The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope

This take-off on the story of Tam Lin and the Fair Folk is an oldie-but-goodie that deserves to be revived. Since fairy tale and folk tale retellings are so popular these days, young adult fans of authors Donna Jo Napoli, Jessica Day George, Robin McKinley, and Shannon Hale should check out this combination of folklore and historical fiction. Ms. Pope’s excellent novel won a Newbery Honor in 1975, an honor it richly deserved.

The story takes place at the end of the reign of Queen Mary I, aka “Bloody Mary.” Kate and her impulsive, lovable sister Alicia are ladies-in-waiting to the Princess Elizabeth, in exile from court at the drafty manor of Hatfield. When Alicia sends a letter of complaint to the Queen, Kate gets the blame, and she is banished to a manor house called The Perilous Gard in Derbyshire to live out her days in disgrace and under close guard. There, Kate meets the master of the castle/manor, Sir Geoffrey Heron and his strange, silent younger brother, Christopher. She also meets a strange lady dressed in green and hears many odd stories about the Elvenwood that surrounds Perilous Gard as well as the nearby Holy Well that draws pilgrims from near and far in search of healing and comfort.

I was especially intrigued by the hints and uses of Christian truth in this fantasy novel. (It does turn into a fantasy novel, as Kate encounters the reality of the Fairies who are behind all the stories she hears about strange, pagan rituals and kidnappings that have characterized Elvenwood.) The central conflict in the novel is between Paganism and the Fair Folk’s thirst for magical power and the Christian ideals of love and service and simple living. There is also a conflict within Kate herself as she sees herself as clumsy, unlovely and unlovable, but learns to see herself in a new light, giving herself in selfless service to another. The book is not overtly Christian or preachy, but in one conversation between Kate and the Lady in Green (queen of the Fair Folk), Kate actually puts into words some of the truths of the gospel in a rather compelling and interesting way:

Lady in Green: “I will not deny that your Lord paid the teind (ransom), nor that it would be good to have had some part in it, for He was a strong man, and born of a race of kings, and His tend must have been a very great one. But that was long ago, long ago in his own time and place. It’s strength is spent now. The power has gone out of it.

Kate: “It has never gone out of it. All power comes from life, as you said yourself, but the life that was in Him came from the God who is above all the gods; and that is a life that knows nothing of places and times. I–I mean, that with us there is time past and time present and time future, and with your gods perhaps there is time forever; but God in Himself has the whole of it, all times at once. It would be true to say that He came into our world and died here, in a time and a place; but it would also be true to say that in His eternity it is always That Place and That Time–here–and at this moment–and the power He had then, He can give to us now, as much as He did to those who saw and touched Him when He was alive on earth.

Granted, the Fairy Lady doesn’t really understand Kate’s gospel presentation, but I thought it was quite well put, and it fits in well with the imagery and the tension between paganism and Christianity that threads through the novel. I loved this story, and I think fairy tale fans would love it, too. A touch of romance, a bit of danger, and a coming of age motif combine to make The Perilous Gard a great read for older teens and adults both. I’d say it’s PG-12 or 13, only because it has some pretty intense descriptions of pagan sacrifice and Halloween evil, nothing nasty or sexual or graphically violent, though.

Saturday Review of Books: November 28, 2015

“There are many sorts of books; but good ones are the sort for the young to read. Remember that. They are a great, an inestimable, and unspeakable means of improvement. Therefore be careful in your selection, my young friends; be very careful; confine yourselves exclusively to Robertson’s Sermons, Baxter’s Saint’s Rest, The Innocents Abroad, and works of that kind.” ~Mark Twain


Welcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read.

You can go to this post for over 100 links to book lists for the end of 2014/beginning of 2015. The Saturday Review List of (Book) Lists will be posted for Saturday, January 2, 2016. You can then post a link to any end of the year or beginning of the year book lists you have to share.

If you enjoy the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon, please invite your friends to stop by and check out the review links here each Saturday.

The House That George Built by Suzanne Slade

The House That George Built is a beautiful nonfiction picture book about the building of the White House, the U.S. president’s home in Washington, D.C. Although George Washington was instrumental in planning and building the White House (which wasn’t officially called the White House until 1901 when President Theodore Roosevelt renamed it), Washington never lived in the house he helped build. John and Abigail Adams moved into the President’s House at the tail end of Adams’ presidency and lived there for about four months.

This book tells about the planning, the building, and the first occupants of George’s house with prose on one page and verse on the adjoining or following page.

This is the design,
that would stand for all time,

that was drawn for the lot,
that grand, scenic spot
for the President’s House that George built.

The illustrations, by Rebecca Bond, spread across both facing pages, and give a sense of the expansive growth of the new house along with the new nation. The verse, of course based on The House that Jack Built, grows, too, and at the end a full poem complements a nearly finished grand house. (The staircase wasn’t quite finished, and the roof leaked.)

I have a couple of more prosaic, factual books about the building of Washington, D.C. and the building of the White House, but this books is so much more fun and “living”, while still providing children with information about the House that George Built. There are even more factoids, interesting tidbits about the history of the White House in the back of the book on a page called The Changing President’s House and on the facing page entitled simply Author’s Note.

I’m quite pleased to add this relatively new book, published in 2012, to my library.

Lad, a Dog by Albert Payson Terhune

What books do you recommend to fans of James Herriot’s wonderful animal stories about a veterinarian in Yorkshire? I’m not much of an animal lover or an animal story reader, although I do like the Herriot books, so I had only a very short list in my head of books that might appeal to animal-loving readers. Now, I can add Lad, a Dog to that short list.

The stories in Lad, and they are, like those in the Herriot books, separate stories tied together by continuing characters, are about a collie dog owned by a gentleman farmer in New Jersey. Lad, a sort of composite of all of the collies owned by Terhune over the years, lives on The Place and follows The Law of obedience and loyalty to The Master and Mistress. When he’s not being brave and clever, Lad likes to chase squirrels and lord it over the other collies on The Place. The stories in the book are sometimes a little repetitious, about the evils of dog shows and the intelligence and doggy excellence of Lad the collie, but each story showcases a little bit of a different aspect of Lad’s character and of the joys of owning a superlative dog like Lad.

Mr. Terhune wrote in the early part of the twentieth century. Lad was first published in 1919, and it’s set during World War I. But the stories are timeless, appealing to dog lovers and even to animal-averse people like me. (I like my pets safely penned inside books where they can’t poop or pee in my house. Unfortunately, my children have foisted upon me two cats and a dog who all reside in my domicile.)

My favorite animal stories (other than James Herriot’s books, which are the best ever) are:
The Incredible Journey by Sheila Branford. (two dogs and a cat)
Born Free by Joy Adamson. (a lioness)
Old Yeller by Fred Gipson. (dog story)
Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand. (horse racing)
Rascal by Sterling North. (a raccoon)
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. (horse)
Cracker: The Best Dog in Vietnam by Cynthia Kadohata.
My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George. (falcon and other woodland creatures)
Rain Reign by Ann Martin. (dog)
That’s nine, plus one I think I want to read: H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.
No talking animals or fantasy animals included, and I prefer books in which the dog doesn’t die, although some of the above break that rule.

What true or true-to-life dog stories or animal stories would you recommend for children or adults?

Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson.

“There is no way to write a biography of Shostakovich without relying on hearsay and relaying the memories of people who have many private reasons to fabricate, mislead and revise.” (p.141)

So, this biography of Shostakovich, the Russian composer who immortalized the siege of Leningrad during World War II in his Seventh Symphony, is sprinkled throughout with “perhaps” and “supposedly” and “it is not clear whether” and many, many questions. I was at first a little frustrated by all the “weasel words” with which author M.T. Anderson hedges his sentences and declarations and with all of the open-ended questions with which he ends many of his paragraphs and chapters, but I began to see these uncertainties and essays at truth as (perhaps) metaphorical. After all, Anderson is writing about the events of a composer’s life, many of which are shrouded in Communist propaganda and lies or in the half-truths of people who were trying to live under Communist oppression. But he’s also writing about Shostakovich’s music, which is also vague and uncertain and shrouded, as various experts disagree about the music’s message and meaning. So there are questions, and Anderson asks the right ones while also laying out the facts when those are available in a readable narrative form.

I don’t exactly see why this book is being marketed as a young adult book, unless it’s maybe because the author has written many fiction books for children and young adults. While it’s not a scholarly, academic biography, it is certainly well researched and documented and perfectly suited for adult readers. In fact, unless a person, young or old, is particularly interested in the Soviet Union during World War II or in Shostakovich’s music or twentieth century classical music in general, I doubt this book is going to hold much appeal. Conversely, if any of those interests are there, young and old will find it fascinating. So why is it a Young Adult book? I have no idea.

The details about the siege of Leningrad, taken partly from NKVD archives and records, are harrowing and disturbing (starvation, cannibalism, frozen and unburied bodies, etc.), so it’s not a book for children. The main text of the book is 379 pages and written in a literary, almost lyrical style, so I doubt anyone younger than fifteen or sixteen is going to attempt it anyway. I thought I knew a lot about World War II, but it turns out that I knew very little, aside from the bare facts, about the siege of Leningrad, and I had never heard of Shostakovich’s Leningrad (Seventh) Symphony, not being a music aficionado or a student of classical Russian music.

I was inspired by the book to listen to the Leningrad Symphony, a undertaking in itself since the symphony in four movements is almost an hour and half long. I’ll embed the youtube version that I listened to, but I’m sure that I got more out of it after having read all the historical background in Mr. Anderson’s book. I suggest, for those of you who, like me, are not musically educated, that you read the book first and then listen to the symphony.

Good book, but disturbing. Good music, but also disturbing, especially the relentless march in the first movement.

Saturday Review of Books: November 21, 2015

“The little girls to whose houses she went visiting . . . always hid away their story-books when she was expected to tea. If they didn’t do this, she was sure to pick one up and plunge in, and then it was no use to call her, or tug at her dress, for she neither saw nor heard anything more, till it was time to go home.” ~Susan Coolidge, What Katy Did


Welcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read.

You can go to this post for over 100 links to book lists for the end of 2014/beginning of 2015. Feel free to add a link to your own list.

If you enjoy the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon, please invite your friends to stop by and check out the review links here each Saturday.

Hidden Gold by Ella Burakowski

I find Holocaust memoirs to be somewhat variable in quality and readability. Maybe the memoirist’s memories are not that detailed or reliable. Sometimes the person who has undertaken the task of writing the stories down is just not a great writer. Sometimes the reader may be the problem: I’m not immune to the chilling effect of a jadedness produced by too many horrific World War II stories, too many atrocities, too much suffering and starvation for a person to read and assimilate.

Hidden Gold is an excellent example of a Holocaust memoir that is sharp, well-written, detailed, and narrative. I was absorbed by the story of young David Gold and his family and their survival in hiding in Poland, written by Mr. Gold’s niece and based on Mr. Gold’s memories of 1942-1944 when he was twelve to fourteen years old. “David Gold’s memories of his formative years during World War II are as vivid and compelling under his niece’s pen as if they happened yesterday.” (from the blurb on the back cover of the book)

The Gold family–David, his two older sisters, and his mother–survived in hiding on a Polish farm because they were rich, because they were smart and initially healthy, and because they were lucky, or perhaps preserved by a miracle form God. Even though the memoir is woven from David Gold’s memories, David’s older sister Shoshanna, who later became the mother of the author, emerges as the heroine of the tale. Shoshanna is the one who negotiates with outsiders on behalf of the entire family because she has blue eyes and speaks Polish without a Yiddish accent. Shoshanna is the one who encourages the family not to commit suicide when it seems that choice is the only one left to them. Unfortunately, Shoshanna Gold Barakowski died at a relatively young age in 1972, while the author was still in her teens, and the other sister, Esther, also died (of cancer) in 1984, long before Ms. Burakowski began to write this book.

I did wonder how much the author embellished or assumed as she told of the thoughts and motivations of her family members, most of whom were not available to vet the text or give their own take on events. Still, most memoirs are a mix of fact and fill in the blank, and I give the author credit for filling in, if she did, in a way that reads as authentic, coherent, and literary. I read and believed, and I was reminded that hatred and prejudice and bravery and human endurance are all a part of our shared human history as well as evident in the present day “holocausts” that continue to be perpetrated on the innocent and the unprotected.

[T]he memoir as unfiltered actuality is a myth. Fickle and unreliable memories must be reconstructed and made coherent; a story’s assembly, style, and characterization will inevitably compromise any strict retelling. Emphatically, this does not mean the work is less autobiographically or historically valid—–only that it is never pure autobiography or history, and has to be understood and embraced thus. Truth isn’t synonymous with historicity, and infidelity to the latter isn’t necessarily betrayal of the former. ~”The Holocaust’s Uneasy Relationship with Literature” by Menachem Kaiser, The Atlantic, December 2010

Noah Webster: Man of Many Words by Catherine Reef

One of my pet peeves about contemporary nonfiction books for teens and tweens is that the authors seem compelled to share all the interesting tidbits and rabbit trails from their research in sidebar boxed text or sometimes even entire pages of boxed text asides. These text boxes break up the flow of the narrative, and they annoy the heck out of me when I’m reading. I can’t resist reading them to see what I might be missing, and I’m almost always sorry that I did because I lose track the story at hand.

Catherine Reef’s biography of Noah Webster avoids the text box pitfall, and she includes all the extra material she researched on the American Revolution and the writing of the Constitution and early American life and politics in the narrative itself. I could read about the ratification of the U.S. Constitution as I read about Noah Webster’s opinions about the Constitution. And no text boxes were inserted to aggravate and sidetrack my reading. So, score one for this biography.

The narrative itself was well-written and interesting, and the illustrations were well-placed in old-fashioned frames which complemented and didn’t interrupt the story. Unfortunately, the size of the book itself, about 8″ x 10″, was awkward and made it somewhat difficult to read in bed or even in a comfortable chair. This size seems to be popular these days for nonfiction tomes, but I’m not a fan.

This biography for young adult and middle school readers is 171 pages long and gives a full picture of Noah Webster and his times and his influence on the American language, education, and government. The author mentions Webster’s conversion, as an adult, to a renewed, or perhaps new, faith in the God of his forefathers, but she does seem rather perplexed and detached about the meaning of all that religious talk on Webster’s part.

“Noah blocked himself off from the din of life by packing the walls of his study with sand. Yet there was one voice he found impossible to keep out: the one he believed belonging to God.
One morning in April 1808 , he was alone in his study. ‘A sudden impulse upon my mind arrested me,’ he said. ‘I instantly fell on my knees, confessed my sins to God, implored him pardon, and made my vows to him that . . . I would live in entire obedience to his service.’ The next day he called his family together and led them in prayer, as he would do three times a day for the rest of his life.”

One can almost hear in the background the biographer’s thoughts of “how quaint and colonial–believing that one can hear the voice of God!” I would have liked to know more about how Noah Webster’s April awakening and commitment to obey the voice of God impacted his life and changed his actions, other than prayer three times a day. The book does tell us that his new found faith caused a rift in his friendship with one Joel Barlow, an old crony who was also an atheist and a poet. Webster reneged on his promise to review Mr. Barlow’s latest poem because the poem was not in keeping with Noah Webster’s newfound Christian convictions. And late in his life, Noah Webster attempted a revision of the King James Version of the Bible, but the Webster version was not a commercial success. That’s about all we learn from this biography about Mr. Webster’s faith and his practice of that faith. Maybe that’s all there is to know.

At any rate, I find that juvenile biographies are a wonderful introduction to people and events of the past. I am inspired to read more about Noah Webster and perhaps get answers to the questions I have left after reading this biography. Ms. Reef’s bibliography lists other biographies of Mr. Webster:

The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and Creation of an American Culture by Joshua Kendall.
Noah Webster and the American Dictionary by David Micklethwait.
Noah Webster by John S. Morgan.
The Life and Times of Noah Webster, an American Patriot byy Harlow Giles Unger.
Noah Webster, Schoolmaster in America by Harry R. Warfel.

I am intrigued enough that I might want to try one of these five biographies. Any suggestions as to which one?

Called for Life by Kent and Amber Brantly

Called for Life: How Loving Our Neighbor Led Us into the Heart of the Ebola Epidemic by Kent and Amber Brantly, with David Thomas.

I’ll start out by telling what I missed in this story by Ebola survivor Kent Brantly and his wife, Amber. There’s nothing in the book about how Mr. and Mrs. Brantly came to know the Lord, nothing about their childhood, or their growth as Christ-followers, except in relation to their missionary commitment. I would have liked to have read more about each one of the couple’s initial salvation experience as a sort of a background to their experiences in Liberia. However, this book is not the book for that.

What this book does do well is tell the story of how Kent and Amber Brantly ended up in Liberia on the frontline of the fight against the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014. And it tells in detail how Kent Brantly contracted Ebola himself and how he survived the virus that killed so many people in Liberia and in other West African countries. In the book, Brantly also gives God the credit for saving his life, while acknowledging that many people and circumstances came together to make it possible for him to receive expert medical care and treatment.

I was intrigued learn of the many factors that converged to make Mr. Brantley’s survival and healing possible and of the heroic actions of many missionary doctors and nurses and Liberian national doctors and healthcare workers in their team effort to combat the Ebola outbreak. It’s a good, inspiring story, and it made a good antidote to the darkness of the news story of death and destruction in Paris that dominated this past weekend’s newsfeed. I admire Kent Brantly and his fellow Ebola survivor, Nancy Writebol, even more than I did before reading this account of their faith in God and their tenacious fight against Ebola.

I recommend Called for Life. I needed some contemporary heroes to restore my hope, and I imagine you do, too.

Three More Words by Ashley Rhodes Courter

The sequel to the inspiring memoir, Three Little Words.

I think I would have enjoyed this memoir more if had read Ms. Rhodes-Courter’s first book, about her life as an abused foster child and then as an adopted child in a loving family. I found out what her “three little words” were: “I guess so”, spoken in response to the judge’s question at her adoption hearing about whether or not Ashley wanted to be adopted by her prospective parents. I never did figure out what the “three more words” were. I love you? I forgive you? I’m all grown?

Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention. While the stories in the book about Ms. Rhodes-Courter and her husband, Erick, and their adventures as foster parents were interesting, the rest of the book, about the ongoing drama with Ashley and her birth family felt a little self-indulgent, as if the author were trying to work out her psychological baggage by spilling it all in a book. Heaven knows, as a blogger, I’m not one to begrudge anyone the space and the words to write out their angst and issues, but I did feel by the end of the book as if I knew kind of more than I needed or wanted to know about Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s dysfunctional birth family.

However, the parts about the foster care system and the foster children that Ashley and her family were able to care for (and sometimes return to their own dysfunctional or abusive families) were both fascinating and heart-rending. It seems to me that no matter how many new, well-intentioned laws and rules and regulations we put into place to try to protect children and place them in safe and loving homes, it’s very difficult for bureaucrats to take care of children. Either there are too many fingers in the pie or not enough. And every one is protecting his or her own turf, has his or her own interests and opinions, wants what’s best for the child, yes, if it follows the rules and makes me look or feel good. I don’t have the answers, but I do see the problems.

And a BIG elephantine part of the “problem” involves drugs and alcohol. I don’t drink alcohol or take any drugs, and although I don’t think you’re a bad person if you have a drink once or twice a week, I do fail to see the attraction. Why wouldn’t our entire society be better off if God had never given us the “gift of wine, to make the heart merry.” (He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for people to cultivate– bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens human hearts, oil to make their faces shine, and bread that sustains their hearts. Psalm 104:14-15) I just don’t think I’ve missed much in not drinking alcohol, and I really think that a lot of the child neglect and abuse would be non-existent if there were no such things as intoxicating and mind-altering substances.

It’s one of those questions I’m going to ask the Lord someday in heaven. Like, why did He create cockroaches?

Anyway, good memoir, if you like that sort of book, but you’ll probably wan to read Three Little Words first.