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Book Reviews, Graphic novels

The Comic Book Lesson

A graphic novel that shows you how to make comics by Mark Crilley 2022 / 156 pages Emily is a young artist with plans for a comic book - she wants the hero to be a "pet finder" coming to the rescue of any and all who have lost their furry friends. But it's one thing to have a story and the skills to draw it and yet another to know how to transform it into comic book form. So how can she bridge that gap? She just needs the right sort of mentor. What author Mark Crilley has given us is a story showing aspiring cartoonists how they, too, can learn what Emily wants to know – we get to come along for her journey as she meets three talented ladies who are willing to teach. First up is an encounter at the comic store: Emily discovers that the store clerk, a high schooler named Trudy, is a fantastic artist working on a comic project of her own. Emily's enthusiasm and persistence ensure that one impromptu lesson becomes more. Trudy teaches Emily things like pacing – how including adding a couple more frames can make a scene more dramatic – and how a character's eyebrows communicate more about their emotions than a smile or frown. Trudy is so impressed with Emily's work that she introduces her to Madeline, a friend who's already a published cartoonist. The lessons Madeline teaches include: the importance of a "broad" establishing shot before going in for close-ups, and the need to script a comic before you begin drawing it. Madeline, in turn, introduces Emily to her own cartooning mentor, Sophie, who has yet more to teach Emily, like the proper order for word bubbles, and the need to eliminate any possibilities of confusion. While I don't like to include spoilers, for the sake of young readers, I'm going to include one. During her time with Sophie, we find out why Emily was so earnest about her hero being a pet finder: because Emily wasn't able to rescue her own dog. Her loss is poignantly told, which made my one daughter sad enough that she stopped reading. I suspect though, that she might pick it up again. If your child is a sensitive soul, it might help to give them a heads up beforehand. Cautions I'm going to list a few cautions that aren't all that relevant to the mid to older teens this is aimed at, and I only include them because some 10-year-olds and even younger could really enjoy this comic, but with some parental guidance. This is one of the tamest, safest "how-to-cartoon" books you can find (Maker Comics: Draw a Comic is another, though it covers different ground). But parents need to know that comics today contain loads of weirdness. Whether it's the way women are depicted as impossibly buxom and skinny, or the heroic witches, ghosts, and demons that feature in more and more stories, or the queer agenda that's inserted in comics for even the youngest ages, there is a lot of twisted stuff out there. The Comic Book Lesson isn't pushing any of that, but in a few instances this secular work does "bump" into this weirdness. So, for example, Trudy mentions the "Electric Angel Nurse Mizuki" comic she's authored, and we're shown the cover depicting a nurse with wings. Madeline mentions she is writing a comic book about assassins for hire. A customer asks for a copy of Raina Telgemeier's Smile, which is a fine book, but whose sequels take a queer turn. And the 12-or-so-year-old Emily is depicted at a comic store and convention without her parents, which are weirder places than we'd want our 12-year-old to go without us. That's about it. Nothing too bad, but some of it worth a discussion, especially for younger readers. Conclusion Comics can combine not simply exceptional writing but outstanding art, doubling the creative potential to explore. That's why Christians really should dive into this medium. The Comic Book Lesson is a solid piece of "edutainment" that'll give young aspiring artists an introduction to the general approach needed to be able to expand and refine their skills. This is not so much a "how-to-draw" book – there are loads of other books like that – as it is a "how-to-decide-what-to-draw" book. It's about learning how to plan out panels and pages like cartoonists do. For more, watch the video below where the author gives an in-depth (20 minutes long) introduction to his book. If your child loves The Comic Book Lesson, they may be interested in the author's The Drawing Lesson, (2016, 138 pages) which also uses the graphic novel medium to teach, this time about shading, negative space, how to hold a pencil, and seeing things as an artist does. It's a great book, suited for 12 and up with no cautions or concerns other than one use of the word "Jeez." ...

Book Reviews, Teen fiction

The Charlatan’s Boy

by Jonathan Rogers 2010/ 305 pages I love love loved Jonathan Rogers’ Wilderking Trilogy, a children’s fantasy series that echoes the story of David and Saul, though without ever mentioning it, and is set in a kingdom made up of sheep farmers, nobles, castles, and swamps populated by “feechie” creatures that might be men or might just be myth. It was great fun, and when I was done reading it to my daughters, we all wanted more so we were happy to learn that Rogers has also written this stand-alone set in this same universe called. But as much as I enjoyed the story, my girls did not. One reviewer described it as “C.S. Lewis and Mark Twain rolled into one” and while my girls love Lewis, they aren’t about Tom Sawyer-type tricks and hijinks. Twain is simply too nasty for their liking. So I stopped reading it to them, but kept on myself and enjoyed it more and more the further on I went. Floyd is the title charlatan, Grady his boy, and the two of them travel from village to village trying to trick folks into believing that a mudded-up Grady is one of the fearsome and fabled feechies. But when time passes and villagers stop believing in feechies – it’s been so long since anyone’s seen one out in the wild – they stop paying to see feechie acts. So it’s up to Floyd and Grady to make them believe once more. If this was just a tricky Twain story, I don’t know that I would have liked it either. Floyd is a shyster and little more, but Grady's biggest fault is merely the company he keeps. So we've got reason to root for Grady, and reason to hope too. This, then, isn’t a kid’s tale like Wilderking, but something intended for a slightly older crowd, maybe comparable to how Tolkien wrote The Hobbit for the young'uns and Lord of the Rings for the adults – same world, but two different target audiences. So for teens and up, so long as Lewis/Twain is an intriguing combo to you, you’ll really enjoy it....

Articles, Book Reviews

20+ Christian fiction suggestions for your 10-15-year-old boys

I was recently asked for some reading suggestions for boys aged 10-15. This is when boys can sometimes stop reading, so I didn't want to pitch them run-of-the-mill material. Nope, I wanted to hit them with the best of the best, so what follows are my top suggestions. Each includes a short description, and, in most cases, clicking on the title will take you to a longer review. Classics Christian fantasy We'll start with a classic: Lord of the Rings might be a bit much to expect for this age group, but The Hobbit is a shorter, easier entry to Tolkien's Middle Earth, and after that taste, who knows but that they might continue. C.S. Lewis' 7-book Chronicles of Narnia are well-known to most everyone, for good reason. A lesser-known imitator is worth a mention: Canadian author John White has written a good, if not quite up to Lewis-level, 5-book series called The Archives of Anthropos. Some kids eager for more Narnian tales will devour this reasonable facsimile, but it isn't the sure-fire bet that some of the other offerings here are. Sigmund Brouwer My favorite fiction author Sigmund Brouwer happens to be a theistic evolutionist and Arminian, which occasionally comes up in some of his fiction. But not in these two fantastic titles: Innocent Heroes: Stories of Animals in the First World War are all true tales, but lightly fictionalized in that they now all take place in just one Canadian battalion. Everyone in our family love, love, loved it! Wings of Dawn is older and might be hard to find but is worth tracking down. It's a medieval setting with what seems like magic all around, but the magic is actually just new (to the time) discoveries like gunpowder and kites. Very clever! Douglas Bond Douglas Bond is another favorite, and decidedly Reformed. While I wasn't as captivated by his early books, he keeps getting better. All four of these are really great reads: War in the Wasteland is a fictional account of C.S. Lewis's time in World War I's trenches back when he was still an atheist. The Revolt is about John Wycliffe (a Reformer who died more than 100 years before Martin Luther nailed up his 95 theses) and his times. It's books like this that make learning Church history a joy. The Thunder is a fictionalized biography of John Knox. Bond helps this Reformation giant come alive Hostage Lands is really two stories in one, with the first about a boy who doesn't want to learn Latin, but discovers a tablet in Latin telling a story going back to when Rome still ruled the British Isles. Super series Some favorite series include: Andrew Peterson’s The Wingfeather Saga is a 4-book series that has recently been expanded with a short story collection by the author's friends (and the books are now being turned into an animated TV series). Jonathan Roger’s Wilderking Trilogy is another family favorite, inspired by, but not trying to be, the story of King David. S.D. Smith’s The Green Ember has 10 books in the series so far – 4 big and 6 smaller – and I got my kids interested by starting with one of the smaller ones, The Last Archer. That's out of order, so I had to share a little bit of the backstory to clue them in. All it amounted to was telling them that the rabbits were preparing for war, and there had been a traitor in a prominent rabbit family, the Longtreaders, so the rest of the rabbits were suspicious of the whole family, even though the rest were not traitors. That was enough to get my kids started with this smaller, action-packed volume, which they all loved (and which we've read 3 times now). Stephen Lawhead’s In the Hall of the Dragon King is a trilogy. Also good is his Song of Albion trilogy, though it is a more magical series. The inclusion of magic in fantasy fiction can be fun, because it allows for normal rules (like gravity) to be broken. But it is limits that keep a story grounded and connected to the real world, so if a fantasy author doesn't write with some restraint – if it is just magic, magic, and more magic – things can quickly get nonsensical and just plain weird. In Lawhead's Song of Albion there's more magic than In the Hall of the Dragon King, but still tight constraints on it. Those constraints fell by the wayside in Lawhead's later books, which became increasingly odd. So this is not a recommendation for everything he wrote. Piet Prins' Wambu is a 3-book series about a cannibal boy who turns to God, and then returns to his family (who might eat him!) to share God's good news. This is an older series that might be hard to get. Gripping graphic novels Finally, I'll include a couple of graphic novels suggestions that, despite the comic-book format, are weighty enough to require something from the reader. This is educational fare that most in this age group will be able to appreciate: Animal Farm – an all-time classic that might even be better in this more accessible format. The Hobbit: the Graphic Novel is a work of art, and if the original novel is a bit much for a boy, this graphic novel version might be a good alternative. The Giver – a dystopian take on a future 100 years from now when war has been eliminated by muting mankind’s emotions and by eliminating the conflict that comes when we have to make choices. Wonderful one-offs I'll finish off what a potpourri of individual titles. Dangerous Journey is a retelling of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress with modernized text suitable for teens, but pictures only suitable for boys (there are some grim ones!). Gary Schmidt's Pilgrim's Progress is a retelling that might also be good for this age, or for the ambitious, there is the lightly modernized (but to great effect!) edition edited by C.J. Lovik. Anne DeVries' Journey Through the Night tells the story of the Dutch Resistance during World War II. This is a great book, but it's older, which means it might take a little prodding from Mom or Dad, maybe reading the first chapters together, to help your son get interested. Ethan Nicolle's Brave Ollie Possum is not nighttime reading, tackling, as it does, the things that go bump in the night. But many a teen boy will love it. Jonathan Renshaw’s enormous Dawn of Wonder is astonishing, but it is also only the first book in an as yet unfinished series, so here's hoping the sequels don't ruin it. Douglas Wilson’s Flags out Front might seem a bit old for this group, set, as it is, on a Christian college campus. But for 14 and 15-year-olds, beginning to anticipate life after high school, this will show them how, to glorify God in battle, Christians don't need to seek out fights, but just have to be willing to fight the ones that God sets before us. ...

Adult fiction, Book Reviews, Teen fiction

Shane

by Jack Schaefer 1949 / 176 pages Sometimes I reread children’s literature because I enjoy being captured again by the quality of writing and the stir of imagination. I read Laura Ingalls Wilder alongside every Louis L’Amour western in my junior high library. Not one librarian said I couldn’t read them because I was a girl, and thankfully, those same librarians pointed me next to Zane Grey. At age 13 and 14, these westerns were deep to me, even if I did recognize the plot patterns. I loved them. Action, mystery, rescue, the setting sun, the lonely West, and often, a misunderstood man. In the same vein, Jack Schaefer’s very first novel creates a story that’s even more impactful. Shane(1949) began as a short story that was serialized in three parts in Argosy magazine in the late 40s. First titled “Rider from Nowhere,” it wasn’t intended for young children, though it’s certainly suitable. Through the eyes of a child narrator and from his opening description, Schaefer crafts a deeper cowboy character than most, perhaps because we witness Shane’s moral choices and his influence upon an entire family. Dressed with a “hint of men and manners,” Shane mysteriously arrives in the Wyoming valley alone on his horse. I know, I know. It begins like a cliche to our adult eyes. And yes, we soon find out that a few homesteaders are holding out against one greedy rancher. It may seem predictable to an experienced reader but that is not the case for young hearts able to view historical realism with wonder. The appeal is simple. Yet here is where the story veers because Schaefer shows us, rather than tells us, who Shane is as he meets and is hired by homesteader Joe Starrett. Shane carries a chill with him yet is careful of his dress. He’s not large yet he’s wiry and powerful. Within the first day of working for Joe, Shane’s presence alone dissuades the local peddler from cheating Joe. Young Bob shares, “You felt without knowing how that each teetering second could bring a burst of indescribable deadliness…a strange wildness.” Even with an aloof nature, Shane begins a friendship with Bob, sharing chores and sharing wisdom like “What a man knows isn’t important. It’s what he is that counts.” But there are moments when the mystery of who Shane is overshadows his behavior. When he shows Bob how to hold and aim a pistol, a fierce moment of memory hits and Shane freezes, his face described as a “gash.” Bob has to say his name several times to break the hold of the past. Many times, Schaefer describes how Bob recognizes there’s more to Shane, yet Bob, and yes the reader, never learn enough. The story unfolds, tensions rise, and the homesteaders must choose to fight the manipulative mob boss of a rancher. More than once, Bob must watch Shane fight to right a wrong. He sees, and we see, “the flowing brute beauty of line and power in action” as Shane overpowers the rancher’s men. By story’s end, we want more. Schaefer has furrowed our curiosity to a point where we love Shane as much as Bob and his family do, yet we all remain caught in the unknown of who he is and who he was. It remains a true mystery and begs us as readers to ponder, to resolve, to discuss not only who Shane was but also who we are. Christine Norvell blogs at ChristineNorvell.com where a version of this review first appeared....

Book Reviews, Teen fiction

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness

by Andrew Peterson 284 pages / 2008 My wife hasn't read this book, but she enjoyed it too. As I made my way through I couldn't help but read whole chapters to her, or, if she wasn't nearby, the next time she came by I'd update her about all the wackiest bits. And there are a lot of wacky bits. The "Dark Sea of Darkness" in the title gives a clue right off as to Peterson's goofy sense of humor. The subtitle is even better: "Adventure. Peril. Lost Jewels. And the fearsome toothy cows of Skree." While I read the first three chapters to my wife I'll restrain myself here, and pass along only the first few lines of the opening which is titled: "A Brief Introduction to the World of Aerwiar." Peterson wants us to know this takes place on an entirely made-up world so he begins with his own creation story: The old stories tell that when the first person work up on the first morning in the world where this tale takes place, he yawned, stretched, and said to the first thing he saw, "Well, here we are." The man's name was Dwayne, and the first thing he saw was a rock. Next to the rock, though, was a woman named Gladys, who he would learn to get along with very well. In the many ages that followed, that first sentence was taught to children and their children's children and their children's parents' cousins and so on until, quite by accident, all speaking creatures referred to the world around them as Aerwiar That gives a good taste of the fun that is to follow. The heroes of this epic tale are three siblings: Janner and his little brother Tink, and their littler sister Leeli. The villains are the Fangs of Dang, under the direction of the "nameless evil...whose name was Gnag the Nameless." Our story begins nine years after the Fangs sailed across the Dark Sea of Darkness and conquered the lands of Skree, and it is in a little cottage, in this conquered land, that the family Igiby resides: the three children, their mother, and their grandfather. The Fangs are cruel, bureaucratic, and they look exactly like "...humans except for the greenish scales that covered their bodies and the lizard-like snout and the two long venomous fangs that jutted downward from their snarling mouths." Oh, and they have tails. And worst of all, they think the Igbiy's have the lost Jewels of Anniera! Janner, Tink, and Leeli don't know anything about any jewels, but they're curious sorts, and they are eager to find out all they can. So Peterson is writing not just a fantasy, but also a mystery, and certainly a comedy. And he's managed to slip in a really good chase film too. Caution A word of warning might be due as far as the comedy is concerned. Some of it could be described as juvenile: no potty humor, but Janner does, at one point, discover a candle made of "snot wax." Peterson peppers the book with footnotes and for the candle he has this entry: 1. Snot wax is too repulsive a thing about which to write a proper footnote. Then there are the vile Fangs of Dang. Their name gives a good indicator of the line that Peterson draws: it leaves no doubt that they are a vile bunch, but Peterson isn't going to use vile language. And yes, the Fangs like to eat brown lettuce, maggot-loaves, and anything that wriggles, but this humor is all of a sort that will appeal to boys, gross out their sisters, and leave parents largely untroubled. Conclusion But what mom and dad are sure to love is the prominent place that parents have in Peterson's story. In most teen fiction parents are either dead or dumb; the teen hero is either an orphan or wishes he was. Here we have a well-respected mother and a grandpa who is doing what he can to fill in for the sibling's long-dead father. So when Janner makes a big mistake and doesn't know what to do he is smart enough – and he loves and respects his grandpa enough – to know he should go to the old man for help. This might be where the author's Christian faith most comes to the fore. Andrew Peterson is better known as a Christian songwriter, and while this is not a specifically Christian fantasy, the virtues lauded in this book are of the sort found in Philippians 4:8. These three siblings know they can look to their grandpa for guidance, for love, and to see what sacrificial leadership looks like. So I'd recommend this as a very fun and positive book for fathers to read with their boys 10 and up, or in some cases maybe even a couple of years younger if they can handle battles and lizard-like villains. This is a fun one that will have both dad and son laughing, and turning pages quickly. I'm learning too, that while there are some notable distinctions between "girl books" and "boy books" if a dad really loves a book, his daughter is quite likely to love hearing him read it. So this could be a very good dad/daughter book too, maggot-loaf aside, with little Leeli giving daughters someone to cheer on too. This was so good I was thankful to discover there were three more titles in this wild and wacky Wingfeather Saga series, plus a short stories collection! The series has been republished now, with new covers and extra pictures inside, so be sure to get the newer version. It's also being turned into a TV series, and a sneak peek is available below. ...

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....

Book Reviews, Teen fiction

Echo Island: the silence holds a secret

by Jared C. Wilson 251 pages / 2020 After celebrating their high school graduation with one last group camping trip, four friends return home to find the streets empty. The same is true of the sidewalks, the stores, and all of their homes – everyone is gone, and there's no sign of where they went, or what made them go. Bradley, Jason, Archer, and Tim have the whole town to themselves and they can go wherever they want and take whatever they want. But what they want is to solve the mystery in front of them. Of course, this isn't something they can just Google...even if their phones did work. So how are they going to find answers? And maybe the more important question is, are they really alone? I didn't know what I was getting myself into when I started Echo Island. The publisher has this in "Survival stories" and  "Action & Adventure" categories, and that sure doesn't capture it.  "Mystery" or "Christian allegory" are getting closer, but this one is hard to nail down. Is "Twilight Zone" a fiction genre? Maybe it isn't that the book defies description, but more that any proper description would have to include spoilers. So I'm going to leave the description there and move on to who would like Echo Island. Author Jared Wilson said he was writing for teens who liked C.S. Lewis's Narnia series or his Space Trilogy. That's helpful, but I'll add that a 12-year-old who's only just figured out Aslan is a Christ-figure is going to find this frustratingly mysterious, whereas a 16-year old who has been chowing down on The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, and The Hideous Strength will find it intriguingly so. So get it for your older avid-reading teen, and then be sure to borrow it yourself. ...

Book Reviews, Teen fiction

Journey Through the Night

by Anne De Vries 372 pages / 1951 (English version reissued 2001) Christian writers these days, they just don’t know subtlety. They write miraculous stories where the miraculous occur with a regularity that robs it of all wonder. And instead of pitting the Christian character against worldly temptations, they have the hero wrestling actual demons, or even Satan himself. But back when I was a kid, authors like Piet Prins wrote stories that could have actually happened in the real world. Though no actual demons made an appearance in their books, the demonic presence was felt in a much more powerful way, through the actions of human underlings. In Anne De Vries' Journey Through the Night we meet John De Boer, a Dutch boy soon to become a man... if only he survives the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. When the Germans first took over, the De Boer family weren't actively trying to resist. However, as German persecution increases, John and his father are compelled by their conscience into helping Jews and others wanted by the authorities. Our heroes enter into their work for the Dutch underground in an almost grudging manner, but they do the work because they know it is what God wants them to do. When I first read this as a child I wondered why they weren’t eager to jump into the work, into the adventure! I read this part of the book quite differently as an adult, wondering whether I would have had the same courage. That is one of the strengths of this book, I think. It tells a story about the bravery of our fathers, and grandfathers, as they fought against an evil that we too might face one day. Of course, it won’t be the Nazis in our case, but it seems likely we will be similarly tested in one way or another. We can draw courage reading about how God was with his people in this war, whether they were caught by the Nazis, or survived until the Liberation. This story is particularly compelling for teenagers since it focuses on the life of sixteen-year-old John, and his adventures among older soldiers and underground members. But I also know a number of adults who have reread this story and enjoyed it immensely, so I would recommend it for anyone 10 years old and up. As C.S. Lewis said, if a children’s book isn’t worth rereading as an adult, it isn’t much of a book at all. Older folks might remember that Journey Through the Night was originally a four-book series. This new version includes all four books in one pretty sturdy soft-covered edition. Kids probably aren’t going to ask for these books themselves so maybe parents and grandparents out there should consider giving this one as a gift. Who knows, maybe you’ll even be asked to read it out loud to your little descendants. Journey Through the Night really is children's fiction at its very best. Canadians and Americans can buy a copy at Inheritance Publications....

Book Reviews, Teen fiction

The Phantom Tollbooth

by Norton Juster 1961 / 255 pages What kind of book is suitable for study in the Fifth Grade, and in First-Year university English too? It's got to be some kind of weird and wacky wonder to pull that off! The Phantom Tollbooth is a classic, old enough to have been around when I was a kid. It's also famous, so I may have seen it displayed prominently in the kids' section at the local library, but back then I would have been put off by the title – I wasn't into ghost books. I've seen it many times since, but only got past the title when I noticed it among the offerings at the Westminster Theological Seminary bookstore. They're not really about fiction (or ghost stories) so I had to give this a closer look. It turned out the title tollbooth was a phantom only in the sense that it mysteriously appears in the boy Milo's bedroom. For those that might not have run across them – there don't seem to be many of them anymore – a tollbooth is a small building, usually large enough to fit just one person, where people pay to make use of a bridge or road. The author says of Milo "Nothing really interested him – least of all the things that should have” but even his curiosity is piqued to want to test this out. He drives up in his electric toy car, deposits some coins, and suddenly finds himself outside his room, driving rapidly down a road. Among the first people he meets is a watchdog that can talk. And, more importantly, he can tick – Tock is part dog and part pocketwatch! The dog demands to know what Milo is up to. "Just killing time," replied Milo apologetically. "You see–" "KILLING TIME!" roared the dog – so furiously that his alarm went off. "It's bad enough wasting time, without killing it." And he shuddered at the thought. Milo soon learns he is in the Kingdom of Wisdom, a land divided after the old King died. His two sons have set up two cities – Dictionopolis and Digitopolis – with one devoted to words, and the other to numbers. The only thing the two sons could agree on was to banish their two sisters, the princesses Rhyme and Reason, and as you might expect, where neither Rhyme nor Reason can be found, craziness abounds. I was almost a quarter of the way in before I started to get a feel for what sort of book this was. There's some Alice in Wonderland here, with Milo meeting odd sorts speaking confusing but clever things, in a country beyond normal maps. There might be a bit of Pilgrim's Progress too, with Milo learning his lessons by first treading down some wrong paths, and then meeting personifications of troubles he has to contend with. It's not a Christian book, but it is trying to teach a moral – Milo is here to learn that he has lots to learn, and that life is only boring to those too lazy to start exploring. Cautions While there aren't any ghosts, parental eyebrows will be raised when the demons make their appearance. But they aren't that sort of demon. They live in the Land of Ignorance, and have names like Gross Exaggeration, and Horrible Hopping Hindsight. Overbearing Know-it-all is: "a dismal demon who was mostly mouth...ready at a moment's notice to offer misinformation on any subject. And while he tumbled heavily, it was never he who was hurt, but rather, the unfortunate person on whom he fell." The only caution needed is to remind children that demons do exist, and the real ones aren't so funny. Conclusion While this is studied in Grade 5, and my youngest in Grade 2 is quite enjoying it, this is not a book I'd recommend for younger readers to tackle on their own. It is 60 years old, and some language – like "tollbooth" – is unusual today, in need of explanation to pre-teens. And there are puns galore, many of which only a kid who enjoys playing with language will spot on their own. But that shouldn't be a problem, because this is a book that mom or dad could enjoy too, as they read it aloud to all their young charges. So, two enthusiastic thumbs up for any and all who are twelve and up....

Adult fiction, Book Reviews

Dawn of Wonder

by Jonathan Renshaw 2015 / 708 pages This might, at first glance, seem to be your typical boy-meets-girl, boy-dares-girl-to-jump-off-of-a-thousand-foot-high-bridge-into-the-icy-cold-stream-below-and-girl-shows-him-up-by-actually-doing-it, story. And, as many a fantasy tale contains, there are swords, courageous heroes, battles to be fought (and sometimes with large, very toothy creatures), and evil not yet here but lurking ominously. Our hero, Aedan, is not yet thirteen but he has a sharp mind, and he'a had a hard life, which makes him wise beyond those few years. So when an officer comes galloping into the village with warnings of slavers on the way, Aedan is the first to suspect the man might not be the ally he seems. But when no one will listen, his foresight isn't enough to save his not-yet-a-girlfriend-but-already-his-best-friend Kalry. In the adventures that follow Aedan is equal parts determined and desperate, willing to do and try whatever it takes to retrieve, or revenge, his lost companion. The book's size is not so typical – the 700-page first-of-the-series would make for a good doorstop. And not just any story would get my nephew recommending this to all his brothers and sisters, and any friend within earshot too. It is atypical too, in that it accomplished what no other book has managed: it made me look forward to running. I only let myself listen to the fantastic audiobook reading when I was out jogging, and at 30 hours long, it got me out the door roughly 60 times. It is Christian, but not obviously so. The author is content to let the deeper tale – the moral of this story – come out gradually. I should add, I don't know the author is Christian but like the best bits of Narnia, or Lord of the Rings, this book is simply too good, and too true, not to be rooted in the Word. The only downside is that Book 2 still seems to be a good ways out. Fortunately, there is a sense of resolution to Book 1 – it's as satisfactory a cliffhanger as a reader could really hope for. So I'll pass on a most enthused two thumbs up, and express my gratitude to my nephew for being insistent that I should read Dawn of Wonder; I can't recall enjoying a fantasy novel more! To give you an idea of the research the author invested in his novel, the video below is of him investigating whether it is possible – as one of his characters did – to make a decent bow in a single day using just a knife. ...

Book Reviews, Teen fiction

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 are three full-size sequels – Ember Falls, Ember Rising, and Ember's End – as well as five small books that occur in the same rabbit world, but follow different characters. The Last Archer and its sequels, The First Fowler and The Archer's Cup, could serve as a good intro to the whole Green Ember series, because they stand on their own, and were a little simpler to follow for my own young listeners (ages 5-9). That's out of order, but all the kids would have to know is that the rabbits are preparing for an enemy, and most rabbits are suspicious of the Longtreader family, because one of them had been a traitor...though the rest never were. With that backstory, kids can start with this smaller, action-packed volume. The other two, The Wreck and Rise of Whitson Mariner, and The Black Star of Kingston, should be read after reading Green Ember. For those of us with voracious readers, it is quite the blessing to find a fantastic and enormous – more than 2,000 pages in all! – series like Green Ember. ...

Book excerpts, Book Reviews

When C.S. Lewis was an atheist...

An excerpt from Douglas Bond’s novel War in the Wasteland Editor’s note: This excerpt takes place during a prolonged Germany artillery barrage that has the British hunkering deep down in their trenches. Private Nigel Hopkins ends up deep underground with his two of his Company’s junior officers, 2cnd Lieutenant Johnson and 2cnd Lieutenant C.S. Lewis. With nothing to do but wait the two officers restart a conversation they began some days before about the meaning of it all. Lewis, at this point in his life, was an atheist, and, in some ways, a thoughtful one. But in this exchange (in which we come mid-way) Johnson exposes how Lewis’s argument against God is not, as Lewis seemed to suppose, a matter of cold logic, but rather emotion. **** For several moments, listening to the continuing barrage, sitting in total darkness, no one said anything. Lewis broke the silence, his tone sober, brooding, almost simmering: “My mother was a rock, the fortress of our existence. When she died our fortress crumbled.” “I am so terribly sorry,” said Johnson softly. “You were how old?” “Nine. Almost ten.” “Tender age,” said Johnson. “Such a pity. How did you cope?” “I became an atheist.” “Why an atheist?” “Why not? I had prayed – nobody could have prayed more earnestly than I. She died, my praying notwithstanding. God did not answer.” “I am truly sorry for you,” said Johnson. “You need not be,” said Lewis. “It’s just the facts. Facing them is the same as growing up, leaving childish ways behind.” “‘God did not answer,’ you say,” said Johnson, picking his way cautiously, so it seemed to Nigel. ”Ergo, He does not exist? It sounds to me as if you do believe in God, but want Him on a leash, dutifully at your side, a tame lion, coming when you call, doing your bidding.” “Balderdash,” said Lewis. “‘Facing the facts,’ as you call it,” continued Johnson. “I’m rather fond of facts myself. Enlighten me. Did you decide not to believe in God because you had grappled with the evidence and had concluded that no such divine being existed? Or did you – I mean no offense, mind you – did you decide not to believe in such a being because you were angry with Him for not healing your mother? Put simply, was your unbelief in God to spite Him?” “That’s more balderdash. It was –“ Lewis broke off, saved by a rapid staccato of exploding ordinance above them. After another uncomfortable silence, Johnson cleared his throat and began again. “One wonders if it makes rational sense to organize one’s metaphysics around the notion that by simply choosing not to believe in someone that this someone, thereby, no longer exists. If that actually worked, I’d commence not believing in the Kaiser – Poof! Away with him. Poof! Away with the firing their ordinance at us right now. Poof! Away with the whole dashed war.” “All right, all right. Perhaps, strictly speaking,” said Lewis. “Perhaps, I did not become an atheist. I do not know.” “I used to think I was one,” said Johnson, striking a match. “But at the end of the day, Jack, atheism is too simple, wholly inadequate to explain the complexities of life, a boy’s philosophy. That’s what it is.” Lewis, mesmerized by the flickering match light, sat brooding, seeming not to hear him. “Perhaps I had become something worse.” As he proceeded his voice was a strained monotone, each word coming like a lash. “Perhaps it was then that I began to think of God, if He exists at all, as malevolent, a cosmic sadist, inflicting pain on his creatures for sport. Or an eternal vivisector, toying with his human rats merely for curiosity or amusement.” It was pitch dark again. Listening to the exploding artillery rounds above them, no one said anything for several minutes. Nigel concluded that, furious as it yet was, clearly the main force of the bombardment was winding down. He wondered if one of the German howitzers had jammed, or if the British counterbattery fire had managed to take out some of the enemy’s big guns. It was Lieutenant Lewis who broke the silence. His voice was barely audible in the dark. “I wish I could remember her face.” If you’ve enjoyed this excerpt, be sure to pick up a copy of Douglas Bond’s novel “War in the Wasteland” which can be found at any online retailer. And you may also like "The Resistance," a sequel of sorts, which takes place during World War II....

Book Reviews, Graphic novels, Teen fiction

Animal Farm: The Graphic Novel

by George Orwell (& Odyr) 2019 / 172 pages For those that don’t know the original, Orwell wrote his allegory in World War II to highlight the dangers of creeping totalitarianism. Instead of a country, his setting is that of a farm, and instead of an oppressive government, things are run by Mr. Jones, who treats Manor Farm’s “citizens” – the pigs, horses, sheep, chickens, and more – like they were animals! One night, Old Major, a pig respected by all, tells the others of his vision of a better world in which Man is overthrown and all the animals are free to benefit from their own labor. Two legs are the enemy, and all on four legs, or with wings, are treated as equal. The animals embrace his vision, and when the old pig dies peacefully in his sleep, three younger pigs take it upon themselves to develop and expand on Old Major’s vision. They craft “Animalism” and appoint themselves as leaders of the movement. When the animals rebel against Farmer Jones, they successively drive him off and take over the farm. The story that follows has clear parallels to that of the 1917 Russian Revolution, that began with noble-sounding aims – freedom from oppression, equality of all – but which quickly evolved into simply another form of totalitarianism. The animals find that, though they are free of the farmer, they aren’t free of having to follow orders. The pigs have them working harder than before, and they are fed no better. Their swine leaders are soon living in the farmer’s house and eating well. But they deserve it, right? After all, they need to be properly provided for, so they can provide direction! It soon becomes evident that while “all animals are equal…some animals are more equal than others.” CAUTIONS Because this is a graphic novel, there are a few pages of violent content depicted. But Odyr’s is a think-line, smudged-pastel style, leaving the gory details mostly a blur. So while these pictures might be a bit much for a child, they are nothing that would disturb a teen. The only other caution I’ll offer concerns the lesson being learned. Orwell was no Christian, so even as he makes a case against the godless tyranny of totalitarian rulers the world over, he isn’t able to offer a better alternative…so it is fortunate he doesn’t even propose one. However, that means Christian readers will have to do that work for themselves. We can agree with Orwell about the problem: that man has a bent for tyranny and that larger the government the more they can insert themselves into our lives (1 Samuel 8:10-22). But we also know there is a proper, though limited, role for government, specifically to punish evil (Romans 13:1-7). CONCLUSION This is a brilliant adaptation of Orwell’s classic work, with a mix of colorful and also stark images that will grab any reader’s attention. Odyr has made Animal Farm accessible to age groups and casual readers that might otherwise never read it. While I highly recommend this as a gift for teens, it would be a waste to hand it off to your son or daughter and then leave it at that. Unless an adult helps them understand that message behind the story, they aren’t likely to see the real-world application, and will completely miss Orwell’s warning about the dangers of big governments of all sorts. ...

Book Reviews, Teen fiction

Hunger Winter

by Rob Currie 2020 / 236 pages Author Rob Currie drops his readers right into the action in the opening scene, with an anxious neighbor furiously banging on the front door to tell 13-year-old Dirk Ingelse that the Nazis have his older sister. And they'll be coming for him next! It's November 11, 1944, and while the Allies have started liberating the Netherlands, the Ingelse farmstead near Oosterbeek, is still under German control. What makes it even more difficult for Dirk is that he has no one to turn to. His mother had suddenly passed away not too long before, and his father is in hiding, working for the Resistance.  That's left just him and his older sister Els to take care of their six-year-old sister Anna. Now Els has been arrested, and Dirk has to run. But where to? That's when he remembers his Tante Cora less than a half day's walking away. The book is, in a sense, one big chase with Dirk doing his best to keep his sister safe, finding brief moments of calm, and then having to run again. Dirk shows himself to be a clever boy, and daring even despite his fears, as he finds hidings spots, and escape opportunities, and even figures out how best to fight the Nazis who are after them. As we follow along with Dirk and Anna, we also get occasional peaks into how Els is doing, facing her Gestapo interrogators. In another way, this is all about Dirk trying to live up to the example his father set for him. He has a good dad who invested in him by spending time with him, so even though Dirk doesn't have his dad around right when he most needs him, the teen is constantly hearing his dad's advice come back to him whenever he needs to make another decision. CAUTION There are no cautions to list, but maybe I'll note one disappointment: for a book by a Christian author, and put out by a Christian publisher, I would have expected God to be more than a minor character. Even as the importance of prayer is mentioned with some regularity, God Himself is not. Maybe the author is trying to portray a journey in Dirk's relationship with God, going from nominally Christian at the beginning – he doesn't pray, except at his little sister's insistence – to something at least a little deeper at the end. But God's near-absence is odd, especially considering this is a book about people in life and death circumstances. CONCLUSION That said, this is an intriguing, entertaining, and fast-paced story, with the whole book taking place over just three weeks. And while there are some tense moments, it all gets tied up nice and neatly, making this a great book for ages 10 to maybe 14. The Netherlands setting will appeal to the many RP readers who have a Dutch background, and the time period – the "Hunger Winter" of 1944-45, when Allies hadn't yet liberated all the Dutch, and the Germans weren't bothering to feed them – is one that teens may not have read too much about before. So there's a lot of reasons this is a very interesting read....

Book Reviews, Children’s fiction, Teen fiction

Brave Ollie Possum

by Ethan Nicolle 373 pages / 2019 If you were ever a scaredy-cat, or if you might have one in your family, this could be a fun story to read together... though you might have to do so during the daytime, with all the lights on. It's about nine-year-old Ollie Mackerelli, who is so afraid of things that go bump in the night that he's taken up permanent residence in his parents' bed. This is about how he learned to be brave. But his transformation doesn't happen quickly. Things start off with cowardly Ollie running to his parents' bedroom yet again to crawl under the sheets with them. That's a safe place to be, but it does come with a cost: three people in a double bed leave his dad with bags under his eyes and a scowl on his face. He wants to know when Ollie is going to grow up and stop being afraid of imaginary monsters. Then, mysteriously. Mizz Fuzzlebuzzle, a very strange, very large lady shows up at the Mackerellis' door. She offers to take their son to a "special go-away fun place where children like Ollie can be taken and all his fears will be gobbled up." Who is this lady? Her card says she specializes in "professional anti-scary therapy and comfortology." Desperate, the sleep-deprived parents hand off their son to the expert, hoping she'll be able to help. But here's the twist: Mizz Fuzzlebuzzle isn't actually an expert in anti-scary therapy. She's actually an ogre. And all those bumps in the night? It's her pet monster making them. Ollie was right all along! But being right won't get him out of the clutches of this ogre. And to make matters worse, she wants to eat him. It turns out scared children are an ogre delicacy. But despite being scared, Ollie gathers enough courage to spray the ogre with one of her own magic potions. Sadly, ogres aren't susceptible to magic potions. People are, though, so when the ogre spits the potion right back at him, Ollie is transformed into a creature that passes out in the face of danger: Ollie becomes a possum. The rest of this rollicking tale is about Ollie, with the help of some animal friends, learning what true courage is: that it's not about being unafraid, but about facing our fears and going on anyway. The author of Brave Ollie Possum is one of the folks behind the Christian satire site Babylonbee.com so the book is every bit as funny as you might expect. Another highlight is the artwork. This is a full-size novel, but it could almost be called a picture book, with fantastic, fun illustrations every three pages or so. CAUTION The only caution I'll note is that this book about being brave is, at times, scary. I think it might be the book I am most looking forward to reading to my children, but there is no way I could read this as their bed-time story, or even in the middle of the day. I'm going to have to wait a bit, probably until they are all at least nine. CONCLUSION But for kids over ten and over, particularly boys, this will be so much fun. And for certain 9-year-old kids who are scared of what goes bump in the night, this could be a good day-time read with mom and dad to help a little one learn what being brave is all about. ...

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....

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How to get our boys to read

In a 2010 Wall Street Journal article, Thomas Spence argues that the way some “experts” were trying to encourage boys to read was all wrong. Their strategy involved pitching boys books like Goosebumps, Sir Fartsalot, Captain Underpants and The Day My Butt Went Psycho. If we want boys to read, so this line of thinking goes, then let’s give them the potty humor they adore. That’ll make them readers, right? It might get some reading, but what it won’t do is give them any of the benefits that come from reading good books. Thomas Spence insists that instead of “meeting where they are at” we need to aim higher, and he quotes C.S. Lewis: “The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likable, disgusting, and hateful.” If we point our sons to what’s disgusting and encourage their interest, how can we expect them to learn and appreciate what is good? How can our boys become men if, instead of training them up in the way they should go (Prov. 22:6), we reinforce their childishness? Instead of the gross, we need to fill our shelves with what’s great. We need to give our boys examples to aspire to, in books like Encyclopedia Brown, Saint George and the Dragon, The Green Ember, The Hobbit, Journey Through the Night, and Wambu: The Chieftain's Son. Of course, it’s one thing to stock our shelves, and another to get our boys to pull books off of them. How do we get them reading? Two tips: start early, and get rid of the distractions. Read to your son from the day he's born. Sure, a newborn won’t understand what’s being read, but he will love the time sitting on mom or dad’s lap. As he gets older, he’ll enjoy board books’ for their soft chewy corners and bright colors. Then simple stories can help him learn colors and numbers and all sorts of other words. A child who never remembers a time when he hasn’t been read to won’t have to be taught to appreciate stories – by the time he hits Grade One it’ll be in his DNA. But like any habit, this one can be broken. In his article Thomas Spence cites the findings of a Dr. Robert Weis, who linked video games in the home with lower academic performance. I’m sure a similar connection could be made between TV viewing and reading ability. The fact is, no matter how good the book, it can't compete with video games and TV shows for a boy’s attention – given a choice he’s going to watch a screen rather than read. If we want to raise readers then we need to limit their access to electronic media – we need to guard them against these distractions, indulging in them only in moderation. This is going to be tough. One of the reasons we parents like TV shows and video games is they can act as effective babysitters. A boy glued to the TV, or busy trying to make it to Level 3, isn’t going to be pulling his little sister’s hair. And if he’s busy then Mom’s probably got at least 20 minutes to hop into the shower, or get breakfast ready, or put away the laundry. A lot can get done when this babysitter is helping out. Now consider that not only does the TV have to be turned off, but mom or dad needs to read to the kidlets for 15, 20, 30 minutes a day, right from babyhood onward. For a busy set of parents this might seem like just another chore to add to all the others. But here’s a bit of encouragement: it isn’t going to be forever, and it does work. A child can read on their own at 6 or 7, and while it’s wonderful to keep reading with them after that, it’s not the same sort of necessity. At that point you can switch up from being the book reader to being the book supplier, pointing them to the very best ones (and I have suggestions on some really good ones here and here). Regular reading might mean you don’t have time to tidy the house, or your lawn isn’t mowed nearly as often as it should be. But are you going to look back and regret the length of your lawn? And will your son reap a real benefit from reading with you each day through Grade One and beyond? Reading daily, for just a half dozen years or so, and you’ll have helped him develop an appreciation of good books that can benefit your son for his lifetime....

Book Reviews, Teen fiction

If we survive

by Andrew Klavan 352 pages / 2013 "We came to Costa Verdes to build a wall. I just wish I could tell you that all of us made it out alive." Will Peterson is a 16-year-old visiting a small Central American village with his church's mission team, there to help rebuild the local cinder-block school. They've finished the work and are waiting in the cantina for the bus to take them back home when the room is suddenly filled with rebel soldiers and the pot-bellied, smiling waiter, who had been joking with them only moments before, is now on the floor, shot dead by the rebel leader. What happens next is a not-so unusual chase-type adventure. The rebels have taken over the government and are executing anyone for any reason, and they don't want to let any American witnesses get out of the country alive. So now these church kids, along with an unexpected helper, are on the run, barely staying ahead of these murderous bandits. What makes this something special is the characters in it. The most intriguing might be Jim Nolan, a 16-year-old intellectual who has read the biography and op-ed articles of the country's rebel leader...and who believes everything he's read. Even when the rebels start killing people, Jim is sure they're fighting for justice. Even when the guns are turned their direction, he's just as sure that it's all a horrible mistake, and if he can only talk to someone, things can be straightened out. Jim steadfastly holds onto his rebel sympathies despite all the bloodshed around him. Author Andrew Klavan makes clear why Jim remains so loyal: because a lot of what he's being reading, about how the government was oppressing the country's poorest, is entirely true. Klavan isn't taking a cheap shot at the naivety of liberals here – this is a more nuanced look that admits the problems the Left points out might well be problems, even as the solutions they suggest are no solutions at all. Or, in the context of this story, just because the government is bad doesn't make the rebels good. That’s an important lesson for Klaven’s target age group to learn, as teens (and many an adult too) will often stake their ground, not on God’s Truth, but simply as a knee-jerk reaction against lies they’ve been able to see through. Christians need to understand that the opposite of a lie is not necessarily the truth – as was once said, there are two ways to fall off a horse, and to react against one lie might well be to overcompensate and fall for the equally wrong but opposite error. Will is also a well-developed character. He came on the trip as a way of escaping his home life: mom and dad are always arguing and, he thinks, on the path to divorce. But now, unbelievably, things have gotten a whole lot worse, and as Will and the others bounce from one crisis to another, he has to battle a very understandable sense of panic. He does so by remembering two things: a Hemingway quote that cowardice is "a lack of ability to suspend the functioning of the imagination." advice from his youth pastor, who once told the group, "Don't worry about anything – pray about everything." CAUTIONS While praying is always good advice, the way Will's prayers are depicted in the story makes it seems like it is more the act of praying, and not the God he is speaking to, that really helps Will. Another caution worth noting is that while the church mission group is Protestant (and seemingly some sort of conservative Evangelical) there are positive, if brief, portrayals of other religions. This includes Roman Catholicism, in which a priest has a key role in saving them, and the villagers' ancient spirituality, when the missions group is invited to sit in on a pagan festival of lights. However, Will keeps to the facts, describing what they see, but not digging into what it all means. A discerning reader would have reason to presume Klavan believes Roman Catholicism isn't importantly different from Protestantism, but that isn't a message the author is trying to hammer home here. CONCLUSION This is a gripping read that any teenage boy would really enjoy, and dad won't mind either. And if dad does join in, this could be a leap off point for some really good conversations about: the American role as policeman of the world one-sided news coverage, both from the Left and Right, and how that compares to what God tells us about the importance of hearing both sides in Prov. 18:17 courage and what it really involves what prayer to God is actually why we find nice people following other gods, or worshipping God in wrong ways So, overall, I'd recommend this for teen guys with a little discernment, and a willingness to talk things through with their parents....

Adult fiction, Book Reviews, Teen fiction

Devilish correspondence: Lord Foulgrin’s and Screwtape’s letters

THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS200 pages / 1942by C. S. Lewis &LORD FOULGRIN'S LETTERS208 pages / 2001by Randy Alcorn Some 75 years ago, as C. S. Lewis reports it, he intercepted correspondence between two devils, the one a senior demon and the other his student being taught how best to tempt and attack Man. While Lewis refused to share how he’d come by these letters, the published correspondence was eye-opening, giving insight into how the Devil can twist not only our weaknesses, but even our strengths, to his devilish ends. So, for example, we get to listen in as the experienced tempter Screwtape teaches his charge, Wormwood to sidetrack prayer, either by making it perfunctory – perhaps done regularly, but with little to no thought – or by making it feelings, rather than God, focused. Either diversion will do. While Lewis wrote (or discovered) The Screwtape Letters during World War II, it remains as insightful and as helpful as ever. But it was also a book worthy of imitation, and nearly 60 years later Randy Alcorn did just that, with his Lord Foulgrin’s Letters. However, while Lewis stuck strictly to devilish correspondence, Alcorn alternates between letters and story chapters – it is half mail, and half narrative. The narrative sections make Alcorn’s book a little more accessible for a teen audience, while, on the other hand, Lewis’ is the more insightful, which also makes it the most satisfying of the two for adults. But both are excellent. One caution: both books have an Arminian flavor, and, as my brother Jeff points out, “whether this Arminian tendency is simply the devil’s mistaken understanding is not clear, but Lewis at least seemed to be Arminian in his other writing.” That means, while both books can serve as a warning of the devil’s many means of attack, there’s at least a few that Lewis and Alcorn overlook. I understand that some might find the devilish focus of both books disturbing. It might seem wrong since Christians don’t normally want their children reading books about demons. What makes Alcorn’s and Lewis’ books different from the devilish taint that exists in so much of today’s entertainment (Hellboy, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, DC Legends of Tomorrow, etc.) is that Lewis and Alcorn expose, but don’t celebrate, the darkness. They are equipping readers to be aware of the Devil, not asking them to join him. That’s quite the difference indeed. Below is a 8 minute adaptation/preview of Lewis's "The Screwtape letters." ...

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