Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Revolt: A Novel in Wycliffe's England

by Douglas Bond
269 pages /  2016

I was never a fan of Church history in school, but I've come to realize that this was really the textbook's fault. It was a series of dry and weary titles, with lots of dates and facts, but no story to them. So I owe a debt of thanks to Douglas Bond for reviving my interest in what is really a most important topic, and he has done so by telling great stories.

Sometimes, as he has in this novel, that story-telling involves weaving in fiction among the facts, so I can just imagine someone saying, "But then you're not really learning Church history, are you? Not if lots of it is made up!" Ah yes, but I know more Church history than I once did, and it was painless!

And what's more, Bond's fictionalized biographies – he's tackled Calvin, Knox, C.S. Lewis, and now Wycliffe – left me wanting to know more about these men. So after read a Bond book I've followed it up with reading non-fiction books about or by all of them. My old Church history textbook never inspired me to do that!

In The Revolt Bond tackles an early Reformer, John Wycliffe, who lived and died more than 100 years before Martin Luther nailed up his 95 theses. Like Luther, Wycliffe was a man very much on his own – he had followers, but not really colleagues. He was the trailblazer who decided that, contrary to what the Pope and Church has pronounced, the common people needed to hear the Bible in their own tongue. One thing he had going for himself is that he lived in a time when there was two popes at the same time, which made it easier to question the need for submission to the pope.

Wycliffe doesn't actually show up until page 62, so this is more a book about the England of his time than about him. The story begins with a young scholar on the battlefields of France, where the English army is surround by a much larger French force. The scholar has been assigned the task of recording the events, so while everyone else has a bow, or a battle axe, or something with some sort of sharp steel end, he is armed only with his quill. It's a great beginning, and from then on we follow along with this scholar who serves as the story's narrator. Through him we meet peasants, other scholars, and finally Wycliffe himself.

The Revolt is a novel most any adult would find an easy and enjoyable read. I'm not sure, though, that this would be a good book for a teenager who is only a casual reader. It is a very good story, but it's not the non-stop "thrill ride" that so many Young Adult books try to be these days. To put it another way, this is far from a heavy read, but it's also not a light read either.

However, for anyone with any interest in Church history, this is an ideal way to learn more. I sure hope Douglas Bond keeps on coming up with these great fictionalized "biographies"!

You can buy a copy at by clicking here and here.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

5 more comics that are good, but not "really good"

The name of this blog is "really good reads" and that is, with the occasional exception, what we aim to share. But this is one of the exceptions.

Graphic novels have become a very popular genre in the last very years, and for good reason. At their very best, they are the combination of two art forms: writing and drawing. And, like pictures books, they can sometimes get even the most reluctant reader interested in books.

But great comics are still in scarce supply, and horrible ones are everywhere. So if your teen is devouring one graphic novels after another, we recommend a lot of great ones on the blog. And if they tear through those, well here are some quite good, if not necessarily great, graphic novels that you can steer them to next.

Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean
by Sara Steward Taylor and Ben Towle
78 pages / 2010

Amelia Earhart was an American who was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. She is known best for this feat, as well as her mysterious disappearance during an attempt to fly around the globe.

This biography is a small slice of Earhart's life, taking place primarily in the small Newfoundland town of Trepassey in the week before Earhart's 1928 Trans-Atlantic voyage. We get to see the preparations through the eyes of young girl, Grace, who is the towns self-appointed journalist.

It is a beautifully illustrated story, done, in black, white and blue – it isn't full color, but a reader may not even notice. The story is also engaging. And while their is a undercurrent of feminism throughout the book, it is a not the strident sort of today. This is the kind that said, "Women are people too." Or, "Women are capable too." In other words, it is a reasonable sort, the kind that Christians can get behind too.

That's not to say that Amelia Earhart's feminism was the Christian sort. She was by some accounts a very liberal women - she got married by neither promised to be, nor required her husband to be, faithful. But that doesn't come up in this graphic novel – this is the G-rated version of events.

But while feminism isn't a problem here, there is one notable issue that gets glossed over, and parents need to point it out. Amelia Earhart is famous for doing things that had already gotten others killed. And she herself died while attempting another one of these feats. In this book she is held up as a hero, but is it heroic to risk your life doing something that is both incredibly dangerous, and not necessary?

This is a question worth asking, particularly among the young people who would be most interested. God gave us our lives, and He tells us to make the most of them. That's why our lives are not to be valued lightly, or endangered needlessly.

The only other caution? I'll mention that there is one instance in which God's name is used, but I think it is appropriately. When a sailor goes missing, a woman says, "God save 'im."

Earhart remains famous to this day, and this beautiful and engaging comic is a wonderful way to learn a little about her. The only reason I rate this is just good, and not great, is because of the way Earhart is presented as a hero to admire. She was admirable in some ways, but in what she was best known for – the reckless endangerment of her life – she most certainly was not.

You can pick up a copy at here and here.

Cast Away on the Letter A
by Frédéric Othon Aristidès
48 pages / 2013

When you look at a world map, and then focus in on the waters between Europe and the Americas you'll find the words "Atlantic Ocean" there somewhere in big and bold letters. What if those weren't just letters? What if, in some crazy mixed up alternate but parallel Earth, those were actually letter-shaped islands in the middle of the ocean?

That there is the premise of this little story. Philemon, a French farm boy, falls into a well, and the currents in the well sweep him past fish and sharks and , and eventually deposit him on the sandy shores of the first letter A in the "Atlantic."

That is a crazy beginning, and as you might imagine, this is a crazy island, with two suns, and exploding clocks that grow out of the ground, and a centaur butler. Philemon eventually finds another human on the island, Bartholomew the well digger, who fell through a well he was digging and end up stranded on the island, looking for a way back for the last 40 years.

This is surreal, crazy, Alice-in-Wonderland, type of fun. And as you might expect from a story that takes place on the A in Atlantic, there are lots of surreal jokes throughout, like full-size ship in a bottle sailing through these waters.

The only caution is a minor one - a few characters express anger using made up curse symbols like these: "#@?!!" Philemon's father, who is only a minor character is this first story, is an ill-tempered sort, and makes use of these symbols a few times.

Two more of Philemon's tales, The Wild Piano, and The Suspended Castle, have also been translated from the original French. They are even stranger, and the stories take seemingly random turns – they border on being nonsense. I like a little absurdity every now and again, and so quite enjoyed the first, but the next two were simply too weird for me.

I'd recommend Cast Away on the Letter A to boys from 9 to 12.

You can pick up a copy at here and here.

Ogres Awake!
by James Sturm, Andrew Arnold, and Alexis Frederick-Frost
2016 / 34 pages

Jame Sturm has written a book, Adventures in Cartooning, in which an elf teaches a knight about cartooning as they set out to rescue a princess. It's a fun book, but marred by the occasional golly and I think, one geez.

This is a sequel of sorts, but without those verbal miscues. The knight returns, however much of the cartooning focus is set aside (though the first two pages, and the last two pages of the book do show kids how to draw some of the characters).

In this outing the brave knight discovers giant ogres asleep outside the castle. When he alerts the king, he urges everyone to ready themselves for battle. But instead of battle, they are intent on making something in the kitchen instead. A potion perhaps? Nope [SPOILER ALERT] they are making soup, to put the low-blood sugar ogres in quite a bit better mood after they partake.

It's a fun silly funny adventure and kids will really like it. The only downside is the short size - just 34 pages.

You can pick it up at here and here.

Jim Curious: A voyage of the heart 
by Matthias Picard
2014 / 52 pages

This is a very, very fun book. Our hero, Jim Curious, emerges from his house equipped in a deep sea diving suit, and as he slides into the sea, the pictures transform – now everything is 3D! This is a large format book, more than a foot tall, and the author makes full use of the giant pages to give us so much to see and explore.

It is also a wordless book, with the story comprised of Jim Curious exploring, and us just marveling at all there is to see. He passes by a sunken pirate ship, World War II fighter, and grocery cart, then floats right up to a giant whale, and, finally, discovers the ruins of an underwater city. Here the adventure takes a surreal twist as Jim finds a door in the bottom of the sea. As he opens it, where does it lead but back to his own house – somehow this is his own front door! But this time, when he walks through and emerges once again from his little house, things have gone all topsy turvy. The air is now where the sea had previously been, and sea is where the air had been – whales and fish and octopi are swimming past the windows of his house! It is a funny ending to this gorgeous visual feast.

The only downside to the book is that it does require 3D glasses (two pairs are provided) and also has one double foldout section, where the pages fold out from the middle. Jim Curious is clearly intended for young readers but the glasses and the double foldout are just not the sort of thing young children will do well with: the foldouts are going to get torn or crumpled and the glasses will be broken or lost. That means that, despite the book being wordless, it still needs to be read with mom or dad present.

You can pick it up at here, or here.

The Wright Brothers: A Graphic Novel
by Lewis Helfand
illustrated by Sankha Banerjee
2011 / 72 pages

While the artwork is just okay the two subjects are absolutely fascinating. Orville and Wilbur Wright – the first to develop powered flight – were inventive right from their childhood. Of course, childhood inventions aren't always so successful: one notable failure we get to see is the Wrights' attempt to make their own chewing gum out of tar and sugar.

The first twenty pages are devoted to the Wrights' early years, before they did any flight experimentation. Orville, while he was still just a teen, started off with a toy printing press and grew his business until eventually the Wrights were running their own newspaper and printing company. The printshop's success allowed the brothers to pursue other interests, and the next thing they tackled was bicycles. Back then bikes had a big wheel in front, and the modern version, with two wheels of the same size, had only just been invented. This new type, called a safety bike (because it was so much easier to get on) caught the Wrights' attention, and before long they had opened a shop and started building and selling their own.

While this is a Wright biography, it is also a history of powered flight experimentation, making it all the more interesting. There sure were a lot a failures (some fatal!) before the Wrights finally showed the way.

Now I haven't even gotten into the most interesting part, the actual flight experiments. But rather than share every bit of the story, I think I'll conclude with the only caution I can come up with. It concerns how the Wrights weren't so wild about school - Orville skipped a whole month at one point - and their parents didn't mind. That might not be the best example for the young readers who will be looking this over.

That one caution aside, this would be a fun one for Grade 3 and up.

You can pick up a copy at here and

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die

by John Piper
127 pages / 2006

First of all, two notes about the tags at the bottom of the review, and one challenge:
  1. Yes, you can definitely read this book "in an evening or two," but please don't. Instead, Piper's book would be ideal for reading or sharing with others, perhaps in the weeks leading up to Easter, every year or two – one two-page chapter per day. Each of the fifty reasons is an occasion to deepen our gratitude to God, who "so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).
  2. Second, although I have included the tag for "apologetics," this is not a book for debating with non-Christians; however, it is an excellent way to become grounded in just how much the death of Christ is good news. Again, worth reading regularly to keep ourselves aware of the beauty of Christ's work accomplished on the cross – and that's something that's worth sharing!
  3. Here's the challenge: How many Biblical reasons could you give for why Jesus came to die? Five? Ten? (That would probably be my upper limit!)
So, after a couple of suggestions about how and why to read Piper's meditations, here's a little bit of what's in Piper's work. The introduction deals with the connection between "Christ and the Concentration Camps." Piper begins with the devastating but necessary and meaningful answer to the question of who killed Jesus: "God did" - because "God meant it for good." For that reason, as Piper says, the
"controversy about which humans killed Jesus is marginal. He chose to die. His heavenly Father ordained it. He embraced it." 
God's "embrace" of the purpose(s) of Christ's death was shown by Christ's resurrection. Piper's introduction ends with a consideration of how Elie Wiesel, the well-known Jewish historian of the Holocaust, links the death of a single victim of the concentration camps to the death of Christ, asking
"Is there a way that Jewish suffering may find, not its cause, but its final meaning in the suffering of Jesus Christ?"
Piper's repudiates the anti-Semitism of some Christians by noting that Jesus, himself a Jew – with all Jews as His early followers – died a meaningful death, so that much "more important than who killed Jesus is the question: 'What did God achieve for sinners like us in sending his Son to die?"
Fifty two-page chapters answer this all-important question. The first should be obvious to any Christian: "To Absorb the Wrath of God." The last takes us back to the introduction: "To Show That the Worst Evil Is Meant by God for Good." Piper ends with a prayer that is also an appeal to his readers – that they would accept Christ's death as meaningful and purposeful for themselves as well, "the most important event that ever happened."

A bibliography of books that address the historical reliability of the Bible in chronicling Christ's life is a further resource to address those still doubting the accuracy of the New Testament.

If you believe that knowing the Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die will strengthen your ability to glorify God and make His greatness known to others, you can get it as a free pdf here or you can buy a paper copy at here, or here.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Captive Maiden

by Melanie Dickerson
2013 / 304 pages

It's Cinderella reimagined, with all the famous bits still there: it has the carriage (but it was never a pumpkin), the slipper (but not made of glass), the ball, (but now it's more of a jousting tournament), and the fairy godmother role (though she not a fairy or a godmother). Author Melanie Dickerson gives new life to the story by taking the magic out of it, bringing in an additional villain, and making the key characters sincere Christians.

My big reservation would be one I have for all romance literature. Dating life is fully of fluttering hearts and many moments of uncertainty, and the whole crazy thing is wonderful and scary and thrilling too. But there is more to love than just young love. The problem with romance books is that they celebrate just the one stage of love – the beginning – to the exclusion of all that comes afterwards. But “afterwards” is very important, and so if a teen girl ingests too many books about ball-attending, sword-fighting, head-turning Prince Charming, they may well overlook that wonderful fellow right in front of them – the Bible-believing, hard-working, eager-to-be-a-diaper-changing, ordinary Joe.

Dickerson has written a half dozen of these fairytale retellings, and whereas one is great fun, I think two is already one too many. A good literary diet requires some variety - these aren’t the sort of books that should be ingested one after another. I've also had a chance to look through three of her other "fairytale reimaginings" and while I don't have any real objections to the others, the teen angst is more noticeable (Does he love me? Really? Truly?), the romantic fluff is more grating (repeated descriptions about how beautiful she is, or how handsome he is), and the inventiveness is not quite the same. So I think this this one is the very best. And one might well be enough.

That said, this is a clever retelling and Dickerson does a good job of keeping us wondering what new twists and turns she is going to add to this familiar tale. I'd recommend it for teen girls, but an adult can enjoy it as a light fluffy read.

You can pick it up at here and here.