Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Disappearing Jewel of Madagascar

by Sigmund Brouwer
140 pages / 2002

This is a great book.

It has a great beginning with the “star” of the book, 12-year-old Ricky Kidd, getting the sort of haircut you would expect from a barber that can’t stop sneezing. And it has a great ending when Ricky’s friends are involved in a memorable worm-eating escapade.

In between the reader is introduced to the cast of characters: Lisa, a girl who can play sports with the best of the boys, even if the boys don’t want to admit that; Mike, the impish rascal who pulls gentle pranks on everyone; Ralphy, the computer genius who owns his very own iMac; and Joel, Ricky’s six-year-old brother, who seems to be able to disappear and appear at will.

As the title suggests a jewel plays a central role in this book. The Jewel of Madagascar is an impressive rock with a very strange curse placed on it: whoever touches it will have his friends turn into strangers, and have strangers turn into friends. As a Christian kid Ricky doesn’t think much of curses…until all his friends start avoiding him. Could the curse be real?

Well, no. But I’m not going to ruin the story by telling you anything more.

I liked the story in this book, and also liked the underlying Christian flavor. The author communicates a Christian message without beating his readers over the head with it. In fact there is only one page of explicitly Christian content in this book. When Ricky’s friends start avoiding him he gets a little depressed and worried. His dad notices and spends a few paragraphs talking to Ricky about how we don’t need to worry because we can always trust in God.

The only objection I can raise has nothing to do with this particular book. In another book, The Volcano of Doom, which is a part of the same “Accidental Detectives” series, a few paragraphs are included on how the Bible is not a “science manual” and how the Genesis creation account tells us why the universe was created, not how it was done. It is a not-all-that-subtle shot at Six-Day Creationism, though kids will likely miss it. Still, parents may want to avoid that book.

I do, however, highly recommend The Disappearing Jewels of Madagascar for anyone who has kids in the Grade 3 to Grade 7 range.

You can pick it up at Amazon.com by clicking here and Amazon.ca here.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A Dark Dark Tale

by Ruth Brown
32 pages / 1981

Three of our school's librarians were busy at work when I popped my head in. I was looking for something that would stretch my girls, just a bit, and asked them for their recommendation: "Do you have a good scary book I could borrow?"

Now, that's not a question I would have asked quite that way at our local library. I might have ended up with a book about vampires, or demons, or werewolves, or vampire demon werewolves.

But here at our Christian school, what I ended up with was a book about a cat....with a surprise ending.

I was looking for a scary book because my daughters need to learn how to deal with a little tension in their reading. Fancy Nancy can be fine, but in her world everyone is quite nice, and the problems they face are quite trivial. In real adventure stories there are dragons to be slain, Nazis to be fought, and dangerous journeys to embark on. I want to start on some of those sorts of books, but before I do, I need to get my girls used to a little more drama in their bedtimes stories.

So that's a long way of introducing a very short story. There are just 119 words in this 32-page book, and I'm already past that in this review. And I haven't even told you about the book!

Since this is for children, I'm not going to feel bad about letting you parents know what it's all about, including the end. It all begins in a "dark, dark moor" and moves on to a "dark, dark wood" and a "dark, dark house" and etc. and etc., until we are finally in an upper room of the house, peering in a "dark, dark corner"of a "dark, dark cupboard" where "there was....A MOUSE!"

I had a cold when I read this, so my voice was particularly gravelly, which only added to the reading. Ruth Brown's pictures are moody and somber, and the "dark, dark" repetition sets up the unexpected joke ending, with the mouse all tucked in his bed in the corner of the cupboard - we were expecting some kind of scary monster, but instead end up with a cute mouse. That makes this the perfect balance of scary and yet not too scary.

(For a second reading, you can ask your children to spot the cat, which is on all but two of the page spreads).

Since this so very short, it is an ideal one to borrow rather than buy. It is also popular enough that your local library is sure to have it. However, if you do want to purchase it, you can get it from Amazon.com here, and Amazon.ca here.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Operation Chowhound

by Stephen Dando-Collins
248 pages / 2015

This read was really good enough for me to recommend it to my brother, my high school English classes, and my father. Of course, it helps that Stephen Dando-Collins has caught some of our World War II heritage shortly before my grandparents, their families, and many of their countrymen emigrated from the Netherlands to Canada.

Dando-Collins' account starts with the marriage in the 1930s of a German member of the Nazi party to Princess Wilhemina of the Netherlands. While this book is not written from a Christian perspective, God's providence is clear in the way He uses this unusual ally of a conquered country. Despite his dubious German past, Prince Bernhard turns out to be a faithful friend of his new homeland as it goes through the notorious Hunger Winter brought on by wartime shortages, the cruelty of the German occupiers, and the initial failure of the Allies to liberate the Netherlands in 1944.

Despite Hitler's orders to basically leave the Netherlands underwater, Prince Bernhard negotiated a makeshift truce with the Nazis directly in charge of the occupation of the country to allow bombers from the United States and Britain to drop food for the beleaguered Dutch. To find out just how successful those "bombing" missions were; the risks the bomber crews ran (as some were fired on!); and the part in the saga of such soon-to-be famous people as Ian Fleming, Farley Mowat, and Audrey Hepburn - you will need to read Stephen Dando-Collins' fascinating account yourself.

If you want to learn some of the crucial details of the end of WWII in occupied Holland, you can get Operation Chowhound at Amazon.com here and Amazon.ca here.

RELATED REVIEWS: Others on the Dutch perspective of WWII

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The life of John Calvin

A modern translation of the classic
by Theodore Beza
144 pages / 1997

This biography has two strengths.

First, it is short. Because it was originally written as an introduction to Calvin’s last published work, his Commentary on Joshua, it weighs in at only 144 pages. That could also be considered a weakness – the small size means it doesn’t have the detail or scope of most other Calvin biographies – but the slim size makes it more inviting than its 400-to-500-page rivals. This is a biography that can be read in a few days, rather than a few weeks.

Second, this is an eyewitness account. Theodore Beza was a friend and disciple of Calvin and wrote his account as a tribute. That too could be considered a weakness; Beza’s admiration of Calvin made him incapable of seeing, or at least incapable of recording, any of his mentor’s faults. But this same admiration made Beza the best chronicler of Calvin’s gifts, the God-given talents that made the man a giant of the Reformation.

The Life of John Calvin is available in a number of different editions but, because the original is over 400 years old, some translations are dated and simply dreadful. Fortunately Evangelical Press (aka EP books) have done “a modern translation of the classic” that can be found on Amazon.com here and at Amazon.ca here.

We've reviewed a handful of other very good John Calvin biographies, and you can find those reviews here.