For the Glory: Eric Liddell’s Journey from Olympic Champion to Modern Martyr by Duncan Hamilton. The best nonfiction book I read in 2016, and maybe the best book of any kind from 2016. Mr. Liddell’s life, told from a mostly secular perspective, but wth great respect and appreciation for his faith and his God-given goodness and perseverance, is an inspiring read. I was deeply moved to read about what God can and will do with one man who determines to follow Him.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. More disturbing than inspiring, although the book had its inspirational moments. It’s hard to believe that injustices like those chronicled in this book

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall. This book and the next one on this list, about ultra-marathons and ultra-marathoners, are odd picks for a sedentary 59 year old reader, but I’m always interested in being introduced to worlds and communities that are foreign to me. The world of ultra-marathon running was certainly that: foreign and fascinating.

Running Man by Charlie Engle.

Irena’s Children: The Extraordinary Story of the Woman Who Saved 2,500 Children from the Warsaw Ghetto by Tilar Mazzeo. Wonderful biography of a Polish heroine.

How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in It by Arthur Herman.

The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller.

Happiness by Randy Alcorn. Everything you ever wanted to know about a Biblical perspective on joy and happiness, including quotes from every conceivable writer who ever wrote anything about happiness and the pursuit thereof.

The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap: A Memoir of Friendship, Community, and the Uncommon Pleasure of a Good Book by Wendy Welch. Almost every reader has had the thought, even if only a passing thought, of how fun it would be to own a bookstore. This book tells all about the pitfalls and perils of running a bookstore while still managing to make it sound like fun.

Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C. S. Lewis by Abigail Santamaria. I’ll admit that I was somewhat disillusioned with Ms. Davidson-Lewis who seems to have been exactly what many of C.S. Lewis’s friends and associates thought she was: a woman who was out to seduce and marry Mr. Lewis before she was even divorced from her first husband. And she was deeply involved with Scientology, of all things, in her younger pre-Lewis days. But still, she seems to have been a complicated and multi-faceted woman, and the love of Lewis’s life. So I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.

The Boy Who Became Buffalo Bill: Growing Up Billy Cody in Bleeding Kansas by Andrea Warren. Excellent children’s biography of the great showman, illuminating Bill Cody’s life as well as the times he lived in.

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams by Phillip Zaleski. In this one, I was disillusioned, or enlightened, mostly about the strange life and theology and philosophy of Mr. Charles Williams, who seems to have been a Christian and at the same time a very confused and odd man. Tolkien, Williams, Barfield, and the two Lewises, Jack and Warnie, were a motley crew, and according to this telling of the story, Jack (C.S.) Lewis was the only thread that held them together as the Inklings.

The best middle grade sports fiction I’ve read in a long time. Ghost is a book about running, literally running track and metaphorically running away form circumstances and difficulties of life, trying to run away from oneself.

Seventh grader Castle Creshaw has given himself a nickname, Ghost. Ever since his drunken, abusive dad fired a gun at him and his mom, Ghost knows how to run—and run fast. He thinks of himself as a basketball player, since that’s the game with most credibility and reputation in his neighborhood, but when he accidentally becomes involved with a track team, he finds his talent, his sport, and his community. Coach becomes his substitute father figure, and the team becomes Ghost’s family. But what will Ghost do when it all threatens to fall apart, and the disintegration is all Ghost’s fault?

This short novel could sound like a cliched high interest/low reading level sports fable. “Troubled African American boy from a poverty-stricken neighborhood and family discovers his sports talent and learns to be a man under the tutelage of a wise and caring coach.” And the book is short, only 180 pages. And Ghost sounds like a seventh grader, a twelve year old, somewhat street-wise, but not jaded or too cynical about himself or others in spite of his family history. These are things—the simple plot, the length, and the voice of Ghost as narrator–that combine to make the book accessible.

But Ghost has a little something extra that makes it transcend the genre. Maybe it’s the minor characters, other members of Ghost’s track team, who seem as if they could jump out of the pages of this novel as full, well-rounded characters themselves. (Ghost is the first book in a planned series, so maybe the other team members will get their own book.) Or maybe Ghost is good because I really wasn’t sure how the crisis was going to be resolved in the end. Maybe I just liked that the book is realistic and believable, but also hopeful. Ghost experiences consequences for his very poor decisions over the course of the story, but those consequences don’t ultimately ruin his life. I like that a lot.

I would suggest Ghost for runners and readers and readers who run, and for anyone else who wants a feel-good sports story that will draw you in and capture your heart.

I can’t wait to get started on my annual collection of book lists for 2016/2017. So, this post is the Saturday Review of Books getting a head start on Monday, December 26, 2016. Link to your book list(s) anytime between now and next Saturday, the 31st, when we will return to our regularly scheduled programming.

SATURDAY December 31st, is the annual special edition of the Saturday Review of Books especially for book lists. You can link to a list of your favorite books read in 2016, a list of all the books you read in 2016, a list of the books you plan to read in 2017, or any other end of the year or beginning of the year list of books. Whatever your list, it’s time for book lists. (Links to regular reviews are also welcome, and you can certainly link to more than one review or more than one list.)
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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.

So, since it’s almost Christmas Eve, and I haven’t posted much all week, and since there is still a link for last week’s Saturday Review (scroll down) where you can add your reviews if you have them, I decided to forego the regular Saturday Review post and just wish you all a very, very merry Christmas. Thank you for coming to Semicolon and for reading and for sharing links to your book reviews. This blog and the Saturday Review of Books have become a significant part of my reading life, and I appreciate all of my readers and linkers who are on this reading journey with me.

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SATURDAY December 31st, will be the annual special edition of the Saturday Review of Books especially for book lists. In fact, to get a head start on the book lists, I’ll post the Saturday Review for Book Lists on Monday, December 26th, and leave it up all week. You can link to a list of your favorite books read in 2016, a list of all the books you read in 2016, a list of the books you plan to read in 2017, or any other end of the year or beginning of the year list of books. Whatever your list, it’s time for book lists. So come back starting on MONDAY the 26th, to link to yours.

The desk and sled were too big to go into any stocking, so they were wrapped in paper and hung beneath the other things. It was ten o’clock before all was done, and Papa and Aunt Izzie went away. Katy lay a long time watching the queer shapes of the stocking-legs as they dangled in the firelight. Then she fell asleep.

It seemed only a minute, before something touched her and woke her up. Behold, it was day-time, and there was Philly in his night-gown, climbing up on the bed to kiss her! The rest of the children, half dressed, were dancing about with their stockings in their hands.

“Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!” they cried. “Oh, Katy, such beautiful, beautiful things!”

“Oh!” shrieked Elsie, who at that moment spied her desk, “Santa Claus did bring it, after all! Why, it’s got ‘from Katy’ written on it! Oh, Katy, it’s so sweet, and I’m so happy.” and Elsie hugged Katy, and sobbed for pleasure.

But what was that strange thing beside the bed? Katy stared, and rubbed her eyes. It certainly had not been there when she went to sleep. How had it come?

It was a little evergreen tree planted in a red flower-pot. The pot had stripes of gilt paper stuck on it, and gilt stars and crosses, which made it look very gay. The boughs of the tree were hung with oranges, and nuts, and shiny red apples, and pop-corn balls, and strings of bright berries. There were also a number of little packages tied with blue and crimson ribbon, and altogether the tree looked so pretty, that Katy gave a cry of delighted surprise.

“It’s a Christmas-tree for you, because you’re sick, you know!” said the children, all trying to hug her at once.

“We made it ourselves,” said Dorry, hopping about on one foot; “I pasted the black stars on the pot.”

“And I popped the corn!” cried Philly.

“Do you like it?” asked Elsie, cuddling close to Katy. “That’s my present – that one tied with a green ribbon. I wish it was nicer! Don’t you want to open ’em right away?”

~What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge, aka Sarah Chauncey Woolsey.

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” ~Sir Francis Bacon

SatReviewbutton

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.

The concept of a boy whose life somehow turns into a video game that he must then figure out and master was a good one. The execution was . . . meh.

I just never did understand the rules of the game or where it came from. The story/day kept morphing from one game into another: Tetris, Donkey Kong, other games that I didn’t get the references to. Maybe that lack of understanding is due to the fact that I’m not a gamer. Bryan Biggins just wakes up to find himself inside a video game nightmare. He’s in the game without having chosen to play. And he doesn’t understand the rules. And nobody else at home or at his school or in his real life seems to notice the weirdness that is the game going on around them. Except when they do notice.

That’s the first problem. Some of Bryan’s teachers and friends are part of the game. There’s a hall monitor who is normally a nice person, but who begins to act like a video game villain on this particular day. Others see the game going on, but act as if it’s normal. Others don’t think it’s normal at all, or at least the way Bryan is acting is not normal. A few of the teachers are particularly mean, even sadistic, as they send Bryan on “missions” and manipulate his score in the game. Or maybe they don’t really control the scoring at all.

And Bryan himself does weird stuff. He decides that running on foot across a street with heavy traffic with his girl-he-wishes-were-his-girlfriend would be a good way to score points in the game. So he pulls her across, endangering her life. Really? These are real cars, real traffic, but Bryan treats it as a game. (I’m told this is an element in the 80’s(?) video game, Frogger?)

Anyway, Insert Coin to Continue is a classic video gamer’s dream. Since I’m not a classic video gamer, I didn’t quite get it.

The Memory Thief by Bryce Moore.

Benji and Kelly are fraternal twins whose parents are always arguing and on the edge of divorce. When Benji meets an old man who tells him that it is possible, although perhaps not wise, to steal people’s memories, and even give them to other people, Benji is determined to make his parents reconcile by removing their memories of why they hate each other. Memory theft, and memory sharing, and memory replacement all turn out to be more complicated and dangerous than Benji could have imagined, and when an evil Memory Thief turns up in Benji’s hometown and starts stealing people’s memories and making them into soulless, empty near-zombies, Benji has to bring his parents back together, learn to use his new memory manipulation skills for good, and stop the evil Genevieve.

Both the narration, by Benji, and the dialog, were awkward at times, with the narrator and the speakers using words and phrases that were too formal or too “writerly” for normal, everyday speech. Either this awkwardness got better as the story progressed, or I began to be able to ignore it. This story is also quite dark. Benji’s parents are very angry and bitter, and for a brief spell, Benji takes all of their angry memories into his own mind, causing him to be enraged and somewhat violent with those around him. At another point in the story Benji experiences a memory theft-induced despair that makes him sit in a stupor and tell himself that life is not worth living. In the end, Benji is not able to fix his family, but he does come to a resolution that might turn things around for them. And Benji himself is quite a hero throughout the story. This novel would give readers a lot to think about or talk about while providing a satisfying and absorbing time travel-ish adventure.

The First Last Day by Dorian Cirrone.
Instead of being stuck in Groundhog Day, Haleigh Adams gets to repeat the last day of summer over and over with the ehelp of some magical paints and after she wishes for a “mulligan” on that last evening. At first, she thinks that reliving that last day of summer is great, especially since her friend Kevin’s G-mags had a stroke at the end of that very day. But when Haleigh wakes up every morning, it’s August 26th all over agin, and G-mags is fine, at least until nighttime.

But Haleigh finds that living the same day over and over, even if it does short circuit the bad things that are starting to go wrong, even if it does “save G-mags’ life, also stops the good things from coming to fruition. Haleigh’s mom may never be able to have a baby sister or brother to add to Haleigh’s family. Haleigh herself may never find out whether friendships can last after summer vacation. And even G-mags doesn’t really want time to stop. So how can Haleigh make time start moving again?

This one is written on a little bit simpler level than The Memory Thief or Time Traveling With a Hamster, and it’s not quite as dark as either of those books. However, the death of a loved friend or family member is a theme as well as Haleigh’s struggles over whether or not to deceive people in pursuit of a time re-start and her questions about how to sustain a friendship through time. It’s a good third to fifth grade read.

Time Traveling With a Hamster by Ross Welford.

“The word Geordie refers both to a native of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and to the speech of the inhabitants of that city. There are several theories about the exact origins of the term Geordie, but all agree it derives from the local pet name for George. It is sometimes mistakenly used to refer to the speech of the whole of the North East of England. Strictly speaking, however, Geordie should only refer to the speech of the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the surrounding urban area of Tyneside.” ~British Library

Al Chaudhury, the protagonist and time traveller in this British import, keeps talking about his grandfather Byron’s “Geordie” accent and “Geordie” dialect. I had never heard this term before, and I thought since Al himself was British , but of Indian descent, that it had to do with Anglo-Indian speech or accents. But it turns out that Geordie-speak just refers to the speech of people form a very specific locality, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. So I learned something.

Al’s story, my favorite of the three books featured in this post, is again about memory and time travel. On his twelfth birthday, Al receives two gifts: a hamster and a letter from his deceased dad. The letter informs Al that it might be possible for him to use his dad’s time machine to go back in time and prevent his father’s death. Unfortunately, it’s not easy for Al to even get to the place where his dad’s time machine is waiting, not to mention the difficulty of manipulating past events to change the future.

Al must do a lot of things that are wrong—breaking and entering, stealing, lying, arson–to make things “right” in the past and save his dad’s life. He, of course, tells himself that he is doing wrong in order to accomplish a greater good. This end-justifies-the-means is a theme in all of these books. Is it OK to lie, cheat, steal, manipulate other people’s minds and memories in order to achieve a greater good or save someone’s life or make things right after you have messed them up with your original magical manipulations? I would say that all three stories come to much the same conclusion: no, it’s not okay. But Time Traveling With a Hamster is the most ambiguous of the three since Al is actually able to change the past and make things better for himself and his family. And that ability to change the past and the future makes this quote from Grandpa Byron, found near the beginning of the story, rather poignant:

“Life, Al, is such a wonderful gift that we should open our minds to every possible moment and cherish the memory of those moments. Because people change. Places change. Everything changes, but our memories do not. Accept life the way it is, Al. That’s the way to be happy.”

But Al doesn’t accept his father’s death, and in the end, he manages to make everyone happy. Sort of. Time Traveling With a Hamster is strong, well-plotted time travel novel, with an ethnic Indian/British (Punjabi) setting that gives the novel a distinctive flavor. This novel for middle grade readers unfortunately includes some profanity and one unnecessary reference to a teenage character’s virginity or lack thereof.

Juliana, the protagonist of the novel The Striped Ships by Eloise McGraw, is exiled from her comfortable home in Winchester by the coming of the Norman invaders to Saxon England. On the morning after St. Nicholas’ Day, she is sleeping in the priory almshouse when she is awakened by bells:

“She was awakened by St. Savior’s bell, loud and close across the road, ringing, she thought at first, for nocturns. But it was, too wild, too loud, too erratic—as if the ringer had tugged hard and frantically, then fled—and there was a growing hubbub of voices outside, in the lane. Around her, others were rousing, scrambling up to cluster around the unshuttered window—and beyond their heads, beyond the black silhouette of the priory walls, she saw the red glow lighting the skies.

There was a fire—a big fire—in the monastery, it might be in St. Savior’s itself. She stumbled to her feet, pushed her way out of the house. She reached the lane just as the bell ceased, and the north tower, which she could see now bathed in flames, above the dark wall, collapsed, with a terrifying, fluttering roar and a final jangle of noise. Wild with panic for Wulfric, she ran, heedless, for the main gate, found the gatehouse aflame, and turned back to run the other way, to the small gate by the cellarer’s storehouse, which stood open, with figures crowding out through it, hampering her as she struggled past. Inside the walls, monks, guests, novices, schoolboys, ran in every direction, black shapes against the garish sky.”

This episode in Canterbury’s history did happen:

The cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1067, a year after the Norman Conquest. Rebuilding began in 1070 under the first Norman archbishop, Lanfranc (1070–77). He cleared the ruins and reconstructed the cathedral to a design based closely on that of the Abbey of St. Etienne in Caen, where he had previously been abbot, using stone brought from France. The new church, its central axis about 5m south of that of its predecessor, was a cruciform building, with an aisled nave of nine bays, a pair of towers at the west end, aiseless transepts with apsidal chapels, a low crossing tower, and a short choir ending in three apses. It was dedicated in 1077. Wikipedia, Canterbury Cathedral

Eloise Jarvis McGraw was a prolific author of children’s fiction, often historical fiction, including The Golden Goblet, Mara Daughter of the Nile, Moccasin Trail, The Seventeenth Swap, and many others. Her books are full of vivid, rounded characters and rich historical details that make the stories she tells come alive. My children especially enjoyed Moccasin Trail when I read it aloud to them many years ago, and I plan to read this medieval tale featuring William the Conqueror and the Bayeux Tapestry, Striped Ships, as soon as I can.

There was a brief time when I was young that I went through a reading binge of Indian captive narratives. These stories, both fictional and nonfiction, were quite popular back in the day. Nonfiction narrative memoirs of people, usually girls, who were captured by Indians and later escaped or were rescued, were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, in particular. And fiction novels for children, sometimes based on the earlier nonfiction memoirs, were popular in the mid-twentieth century. These kinds of stories came to be regarded with suspicion and even disdain, since the descriptions of Native Americans and Native American culture are all from a European American point of view. The Native Americans in these stories are alien, strange, and often cruel and ignorant.

All that to say, K.A. Holt’s Red Moon Rising reads like an Indian captivity novel, but the “Indians” are the Cheese, natives of a moon that Rae Darling and her frontier farming family have colonized. The Cheese are foreign, cruel, and ugly in the eyes of the colonists. Rae and her family are tradition-bound, conservative, and blind to the possibility of peace and understanding between themselves and the Cheese. The Cheese capture Rae and adopt her into their “tribe”, and Rae must decide whether to remain loyal to the colonists or to became a part of the Cheese, whose culture is in many ways freer and more indigenous and friendly to the Red Moon than Rae’s colonist culture.

It’s interesting to think that perhaps Ms. Holt wanted to write an Indian captivity novel and deal with all the issues of cross-cultural understanding and misunderstanding inherent in that plot, but instead of doing the onerous research that writing about a particular Native American culture and place would involve, she was able to simply make up a people and a culture, the Cheese, and impose on them whatever characteristics and morals were most convenient for her narrative. Did she do a good job of world-building and of showing the difficulties and advantages of crossing from one culture to another? For the most part, yes, although Rae certainly has an easier time accepting some things, like forced training in fighting and war, and a harder time accepting others, like native Cheese boots, than I would think she might.

Despite the criticisms of these Indian, or Native American, captivity narratives and novels, I think that stories like these can serve as a bridge to help children (and adults) understand and see the virtues as well as the drawbacks in other cultures. And a science fiction/fantasy story like Red Moon Rising can be even more helpful in giving readers a way to “see both sides” and reserve judgment, since elements of the story can easily be generalized and applied to many different cultural encounters and confrontations.

Despite the sometimes heavy-handed emphasis on female empowerment and religious stereotypes, Red Moon Rising is a good adventure story with some thought-provoking themes. By the way, warning, the book is quite heavy on the violence, blood, and gore, too, so more sensitive readers beware. And, for the sake of comparison, here are some of those captivity narratives and novels that I enjoyed as a young teen and a few that have been published since then:

Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison by Lois Lenski.
The Ransom of Mercy Carter by Caroline B. Cooney.
Valiant Captive by Erick Berry.
Calico Captive by Elizabeth George Speare.
The Light in the Forest by Conrad Richter.
Where the Broken Heart Still Beats: The Story of Cynthia Ann Parker by Carolyn Meyer.
White Captives by Evelyn Sibley Lampman.
Wait For Me, Watch For Me, Eula Bee by Patricia Beatty.
Moccasin Trail by Eloise Jarvis McGraw.
Beaded Moccasins: the Story of Mary Campbell by Linda Durrant.
I Am Regina by Sally Keenh.
Trouble’s Daughter: the Story of Susanna Hutchinson, Indian Captive by Katherine Kirkpatrick.
Standing in the Light: the Captive Diary of Catherine Carey Logan by Mary Pope Osborne.

If you’re interested in reading more about this sort of story, its origins and uses, here are a couple of articles I found interesting:

Gimme Shelter by Janet at Dear Author, about romance captivity novels and memoirs.
Dark Places: the Tradition of Captivity Narratives by Gina Showalter in the NYT.