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Fantastic Fantasists

In some previous stage of my theological thinking, I conceived of the spiritual realm as an arena essentially separate from the materiality of daily life. More recently, influenced by the writings of N.T. Wright among others, I have come to realize the significance of the existing Creation as part of God’s eternal grand design.

The new creation, Wright stresses, is not something that is “up there” or “out there.” It commenced here on Earth with Christ’s resurrection and will be fulfilled, here on Earth, at his return. The kingdom of heaven is not so much “other” as “more”—an unseen that includes and extends beyond observable reality.

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Fantasy in the Heartland: Lepunia, Kingdom of the Gallopers, by Kevin T. Ford

Lepunia will catch you up, carry you away, and set you down—right back in Kansas. But conveyed from a rabbit’s-eye view, it might as well be Oz. It was with some surprise that I realized, on reflection, that no magic takes place in these pages. None but that conjured by Ford’s lyrical descriptions. One part Narnia and one part Little House on the Prairie, Lepunia offers up an enchanted middle America peopled with rabbits, squirrels, coyotes, owls, prairie dogs, ferrets, and more. Cottonwoods, hills, lakes, and burrows become ancestral palaces and legendary landmarks, skillfully rendered in Michael Genova’s lavish sketches and eye-catching cover art.

In this first book of a planned trilogy, the curtain rises on the eve of Founding Day in the township of Lepunia (from the Latin lepus—hare). The festival marks not only the anniversary of the settlement but graduation from the academy for jackrabbit friends Lily, Fluff, and Jackson. Lily hopes to be admitted to the artists’ guild. Fluff expects to follow his father’s profession of baker. And the dearest desire of fleet-footed Jackson is induction into the Gallopers, an elite guard of jackrabbits tasked with defending the kingdom and conveying messages to its farthest reaches.

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Beneath the Swirling Sky, by Carolyn Leiloglou

WaterBrook, September 2023, 304 pp. ages 8-12

Carolyn Leiloglou’s debut work for middle grade readers incorporates art history and principles of painting into an engaging narrative. Beneath the Swirling Sky isn’t the first book in which characters travel through paintings or engage with art history. Also familiar are tropes of belonging to an endangered ancestral line, questing to save an abducted sibling, and hunting down art thieves.

Such perennial devices nevertheless retain their appeal. What adolescent wouldn’t want to discover inherited gifts that enable them to profoundly change the world? Possibly those chary enough to recognize the probable weight of accompanying responsibility. But who has time to worry about that?

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On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Good Books, by Karen Swallow Prior

I have thought at times it would be appropriate to, à la Augustine, retitle this blog “Confessions.” I often feel constrained to commence a post with a disclosure of some sort: my failure to fully appreciate a work’s literary merits, failure to understand it, failure to–shameful truth–read to the end before drafting a review.

In the present case my confession is this: I was unprepared to learn so much from Prior’s engaging, accessible volume. That holes exist in my literary knowledge I am well aware. But to have encountered, despite my MA in literature, such a wealth of information and ideas both surprised and delighted me.

Granted, Prior is a professor of graduate studies at Southern Baptist Seminary. I studied at a public university where the Frankfurt School and deconstructionism, rather than the classical virtues, were central to our course of study. But while Prior’s work reflects a Judeo-Christian worldview, her discussion constitutes a rich survey of Western thought, extending from Aristotle to post-modernism.

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Little Hours, by Lil Copan

I found this epistolary novel through the Christianity Today 2022 book awards, where it received honorable mention for fiction. The glowing reviews on Amazon countered my usual reluctance to order a book sight unseen. As a very casual birdwatcher (and keeper of pigeons), the idea of bird-watching nuns intrigued me. As the author of an unpublished epistolary novel, the format hooked me. And references to coffee, cancer, and marriage reeled me in.

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Pilgrim’s Inn, by Elizabeth Goudge

My husband and I have been reading out loud to one another since shortly after we got married more than twenty years ago. It all started on Cyprus with A Thousand and One Nights. Sometimes we dip into several books before landing on one we both enjoy. A year ago my husband agreed to sample Pilgrim’s Inn with me. A cousin had given it to me for Christmas, along with its prequel, The Bird in the Tree.

We were both surprised when Pilgrim’s Inn, which many would consider women’s lit, captured my husband’s interest as well as mine. What we didn’t know when we started was that it would turn out to be the perfect read not only for late winter, but for other tough and uncertain times (see note below).

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Winter Reading Roundup, Part III: Influential Firsts

Phantastes, by George MacDonald

The influence of this Scottish author and minister is most famously cited in connection with C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia as well as other works of fiction and nonfiction. But George MacDonald (1824-1905) is often described as the father of modern fantasy and credited with inspiring a host of other early- and mid-twentieth century authors.

I have blogged elsewhere about the suitability of fairy stories for winter reading (click here for the post). December seemed a good time to commence my long-intended re-reading of MacDonald’s classic. When I first read Phantastes some thirty years ago, it left me, in the main, puzzled. Last fall I waded through The Faerie Queen (or rather, let all sixty hours of the audiobook wash over me). Despite my lamentable inattention to Spenser’s meandering masterpiece, familiarity with The Faerie Queen did enhance my appreciation for MacDonald’s imagery and the protagonist’s journey through faerieland.

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D, by Michel Faber

The hidden-picture nature of this engaging middle-grade novel accounts for some portion of its appeal: Can you spot the echoes of Charles Dickens, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, Lewis Carroll, and J.K. Rowling? (Not to mention a host of others with whom I’m likely unacquainted. Literary influences cited by the author alerted me to The Wonderful O, by James Thurber, which I plan to investigate soon.)

D’s protagonist, Dhikhilo, is the adopted daughter of a British couple who make limited appearances in the narrative. The fact that Dhikhilo is born in Somaliland and the presence of immigrants and travelers in her seaside town introduce a diversity theme that carries over into the fantasy realm of Liminus.

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Winter Reading Roundup, Part I: A. Trollope and Christmas short stories

Home for Christmas: Stories for Young and Old (The Plough Publishing House, 2002)

Despite my bias against seasonal short stories, based on a possibly unjustified perception of their predilection for sentimentality, this collection caught my attention. The table of contents featured the names of several prominent twentieth-century writers whom I knew only as novelists (Madeleine L’Engle, Katherine Paterson, Pearl Buck), as well as some particular to my personal history (Selma Lagerlof, Elizabeth Goudge). 

Several selections do circle around the predictable (though nevertheless valuable) theme of generosity at Christmas, but most avoid over-simplification or moralizing. The nativity figures into most of the stories, either by suggestion or as a central narrative feature. I derived greatest enjoyment from “The Riders of St. Nicholas,” by Jack Schaefer, and “The Vexation of Barney Hatch,” by B.J. Chute. The authors of both tales skillfully capture the tone and voice distinctive to their settings. Continue reading

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Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro, Part II

Like Remains of the Day, Klara rolls along at a steady pace, without extremes of suspense or drama. Nevertheless, the looming potential for tragedy and an emotional investment in the complex characters sustains reader interest.

My husband found the ending disappointingly anticlimactic and open-ended. I concede the point, although I appreciated the artful exploration of themes and questions—human relationships, the nature of belief, what constitutes identity. Certainly no fiction writer worth the paper her book is printed on would admit to smuggling a message into its pages. But if Ishiguro puts forth any discernable proposition it is this: that the love other people bear us is what constitutes the immortal essence of our being. Such a notion inevitably raises—and certainly intends to raise—further questions.

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