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Articles, Book Reviews, Teen fiction

Rediscovering Gordon Korman

Gordon Korman famously wrote his first book, This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall!, when he was twelve years old. By the time I was twelve, he’d written a dozen or so more – which was fortunate for me, because I was eagerly reading and re-reading them all. Why did I love his novels? They were funny; they were quirky. There was also an essential good-naturedness to them that appealed to me. Although the characters got into plenty of trouble, at heart they were usually kids with integrity, showing loyalty, generosity, and kindness. As time went on, Korman continued to write prolifically and successfully. He still wrote some of the humorous novels for kids and teens that had made him famous, but he branched into other genres as well, writing, for example, several sports series and adventure trilogies. By now I had more or less outgrown his books . . . but I still had a soft spot for this favorite author, and occasionally checked out his new releases. I found many of them less memorable than his earlier “classics”; and some of them seemed edgier, with less likeable (though more realistic) characters. I was troubled by one teen novel called Pop (2000) – a book Korman was particularly proud of – because of the eventual suicide of the aging, dementia-stricken former football star, which is portrayed as a sympathetic, even noble act. Although I nostalgically looked forward to sharing my old favorite Korman novels with my own young kids, I wasn’t so sure about his newer ones. Then, within the last six or seven years, a few new Gordon Korman books caught my eye – books like Slacker (2016), Restart (2017), The Unteachables (2019), and more. Nephews and nieces were raving about them, and soon I was hooked too. They felt like a new era of Korman novels – like the novels I would’ve expected this talented author to grow up to write. Some of Korman’s recent books are more or less pure silliness, but clean and positive, with creative storylines, fun characters, and some laugh-out-loud lines. Others are surprisingly serious, dealing with topics like the realities of war and the Holocaust, as well as domestic abuse (some of these books are definitely not for younger readers). Single parents and broken families are presented matter-of-factly, though not glamorized; many of Korman’s characters are struggling with life changes such as their parents’ divorce. In general, the characters feel a bit “older” than some of the kids in our communities, as the seventh- and eighth-graders are often quite caught up in social media and sometimes in girlfriend/boyfriend relationships. Unfortunately Korman does occasionally (though rarely) use God’s name in vain. In both Restart and Linked, for example – award-winning and otherwise commendable books – there is a flippant use or two. To me, Restart marked the real beginning of Korman at his thoughtful best, as he deals with interesting questions about good and evil, human nature, character, and choices; and Linked addresses deep questions about the purpose of life, religion, and faith, as the main character searches for what’s real and meaningful. So I regret that I can’t wholeheartedly recommend these two. Here, though, are a few others I can. Slacker 2016 / 240 pages Cameron Boxer is all about video gaming. When his parents get concerned that he’s missing out on real life, he starts a fake school group, the Positive Action Group, to appease the adults in his life. Unexpectedly, the “PAG” takes off, dragging the unenthusiastic gamer along – and, of course, surprising him by showing how much more satisfying a purposeful, other-centered life can be. One of the strengths of this (very funny) book is how Korman gets into the heads of his characters, and especially of the underachieving adolescent Boxer, whose life choices (i.e., gaming above all) make perfect sense to him, and who is honestly miffed when real-life concerns “disturb his lifestyle.” By the end, thankfully, Boxer is able to reflect that PAG “started as a hoax, but . . . ended up the realest thing about me.” Operation Do-over 2022 / 320 pages Twelve-year-old Mason made one big mistake – he betrayed his lifelong best friend over a girl they both liked. Five years later, through a mysterious time warp, he finds himself back in time, to just before the fateful incident occurred – with a unique chance for a “do-over.” He takes the chance, with the benefit of hindsight and some extra maturity, to change several things in his life this time around: try out for a team, stand up to a bully, treat a classmate better, and even keep his beloved dog from a premature death. (Interestingly, he realizes he’s not able to prevent his parents’ divorce, though he tries.) As in Restart, Korman leaves his readers with some hopeful and encouraging ideas: our “fate” isn’t predetermined, and we can make choices that change our trajectory and lead to a more positive future. The Fort 2022 / 256 pages This novel, Korman’s milestone 100th book, is a serious (and a moving) one, and although the characters are eighth-graders, the topics are pretty weighty for middle-school readers. A group of friends discover a Cold-War-era bunker in the woods, and it becomes their secret hide-out. All of them are dealing with difficult issues – OCD, family breakdown, the challenge of fitting in, family members with drug addictions – and one of them, unknown to everyone else, has a violent stepfather at home. For him, the fort becomes his literal escape, and the novel largely revolves around his story. Korman writes the different chapters, powerfully, from the points of view of the different characters. Despite the serious subject matter, we see friends showing loyalty and self-sacrifice, and are again left with the idea that positive change is possible. Conclusion Although Korman has said he’s “not a message kind of guy,” he is interested in the power of stories to help readers explore ideas and see things from different perspectives. And even if he’s not pushing a particular agenda, books do inevitably communicate something of the worldview of a writer. In the case of Korman’s books, there are a lot of hopeful takeaways for young readers: people can change, and we can make choices to change our futures for the better. Understanding and empathy can triumph over bullying and racism. Our lives can and should be about something bigger than ourselves, and grappling with what that means is a worthwhile pursuit. Positive messages, and true . . . but so incomplete. Now my oldest son is nearly twelve. (And yes, he’s been enjoying many of my old favorite Gordon Korman books.) As he and his siblings and peers grow up and confront the big questions of life, I’m grateful that we have more complete answers, and real hope, to offer – far beyond anything they’ll find in a Korman novel. At the same time, books like Korman’s have their place – as thought-provoking reads, or sometimes just as well-written stories that bring joy and make us laugh. And I know that I, and my kids, are looking forward to seeing where Gordon Korman takes us in the books to come....

Adult fiction, Book Reviews

The White Rose Resists: a novel of the German students who defied Hitler

by Amanda Barratt 2020 / 320 pages In Amanda Barratt’s novel The White Rose Resists, a candle is being lit in the midst of the Nazi darkness that has cast its shadow upon the world. The White Rose was a group of five college students and a professor operating in Munich, Germany. Their goal was to combat the Nazi propaganda that was blinding the German people. The White Rose accomplished this by printing and distributing leaflets, giving a voice to the truth. Their leaflets detailed and denounced the atrocities that were being committed against the Jews across Europe. The group called for the students of Germany to rise up against Hitler. I really enjoyed this novel. Barrett does a terrific job bringing this historic resistance group to life. She was able to blend fact with fiction to create a cohesive narrative of what this group may have experienced. This Christian author weaves in a message on God’s sovereignty. Members of the White Rose grapple with their faith and ultimately come to the knowledge that God’s will must be done. They place their trust and hope in Him to give them the strength they need to pass through their trials and tribulations. When darkness has seemed to triumph, God, in his sovereignty, begins lighting candles so that the darkness will not overcome the light. The White Rose was one of many candles that God used to bring down Hitler and his Nazi regime. This book is a great read for teenager and adult alike. The only criticism I have to offer is that the author blended several German words into the narrative. Initially, this was quite distracting but improved as the novel progressed....

Book Reviews, Teen fiction

Urchin of the Riding Stars

by M.I. McAllister 2021 / 299 pages This was so good I just had to read bits of it out loud to my wife. It's an animals-with-swords tale, the hedgehogs, otters, moles, and squirrels all living together in the same island kingdom under the good King Brushen. But all is not well in the kingdom of Mistmantle – there are “cullings” being done to the newborn handicapped children. This is quite the somber subject for a children’s book, and as the cullings are considered for the elderly too, it’s clear that the author is speaking to both abortion and euthanasia. The young Urchin is very much opposed, but his heroes, Captains Crispin and Padra, don’t seem to be doing anything to stop it, and the third captain, Husk, seems to be enjoying it! So who are the good guys then? Who can Urchin turn to for help to save these children? It turns out some of the good guys are indeed good, but, on the other hand, some turn out to be really, really bad. This a fairytale that takes seriously the Chesterton quote about dragons: “Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.” There is evil in this book, and that might even turn off some of its target preteen to early teen audience. But it gets to be quite the rollicking adventure soon enough, full of courtly intrigue, conspiracies, and heroes being heroic. I think the author is Christian, and the God of this story is referred to as “the Heart.” This spiritual element isn’t huge, but it is persistent, and doesn’t stray into anything weird or wacky. I know this will be a book I’ll enjoy reading to my kids. An otherwise entertaining second book in this Mistmantle Chronicles series is marred by an agenda-pushing, albeit passing, mention of a female priest. The first book stands well enough on its own, though, so in our house, I think we’re going to start and stop with number one....

Book Reviews, Teen fiction

The Always War

by Margaret Peterson Haddix 2011 / 197 pages When my 13-year-old got a gift certificate to the local bookstore, it was an excuse for the two of us to spend some serious time perusing the shelves. But after an hour we’d discovered there wasn’t much there for her that she hadn’t already read. The teen books were either silly stories about teen crushes, or weird stuff about witches, demons, and vampires. We finally settled on something with a cover that looked almost like some 1950s nostalgia, only to later discover one of the key characters had two dads. Another trip to the same store ended up with a decent book, but on the final page the author noted he uses “they/them” pronouns. Third try was the charm... sort of. We found something by a preteen author I'd heard was quite popular, and whose books I'd seen in our Christian school library. But while the book we settled on – Margaret Peterson Haddix’s Found (2008, 314 pages) – wasn't bad, I appreciated it more for being harmless than stupendous. It’s a time travel adventure/mystery, with a bunch of adopted children trying to figure out where they came from. There’s the typical cautions – kids acting behind their parents’ backs, along with a couple passing mentions of evolution – but none of the newer cautions needed. Peterson isn’t advocating for amputative surgeries on youth or adults (as the fellow with the “they/them” pronouns implicitly is, by pretending that gender is changeable), or for alternative lifestyles. The biggest caution I’d have concerns the fact that this is just the first of Peterson’s eight-book The Missing series, and at roughly 300 pages each, even if they all turn out to be mostly harmless, that’s a lot of cotton candy for any kid to be ingesting. I’ll also add a concern about whether this would be good or bad for adoptive kids to read, as the topic of adoption, and kids searching for who they are, is a big part of the story. Finally, as just a general caution on the author, I do know another book  (Double Identity) by this author that features a female pastor as a major character. So it was more like one thumb up for this one. But while I'm not going to be continuing with that series, it was still good enough for me to check out more Haddix material. And now I've found one I think worth recommending. The Always War is a mystery of sorts, set in a world like our own, yet one that has been in a constant war for the last 75 years. We come along for the ride with Tessa, a girl who still reads old stories, even though no one else does anymore. She's at a celebration for a young war hero, a pilot named Gideon, that doesn't go as expected – instead of accepting his award for bravery, Gideon runs off. Why would a hero run away from his adoring and appreciative fellow citizens? Well, as Tessa slowly begins to discover, Gideon doesn't think he's a hero, because he did his arial combat, not from the sky, but from behind a computer – he was flying a drone. And he has discovered that instead of hitting a legitimate military target, he seems to have hit a civilian marketplace. Distraught, Gideon is determined to fly down to the marketplace to offer his repentance, for whatever that's worth. And Tessa comes along for the ride. But Gideon has to go behind the military's back, work with black market privateers, and sneak past his own border guards. Then, when they arrive, nothing is as he expected. There are no angry grieving crowds to meet him. In fact there's nothing at all! So what's going on? What's actually real? The mystery lasts most of the book, which means that this requires a reader with some patience. As for concerns, God is not a part of this world, and seeing as one of the themes of this story is about discerning reality from what authorities tell us is real, that the characters simply rely on their own wherewithal makes a bit too much of Man. But that's the biggest problem. A good read for 12 and up so long as they don't mind working through a mystery bit by bit – they will need to have some patience....

Adult fiction, Book Reviews

The Battle for Seattle

by Douglas Bond 2016 / 303 pages Even Canadians have probably heard of Paul Revere’s daring midnight ride to Lexington, Massachusetts…but have you heard of the “Paul Revere of the Puget Sound”? That’s who we meet in Douglas Bond’s book Battle for Seattle, where we experience the conflict between the American settlers and the Native American tribes of the Puget Sound, which is an inlet off the Pacific Ocean in northwest Washington State. This historical fiction follows the life of William “Bill” Tidd, one of the early settlers of area. Although some local Native tribes are friendly towards Tidd and the others settlers, not all are as amiable. Tidd begins hearing rumors of a coming war between settlers and Natives. In an attempt to stop this war before it can begin, Tidd joins up with a local group called the Eaton Rangers who are tasked with capturing the warring Native chief. After being betrayed by one of the Rangers and ambushed by Natives, Tidd must ride through danger to ask for backup, beginning his role as a dispatch rider in the Puget Sound Indian War. Although Tidd had his fair share of daring rides during the war, the title of the “Paul Revere of the Puget Sound” does not fall to him. I’m not going to give it away; you’ll have to read Bond’s book to find out who really holds the title.  The reader is able to follow Tidd in more than his adventures as a dispatch rider, but also in his internal struggle with faith. After the deaths of his parents, Tidd slammed the door on God, but due to the evangelism of some close friends, we see that door starting to creak open.  Although Bond does a terrific job weaving a cohesive narrative of William Tidd, it must be noted that this is a fictional novel and not a history. The major events are true but much of the narrative and some characters have been imagined to allow this story to be told....

Book Reviews, Teen fiction

The Hobgoblins: a novel on John Bunyan

by Douglas Bond 2020 / 268 pages There are people who carry out such heinous acts and live such immoral lives that we’d think, surely they could never be saved. And in 17th-century England, many would have thought that about the young John Bunyan. Yes, this is the same Bunyan who penned the most famous Christian allegory in history, Pilgrim’s Progress. But the man he became is not how he began. In Bond’s remarkable Hobgoblins, we are transported back to Bunyan’s early years. His friend Harry Wylie is the narrator, and was one of Bunyan’s partners-in-crime, however unwilling. Wylie witnessed firsthand Bunyan’s immoral lifestyle: from stealing boats to blasphemous tirades, Wylie was there for it all.  It was no doubt a shock for Wylie to watch this same man move from an unsaved blasphemer to: a fledging Christian who was utterly convinced that his past sinful life disqualified him from God’s saving grace. a despairing Christian convinced that his wife’s death was a punishment from God. a comforted Christian realizing that Christ’s blood covers all. a bold preacher spreading the Good News  a pastor imprisoned for spreading the true Gospel  Bunyan had many opportunities to gain his freedom by promising the authorities he’d stop preaching, but each time Bunyan refused. This refusal resulted in over a decade in prison apart from his wife and four young children. Would we have the same convictions?  Although the author does a terrific job weaving a cohesive narrative of Bunyan’s life, readers should note this is a fictionalized history. The major events are true but much of the narrative has been imagined to allow this story to be told.  I really enjoyed this book. Bunyan’s life is a reminder to all Christians that however heinous or wicked someone may be, they are not beyond the saving power of Christ. Bunyan, however unworthy he may have thought himself to be, was one of Christ’s lost sheep that was found and returned to the fold....

Adult fiction, Book Reviews

Letters Along The Way, from a Senior Saint to a Junior Saint

by D.A. Carson & John Woodbridge 2022 / 373 pages Christians have long had the chance, in C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, to eavesdrop on the correspondence between two demons, one young, and the other a senior demon intent on passing along the knowledge necessary to lead Christians to damnation. Now, in Letters Along The Way, we have the opportunity to read the mail exchanged between two saints, both intent on spreading the gospel to the world. We can follow along, by way of their correspondence, as senior saint Paul Woodson mentors Tim Journeyman on the path from unbeliever to church pastor.  Like Lewis, Carson and Woodbridge cover a broad range of topics. Reading straight through will allow you to fully experience the transformation of Journeyman. However you could also just pick and choose different letters to get a wealth of knowledge on that particular subject, ranging from pastoral training to communism – a helpful index highlights which letters talk about what subjects. (The reader should be mindful of some theological differences resulting from the authors’ Baptist point-of-view.)  Reading this cover to cover may be a slog for some, and they may prefer reading just this letter or that. Others will enjoy following the whole journey God is taking this fledgling Christian on, molding him into His instrument to spread the gospel. Readers may see parts of Journeyman reflected in themselves and may well form deep bonds with their new friend and mentor, Paul Woodson. Find a link to a free pdf version of the 1993 edition here....

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 siblings' 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's 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. ...

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