Friday, March 28, 2014

Oliver Twist

Considering that I haven't read any Dickens in a little over a year, I was quite excited to pick up Oliver Twist. After all, I've heard time and again that this book scarred the childhoods of numerous acquaintances, and here I was, ready to show the world that Dickens is really not so bad as he's made out to be.

Well, I now see how he could scar children with this book. Though this book has a child for the main character, it certainly should not be given to children. This book was very much written for mature adults, and even then it's a bit of a stretch.

But something Dickens said reconciled me to the darkness and made me ready to recommend this book heart and soul.

The Book
When Oliver Twist has the audacity to ask for more, he brings down upon his head a rain of vindictive hate from the parochial officials. Here is a boy destined to be hung, they say, and they pack him off to a coffin maker for a trial period before he is apprenticed. Abused and neglected, Oliver runs away and sets off for London to better his fortunes, leaving behind the charity parish that gave him a home ever since he was born in disgraceful conditions nine years before.

Once in London, Oliver is taken in by the Artful Dodger, a street scamp who deals in a trade Oliver can't quite make out. Dodger takes him to a home with a bunch of other boys, and introduces him to Fagin, an old Jew who gives them bed and board in exchange for their work. Very shortly, Oliver is sent out with Dodger to commence earning his keep--but he's horrified to learn that he fell in with a band of pickpockets. Bad company corrupts good morals, and Oliver is arrested for pickpocketing that first day while the real scamp, Dodger, makes a clean getaway. Fortunately he's rescued by a nice gentleman who takes him in and gives him the first taste of home and family that he's ever had.

But Oliver's not destined for happiness yet. While on an errand for Mr. Brownlow, he's kidnapped and brought back to his former haunt by Fagin's partner Bill Sikes, and Sikes' girlfriend Nancy. And they're determined to break Oliver's good morals so that he'll be one of them for life.

My Thoughts
This is perhaps Dickens' most well-known novel. Say "Oliver" or "I want some more", and people will immediately be able to place the author. Which always makes me mourn, because as good as Oliver Twist is, Great Expectations, Little Dorrit, and Martin Chuzzlewit are where Dickens really shines. And frankly, I think Oliver Twist should come later in people's introduction to Dickens, after they've grown used to his humor and read a few of his plot lines that include a heavier dash of redemptive plot as well as tragic.
This, of course, is not a book for children. Child kidnapping, live-in girlfriends, murderous villains and tales of unlawful love all combine for a very good adult look about the faults of English society in Dickens' day, but they were written on an adult level, to stir adults to action, and frankly there were some sections with the criminals that even I had difficulty getting through.One particularly dark passage that some readers may wish to skip is chapter 14 of Book 3. The title should give you all you wish to know. Chapter 12 is also very intense, and the end of it is disturbing. Dickens also uses language and street scamp slang; just something to be aware of as you read.
Contrasted with the pickpockets are other people--pure, good people who reach out to those more unfortunate; who don't believe that a boy is bad simply because he is homeless, and who live in beauty; so Dickens doesn't focus only on one side, and you'll find that he draws a fair contrast, and gives emotional breaks when the reader needs it.
When I finished the book, even though the good characters were very good, and Oliver is a little boy who determines to hang onto his morals when the only people taking care of him are crooks and murderers, I wondered if Dickens had pushed a little too far this time. But I changed my mind when I read through the appendices in the back, with his introductions to the various editions. Here I saw that he did not put in darkness for its own sake, but for a very specific purpose:
I fully expected [this tale] would be objected to on some very high moral grounds in some very high moral quarters. The result did not fail to prove the justice of my anticipations. I embrace the present opportunity of saying a few words in explanation of my aim and object in its production...I confess I have yet to learn that a lesson of the purest good may not be drawn from the vilest evil....I saw no reason, when I wrote this book, why the very dregs of life, so long as their speech did not offend the ear, should not serve the purpose of a moral, at least as well as its froth and cream....I endeavored, while I painted it in all its fallen and degraded aspect, to banish from the lips of the lowest character I introduced, any expression that could by possibility offend; and rather to lead to the unavoidable inference that its existence was of the most debased and vicious kind, than to prove it elaborately by words and deeds. ~The Author's Introduction to the Third Edition (1841)
In other words, Dickens was concerned that thieves and pickpockets had grown to be a matter of entertainment in society instead of a matter of reform. With jolly robbers singing around the campfire and cavorting about for society's entertainment, he wrote Oliver Twist as a slap in the face to wake people up to evil's sorrow and real debasement. But he didn't shock for the shocking's sake. Even while he dug to the dregs of evil, he still showed restraint and an appropriate amount of disguising, especially in the story of Nancy.


The chapter headings were fantastically witty; the sarcasm in the text was more meant to cut and jab than to give rise to a laugh this time, so I didn't laugh quite as much, but I still found opportunities to smile. It's interesting to compare Dickens' earliest edition of the story which came out in the magazine with a later edition. He toned down the emotion here and there, so he could gain some more credibility. I'm glad I got to read his first edition, but I think he made some wise word changes in later editions to make his point a little more artfully. This was obviously a story very close to his heart.
I read the Puffin classics edition; the introductions Dickens wrote, an index of street slang, footnotes explaining cultural references and regions of London, as well as an appendix of later textual alterations Dickens made, were invaluable, and highly enjoyed. If you would like the full Oliver Twist experience, which greatly added to my own enjoyment, I highly recommend this particular edition.

Justice is done. Mercy is served. And though the dark is very dark, Dickens pulls off a masterful wake-up call to the people of his time on the difference between the poor who need help--and the poor who need to be taken down.

Radio Drama
While I think the book is best, Focus on the Family did a wonderful radio drama of this tale. It does include scattered instances of language, but the story ratchets down some of the dark despair of the text, while still staying faithful to the plot lines. Altogether, I think I would introduce young people to Oliver Twist by giving them the drama to learn the story first, and then moving them on to the book. Well done, with a lot of actors I recognized from other dramas and even recent BBC period drama shows. It's definitely worth picking up.

I haven't seen the movies, though--so if any of you have, I would love a recommendation!

Lady Bibliophile

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

In Which I Take Leave of Absence

Hello, fellow bibliophiles!
I'm just popping in with a quick announcement to say that I am taking leave of absence today, and I shall be back on Friday with a very exciting book review. :) Hope you all have a fantastic week, and find some time to read a good book. :)

Lady B.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Story of the Trapp Family Singers

Just this week I learned that Maria von Trapp, the last surviving child of the first family of Captain von Trapp, passed away at age 99 in February.

Maria is the sole reason for the Captain and his second wife ever meeting. Without her, the family that has captured the hearts of generations might never have come to being.

Our facts are probably colored to great extent by The Sound of Music, the popular musical that catches the spirit, if not quite the reality of the captain and Maria's meeting. In real life some of the details were a little different, though they were just as dramatic, just as romantic, and just as heartwarming.

So today, I present to you The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, by Maria Augusta Trapp

The Book

When Maria set off from the Abbey to be a governess for Captain von Trapp's children, she never knew that her life was about to change. An irrepressible nun who actually did kiss the floor in advance of doing something she knew to be wrong, she wasn't made for the abbey cloisters; and when she met her particular charge, little Maria, she fell in love with her and the rest of the Captain's children right away. Her bright spirit brought much comfort to the family, and when the Captain broke his engagement with Princess Yvonne because Maria would make a better mother for his children, their love story, though not quite as instantaneous as Hollywood's, was a beautiful example of what a nice step-mother can bring to a family.

In this book, the leading up to the marriage is only a part of the tale. We have the real horror of the family as Hitler took over their native Austria; Maria's difficulties in conceiving children that led to the doctor trying to persuade her to abort her youngest son, Johannes; the family's budding talent for music; and Maria's loving descriptions of holiday traditions and special moments. She's as irrepressible in real life as in the film, and makes a host of mistakes in trying to measure up to what she thinks she should be. But Captain von Trapp was such a gentle and loving husband and father that she soon found her rhythm in the home.

When they fled Austria (due not only to the Captain refusing a German post, but to one of the sons refusing a high position as well) the von Trapps set off for America, with Maria in the middle of a high-risk pregnancy. Their adventures in America of trying to learn English, trying to connect American audiences with their Austrian music, and making a living in a time of war are part of a story that you won't want to miss. You'll laugh again and again, stop to ponder quite often, and feel right at home with the real-life story of this famous family.

My Thoughts
I've always loved the von Trapp family since my first acquaintance with this book.They are of course a Catholic family and therefore there are a lot of saints and rosaries and Catholic festivals, but that never bothered me personally; it's just part of their story. Beyond that, there are really no warnings to give; there are a couple of childbirth scenes, but they're not at all graphic or inappropriate for a family reading. Probably the only thing I skipped in the family read-aloud was Maria's discussions with her dressmaker on how to hide the fact that she was expecting a child; you'll know why when you get there.

A lot of heroes came out of the WW2 era--missionaries, Corrie Ten Boom, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and many others. But surprisingly the von Trapps, though they have just as memorable a legacy, aren't thought of in the WW2 hall of fame. They deserve a revival of their life story.

This particular book I'm reviewing today shares Maria's story starting at the time she met the von Trapps; but her childhood and her life after the Captain's death also makes fascinating reading in her autobiography Maria. I also enjoyed the book The World of the Trapp Family Singers, which has a bunch of biographical information and numerous black and white photographs of the family.

If you've never experienced the real story of the von Trapp family singers, please do check this book out. The movie is great fun, but the book is a joy to read as well, and a well-written gem of Austrian culture as well as their family history. The Story of the Trapp Family Singers also has a sequel written by Maria, with further adventures of their family--Family on Wheels.
The Von Trapp Singers

While all of Captain von Trapp's original children that Maria came to teach have now passed away, the three children that Maria had with the Captain are still alive. Not only that, but four of the von Trapp grandchildren are touring and singing today. They just released their newest album in March, and you can find them here. Other albums they've sung are available here. We enjoy their Christmas album very much indeed, and have a few singles from other CDs. It's easy to see how important their heritage is to them as you look at their work; and from all appearances, this next generation of von Trapps is passionate about carrying on the legacy they've been given. These von Trapps are descended from Werner, one of Captain von Trapp's original seven children.

In honor of this family's legacy, multigenerational faithfulness, Christian commitment, and amazing entrepreneurialism; I highly recommend checking out Maria's books, and the music. You'll be encouraged and uplifted by their family saga.

Lady Bibliophile

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Saints of Ireland (Reprise)

via Pinterest
Yesterday was St. Patrick's Day, and for those of us who are Irish, it was a wonderful time to put a little extra emphasis on our Celtic heritage. Junior B was dressed up in full Irish colors yesterday, and I wore the honorary green shirt and Irish-themed bracelet that I have in my possession.
And we listened to Irish music. Lots of it.
A couple of years ago, near the time of My Lady Bibliophile's beginnings, I posted an article on Hugh de Blacam's The Saints of Ireland, a little green-bound book that I took out from the library and read with great enjoyment. If you're Irish, and would like to take a closer look at your heritage--or if you're not Irish, but you want to know what makes all us Celtic folk so passionate about our heritage--I hope you'll enjoy this reposting of my review of de Blacam's book:
via Pinterest
Once upon a time, in the year 387, a boy lived near Kilpatrick, in Scotland.  His parents were Romans, and he grew up under their roof until the age of 14 or 15, when cruel raiders swept down upon the land and stole him away to serve a people of Druids and pagans. He lived as a sheepherder for six years among this people, learning their language and their customs. He wrote of his relationship with Jesus Christ during his captivity. "The love of God and his fear grew in me more and more, as did the faith, and my soul was rosed, so that, in a single day, I have said as many as a hundred prayers and in the night, nearly the same." This boy had a dream, in which God told him to leave Ireland by taking passage on a ship at the coast. After a brief recapture and near starvation, he succeeded in his escape and reunited with his family. He studied for the priesthood, and in his heart, felt the call of the Lord to return to the Irish people and bring them the good news of Jesus Christ. In spite of past pain and past scars, he obeyed.  Constantly in danger of martyrdom, he labored among the Irish people for forty years until his death on March 17, 461, at Saul, where he built his first church.

You all know the man.

St. Patrick.

Continue on to the year 521 A.D., when a baby boy was born to a tribal chieftain, and given two names. One meant 'wolf', the other meant 'dove'. He was destined to fulfill both names in his lifetime.
This boy descended from royal blood, and could have become king, had he not chosen to study for the priesthood instead. He studied with 3,000 other students at Clonard Abbey, under St. Finian, and became one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. Succeeding in his ordination as priest, he founded several monasteries and his reputation grew. But then something went wrong.
Finnian of Clonard possessed a copy of the Scriptures, a sign of great wealth. He refused to let Columba copy it, and the student went behind his back to copy it in the dead of night. When Finnian discovered his treachery, he took Columba before the king, Diarmit; and the king ruled that Columba should return to Finnian the copy of the Scriptures he had made. Though protesting, Columba could do nothing to change the king's verdict.

And he allowed a sprout of bitterness to grow up in his soul.

When Diarmit violated monastic security to capture and execute one of Columba's kinsmen, the priest called together his clan to do battle. As the war raged, he knelt in prayer for the victory of his men, with frightening success. The Ui Niell carried the day. Columba now stood in a position to claim the kingship at the cost of 3,000 souls.

Condemned by religious and secular authorities, perhaps grief-stricken in his own conscience, Columba refused to become king and accepted the penalty of exile to Scotland, swearing to bring 3,000 souls to Christ--the number of men whose deaths he had knelt in prayer against.

With twelve men, he left for the tiny island Iona. But in his soul, he grieved at leaving his native Ireland.
Book Review
To follow more of Columba's story, I direct you to today's book review: The Saints of Ireland, by Hugh de Blacam. (Also known as Aodh de Blacam). This book is older, and harder to find, but well worth the reading for an overview of two important Irish missionaries. De Blacam enthusiastically sets forth the lives of St. Columba, or Columcille, and St. Brigid, a woman missionary to Scotland.
The account of their calling, their ministry, and their miracles brings a whole new meaning to St. Patrick's Day--because these people are an offshoot of Patrick's ministry. Due to Patrick's faithful evangelism in Ireland, he raised up a generation of Christians to evangelize his own native Scotland, which I find a beautiful example of God's working out all tragedy for good. Though Patrick was grieved to leave his homeland, it was through his obedience that Christianity came to the people who would minister to his own land in future.
Hugh de Blacam gushes occasionally over the greatness of these saints; perhaps because of their connection to Roman Catholicism. I had to smile when he spent two or three pages mourning the common mispronunciation of St. Brigid's name, and deploring the nicknames 'Patty' and 'Biddy' as disrespectful to two of Scotland's greatest saints. But I didn't find it irksome, and it was helpful, as I had pronounced Brigid's name completely wrong up to that point.
via Pinterest
I don't think you'll find the account of St. Columba's battle in this book, or if you do it is marginalized as much as possible. Saints, after all, are supposed to be perfect, and historians dispute certain facts of Columcille's life, not knowing whether they are factual or legendary. I don't pretend to know. But I like the account of the battle, and I also enjoy some other legends surrounding Columcille's life and death, including an account of the Loch Ness monster. (You can find the legends of Columcille's life in Life of St. Columba by Adomnan of Iona. I've not read the entire book, but I include it based upon a high recommendation.)
Whatever is fact, whatever is legendary, this man's ministry came as a result of St. Patrick's obedience to the call of God, and his forgiveness to those who enslaved him. The story of their lives, however faulty, however hyped, portrays quite clearly the forgiveness and redemption of Jesus Christ. We have a call just as they do, to go forth and make disciples of all nations--no matter our past pain, as in the case of Patrick; or our past sins, as in the case of Columba. Thank God that through Jesus Christ we are free from the chains that others try to bind us with, or that we fasten on ourselves.

And that, my friends, is the true message of St. Patrick's Day.
Lady Bibliophile

Friday, March 14, 2014

What Makes a Good Heroine

Photo Credit

By special request, we have today "What Makes a Good Heroine." After all, it would be rather unbalanced to give the spotlight to heroes and sidekicks without also taking the time to discuss the other half of the human race.

I very much enjoyed looking through my stack of books this morning to find my especial favorite heroines. There were a surprising number to choose from, and some old friends that I read often growing up, that have been quietly sitting, waiting for me to return to them. I hope you enjoy recalling some of these as much as I did! :)

So without further ado:

1. Good Heroines Honor Their Daddies
The mark of every good heroine, and indeed, some of my especial favorites, is that they honor their fathers. Whether it's Little Dorrit soothing her father in the Marshalsea, or Jane Stuart cooking for her dad in a cottage on Prince Edward Island, or Molly Gibson seeking to cope gracefully with a new stepmother for Dr. Gibson's sake, all good heroines honor and respect their fathers. Even if the father isn't worth honoring, or the family is broken, they still find resourceful ways to obey and delight in helping with their father's work. In fact, some of my favorite heroines honored their fathers when the dads were no longer living.  

2. Good Heroines are Resourceful in Helping their Heroes
Every good heroine knows that her hero is sometimes in a tight spot, and she needs to help him out. That's what women were designed for: to be a 'helper suitable'. Some examples include Jean keeping a level head for Harry in G.A. Henty's In the Reign of Terror, or the Angel helping Freckles find his voice and come to terms with his past. A lot of times heroines are there to help with emotional needs; but that isn't all they do, as we'll discuss presently.

3. Good Heroines Refuse to Compromise
When a suitor who's keeping a mad wife locked up in his attic pleads with you to marry him, every heroine worth her salt knows that her feelings must be thrown out the window. Jane Eyre, of course, was a beautiful example of honoring the laws of heaven above the pleadings of her heart and refusing to compromise her virtue for the sake of her happiness. On an even more serious level, when heroines have to choose between life and faith, they stand fast and hold to their commitment with Jesus Christ. Margaret Wilson, a martyr during the time of the Scorrish covenanters, chose Jesus, and persevered to the end, even when she executed for refusing to conform to the king's commands.

4. Good Heroines have a Feminine Maturity
I've always had a fondness for John Watson, and when Mary Morstan came along, I knew that she was a women worthy of him. Though they didn't have long together, The Sign of the Four was a fantastic portrait of Mary's careful thinking, mature perspective, and resourceful attitude through the tragedies of life. Also, Anne Elliot is perhaps my favorite Austen heroine for feminine maturity--though living with a bunch of rather selfish family members, she doesn't wallow in self-pity when she's called upon to sacrifice her own inclinations. And when her rejected suitor shows up after eight years, she goes running through the streets of Bath meets him with all the proper etiquette that any young lady should have. Good heroines, no matter what the circumstance or the awkwardness, act like grownups and carry off the situations they are in with graciousness and sensitivity for other people's feelings.

5. Good Heroines are an Intellectual Match to Their Heroes
This ties in with the point on helping their heroes, but I think every good heroine should be able to equal her hero with intellectual capabilities. And in this I'm not espousing egalitarianism; but the Proverbs 31 woman was well equipped mentally to be able to come alongside her husband in his dominion mandate. Cynthia, best friend of Father Tim in Jan Karon's Mitford series, is able to discuss everything with him from poetry to doctrine, and I love their letters and conversations--she's someone who respects Father Tim very much, yet is able to be edifying company to him at the same time. Again, why did Darcy ever look twice at Elizabeth? Not because of the sassy jabs found in '05 P&P, but because of the mature, and even sometimes jesting comments that she was able to exchange in all civility with him throughout their conversations. And again, Margaret Hale attracted John Thornton because she was a thinker who challenged him.

6. Good Heroines Love Their Families
Ruth, Tom Pinch's sister in Martin Chuzzlewit, is so attractive because she loves her brother. We love him too, so we love her for his sake. And when they set up housekeeping together, Ruth shows that serving her brother is the best and most fulfilling thing she could ever think of doing.
Many people are unsure of Anne Shirley, and she does have a rather independent youth, but when she settles down as Mrs. Blythe (sorry if that was a huge spoiler...but I rather suspect not) she loves her children, her neighborhood, her husband, and her home like a good wife should. I love the later books in the Anne series because of her love for her family. All good women recognize the value of serving in their home, and their heart is with the people closest to them.

7. Good Heroines are Ready to Get their Hands Dirty
Now this is where it gets really interesting. Just because a heroine should be feminine doesn't mean she should be squeamish about blood and hard work, and here is where the best heroines often shine. Nannie T. Alderson, a real-life heroine, left her life as a rich southern belle and learned to keep house in a log cabin out west. Mary Lamington in John Buchan's Hannay series is a pretty young woman who also knows a thing or two about spy work (please take this example from the books, and not the movie).
Heroines aren't afraid of getting their hands dirty with mud--or sometimes even blood. Masouda from Haggard's The Brethren had a dagger and knew how to use it in helping Wulf and Godwin work through the perils of the Middle East. She was still a woman, and still a heroine, even though she knew the right place to strike when necessary. And she understood, as all heroines understand, that knowing how to be the first one to attack is not at all a bad thing

8. Good Heroines Grow From their Mistakes
While Elnora is the main heroine of A Girl of the Limberlost, I always coupled her mother with her as a heroine. Kate Comstock mourned a rotten husband for years until she woke up and turned her life around, and that's not easy for a woman in her forties to do. She was a hard worker, a thorough repenter, and deserves to be recognized for her acchievments. Catharine Morland learned the danger of placing too much stock in Gothic fiction; Jill Pole learned not to be selfish. Heroines know that they aren't perfect; but they don't resign themselves to their imperfections. They work to overcome them.

9. Good Heroines Give Wise Advice and Loving Comfort
This is recognized as one of the main roles of women, in real life as well as in fiction. Women are designed to be the softer influence, the comforting hand, and the place where people know they can come to if they need timely counsel. Sarah, Big Duncan's wife from Freckles, was a woman who often had a timely word for the young hero; and perhaps did as much as the Angel to shape his success. Agnes didn't give up on David Copperfield even after he married Dora, ("Do kiss Jyp and be reasonable!") and stood ready to be his friend and advisor, even when she couldn't have him for her lover. Best of all, Esther Summerson from Bleak House was everyone's little confidante, and blessed so many hearts by her gentle and sensible advice.

10. Good Heroines Have a Vision for Dominion 
All good heroines realize that they are put on this earth for a purpose, and they're to use their talents to bring glory to the Lord and better the lives of those around them. Eleanor Stuart Pruitt, when her husband had died and she was left with a little baby girl, picked up and moved west. She had a vision for showing widows that they could homestead; a better way to support themselves than taking a job and farming out their children to be taken care of by others. And through her vision, she was a great example of resourcefulness to many in her situation. Linda Strong, from Gene Stratton-Porter's Her Father's Daughter, wanted to show people how to use natural plants in California for edible dishes and resources. She used her writing to educate and to provide good recipes. And she had a vision as well for keeping American free and the schools full of hard-working students who gave other foreign nations a run for their money.

11. Good Heroines Seek to be More and More Christlike
The best heroines seek to be more Christlike. Whether its Elsie Dinsmore (who is a legitimate heroine, fellow bibliophiles) to Pollyanna seeking to show people that God is good, and everything he sends is good too, heroines seek to love the Lord, and put His word into practice. My favorite heroines to illustrate this point are Corrie and Betsie Ten Boom. They are real life ladies who sacrificed their freedom to care for the Jews, and through it all used their sufferings to be conformed to their Heavenly Father's will. These two ladies, if I were pressed to decide, would probably be my favorite heroines of all because of their Christlike work and life.

There are a few other good heroines that I couldn't fit in the above categories, including Marguerite Blakeney from The Scarlet Pimpernel and Maid Marion from Robin Hood, but I love them all the same and can't bear to end this blog post without mentioning a couple more. I always thought of Lucy Pevensie as a heroine, for believing in Narnia even when no-one else did; she is a good example of holding fast to what she knew to be true even when it was ridiculed.  Polly from An Old-Fashioned Girl was always another of my favorites--her friendship with her cousins and the way she blessed the lives of those she met through her simple cheerfulness. And last of all, Capitola, however forward a young lady, is one of the most interesting, funny heroines that you can find; I highly recommend making her acquaintance in The Hidden Hand.

Those are a lot of heroines. And with their example (and a few others that I simply didn't have room for) we would be hard-pressed to say that literature has no women worth aspiring to imitate. These women have all combined in their way to help teach me what a woman is and can be, and I am grateful for their example. Though most of them are fictional, they hold worthy lessons for any young woman seeking to embrace vision, hard work, and femininity.

Lady Bibliophile

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Lost Baron

The real cover is a
subtler shade of green....
Allen French did quite a bit of historical research in his day, and he's a forgotten author of yesteryear. You'll find republished editions of his historical novels in some homeschool catalogues, but they're not common, and I had only run across one or two people who had read them in the years they've been on my to-read list. I really, really wanted to read French, so a couple of weeks ago, when Junior B checked him out, I previewed The Lost Baron for her.

It was a fun read. A G.A. Henty-meets-Howard Pyle sort of book, and just the perfect adventure novel for a little relaxation.
The Book
[From the back cover:] Martin, son of Sir Anselm of the Hollow, risks his life in more ways than one in this fast-paced story of Cornwall in the year 1200. King Richard is dead and John is King, a ruler ever ready for more money in his treasury whether it comes there honestly or not. When the Baron Eric mysteriously disappears, his young daughter Rosamund must bear the increasing burden of his absence. The moody Sir Basil, distant relation and heir, has taken over the castle--and would not be pleased if Eric should ever return. In an unguarded moment of genuine gratitude, Sir Basil invites young Martin to come to the castle as a page and squire. Martin is swiftly drawn into Rosamund's troubles and into a few of his own before the tale reaches its dramatic climax. 

My Thoughts
I found this book an interesting nut to crack from a moral perspective, in that I couldn't figure out if French was a Christian author or not. One dying character writes a song about giving his soul to God. At another point, I think a church building was referenced. But aside from two or three casual references, the characters never mention God, prayer, or any other indication of where the author's coming from spiritually.  Certain authors choose not to make their Christianity explicit, and yet you still know it's there--Austen and many other authors chose a subtler approach to introducing their biblical worldview. While not every Christian book has to spell it out (though it's better when they do) I kept getting the gut feeling that French was a very moral author, but not necessarily a Christian one. The characters were very upstanding; very brave and kind and generous to the poor--but that was all, and beyond that, I don't know where French was coming from. For that reason I like Henty better than French, for he comes out and says what he means; but though rather incomplete in spiritual regards, French's book emulates worthy behavior for young people, so I think it would still be a positive influence.
The plotting is straightforward, but not fancy. You won't be harrowed to your soul by upcoming plot twists and possible disasters; it's one of those books where you can see what's coming and enjoy the ride. The book is packaged as a historical fiction novel set in the time of Prince John, though the prince isn't mentioned until the very end of the book, and the history is very light. I think the life of the people themselves probably contains the most history. Altogether The Lost Baron strikes me as a story which the author wrote purely for the pleasure of it, and I enjoyed that--it allows the reader to relax a little more while reading it.
I would say early teens would be a good age for this book, but for one element. And that's Sir Basil, who takes over for the baron. He's depressed, moody, tries to starve a prisoner, and walks on hot coals of regret and remorse for a wrong he's contemplating doing. Some may find that disturbing; some may not. So though for the most part it's entirely suitable for the age at which you could introduce a boy to G.A. Henty, there is a streak of emotional instability in Basil that may be a caution for certain readers.
The Lost Baron is illustrated by Andrew Wyeth, the son of N.C. Wyeth. It was fascinating to see his illustrations, and to read as well that the Wyeths were connected with the author Howard Pyle at one point. I thought Andrew carried on very well in his father's footsteps, and the illustrations, which were black pen and ink drawings, greatly enhanced the story.
Rosamund made a good and capable heroine; the only element that disturbed me was that she kept something hidden from her mother, because her mother wasn't the sort of person that would keep it a secret, and it needed to be kept secret. While I thought French didn't make her unduly rebellious or independent, it's a very weighty plotline to put in, and should never be included without a specific purpose and a specific resolution. It wasn't a deal-breaker, but French's lack of religious inclusion meant that he didn't resolve the plot as far as I would have liked to see. There is a bit of the younger generation (Martin and Rosamund) facing off against the older villains, so that's something to be aware of. They act in all honor and respect to those above them, but you'll need to look to other books for a more multigenerational flavor and characters who rely on older mentors. (Though Martin's father is involved as well, come to think of it, so they're not entirely on their own.)
Favorite character? Well, I suppose in the end I would pick Martin. He's straightforward--more the bread-and-butter variety of hero--and I enjoyed him. A young man who's learning how to be a leader in his sphere of influence, who seems to have a close relationship with his father, and who's generous to his enemies as well as chivalrous to the ladies. He's a good role model.
All in all, The Lost Baron is a good little book to curl up with of an afternoon. Adventure, secret passages, philanthropic heroes and heroines, the fight of classic evil against classic good--all the ingredients that combine to form a fun and worthwhile tale. And perhaps a relief to pick up on some occasion when you've been surfeited with emotionally wrenching legends and want something a little lighter to recover with.

Lady Bibliophile

Friday, March 7, 2014

A Draw of Kings (Staff and Sword #3)

Pretty soon after I finished The Hero's Lot, I picked up the final book in the Sword and the Staff trilogy, A Draw of Kings. After two home runs, I couldn't wait to read Patrick Carr's climax for Errol Stone's quest to save Illustra. The plot is classic, and has been done many times, but Carr showed a great amount of artistry and creativity in the first two books, and I was excited to see the ending.

So here today, I bring the conclusion of my journey into the Sword and the Staff trilogy. It wasn't the conclusion I was expecting, but it offered a lot of food for thought, and a few good pointers on what makes--or breaks--a climax.

If you haven't read reviews for A Cast of Stones (Book 1) or The Hero's Lot (Book 2), feel free to get caught up with the above links. It might make it easier to follow the story-line in today's review. :)

The Book
Errol and his friends return to the capital city of Illustra after completing their mission to find the compromised church official, Saron Valon. But instead of resting on their laurels and being hailed as heroes, they have to roll up their sleeves and get to work again. With the king dead, Duke Weir makes a grab for the throne. The church is thrown into turmoil when Martin brings back the news that their age-long tradition of casting lots is not the only way to know Deas's will. Errol and Liam know that one of them must die to restore the barrier holding back the evil from Illustra--and yet, there might not be time to figure out which one.
With enemies closing in from all directions, Adora, Erroll, and Martin split off in three directions to accomplish three key missions for the saving of Illustra. Martin goes to secure an alliance with a hostile tribe, hoping to give Illustra an increased fighting force against the evil maluses and Merakhi. Adora journeys to the land of church outcasts that they discovered in The Hero's Lot--a nation willing to ally and fight with Illustra if a person of royal blood will come in person to reinstate their social status. Erroll journeys to bring the lost book of the Magis back to the church, so they can find out how to truly know Deas. And this time he is not under compulsion--but his continued sacrifice is so great that it is hard for his friends to let him go.

Darkness closes in. Missions need to be accomplished. With enemies swarming over the land, streams of refugees pour into the capital city, bringing tales of horrible attackers and the added threat of famine. The church must find out the will of Deas on whether Erroll or Liam is to be the savior of their people.  But though they have cast the question again and again, the lots continually fail, leaving a even draw between the two names. Archbishop Canon dies. With a nation surrounded, a leaderless church, and impending destruction, Martin and Luis decide that unless they can find a decisive answer to their question, they will send out both Errol and Liam to do battle.

And then the answer reveals itself as to which young man will lay down his life to be the savior of his people.

My Thoughts
The romance element improved more and more as the series went along. Carr gradually put it in with a lighter touch, and though I still wasn't completely endorsing it by the end, I was satisfied with how far he had come. The violence didn't improve. The maluses (evil spirits) and the numerous crush and stab wounds got a bit much; even some of the spiritual difficulties the characters had could have been put in with a little less intensity. Errol's and Martin's spiritual doubts were realistically written, but they also made me struggle too, and there were so many things going on I couldn't remember the way Carr resolved them.

Rohka's characterization carries strong all the way to the end of the trilogy. Wonderful! Aside from Errol, she ranked right up there among my favorite characters. She was strong, unique, interesting, and a well-rounded woman. Adora suffered a little the more capable she got. While she wasn't blatantly feministic, she rested on her decision-making powers a bit too much. Liam, though perfect as ever, received some excellent character development and even a surprising twist in the climax--and I enjoyed that. Martin, Luis, Cruk, Merodach, and Rale were all welcome additions, beautiful sidekicks, and well-written. And Errol continued to grow all the way to the end. I've rarely seen a perfect character arc in a trilogy--but I think his wins hands-down.

A few characters and plots seemed to be poorly resolved. A couple of new characters were hailed as long-lost friends when I had no idea who they were; that threw me for a loop, because I kept trying to figure out if I had forgotten them, or if they were brand-new. Pater Antil's plot was a bit shallow and under-developed, especially at its conclusion. Some of the plots were resolved by characters remembering long-lost memories from their childhood that were huge give-away points to them, but inaccessible to the reader until the moment the character produced them. Also, I thought a favorite character's death at the end, however grievous, seemed to have little point in it. Then again, there was another favorite character that would have brought the book to a whole new level if he had died.

The resolution of the plot of the failed cast of stones was excellent--why it failed, and what the ramifications were. The plotting and tension in the beginning chapters of the book were absolutely fantastic, with tight action and focus. Also, the plot of the Judica's search to find the lost book of the Magis and correct church heresies was great as well. I loved the way Carr incorporated church heresy, church error, and church repentance. A very strong theme, and since that's one of the main sub-plots, it was an important one to get right. Bravo to Carr for writing it so well!

That being said, there were two rather prominent defects that disappointed me in his conclusion. (And no, that doesn't mean it's a tragedy. I have no objection to tragedies, and sometimes find them more rewarding than happy endings.) My objections had more to do with excellence that I thought the book came just shy of reaching.

Number one, Carr made the mistake of reusing main plotlines. Book 2 focused on a long journey, and then book 3 starts with three new journeys from different points-of-view to collect important artifacts for the final battle. The tension doesn't keep up because you know there are only so many journeys the characters can go on before they're not going to be killed by the people trailing them. Book 3 would have been more effective focusing on battles and defense. After Carr's careful and excellent foreshadowing of some future battle in books 1 and 2, he spends 350 pages getting ready for it in book 3, and the last 100 pages actually fighting it. Rather disappointing to have such a small return after a lot of promise.

The second problem I had was that throughout the series, the reader was intimately connected with Errol's emotions and struggles, and in the last chapter Carr took that connection away. We've bled with Errol, overcome drink with him, faced betrayal and doubt and shame with him, and basically followed his whole thought process in planning how to save Illustra. Errol doesn't hide things from the reader.  Then in the last chapters, the author suddenly switches from plain speaking to words with double meanings to get a final moment of suspense and grief out of the reader. I don't mind an author hiding details; it can be very effective and suspenseful when the author faces off with the reader to see who can figure things out first. But I do mind when an author switches from one style to the other at the very last minute so the reader loses connection with the characters.  Frankly, I felt like it was done to coerce my reaction, and there wasn't enough balm afterwards to salve my wounded pride and rescue the tale. ;)

Some of the things I didn't care for may have arisen because I had to read Book 3 so quickly after Book 2. Ideally I would have spaced them out a bit. But I think a trilogy should be able to stand strong even if read all at once. All this considered, though, I'm definitely going to be reading A Draw of Kings again. I suspect that a good deal of my disappointment and criticisms may be eradicated in a second read, so if I find my opinion takes a 180 swing I might pop in and update about it in future.

Even though the third book wasn't my favorite, that still doesn't damage the series in my mind. Errol is a fantastically written hero, one of the better and complex ones I've seen come out of the writing industry recently. Though the main plot of saving Illustra fell somewhat flat, the characters were so rich, the main character was so engaging, and the plot of casting lots was so strong, that they saved the trilogy. Carr writes Christian fantasy in a clearly Christian manner, with a careful eye to literary excellence. It's Christian fantasy that goes surprisingly deep into the culture of his people and the development of his themes. Good and evil are clearly defined--and yet characters have to struggle to overcome weaknesses in a real way that is uplifting to the reader. It's not unduly preachy, nor does it flirt with compromise. Carr has a happy balance between his message and his story.

A Cast of Stones is one of my favorite modern fantasy books. The Hero's Lot was also enjoyable. A Draw of Kings I have a couple of rather large bones to pick with, but that won't stop me from coming back again. Errol and Co. are good friends of mine now, and they have deservedly won their place in my top queue of favorite literary characters. Check this out, folks. A new Christian fantasy trilogy well worth your attention. And if you read them, I would love to hear what you think!
Lady Bibliophile
*This book was given to me for free by Bethany House in exchange for my honest review.*

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

What Makes a Good Sidekick

via Pinterest

Samwise Gamgee wins a lot of laurels for best sidekick. And oh, yes, he deserves it. It's not every friend who would give up cozy nights at the Green Dragon to be chased by Ringwraiths and orcs. But there are some sidekicks that sacrifice just as much as Sam, and they tend to get forgotten about. It's almost as if he shines so brightly that he eclipses all the other Samwises past, present and future. And once I got past him as I was collecting sidekicks, I thought of a few that put just as big a smile on my face as he does.

So here's today's post: What Makes a Good Sidekick. We'll count Sam out this time, because that makes it all the more challenging, and I like a good challenge. Let's see what we can come up with. :)

1. Sidekicks are loyal to the main character
Sidekicks will do anything for their chief. Perhaps why we love Robin Hood so much is not merely for his sake but also for the sake of his sidekicks, Little John and Will Stutley. Something about the group of merry men feasting about the fire strikes a chord with us--good deeds and hair's-breadth escapes and a sworn loyalty one to another. Take also the Scarlet Pimpernel--the line that rings throughout the series is 'nineteen men ready to lay down their lives for their chief'. Anthony Dewhurst, the ever-resourceful Andrew Hastings are two dashing English dandies that make a great sidekick.

But loyalty isn't always glamorous as killing deer and travelling in yachts to France. Take the five men who shipwrecked in Jules Verne's Mysterious Island. Captain Harding is the clear leader, and the four others show their loyalty by cheerful hard work and willing obedience. Brave in the face of danger, willing to be faithful with the everyday tasks, Neb, Pencroft, Herbert, and Gideon Spillet are probably the four best loyal sidekicks you could ever wish for.

2. Sidekicks support the main character's life mission and often do the work so the main characters can get the glory.

While sacrifice may be involved in this point, it isn't always. Sometimes a sidekick willingly supports a mission, such as a husband and a wife working together. Take Ginny Campbell from the Living Forest series. She was a real woman--her husband's sidekick so to speak. She married him and was a beautiful example of a woman supporting her man's life mission--that of observing, recording, and caring for animals.

However, in other more harrowing genres, one of the key plot points is when a side character determines to sacrifice their desires and comforts for the main character's mission, even with the prospect of no recognition. Take Merry and Pippin, perhaps the true sidekicks of LOTR. Much as I love them, I forget they exist. But they drew the orcs away from Frodo, faced the witch-king, and fought at the Black Gate--even though we really spent our time caring about Frodo and the Ring. They gave up a home in the Shire too (not by accident as the movie has it, but very nobly and purposefully) and determined that they were going to do their part to see that the dangerous mission came to its completion. But sometimes we forget them, because that's what sidekicks do--they sacrificially efface themselves so the main character can accomplish their purpose and get the laurel wreath afterwards. And they don't mind that we forget them.

3. Sidekicks stick to the mission when the going gets tough
Nadia, a beautiful example of a female sidekick, keeps Michael Strogoff on track when he loses his sight to the torture. (Michael Strogoff) Hans tells Axel that they're not giving up when they run out of water. (Journey to the Center of the Earth) Tess keeps helping Leinad even when others they know are forsaking the Kingdom, opening it to attack (Kindom's Hope). Even on a little less epic scale, Brent Carradine keeps researching for Alan Grant even when the evidence seems conclusive that Richard III killed the princes in the tower. In the greatest stories, the sidekick says "Let's keep on" when he and the main character are the only two who believe in their mission anymore. When all the orcs of Mordor surround them, when the scientists of ages stand against them, when they're out of food or trapped with no means of escape, sidekicks keep on keeping on.

4. Sidekicks bring hope to a hopeless situation
Best sidekick ever besides Samwise and Herbert Pocket is Mark Tapley from Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit. His whole perspective is that his life is too comfortable to give him any credit in being jolly; so he sets off on a"desperate" quest to make a living in America with the selfish milksop of a main character. And even when the going gets very tough, and he's so sick he can only write 'jolly' to show he's still alive and undaunted, he makes us laugh and brings us hope of good things. Sidekicks must give hope, because every main character is designed to reach a point where they lose hope. So it's the sidekick that gets the reader through to the end.

5. Sidekicks often stand in as the main character's emotional security or sense of fulfillment.
The Jimmy-John children and the Snowbeams gave Jane Stuart a little taste of what a functional family was like the summer she went to meet her father. (Jane of Lantern Hill) Luis, Martin, Cruk, Rokha and Morodach all in their odd and rough way, gave Erroll the family he didn't have growing up. (Sword and the Staff trilogy). Even animals sometimes stand in the place of security or fulfillment. Whether it was the little yearling from Majorie Rawling's famous book, to Old Dan and Little Ann in Where the Red Fern Grows, animals are famous sidekicks that give the characters a sense of peace and love. The best animal sidekick I recall that was noble without sending the reader into a torment of sobs (but don't get your hopes up; he didn't make it either) was Colin, Davie Crawfurd's dog in Prester John. Davie was on foot in a land of heathen savages, facing imminent capture and torture--but Colin searched for him and found him and stuck by him until the end. And it gave Davie just the amount of home and security he needed to get him through.

Sidekicks exist as animals or people to be the safe haven that the character needs--to give them a home when they are away from home, and to give them a safe haven to confide their fears and hopes in.

6. Sidekicks sometimes exist to give the reader the lesson of redemption.
In some cases, the sidekick redeems the main character, such as Sydney Carlisle trying to witness to the atheistic Drew (Cloak of the Light). But in some cases, the sidekick exists so that the main character can redeem them. Take Diccon from To Have and To Hold. He was about to be broken on the rack when Captain Percy bought him. Because his master was faithful to him, Diccon showed a strange softening and was faithful in return. Another sidekick, Duncan, (Sir Kendrick and the Castle of Bel Lione) is an impetuous young man, and his hasty generosity lands him in a spot where he needs a lot of rescuing. But as Kendrick plans to redeem Duncan, he realizes that he's lost some of the passion Duncan has for the King, and they in turn redeem each other.

7. Sidekicks defend the main character from threats to their safety.
Whether it's Naaman Ru defending Erroll (The Hero's Lot) Nehushta looking after Miriam (Pearl Maiden) or Jethro defending Amuba and Chebron (The Cat of Bubastes) every good sidekick takes their responsibility seriously to keep the main character safe. They take the shots, make their body the shield in the face of attack, and stay awake when the main character needs to sleep. In the sidekick's mind, their own life is dispensable as long as the main character gets through. And that is why we love them--because true love is a man laying down his life for his friends.

8. Sidekicks are often the audience relation point.
Here's where a sidekick often stands or falls. Sometimes we really relate to the main character, but I think when it comes down to it, we often see ourselves as the sidekick. The sidekick has slightly more manageable good deeds, a slightly more relateable character arc, and a little less changing to do throughout the story. A great audience relation sidekick is Hugh Beringar from the Cadfael mysteries. He's a family man--a well established sheriff in the region, that has a warm friendship with the main character. Hugh is the person Cadfael tells all his secrets too. And since Beringar is our relation point to the main character, we like that. Cadfael confides in us. He tells us secrets he keeps from Brother Robert and Brother Jerome. He gives us the first alert when he's solved a mystery, and Beringar and we are often the first to get the solution.

Good sidekicks help the audience relate to the story. We'll rarely claim to be the main character, but oftentimes we'll compare ourselves with the sidekick. And sidekicks are relateable to help us realize that the character change the main character goes through is possible for us too.

9. Sidekicks often balance out and confront the main character's flaws.
Phillip Melanchthon (Reformation Heroes) smoothed out Luther's often rude and unvarnished confrontations. Watson always did the polite asides and sympathetic exclamations when Holmes dashed straight into business. Main characters often have serious flaws, and interestingly enough, some never overcome them. But the sidekicks help us to be patient, give grace, and cover up the mistakes the main character makes.

Great Expecations is my favorite Dickens novel. But Pip would probably be a very irritating main character if it weren't for his sidekick. I love Pip dearly, but I think I love him so much because he hangs out with his friend Herbert Pocket. Herbert Pocket is a young man looking for a start in life, and he's the innocent, cheerful, glass-half-full perspective in the whole story--ranking right up there with Samwise and Mark Tapley. He does a lot of hard work for Pip and is a loyal friend. He's sweet and a bit na├»ve, but not as much as Pip thinks him. Herbert balances out Pip for the reader, and makes him a little more sympathetic, as well as teaching Pip a thing or two about what really unselfish people can do.

If you haven't read the book or watched the 1980s move (best.version.ever.) I'm sorry to say that you haven't made Herbert Pocket's really, truly acquaintance. That's the epitome of excellence.

Sidekicks, in a word, exist to make the main character succeed. Whether you have mysterious sidekicks, or honest and classic ones, sidekicks have made stories into classics for centuries, and their unselfish commitment brings a warm glow to our hearts.

  There were so many sidekicks I couldn't include today. Wemmick, Pitch and Raz, Little Scout, Lawless, Pancks--a lot of lovable people. Some of my favorite sidekicks are of my own invention, and I'd dearly love to be able to put them in a blog post, but the time has not yet come. Needless to say, sidekicks are a vital part of good stories, and one we really connect with. 

I think the verse from Ecclesiastes sums up why we love sidekicks just about perfectly:

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken. ~Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

Lady Bibliophile

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