Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Last Battle (The Chronicles of Narnia (Publication Order) #7) by C.S. Lewis

Hmmm... everything I didn't like about Jill in the previous book has been switched in this book. She's brave and an incredible spy and on the battlefield with a weapon. Makes me want to reread "The Silver Chair." Did I just paint the opposite picture in my head by reading it too fast? 'Tis one of my flaws. My best friend didn't like "The Last Battle" so I never read it as a nine-year-old. When she gave me all the spoilers I wasn't interested in tooling through its pages. I wish I had. She thought I would find it sad and dark, but I found the ending happy.  As a kid I remember worrying about death and trying to reconcile its mysteries only to be fearful at times. This book would have given me comfort and hope. Narnia is a fairy tale heaven. But not only is it an interesting look at death and afterlife from a fairy tale/Christian perspective, it also shows the power of storytelling. As a kid that is what drew me to this series, Lewis as a masterful storyteller. As an adult I admire Lewis's depth of mixing imaginary worlds with complex philosophical and theological thoughts.

The last book in the series has the King of Narnia, Tirian, captured by Calormenes that mean to conquer their land. A false god that calls himself, Aslan, has been established by the Calormenes and they are manipulating the Talking Beasts and Dwarfs into serving them in the name of Aslan. Lewis shows how politics and religion don't mix. The Narnians are blindly following orders rather than questioning the commands by the Ape, Shift who is in league with the Calormenes. He sells them into slavery to increase his own wealth and power. This made me think of how easy some Christians can be manipulated by someone who says that "God told them to do something" when the individual has made up the command to serve his or her own selfish purposes. The incidence also shows despotism in Shift, something Lewis was familiar with having experienced World War II. When an existing government or leaders decree particular behaviors, then people loose the freedom to choose and are forced to do tasks feeling oppressed and abused by them. The Narnians were slaves to the Calormenes whose leadership is presented as those that worship idols and pursue personal gain while mistreating others in the race for power. They are contrasted with the soldier, Emeth, shown as a noble and good Calormene.

The Pevensies, Jill, Polly, Digory, and Eustace pursued wisdom and goodness through lessons in each book. The most common character arcs had them start out in the stories as selfish people and change into unselfish ones. In the end, they chose to serve Aslan and others, as well as, be virtuous or good (except Susan). In other works by Lewis, he discusses ideas such as people in societies will only choose virtue if they are free to do so. Totalitarian regimes replace freedom with oppression and leaders pursue personal gains because humans are selfish by nature. However, even if a society is free, he states that the freedom to choose comes with the risk that people will choose evil over good. (Sorry, I forgot to write down the specific sources this came from: I think "The Abolition of Man" and "Mere Christianity". I might be off on my interpretation... it has been a long time since I read those books.) The choice of virtuous characteristics cannot be forced; it must be freely chosen. That also means a person can chose selfish characteristics as well. Lewis shows that the latter won't reach his or her potential as a human being and will never be satisfied with life as evidenced in characters such as Shift, the Witch, and Uncle Andrew. Susan's story remains unfinished. She has chosen selfish, but is only twenty-one. She can change; whereas, it is obvious that the other three won't.

Lewis shows over and over that the Narnian characters must search for their own truth or meaning in life. He continually reminds them to focus on their story, not others.  This truth requires recognizing that a person cannot achieve a virtuous life without recognizing it is impossible because humans are fallible. It requires intervention from a higher being and a confession of sin. His characters find happiness, but they do not do it on their own. Instead they must recognize that they will fail at being virtuous and it requires a higher being like Aslan or God to transcend this sinful nature. That is why Aslan has to stop Lucy from reading the beauty spell in "Prince Caspian"; she can't do it on her own. She wants to be beautiful like Susan, but is not. Aslan guides her from vanity to humbleness. Lucy chooses to listen to Aslan and recognize her sinful or selfish nature; whereas, Susan does not recognize Aslan and is cast out of Narnia.

Truly, this series shows the power of storytelling which is what drew me to them as a nine-year-old. Stories or words have power and they have many different endings. With Lucy, the magician's book has power to make her beautiful, but she chooses to accept who she is inside and not look to others for acceptance. Susan chooses to see Narnia as a silly children's story. According to Polly, Susan doesn't want to change but stay in adolescence and not grow up. She has shown reluctance throughout the series to believe in Narnia. Peter, Edmund, and Lucy had to convince her from the get-go to rescue Mr. Tumnus in "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." It would seem she is uncomfortable with situations she can't control and Narnia and Aslan are too wild for her. Her ambiguous ending in "The Last Battle," where everyone is killed and she is left on her own, suggests the reader can decide on her fate in whatever way they want.  I prefer to think she will see Aslan again, but in her own country and on her own terms.

King Tirian calls upon the children of the past in desperation to come and rescue Narnia. Jill Pole and Eustace get transported to him where they expose the false Aslan to the dwarves who refuse to believe the truth. A battle ensues and Narnia is destroyed. After the battle, everyone goes through a stable door where they are separated, the good turn to the right and the evil turn to the left. This reminded me of Dante's Inferno where souls that go left head to the evil Tartara and those that go right are blessed in Elysium. The seven go to the right where a heaven-like Narnia exists that is full of happiness. The dwarves are in Narnia but sit in a circle refusing to believe anyone or anything. When Lucy tries to discuss the beauty of Narnia, they ask her what she is talking about because all they can see is the stable that they came through. They have created a reality and found meaning in life or truth that is quite different than Lucy's. Their story is one of unbelief.

The Hebrew word for truth is "emeth." The character Emeth is a pagan Calormene who ends up in Aslan's Narnia because even though he worships Tash, an idol, Aslan said that his heart is good and not cruel. He seeks the truth looking outside himself for it, not inward in a selfish manner. He tells the seven his story and how ashamed he was of his countrymen when he realized they were lying to the Narnians' about Tash and Aslan. Emeth did not want to rule for his own power and wealth but to seek knowledge or truth of the meaning of life. This reminded me of the controversy Christians will have over the fate of those raised in a different faith. Lewis seems to be saying that even though he believed in Tash, Aslan receives him in his land because his heart was righteous though misinformed.

As you can see, I loved these books. I also like that while they have a pattern of Christian symbolism, they have literary references to philosophers, fables, fairy tales, myths and more. If it was a strict Christian allegory, I wouldn't find it as interesting for it speaks to my love of literature. - although I seemed to write a review where I tried to tackle more theology than I intended. Forgive me if I am way off. I seem to have gone off on many different tangents. I thought my reviews were sounding too much a like on each of these books - I guess that's the hazard of reviewing a series. These books are just as popular here in Taiwan as they were when I worked in the United States. Lewis hopes for a world that is a better place through his wonderful storytelling. Works for me. See if it works for you.

4 Smileys

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Silver Chair (The Chronicles of Narnia (Publication Order) #4) by C.S. Lewis

One last toodeloo to my childhood memories of acting out the Narnia books. I never read "The Last Battle" or final book in the series because I didn't want it to end. "The Silver Chair" (book #6 in chronological order) led my friend and I to recreate the "Underworld" in the sewer system. We lived on a nature center and the storm sewers ran from the streets into its marshy ground. We could crouch and walk through the inky black tunnels pretending we were like Eustace, Jill, Prince Rilian, and Puddleglum trying to escape from the wicked witch.

Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole escape from bullies at school by going through a door into Narnia. Jill meets Aslan and is given four signs that she must follow to find Prince Rilian. She keeps messing up the signs and becomes alone and lost right away in the story. She is desperately thirsty but finds a huge lion guarding the only river. The Christian symbolism is pretty obvious in the scene where Jill wants a drink of water and Aslan is standing there making her afraid to get the water. Jill has wronged Eustace just like the Samaritan women that went to the well to draw water and found Jesus. Both admit their sin and drink from the water and are cleansed from the shame of their past actions. For Jill it is being a show-off toward Eustace that causes him to fall off a cliff. For the Samaritan woman it is infidelity.

Eventually Jill meets up with Eustace and they meet different characters that help them on their quest to find Prince Rilian, King Caspian's missing son. Again the mix of myths and Christian theology make for an interesting medley. The giants and Earthmen reminded me of Norse mythology. The serpent-like witch is a mix of fantasy and Satan in the Bible. Eustace driving a thorn through Aslan's paw to drip blood in the water where the dead Caspian lies is a Christian symbol of hope in the face of death. Lewis shows characters throughout the series that believe in Aslan and are not be afraid of death.

The plot is fairly predictable in this tale. The reader knows well in advance what the giants want to do to Jill and Eustace, as well as, who the mysterious knight is. The curse is obvious too. The witch is conveniently away at the climax of when the threesome must decide what to believe, and yet, inspite of these negatives, I was swept up by the storyline enjoying the humor and goofy minor characters. The dwarf Trumpkin can't hear a word anyone says and the wordplay is pretty funny. He runs Narnia while Caspian is away and is fat, pompous, and loveable. I preferred the creature characters in this book over the humans.

Overall, this book didn't enchant me as much as other ones - everyone seems to have his or her favorite Narnia book. While I liked the adventures and minor characters in "The Silver Chair," Jill was too whimpy for my tastes. I tend to like stronger female characters. Lewis is too stereotypical for me creating fragile girls that was the image in the 1900's. Some reviewers are offended by some of his insensitive comments, but I didn't come across so many that I was turned off. He vacillates a bit. For instance, Susan is a great archer, but is more afraid than the boys in dangerous situations. Lucy is so dang nice and kind, I found it hard to relate to her. I liked her and wanted her vial of healing potion for all the scrapes I got horsing around with my best friend, but I couldn't identify with her as a kiddo. Jill Pole in this book is a bit of a snob who learns to take responsibility for her actions, but she came across as frail and out of the action. She lacked a specific talent or skill found in the two female Pevensie kids and I didn't like that as a young reader, (although I don't think I could articulate that feeling if you had asked me as a nine-year-old). Lewis does a terrific job at creating unique voices found in Grimfeather, the owl that draws out his "o's"; Puddleglum who has a pessimistic outlook, but puts a good face on whatever the task or fate; and the giants, who call Jill and Eustace "poppets" and treat them like dolls. The action is nonstop and the plot solid.

4 Smileys

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (The Chronicles of Narnia (Publication Order) #3) by C.S. Lewis

Uff da... this novel inspired my best friend and I to get into our worst mischief yet as nine-year-olds. We wanted a Narnia ship so we chiseled a porthole out of the six-paneled wood door in her basement. Next, we collected picnic table benches and a card table with chairs to echo Prince Caspian's cabin and set about eating our lunch that consisted of a slab of very orangy Velveeta Cheese, stale crackers, and fishy-smelling clam chowder. We used a stool to look out the card-sized porthole and transformed the room according to the different adventures that happened in the book. In some ways, "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," reminds me of The Odyssey, by Homer, where the main character is stuck on a long voyage where he meets monsters and gods with life-endangering adventures. The Dawn Treader involves a long voyage with dangers and monsters, except rather than Greek gods dealing with the fate of the main character, it is the wise lion Aslan, modeled after Jesus of Nazareth in Christianity, dealing with the fates of Prince Caspian, Lucy, Edmund, and Eustace. Both stories have characters traveling to the ends of the earth. (Gilgamesh does too if you want an even earlier work in literature.) However unlike Odysseus who travels to the ends of the earth and finds the underworld, Prince Caspian's crew travels to the ends of the world and finds heaven. Except this isn't Prince Caspian's quest, instead he is searching for seven lost lords that were banished under King Miraz's reign. Count on Lewis to create his own fairy-tale-myth-theology smoothie. Drink up this fun tale with its nonstop action and terrific descriptions.

Edmund and Lucy are staying with their cousin, Eustace Scrub, admiring a painting of a Narnia ship when it comes to life. The wind whips their hair in the room and water sloshes out of the painting spraying them. Frightened, Eustace tries to toss the painting off the wall only to shrink onto the frame and get tossed into the churning seawater. Lucy and Edmund jump in after him where they are picked up by the crew of the ship, the Dawn Treader. Prince Caspian an adult now, is aboard and looking for the seven Telemarine lords that were friends of his father that his uncle exiled after usurping the throne. The voyage leads them on adventures where they become slaves, discover water that turns any item to gold, meet invisible monopods, and rescue a lord on an island where dreams (and nightmares) come true. The best adventure involves the nasty Eustace turning into a dragon and being transformed by the incident. The last adventure involves a sacrifice to free the lords from a spell at an island called, "The World's End." There are plenty of heroes, but only one will cross into Aslan's world, never to return to Narnia.

The series uses a similar plot strategy found in most of the other books where the children time travel from England to Narnia. The character development usually has one person who makes poor choices resulting in unintended consequences. Aslan appears and the person must learn to take responsibility for his or her actions and become a better person. Eustace is the character that changes in this book. He is selfish and self-righteous with no thought for others. He steals, lies, and bullies others so as to build himself up. While everyone is working on ship repairs he sneaks off to nap. He gets lost and ends up in a dragon's lair where magic is at work. If a person sleeps on a dragon's hoard with a greedy heart they will turn into a dragon. Lewis captures Eustace's loneliness and he slowly changes when he learns to help and make friends with other people. It isn't until Eustace becomes a dragon that he reflects on the type of person he is toward others and makes the effort to change into a person of character.

The mix of Christian symbolism, fables, and myths are many. Some of the oldest texts in literature, such as Beowolf and Gilgamesh, mention the mythical dragon as Lewis uses in his tale with Eustace. When Aslan peels off Eustace's dragon skin and tosses him into the water it is similar to a Christian baptism, a sign of purification and rebirth in Christ. Eustace is transformed by the incident and will work toward being a good person which will allow him to live in peace with others and be happy. Lewis consistently shows that characters that serve their own purposes are miserable and cause strife in their interactions with other people. Lucy mentions the fable "Androcles and the lion" when she sees the bracelet on Eustace's arm when he is a dragon. The talking Narnian Reepicheep, the valiant mouse, also echoes the fable and tries to cheer Eustace with tales of heroes who had fallen on hard circumstances only to recover and learn from the experience. The mouse made it clear in the story's beginning that he does not like Eustace, but he sets his feelings aside and makes an effort to be friends with him after he becomes a dragon and appears to want to change.

The character, Ramandu, is another mix of Christian imagery and fantasy. He is a living star that has an aura that made me think he was an angel when first introduced. Then I thought of the story, "Stardust" by Neil Gaiman, that has a star fall to earth. I wonder if he got his idea from this story? Coriakin is a magician but we find out he is also a fallen star. Actually, there is so much symbolism, I can't touch on it all. The albatross made me think of Coleridge's, "Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner," and the white birds that speak in different tongues made me think of the Holy Spirit. The live coal placed in the mouth of the old man by a bird is similar to Isaiah's vision where a hot coal touched his lips as a symbol of taking away his sins. When Eustace tells Ramandu the scientific definition of a fallen star, Ramandu gives the spiritual explanation. The Biblical references make for a unique mish-mash of theology and fantasy that I find fascinating to read.

As a kid, I loved the adventures in this book. As an adult I like the literary and theological references. I can't tell you how many books I kept thinking of while reading "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader." I mentioned "Stardust" but thought of the plethora of books I've read where the characters portal to another world through a picture or the notion of pictures being "alive." James Mayhew's picture books have the character, Katie, jumping into museum artworks. J.K. Rowling's talking portraits at Hogwarts is another along with Jenny Nimmo's moving photos in the Charlie Bone series, and Jaqueline West's "The Books of Elsewhere" series that has the character, Olive, crawling into the paintings in their house. Then there's Tolkien's books. I'll "draw a line in the sand" there. Just kidding.

I read this as book #5 in chronological order. I read the publication order as a kid so I'm trying it a different way. I prefer the chronological order. I remember forgetting
5 Smileys

Friday, March 21, 2014

Prince Caspian (The Chronicles of Narnia (Publication Order) #2) by C.S. Lewis

My best friend owned a menagerie of animals: rabbits, a mouse, parakeets, a cat, a dog, a fish, a gerbil. Her kitchen smelled and sounded like a pet store with squawking, whirring wheels, and small feet pitter pattering on cage floors. Her mouse Reepicheep was memorable; especially when the dog or cat got fleas that led to it getting fleas and losing all its fur. Our poor bald Reepicheep became inspiration for us to make up our own story (wish we'd written it down); however, in "Prince Caspian," the real Reepicheep lost his tail and was dishonored and ashamed. He takes on the character traits of the mouse in Aesop's fable, "The Lion and the Mouse." The lion ridicules the mouse for being small and it ends up saving the lion's life. In "Prince Caspian" Reepicheep is ridiculed for his size, but he helps save the Narnians in battle. He is proud, courageous, and noble. He is also introduced in the last third of the book.

Susan, Peter, Edmund, and Lucy get transported back to Narnia while on a train platform one year after their first visit there. The platform setting has been used by Ibbotson and Rowling in their fantasy books. I remember not really relating to it as I grew up in a city where the main transportation was cars not trains. Either way the four find themselves in Narnia after a thousand years has passed and in the ruins of their old palace, Cair Paravel. They retrieve their gifts from Father Christmas except Susan's horn is missing. As they set off they come across a dwarf being murdered and they rescue him.

The dwarf, Trumpkin, updates the foursome on the state of Narnia where many of the talking animals have been killed and are now in hiding. The trees have gone silent and the most of the population no longer remembers old Narnia. Trumpkin tells the story of how the current King of Narnia, Miraz, killed the old king, stole the crown from the rightful heir, Prince Caspian and is now trying to murder him. Caspian is battling Miraz's army and it is not going well. He blows Susan's horn to call the four to help him and the four set off to get to him at the stone table.

The theme of loyalty is prevalent. Lucy sees Aslan who motions for the group to travel in a different direction than they are going. When Lucy tells the others, Susan, Peter, Trumpkin, and Edmund do not see Aslan and therefore don't believe her, just like they didn't believe her when she told them about the wardrobe opening into Narnia. The group votes to go a different way, although Edmund sides with Lucy because he learned in a previous book that she was right and he has learned to trust her. This recurring theme of belief and faith carries throughout the series. I found it a bit unbelievable that Peter and Susan wouldn't believe Lucy. You'd think they would have learned with the wardrobe to trust her and considering they had grown-up in Narnia they would have had experiences that would make them recognize Lucy's wisdom. But that is the adult in me who feels the characters have already learned this lesson. As a kid I didn't think that. I thought, those darn older siblings, they are such know-it-alls.

I did have a problem with Trumpkin's flashback. It slowed the pacing down considerably. I also thought there was too much of the four reminiscing about what it was like in Narnia when they ruled.  The character development of Prince Caspian lacks internal tension as being told secondhand by Trumpkin and while there is external tension I felt too removed from the action. The plot picks up once the flashback stops and then I got into it a little more. Prince Caspian is growing into the role of king and one who leads. Peter and Susan are growing up and getting too old for Narnia. I remember hating that my hero, Peter, would no longer be in the following books. The usual mix of myths and fables is in this story with a bit of Christian symbolism. I mentioned Aesop's fable but I thought of doubting Thomas in the Bible when Lucy saw Aslan and no one else did. The Telemarines in Narnia seem similar to the Normans and Saxons who fought each other historically before becoming one ethnic group. When the old Narnians went in hiding and some mixed with humans it made me think of the Jews not having a nation. Lewis always has some thought-provoking plot elements; however, the result of this story while entertaining was slower and somewhat forgettable for me.

I read this as #4 - chronological order.
3 Smileys

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Horse and His Boy (The Chronicles of Narnia (Publication Order) #5) by C.S. Lewis

I'm reading this series in chronological order (this is #3), that is different than the publication order (this would be #5). I like it better because the storyline makes more sense. As a kid, this book was about the horses for me. Hee-haw, yee-haw. My best friend and I put an old tire on an elm tree stump and made it into a talking horse from Narnia. Next we found two small trees that were side by side and drooping in an arc toward the ground. We rode them like horses and found we could bounce up and down being lifted off the trunk. I even tried to stand up and bounce it, but got tossed. We pretended to gallop like the characters in this book, Shasta and Aravis. We whooped and hollored on our tree horses until they broke at the base. We sure felt bad. Honest-to-Pete, we didn't realize you could actually break a tree. What a couple of dorky nine-year-olds.

Shasta, is a white boy being raised by a dark-skinned fisherman in the country of Calormen. He overhears the fisherman negotiating a sale of him as a slave to another man. Shasta runs away with the help of a talking horse named, Bree, that wants to return to his homeland of Narnia. Shasta learns that the Narnians are fair-skinned like him and he agrees to flee with Bree. While on the run they meet up with Aravis, a Calormene princess, who is running away from a forced marriage with a man in his 60s. She too, has a talking horse named, Hwin. The four have some unusual adventures that lead Shasta to saving another country that is under attack from the Calormenes.

Heigh-ho! I say to the beginning of this story. The Calormens are flat and cartoonish. There is little depth and they are portrayed as violent for the most part. Lewis seems to miss the mark in trying to impart the message that slavery is deplorable to freedom. Some have called the book racist in its portrayal, but I think it is more stereotypical and not well done. If it was truly racist then why do two of the main characters, one Calormene and the other white, get married at the end of the story? Interracial marriages were frowned upon during the time the series was published. Jim Crow laws were still in place in America. In today's global world the author's portrayal of the Calormens reflects a politically incorrect and insensitive attitude versus racism. I'm not sure how much young readers will notice that. I was obsessed with horses and my best friend had a poster of Secretariat up in her room who won the Triple Crown that year. We practiced drawing horses, memorizing their anatomy, and going horseback riding. It was true love. It was the Year of the Horse. We were oblivious to politics.

The mix of fairy-tales and theology is on a much smaller level in this book that the other two. Aslan appears less in this story; hence, there is less Christian symbolism. Actually I only noticed the obvious one of water as a symbol of living water. Shasta drinks water that has filled up where Aslan has stepped. It refreshes him. Jesus talks much about satisfying people's thirst; that he is the "well of water springing up to eternal life." Aslan is more of a protector or guardian of the characters in this story. He is also judges the characters actions. The theme of taking responsibility and how decisions have small and large consequences is found in the horse, Bree, and Princess Aravis. Aslan teaches Aravis a lesson about the consequences of her actions on a servant while Bree must learn to face his insecurities that make him proud. Shasta has insecurities but is inherently good and humble. The fairy tale mix is Arabian Nights, but there are not too many parallels.

I thought this book lacked the character development in the other two. Shasta is a nice guy and Aravis has more spunk than most of the girls in his story but she gets side-lined with an injury and plays a minor role. Rabadash is a one-dimensional villain and somewhat boring. While there is plenty of external action there is not as much internal tension with the characters making ethical decisions. I have noticed that many authors of this time period (about 75 years ago) seem to short-change girls and other cultures subverting them to minor roles. The protagonist's are white boys that wield swords and fight for justice or save the day. While Lewis did much for giving children's fantasy literature a boost,  I like today's evolution of children's books and the variety of genders and cultures represented. Since this is the Year of the Horse according to the Chinese Lunar Calendar, it seems appropriate that I reread it. Giddyup and git readin' ya'll!

3 Smileys

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (The Chronicles of Narnia (Publication Order) #1) by C.S. Lewis

Today's fantasy books seem more complex than the more simple plots found in the Narnia Chronicles. Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles are similar to Lewis's in page length and simplicity. Both do not have strong female characters that are found in today's literature. What I do like as an adult about Lewis's series is that the characters face ethical decisions that have a cumulative effect in shaping their personality, the simpler language makes it more accessible to the ESL readers, the series is a great read aloud and can be used as a launching point for teaching character education, and the adventures the kids have are exciting. Add to that the mix of fairy-tales and Christian theology and I find it easy to get hooked on these books. Others might find there is not enough character depth or development or that the plot is boringly simple. You need to read them yourself and make your own decision.

The start of this book is not memorable. I have a file of great starts to books with sentences that hook the reader with tension or wonder. This story starts like a once-upon-a-time fairy-tale and sets the simple tone: "Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids." Once I got into the story the start made sense because it reflects Lewis's fusion of fairy-tales, myths, and theology. People have called his work a Christian allegory but I disagree because as a whole the series mixes imagery and symbolism from folk and biblical tales. But I digress... enough of my literary quibbles and let's look at the quibbling children.

Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy have arrived at Professor Digory Kirke's house and are exploring its rooms when Lucy accidentally ends up in Narnia after hiding in a wardrobe that opened into its woods. None of Lucy's siblings believe her because when they look there is only the wooden back of a wardrobe instead of trees. Edmund, the second to the youngest, teases her in a mean way making her miserable. When Edmund ends up with Lucy in the wardrobe getting transported to the alternate world, he makes some terrible decisions and chooses to lie to the others that he wasn't in Narnia. When Lucy tells Peter and Susan that she and Edmund have been to Narnia, Edmund denies it. Lucy is devastated by his betrayal and the others think she is going mad.

When all four end up in Narnia, they battle the White Witch to free the oppressed animals with the help of Aslan. Edmund continues to struggle with being the younger sibling who wants the attention that Peter seems to get from others. Being the 4th sibling out of 5 kids, I could relate to Edmund's resentment. My older brothers and sisters got to do things, but I was told "no" because I was too young. I also thought Edmund's addiction to Turkish Delight funny. The White Witch could have offered me a box of chocolates and I would have probably followed her around like a puppy too. When Edmund's mistake leads to the sacrifice of another being, the consequences of bad choices or sinning result in the death of a Narnian character.

The cracked stone table shows redemption for sin and made me think of King Arthur's round table and Moses stone tablets. Lewis creates a moving scene around the stone table that is full of injustice and hate. The crack represents a new beginning in Narnia and while this story reflects the Bible more than "The Magician's Nephew" and is less original, I do like the creatures from myths and the fantastical setting. I also found the ending interesting. The four children became rulers and were adults only to pop back into their world with no time change from when they left. Talk about Groundhogs Day! Now that I'm grown up I feel like that when I read children's books. I pop back in time to my childhood memories. A time with little responsibilities and lots of imagination. Then I finish the book and pop back into the real world with all its issues. And now I want popcorn. Edmund isn't the only one with gluttony problems.

Lewis lived through two World Wars and watched the tyrant, Hitler, use prejudice to murder others. Abusive power is ugly and it can be seen on a global or small scale. Seeing an adult verbally abuse a child is ugly too. Using negative language with children and not helping them reach their potential scares me. My daily speech and interaction with these students reflects the same values Lewis is writing about in Narnia. My small actions have a cumulative affect that create a good or bad teacher. I have to always reflect and work on my own character; otherwise, I'm a hypocrite teaching character education. When I ask students if they are being respectful then I need to reflect on if I'm being respectful to them. If I don't I become self-righteous and proud focusing on rules and performance versus loving others. Lewis inspires me to be a better person. As an adult, I value that message in his stories. I think the reminder to be outraged by injustices is good for it spurs one to justice. Lewis shows evil as choosing to not reach one's potential as a human being. Small and big choices lead to one's inner character. Virtues and building characteristics such as charity, honesty, respect, and responsibility, allow us to live in peace with each other. I not only want my students to reach their potential, I want to reach my own potential as well. This is a life-long pursuit for all, not just children.

4 Smileys

The Magician's Nephew (The Chronicles of Narnia) book 1 or 6 by C.S. Lewis

Narnia captured my imagination as a child. My best friend and I devoured this series and then acted out the books. In this story, Digory Kirke and Polly Plummer's adventure starts with them crawling through the connected attics of the row houses where they lived. The two carefully moved through a small tunnel with a brick wall to one side and sloping roof on the other scrambling from rafter to rafter so as not to fall through the ceiling. The darkness was lit by the occasional light coming through a slat or eave. Armed with flashlights my friend and I mimicked the characters by going on a spree of exploring our own rooftop attics looking for hidden treasures. We found oodles of cobwebs, spiders, and bats, and used our imaginations to create adventures like Digory and Polly's. And while the only treasure we found was an old crucifix, we had a hey-ho time exploring. However, we never found the perfect attic as a hideout. It was either too hot, too insulated, or too cold. Minnesota weather isn't cooperative for attic adventures. My friend's dad, an engineer by trade, made her a tree house in the backyard that became our secret hangout. We imitated Polly and Digory's secret whistle to signal if one of us was in the hangout or not. While we moved on to making mischief by imitating other adventures in the series, Digory and Polly's shenanigans had more serious consequences than ours, for Digory accidentally released evil into the world of Narnia as it was being created.

Digory and Polly are exploring the attic because Polly thinks a squatter is living in the empty row house several doors down from theirs. She hears suspicious noises and tells her dad, but he thinks it is the drains. She doesn't like his unimaginative response: "Pooh! Grown-ups are always thinking of uninteresting explanations." As adults we oftentimes lose that sense of play and imagination that children fall into so easily. A kindergartener asked me just last week if I liked her hat. There was nothing on her head. I said it was beautiful and she went on to describe its colorful "fedders." As adults, we become indoctrinated as to what is real and what is not. Part of the fun of reading children's books aloud or to myself is remembering the imaginative play of youth and good childrens' authors, like Lewis, can recapture this in their books.

When Digory and Polly's crawling through attic leads them to Digory's uncle's study room versus the empty row house, a series of good and bad choices lead the two children into the land of Narnia. Uncle Andrew Ketterly has discovered some magic rings that he is afraid to use on himself. When Digory and Polly show up unexpectedly, Uncle Andrew tricks Polly into putting on a ring and she vanishes into thin air. Aghast, Digory tells his uncle to go after her but his uncle refuses setting himself above others. The ensuing conversation reveals the contrast between virtue and vice in people. Uncle Andrew is a self-centered coward. He makes choices big and small that show he doesn't care or love others. He shows over and over small decisions that nurse his greedy, proud, and cowardly nature. Digory, in contrast, honors his promises and is loyal to his friends. He is virtuous and rescues Polly willingly because it is the right thing to do. His small decisions show a person who makes mistakes and is willing to correct them in order to do the right thing. Characters make moral choices throughout the story that are either good or evil; furthermore, those choices have a cumulative effect in defining them as people.

The ethical decisions of characters is what makes this novel complex and fascinating for me, not to mention the amalgamation of Christian theology and world myths. After Digory went after Polly, the two discovered Narnia and in a series of adventures Digory released an evil witch into the land. Aslan, the Lion and just ruler of Narnia, asks him how to undo the wrong he has done. Digory gives excuses and says he doesn't know how, but later says he'll do whatever he can. Aslan hopes that Digory will take full responsibility for his actions and Digory does not let him down. Next Digory asks Aslan how he can heal his sick mother. Aslan shows compassion, but doesn't really answer him. Aslan says Digory must first get an apple from a garden that will protect Narnia from the evil witch.

When Digory arrives with Polly at the garden's golden gates there is a warning that the fruit can be taken only if it is used to help others. Digory sees the witch eating an apple for herself and she tries to talk him into stealing one in an exciting climax. Digory is horribly tempted to sneak an apple. In a debate with the witch he shows his steadfastness to keeping promises, a message throughout the book. He almost takes the apple until the witch tells him to leave Polly behind and he sees her selfishness in its true form. He knows it is wrong to steal and that his mother would not want the apple if that is what he did even though it would heal her. The moral decisions made progressively throughout the plot by Andrew, the witch, and Digory shape them into good or bad people. Andrew and the witch are incapable of loving others like they love themselves - they have no qualms about killing or exploiting others - while Digory, on the other hand, is willing to sacrifice himself for others and not give into greed, prejudices, or pride. And if he does, he is willing to take responsibility for his mistakes. As a result, Digory reaches his potential as a good person while the other two are shown as stunted, miserable, and unsatisfied people.

Reading this as an adult, I find the mix of folklore elements and Christian symbolism fascinating. Digory is tempted to steal a silver apple in the garden and bring it to his mom for healing. Plus, the tree that grows from the apple Digory picked for Aslan brings Narnia protection. The witch has eaten an apple because she wanted to be young and immortal. She got this wish but it does not bring her contentment. The symbolism and references to theology and myths is jumbled up enough to keep the story from being strictly allegorical. The symbolic tree in Genesis of the Bible was in the garden and symbolized the knowledge of good and evil. Taking the tree's fruit caused Adam and Eve to know right from wrong. The goddess Idun in Norwegian mythology was the keeper of golden apples that made the Norse gods young and immortal and Yggdrasil, the world tree, held Heaven, Earth, and Hell together. The Garden of Hesperides had immortal golden apples in Greek mythology. In Celtic mythology the silver apple branch was used for entry into death. It came from the Isle of Apple Trees that could heal the sick. King Arthur went to the island of apples to be healed of his mortal wound. In Celtic mythology the Druids believed the apple tree had healing properties. This mish-mash makes for an unusual mix that comes out original and refreshing.

Lewis avoids being preachy for the most part. Once he makes a jab at the youth of the day by having the narrator state, "Do Not Steal" is "hammered into boys heads more during Digory's time than today." He also has occasional lapses into presenting Polly as a stereotypical female that represents the mindset of the 1940s and 50s. I laughed aloud when I read: "...that is, he gave Digory a rough heave and set Polly as gently and daintily on the horses's back as if she were made of china and might break." Later the comment on Polly not being able to swim confused me and seemed condescending. I know girls swam then. Esther Williams was the rage. Later, Digory teaches Polly. As a kid my best friend and I would fight over who got to pretend to be Peter. Neither of us ever wanted to be any girl in this series. I've always wondered why and now I know. I was the kid who did back flips off of dining room chairs and climbed roofs. I'm not going to identify with a character that is like breakable china. I'm the character that breaks the china. Lewis presents the strongest and most righteous characters as male, so it only seems natural that my friend and I identified with them. Plus we had great sword fights.

5 Smileys

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Tell-Tale Start: The Misadventures of Edgar & Allan Poe, Book One (The Misadventures of Edgar & Allan Poe #1) by Gordon McAlpine

Twelve-year-old Edgar and Allan are the great-great-great grandnephews of Edgar Allan Poe. The identical twins think as one synchronous mind giving them genius powers beyond the normal kid. Studied since infancy, the Professor Marvel believes the twins embody the scientific theory of quantum entanglement. He has sinister plans for the two for he believes their mind powers will let him take over the world. The two boys just have a hey-ho time pulling macabre pranks that would make the real Poe proud. One prank took care of the school bullies while another prank manipulated their aunt into doing what they want. When the two get kicked out of school and their cat disappears, they unknowing get swept into Professor Marvel's evil plot as their adventure takes them to an Oz-themed park in Kansas.

A subplot involves the real Edgar Allan Poe watching over the boys in the afterlife. He works for William Shakespeare in the heavenly office that makes fortune cookies where he tries to warn the boys of impending dangers. While some reviewers thought this boring, the literary characters, mishaps, and demotions made for laugh out loud moments for me. I'll be curious what students think. My guess is they will remember more of the boys pranks and adventures than the dead Poe. Who knows.

The play on words are fun but my favorite was the prank the boys pulled on the clerk who criticized Edgar Allan Poe's work saying it was not realistic enough with all the lightning, darkness, and screams. The Poe boys (sounds like poor boys...) used her computer and overloaded the circuit breakers causing the lights to explode, espresso machines to overhead and hiss, and cashier drawers to rattle open. People screamed and cowered. They scared the wits out of her. Even if the prank was unrealistic. Just kidding. I couldn't resist.

The plot is not closely tied with Poe's "A Tell-Tale Heart" but references all sorts of classics from Sherlock Holmes, Wizard of Oz, and T.S. Eliot to name a few. The cat is named after a Poe character, Roderick Usher, and the mystery is straightforward and not complex. I did wonder if the story would tie-in with "The Tell-Tale Heart," but it is mostly a reference. There are no murders or hearts pounding beneath floorboards. Mwah-ha-ha. An entertaining book for grades 3-5.

3 Smileys

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Unhooking the Moon by Gregory Hughes

I loved to cross-country ski on the Red River by Fargo, ND, with my sheep dog, ski-skating at high speeds. Relatives protested my solitary exercise for what if I fell through the ice? Northern Minnesota is generally one solid block of ice in the winter, but there are always drownings from either snowmobile or ice-fishing accidents. Those concerned relatives took away my peaceful days on the river replacing them with thoughts of collapsing into frigid waters. I was so mad that I let those fears take root. Marie Claire Debillier has fears, but hers are of pedophiles and being alone. She has visions that leave her shaken because they generally come true. She recognizes a person by his or her spirit in a way that is not normal. She sees people after they are dead which makes her quite practical about death. Her brother, Bob, is the narrator and he swings from annoyance to fascination with his sister as they go on an adventure to find their uncle. While the book says 9-12, it is more for the young adult, with quite a bit of swearing and topics such as death, drugs, and child abuse. It's a book written for the "knowing child" versus the "innocent" child.

Twelve-year-old Bob and ten-year-old Marie Claire's mom died three years earlier and they are living in Winnipeg with their dad. Their transportation to and from school is paddling on the Red River in a canoe. They are free spirits with an odd assortment of friends. Bob has a crush on his teacher and Marie Claire suffers from seizures that give her visions of the future. It isn't clear what is medically wrong with Marie Claire although it appears that she has epilepsy and suffers from grand mal seizures. When their dad dies, the two decide to find their uncle in New York. With no address or phone number and the only clue that he is a drug dealer, the two hop a train and travel east in search of him. They end up in New York meeting all sorts of oddballs before finding answers.

This story is really about siblings and their relationships. I couldn't help but think of how much I did with my brother and how he was fascinated and annoyed with me at times. He'd push me when annoyed or slug me in the arm, but then protect me if someone else hurt me. In touch football I got creamed by a guy that injured my neck and my brother hit him so hard in retaliation that he had to leave the game. Bob is the same way with Marie Claire. He shouts at her and protects her. Except Marie Claire likes trouble and lives each day like it is her last on this earth. She's a bit of a wild girl that thinks of fun as joining a hustler on the street and turning it into an acting audition. When she gets into serious trouble Bob goes to extremes to get help from adults. I know my brother would have done the same.

The characterization of Marie Claire is interesting but she acts too old for a grade 5 child. Her dialogue sounds like an adult. It is funny so I didn't mind, but all the coffee she drank and comments that an adult would say that comes from experience didn't ring true. She's a goofy duck who is entertaining but lacks authenticity. Bob spends most of his time reacting to Marie Claire and he bored me after a while. While there is plenty of external tension, by the time they got to New York his patterns were repetitive of just protecting Marie Claire or being annoyed. I wanted more explanations on Marie Claire's medical condition and Bob's character to change more. The ending came off as too abrupt and while I liked the beginning of the book, I lost interest from New York with Ice and the aftermath.

The plot has quite a few conveniences that are supposed to highlight the personality magnet of Marie Claire, but they felt contrived to me. Joey, Ice, and the homeless man to name a few. A plot technique I am somewhat tired of is the use of dreams to foreshadow the plot. This book uses Marie Claire's seizures as such. For me, the plot becomes too predictable. I know it is supposed to add tension, but I get annoyed by them. This is a matter of taste on my part. I have some friends that like realistic fiction and they really liked this book with its small bit of magical realism and kooky characters. It did have its moments for me. You'll have to decide for yourself.

3 Smileys

Sunday, March 2, 2014

After the River the Sun by Dia Calhoun

As a kid, my best friend and I would act out books we had read. Nancy Drew in "The Secret of the Old Clock," meant solving a made-up mystery and climbing the neighborhood church bell tower. "Banner in the Sky" meant freezing water on our steep backyard hill and chiseling our way up "Mount Everest." (My best friend still bemoans the ruin of her Swiss army knife hammering it into ice.) The Narnia Chronicles meant sword fights, choking down clam chowder (we were at sea and had to suffer), and suffocating in a coat closet during the heat of summer trying to wish the back of it would transform into an alternate world with fauns and witches. Acting out books was great fun and I got grounded a few times. My best friend rarely got in trouble and I remember asking her mom why as an adult. "I thought it was healthy that you both were using your imaginations." This story has Eckhart and Eva using their imaginations by acting out King Arthur stories, pretending they are knights on a quest. In reality, Eckhart is trying to deal with the tragedy of losing both parents in a rafting accident. He feels guilty over their deaths and must find the courage to forgive himself.

Eckhart Lyon is taken in by his uncle Albert after spending four months in foster homes after the death of his parents. Uncle Al says he'll take Eckhart on a trial basis. Al and his sister, Eckhart's mom, did not get along and Eckhart doesn't even know Al. Eckhart likes to play video games and is not an outside person so moving to Uncle Al's house is not easy with its lack of T.V., Internet, and other modern comforts. Eckhart has to work on Uncle Al's orchard farm and it takes some getting used to. He misses his parents desperately and keeps his mom's violin that she played in the Seattle symphony close at hand to remind him of her.

Uncle Al is dealing with grief like Eckhart although his tragedy happened three years earlier. Eckart discovers why Al and his sister no longer spoke to each other although there must be more anger to it because Al didn't even go to the funeral of his sister. With the help of Eva, Eckhart decides to go on a quest like Sir Gaiwan in the King Arthur books and find a home and find the courage to face his fears. He must decide whether or not he wants to live with his uncle who is not the most open and welcoming man. In an exciting climax Eckhart learns what sacrifice means and finds hope for his future.

When a relative of mine died tragically, the family would light a candle in his memory at  significant events or holiday gatherings. Memories of the person swirled with smells of turkey and gravy while the candle flame bent and twisted by the unseen air currents on the table. While our hearts were heavy, this ritual somehow lightened the heaviness inside me. When Eckhart builds the Tower of Troth and describes his feelings, it reminded me of our memory candle and raw grief. Uncle Al is dealing with grief as well and is an interesting contrast to Eckhart. In an interesting twist, the adult seems to be dealing with his loss in a manner less healthy than Eckhart.

The characters are well developed in Eckhart and Eva. Uncle Al is harsh, bitter, and withdrawn at the start. He has a chip on his shoulder toward his sister that makes him angry at Eckhart. He's dealing with guilt over his loss like Eckhart, but the reader isn't privy to his point of view. He angrily chopped down an orchid three years earlier and it would appear he is still mad. That is why his transformation of accepting Eckhart at the end seemed a bit sudden. While he is healing from grief and shows some internal changes as he begins to write stories again and smile more often during the day, his actions at the end and use of alcohol suggest that there may be some deeper issues he must deal with in his grief. The fact that Al's actions just about killed Eckhart, made me expect more from the resolution. It's fine, but felt a little incomplete.

The plot is straightforward and not too complex. The author has nice pacing with giving out information that keeps up the tension while the reader pieces together what happened on the river with Eckhart and his parents. At 350 pages long, this novel-in-verse can be read fairly quickly. The violin twist and use of music as a way to sooth also adds to Eckhart's emotional journey of learning to accept the tragedy. An excellent grade 4-5 story.

4 Smileys

Sure Signs of Crazy by Karen Harrington

The more I write reviews the more I realize how much my biases come into play. I like a story with a fast pace. This story is not fast-paced. I like a story with lots of dialogue. This story has more interior monologue. I like a story that is funny. This story is dramatic and sad. I like the fantasy genre the most and the horror genre the least. You get the idea. The difficulty of writing a book and then having a review based solely on biases must be irritating for authors. I find it hard recognizing when my likes and dislikes are interfering with an analysis. It reminds me of when I was learning to be a reporter at 19. The professor said that it is really impossible to be objective. I was not a very good reporter. I'm probably not a very good reviewer. But at least I like writing book reviews better than being a reporter. It's enough to drive a person crazy. "Crazy" is a trouble word in the home of twelve-year-old Sarah Nelson. Crazy is a mom that tries to drown her kids and succeeds with one but not the other. Crazy is trying to learn to live with it.

This book has quite the premise. Sarah is worried about being crazy like her mom. When Sarah's mom killed her brother and tried to kill her, it was the only case of filicide in Texas and got so much publicity that Sarah and her dad move all the time to sustain some anonymity. They are recognized and ostracized wherever they live. Sarah's mom was found insane and put in a mental institution. Sarah worries that something might be wrong with her like her mom. While her dad deals with the tragedy by drinking too much, Sarah, for the first time, gets to stay home with her dad for the summer rather than go to her grandparents home in another city.

Her babysitter has a boyfriend and passes the watching of Sarah onto her brother, Finn. Sarah develops a crush on Finn and learns he has his own painful past. When another parent kills her children in the city, the press start to pester Sarah's family. Even after 10 years the family can't move on. She also wonders about her mother and she wants to get to know her. When the English teacher suggests keeping a journal and writing to a favorite fiction character, Sarah writes letters to Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird." She talks about problems with her dad and longing to know her mother.

The character's arc begins with Sarah worrying about her mother going crazy, but changes later to wanting to get to know her mother. The result is a fractured plot. I preferred the beginning message of Sarah worrying that she'll have signs of mental illness. I worry I will get alzheimer's like my mom. Others worry about inherited diseases such as depression, strokes, heart attacks. Fear can be so crippling in people's lives that it is a universal theme that speaks to the adult as well as the child. The switch to wanting to meet her mother bored me in comparison. I kept waiting for the doctor to give a scientific reason for the mom's psychosis or some statistics on mother's killing children. When our family had a loved one die from suicide, our family couldn't get enough information on what makes the brain go haywire.

The romantic subplot is going to appeal more to girls than boys. Sarah trying to find a mother substitute in her babysitter to discuss her body changing is not going to interest boys either. The other subplot of Sarah's dad as an alcoholic as a result of their mom was more interesting. After 10 years Sarah and her father seem to be in a perpetual groundhog's day where they must relive the event until they can transcend it. He is depressed and unable to deal with the tragedy. He also seems to still love his wife. He was charged in the death of his children for neglect and I kept waiting for that issue to be addressed more in-depth with Sarah. The neighbor whose husband dies and Finn's past water down Sarah's story. It seemed that the author was trying to do too much.

Sarah loves words and writes the definitions of them throughout the story. I remember the first time I came across this in a middle grade novel and thought it so clever. While it is a good way to help readers toward fluency, it has become almost cliche. I have seen it in way too many realistic stories and it no longer enthralls me.

When readers come to a story with their own experiences and backgrounds, they make unique connections that help them deal with issues in their own life. Sarah's letter writing shows this and was a highlight for me in this story. Sarah is so lonely. She's isolated at school because of her past. She's teased so much she talks to a plant rather than people. Sometimes I feel so isolated living overseas. One thing multilingual students do is switch to another language when a monolingual adult is walking behind them in the hallway. They will do it to other monolingual or new students too if they want to exclude them. I feel the most isolated then. I'm sure the students do too. A foreigner on foreign soil that is illiterate. Move over Sarah. I'd like to talk to your plant.The story ends on hope with the family moving on, but leaves too many loose ends.

3 Smileys