger. For this my inspiration and model is not fiction, but the Bible. Why do so many readers crave fantasy? For the same reason we crave science fiction, romance, westerns or what have you. For escape, of course. Now the whole idea of escape is to go to a better place, from a worse. People don’t tunnel into prison camps. So the fantasy reader has always the desire to seek a better world, an imaginary world, and escape into it, if only for as long as it takes to read the book. How are we able to imagine a world that seems better to us than the one we live in? If you imagine yourself in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, for instance, you have monsters and dragons to deal with, not to mention a terrible Dark Lord. But you don’t have politicians’ lies to listen to, enormous taxes sucked out of your paycheck, race hustlers, militant sodomy, squawking idiot liberal churchmen, or natural beauty spots torn down to make way for “smart growth.” You don’t have any of that. So you escape to Middle-Earth for a few hours and are all the better for it. How is it, asks Puddleglum in C.S. Lewis‘ The Silver Chair, that a few children playing a game can imagine a play-world that licks the supposed “real” world hollow? Because the God who made us built into us an unfailing desire for something better. Our worldly leaders promise us a better world, but can’t deliver. Our Science with one hand gives us air conditioning and YouTube, but with the other gives us nerve gas and Darwinism. Our worldly philosophers give us what can only be described as dreck. God gives us salvation and a promise to regenerate His whole creation, but many of us don’t seem very interested in that. Tolkien said that Christianity is the one myth that is true. We should be hearing that from our theologians and our pastors, but in all too many cases, we don’t. Never mind. We’ve got the Bible, and it tells us the truth. That’s where the thirsting fantasy writer found the water of life – because that’s where it is. What reasons are there for Christians, and particularly parents, to be wary of secular fiction? What are its most common faults? Its biggest fault is that most of it seems to be written with the presupposition that there is no God. It also omits any mention of description of the religious dimension of human life. If a space alien were to try to learn about life on earth by sampling our fiction, he’d never know there was any such thing as a religious impulse. And that’s not a realistic description of human life, unless you want to count what goes on in faculty lounges. On your blog (LeeDuigon.com) you point to C.S. Lewis as an example of Christian fantasy done right. What does he get right? In his Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis makes it clear that the source and creation of all life is Jesus Christ, symbolized by the Great Lion, Aslan. And Aslan tells the children who come into Narnia from our world that they were there because He has called them; and that they will know Him in their own world, too – only “by another name.” It takes a very dense reader not to know that this other name is Jesus. This is what Lewis gets right. In all seven Narnia books, the theme is getting to know Christ. For the most part, this is accomplished through obedience and love. This is a very big thing to get right. Though you praise Lewis, you’ve also written that you respect parents who have a problem with the way Lewis uses magic in some sections of his books. Could you explain? As a former atheist groping his way to a better knowledge of Christ, Lewis did makes some mistakes along the way. I cringe when one of his characters says, “It’s all in Plato.” Anyone who comes to Christ through Plato has performed a very neat trick. The real magic in Narnia, the “Deep Magic,” belongs to Aslan/Jesus. In that sense it isn’t magic at all, but rather the underlying law of all reality. But then there’s the White Witch, whose magic imposes winter on all Narnia for many decades. She is not human, and her “magic” can do nothing but destroy. She cannot create. There’s also “minor magic” done by some of the characters in Narnia, and magic attempted by lawless human beings like Uncle Andrew – “magic” that never turns out as desired. I can’t say why Lewis allowed this. His friend, Tolkien, warned him not to. Tolkien saw it as a flaw, and I agree. The only Biblical basis for it is Pharaoh’s magicians’ ability to imitate the first few miracles that God performed against Egypt through Moses and Aaron. The witch of Endor did succeed in raising the ghost of Samuel, but I always feel she was surprised it actually worked. But all the rest of the “magic” in the Bible is revealed as fraud; and that’s how I handle it in my own books. By allowing a certain amount of magic in Narnia, Lewis deviated from the Biblical model. In deference to his evident love and reverence for Christ, I overlook it as a human failing. But those readers who are uneasy with it – and I’ve heard from quite a few of them – have nothing to apologize for. I wanted to ask you about the role of magic in Christian and secular fantasy. I’ve just been reading a series by Christian author Andrew Peterson, his Wingfeather Saga, and he uses a conversation between mother and son to lay out his own thoughts on magic. After the son has a vision, his mother tells him: If you asked a kitten, "how does a bumblebee fly?" the answer would probably be "Magic!"  is full of wonders and some call it magic. This is a gift from the Maker - it isn't something that Leeli created or meant to do, nor did you mean to see these images. You didn't seek to bend the ways of the world to your will. You stumbled on this thing the way a kitten happens upon a flower where a bumblebee has lit. What do you think of Peterson’s take on magic here? And what principles do you think Christian authors should follow in using magic? I like what Peterson writes here. It’s an elegant way of saying that just because we perceive a thing as “magical” doesn’t mean it really is. We are a long way from understanding everything about how God’s creation works. The kitten sees the bumblebee’s flight as “magic.” And if you brought a flashlight into the world of King Arthur, his people would think it was a magical item. In my books I don’t use magic at all. My fantasy world contains a few pieces of technology left over from an ancient period of history. Readers will understand that these are not magical items, but the characters in the stories won’t. The few individuals who get a chance to use these items think they’re making magic. If a Christian writer simply must use “magic,” he would do well to remember that all power comes from God. It would be a challenge to square that with a story in which a teenage girl uses a magic spell to lasso her dreamboy (ugh – there’s so much of that in YA fiction). As a matter of realism, I would always allow the appearance, or the illusion, of magic. We still have plenty of that in our own world today. I would allow fantastic creatures, as long as they don’t violate the laws of nature – as would, for example, a flying hippopotamus. But to a person living in another world – a world, say, where unicorns exist – a kangaroo or a chameleon or an octopus might seem an utterly fantastic creature which he might refuse to believe in. If a fantasy can’t stir up a sense of wonder, it isn’t much of a fantasy. As Ray Harryhausen used to say, no one goes to the movies to see a sinkful of dirty dishes. But “magic” has been so overused in fantasy, it’s really more of a challenge to the writer’s imagination to get things done without magic. Why is so much Christian fantasy fiction so bad? It seems to be a rule of the market that when demand for a certain kind of story is high, but the supply is low, publishers fill the gap by publishing bad books. Fantasy, especially among young readers, is very popular. And there’s a demand for stories that don’t insult the Christian reader’s sensibilities. Simply, there isn’t enough high-quality fantasy being written to meet the demand. That’s because it isn’t so easy to write as a lot of people think it is. Some Christian writers seem to think that the rules of literature shouldn’t apply to them because they’re writing about the Kingdom of God. So they feel perfectly free to traffic in corny dialogue, one-dimensional characters, ridiculous coincidences, and clumsy language. But all you wind up with, that way, is a bad book. But while a lot of Christian fantasy is bad, a lot of secular fantasy is bad, too. I’ve read fantasies so awful, they could dry up ponds. I’ve read Christian fantasies in which the writer excelled at handling his theme, only to have his book go belly-up because he can’t write dialogue. Few authors have a gift for fantasy, but that doesn’t stop everyone and his brother from thinking they can write it. What are some of the most common mistakes made in Christian fantasy writing? Here’s a couple: 1) Write it as if it were a perfectly ordinary fantasy story, like everybody else’s, only plug in a few scenes of characters praying or going to church. Like Christian rap and Christian rock and Christians vs. Zombies video games, Christian fantasy is too often a not-very-good imitation of a secular pop culture product with some outward trappings added. I read a “Christian thriller” recently in which the good guys, every now and then, as if it had just popped into their heads for a moment, would pray or casually make some trifling Bible reference like, “Yeah, we gotta hang tough, like David.” Period. My rule of thumb is, if the story can get on without the “religion” you’ve put in it, then that’s not a critical element and you haven’t written a Christian fantasy. And that’s usually because the writer has mistaken the outward appearance of Christianity for the real thing. It’s easy to throw in a few sentences that show your characters praying or going to church. The mistake in “Christian fiction” is to settle for that. 2) Have God give the good guys better magic than the bad guys have. Remember what happened to Moses when he snapped at the children of Israel, “Must we fetch you water out of this rock?” God did all the miracles, but here was Moses taking credit for one of them. I just read a book featuring a great big magical duel, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. “May the mightiest magician win!” is hardly a sentiment found anywhere in the Bible. What we do find in the Bible is God using weak and inconsequential things to confound the great and powerful. So Balaam is rebuked by his donkey, David slays Goliath, and the whole world is conquered not by armies, but by a baby in a manger. Any attempt to write Christian fantasy must be anchored in the truths of the Bible, be they applied to this world or to an imaginary world, and must focus on the spirit of Christianity rather than any outward show of it – unless, of course, you’re writing about the vanity of outward show. In a Christian fantasy, the story must grow out of the writer’s quest to know God better and to share Him with the readers – and all without being heavy-handed, obvious, or preachy. Over that last several years there has been a dystopian trend in the Young Adult bestsellers with books like The Hunger Games and Divergent and Maze Runner. Many of these same books have teens killing teens. Why are Young Adult books so grim these days? YA books are dark and unwholesome because they’re written by adults with troubled souls and a superficial understanding of life. Maze Runner, for instance, is idle, pointless cruelty, obviously not written by a teenager. It’s a common fallacy among the pseudo-intelligent that whatever is ugly, painful, destructive or mean must be “realistic.” On the other hand, Divergent is written by a professing Christian who seems to be warning us not to let our world deteriorate into the grim and nasty world of her stories. Every day, we’re all bombarded by bad news, always stuff we can’t do anything about. Enough of this will make anybody downhearted – which is just another good reason for writers and readers alike to steep themselves in the Bible. Why should Christians read fantasy…and write it? How can fantasy be “truer” than some other genres of fiction? Fantasy is like poetry. A good fantasy gets under your skin. It says more than it appears to say. If you’re writing Christian fantasy, what you’re doing is going into the parable business. You’re writing extended parables. And although Christ’s short parables were fiction, He used them to tell truths. This is what our long parables should do. Christians should write fantasy because there’s such a high demand for it, especially among the younger readers. If Christians don’t write it, non-Christians and anti-Christians will. Do we really want to concede such a big chunk of our popular culture to the godless? Christians should remember how energetically, a few years ago, the ungodly pushed – to teens and pre-teens – Philip Pullman’s aggressive atheist fantasy, The Golden Compass. We ought to be competing with junk like that and trying to crowd it off the shelves. I won’t say Christians “should” read fantasy. It’s a matter of personal taste. But if the fantasy writer’s art is up to the challenge, and the reader is open to it, a visit to an imaginary world can sometimes shock the reader out of his habit of taking reality for granted: and by showing him strange new things, we may move him to see the old familiar things from a new perspective. In my books I force my characters to live in contact with God and His will. He’s shaking their world, and won’t allow them to take Him for granted anymore. Let the reader wonder, “Wow! What must that be like?” If I’ve gotten the reader to think along such lines, I think I’ve done a good job. This article was first published online on May 4, 2017....

Lists, Teen fiction

5 fun preteen/teen fiction titles

Today's library is very different from the one we all grew up with, and nowhere is that difference more noticeable than in the teen section. Even in my small, 99 percent Christian, town the teen section is filled with books that would have made my grandma blush - fiction and non-fiction in which teen sex, homosexuality, transgenderism, or atheism play a prominent part. And I've lost count of all the novels featuring vampires, werewolves and witches. Some of this is dangerous, and some of it just dumb. But in either case, there are better novels out there. Here are five suggestions that are not just safe, but super – these are really good reads! The Captive Maiden by Melanie Dickerson 2013 / 304 pages This is Cinderella reimagined, with all the famous bits altered but included: it has the carriage (but it was never a pumpkin), the slipper (but not made of glass), the ball, (but now it's more of a jousting tournament), and the fairy godmother role (though she not a fairy or a godmother). Author Melanie Dickerson gives new life to the story by taking the magic out of it, bringing in an additional villain, and making the key characters sincere Christians. My only reservation would be one I have for all romance literature: they celebrate just the one stage of love – the beginning – to the exclusion of all that comes afterwards. But “afterwards” is very important, so if a teen girl ingests too many books about ball-attending, sword-fighting, head-turning Prince Charmings, they may well overlook that fellow right in front of them – the Bible-believing, hardworking, diaper-changing ordinary Joe. So while the occasional romance novel isn't a problem, these aren’t the sort of books that should be ingested one after another. Dickerson does a good job of keeping us wondering what new twists and turns she is going to add to this familiar tale. It is definitely aimed at teen girls with a little too much angst for anyone over 18. But adults could enjoy this as a nice light read too. The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic by Jennifer Trafton 340 pages / 2011 Mount Majestic is a fun romp, with all sorts of inventive ingredients: • Piles of poison-tongued jumping turtles • A castle built on top of a mountain that rises and falls once each day. • A tyrant twelve-year-old pepper-hoarding king • A terrible, life-changing, island-threatening 1,000 year old secret Books with good girl heroes are hard to find. Most often the heroine is decidedly boyish (or at the very least tomboy-ish): armor-wearing, sword-swinging, that sort of thing. But Persimmony Smudge is a different sort. She dreams of battles, yes, but when it comes down to it, it’s her brain and her bravery, and not her battle skills, that save the day. While I suspect the author is Christian there is no mention made of God. The only “supernatural” elements are a prophetic Lyre-That-Never-Lies, and clay pots that give the recipient what they need (and not what they might want). When the question is asked about who it is that puts the gifts in the pots, and puts “words of truth into the strings of a Lyre” the only answer we get is, “I have no idea.” So Mount Majestic is simply a fun read, without any spiritual depth – that dimension is left unexplored. Highly recommended, for girls in Grade 3 through early teens. When Lighting Struck! The Story of Martin Luther by Danika Cooley 231 pages / 2015 This year marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg and I can't think of a more enjoyable way to learn about the man than grabbing a copy of When Lighting Struck! The target audience is teens, but like any fantastic book, adults are sure to enjoy it too. This is fiction which means means parts of this are made up, including lots of the day-to-day dialogue, but the key events are all true. It didn't take much to make Luther's life exciting: as doubt-filled as he was early on, the Reformer was even more bombastic after he understood that forgiveness is a gift given, not earned. This is a man who: • was condemned by the pope as a heretic • had 200 knights pledge to protect him • didn't want to marry lest he quickly leave his wife a widow • was kidnapped • masqueraded as a knight • helped formulate the German language • cared for Plague victims • ended up marrying a nun And it would be easy to go on and on. Put the story of such a man into the hands of a talented writer and what you're left with is a book anyone will just tear through. War in the Wasteland by Douglas Bond 273 pages / 2016 "Second Lieutenant C.S. Lewis in the trenches of WWI" – if that doesn't grab you, I don't know what will. War in the Wasteland is a novel about teenage Lewis's time on the front lines of the First World War. At this point in his life, at just 19, Lewis is an atheist, and his hellish surroundings seem to confirm for him that there is no God. When men are hunkered down in their trenches waiting through another enemy artillery barrage, there is a motivation to talk about life's most important matters. Lewis’s fellow junior officer is a good debater, and won't let Lewis's atheistic thinking go unchallenged. Their dialogue is imagined – this is a fictionalized account – but the author pulls the points and counterpoints of their back and forth argument straight out of the books Lewis wrote after he turned from atheism and became one of the best known Christian apologists on the planet. War in the Wasteland comes to a solid and satisfying conclusion, which is a neat trick, consider that Lewis's story of conversion is, at this point, very much incomplete. This would be great for older teens and adults who have an interest in history, World War I, apologetics, or C.S. Lewis. Bond has crafted something remarkable here. The Green Ember by S.D. Smith 365 pages / 2015 “Rabbits with swords” – it’s an irresistible combination, and all I had to say to get my two oldest daughters to beg me to start reading. As you might expect of a sword epic, this has a feudal feel, with rabbit lords and ladies, and noble rabbit knights and, of course, villainous wolves. This is children’s fiction, intended for preteens and early teens, so naturally the heroes are children too. The story begins with siblings Pickett and Heather being torn from the only home they’ve known, pursued by wolves, and separated from their parents and baby brother. It’s this last detail that might warrant some caution as to how appropriate this would be for the very young. It isn’t clear if mom, dad and baby Jack are dead…but it seems like that might well be, and that could be a bit much for the very young (I’m planning on skipping over that bit when I get to it with my preschool daughters). They escape to a community that is hidden away from the ravaging wolves, and made up of exiled rabbits that once lived in the Great Wood. Their former and peaceful realm fell to the wolves after it was betrayed from within, so now these rabbits in exile look forward to a time when the Great Wood will be restored. Or as one of the wisest of these rabbits puts it, …we anticipate the Mended Wood, the Great Wood healed…. We sing about it. We paint it. We make crutches and soups and have gardens and weddings and babies. This is a place out of time. A window into the past and the future world. Though God is never mentioned, and the rabbits have no religious observance of any kind, author S.D. Smith’s Christian worldview comes through in passages like this, that parallel the way we can recall a perfect past, and look forward to a perfected future. It’s this depth that makes this more than just a rollicking tale of rabbits in peril. There is prequel, The Black Star of Kingston, and a sequel, Ember Falls, which are both very good, but this is the book to start with. So, my overall take is two very enthusiastic thumbs up for anyone ten and up. Longer version of these reviews can be found at www.ReallyGoodReads.com....