Friday, February 14, 2020

Book Review: The Shadow of the Witchfinder

The tenth adventure in the Shadows of the Past series, The Shadow of the Witchfinder finds Max, the talking Tonkinese cat, and the Lancelot twins Jemima and  Joe with best friend Charlie transported back to the 17th century, a terrible time in history dominated by a man with murderous intent: Matthew Hopkins aka The Witchfinder General! Hopkins’s mission is to eradicate all women suspected of being witches by burning them at the stake. Alas, many innocent women perished in his reign of terror. It is up to Max and his team to save Goodwife Clowes’ sister, imprisoned by Hopkins, along with several other women, awaiting what can only be called a sham trial before being consigned to the flames. Having returned through a time vortex at an uncomfortably dizzying speed, Max has the details. Now it’s up to the team to use their magic book to take them back into the pages of history. But first they need to read up all they can on the sinister Matthew Hopkins. Max isn’t all that keen on returning to Mistley Thorn, but innocent people’s lives are at stake. Plus, Charlie and Jemima have put together a kit including all kinds of potentially useful things. Max was annoyed that the list did not include a few sachets of yummy cat food, which he would most certainly label as an ‘essential item.’

 Using the book, Jemima’s necklace, and the poem as before, the trio plus Max find themselves whisked off to Mistley Thorn, and what a cold, misty scary place it is too! Magic and mayhem start right away because Goody Clowes might be more than just an innocent old lady who likes to sweep the place clean with her broom. Remembering his last encounter in Mistley Thorn, Max is definitely not up to any incredible feats of bravery that might be required. This is the first time that the kids have taken modern day items back into history and these spark off a chain of suspenseful and at times hilarious reactions as they try to rescue the imprisoned women. Harry Potter fans will just love the references and the reactions of the villagers to scenes of ‘wizardry,’ although not everything goes according to plan…
The author has created some very clever plot twists around this angle. If Max thought he was going to wriggle out of confrontations, he is wrong as Goody Clowes announces he must do battle with the Witchfinder himself. Why is it always me, he wonders…. He didn’t want to be a hero, just an ordinary cat. Alas, Max has had greatness thrust upon him and there’s no escaping destiny. Can he turn the tables on the Witchfinder and make sure Hopkins gets his just deserts?

Once again Wendy Leighton-Porter incudes excellent extras at the end of the story for young readers interested in Max’s genealogy, which is truly magical, and details of the Witchfinder’s rule of fear and his untimely end. The author does not gloss over the sad fate of the many women who were accused of witchcraft when, in fact, many were just skilled in herb lore and basic healing. Halloween and its origins are also explained, and this gives a good overview for readers who did not know the story behind the celebration. The author includes details of the next adventures so fans of the series (myself included) can get ready for more reading pleasure!


Friday, March 1, 2019

About: The Beginner’s Guide to Winning an Election

In The Beginner’s Guide to Winning an Election by Michael French, the year is 2025. The United States is afflicted with global cyber-attacks, economic crashes, foreign wars, and lots of anxiety. State budgets for public schools are hit hard. In a student body president race in a small city Indiana high school, popular, charismatic Matthew has his own consultants, bloggers, oppo researchers, and funds from an unidentified source that have helped him win every election since ninth grade.
Over-achieving, introverted Britain is a novice to elections, but as a history wonk, politics fascinate her. She also has a crush on Matthew. After she joins his SBP team, someone hacks Matthew’s website, leaking stories that the candidate is far from the Eagle Scout he pretends to be. Matthew and his team of 15 call the stories “spineless lies.” Britain is stunned when she’s scapegoated by Matthew as the mystery hacker. Kids dump on her for betraying the school leader. Her reputation in shreds, she decides to enter the presidential race to clear her name. No one gives the novice a chance, but that only makes Britain more determined to find a way to win.     
With the help of her three good friends, “No more secrets” becomes Team Britain’s slogan. For a while she stumbles in her campaign, until the anonymous hacker begins leaving notes in Britain’s locker, telling her which rocks to look under if she wants to beat odds-on favorite Matthew. She puzzles over who exactly is helping her—her favorite history teacher, an apostate on Team Matthew, or one of the many “undecideds” that impact any election? Every mystery solved leads Brit to face a more complicated challenge, some threatening her existence…

About the Author: Michael R. French graduated from Stanford University where he was an English major, focusing on creative writing, and studied under Wallace Stegner. He received a Master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University. He later served in the United States Army before marrying Patricia Goodkind, an educator and entrepreneur, and starting a family. In addition to publishing over twenty titles, including award-winning young adult fiction, adult fiction, biographies ad self-help books, he has written or co-written a half-dozen screenplays, including Intersection, which has won awards in over twenty film festivals. French’s work, which includes several best-sellers, has been warmly reviewed in the New York Times and been honored with a number of literary prizes.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Book Review: I, Claudia

I, Claudia: A Novel of the Ancient World by Lin Wilder is the story of Claudia Procula and Lucius Pontius Pilate. A Tribune at 28, after success in battle in Germania, Lucius Pontius Pilate was appointed Prelate of Judea, to rule over the Jews. They were considered to be a fractious, unruly people that answered only to a god who’d given them very specific rules of behaviour, diet and morality. A troublesome bunch, they fought among themselves in various factions, united only against a common enemy: Rome. Judea was a powder keg of trouble and the least spark could set it off. Not only that, a troublemaker called the Baptizer was turning people’s minds and a prophet called Jesus of Nazareth was drawing crowds with his talk of spiritual matters. This is the background for a wonderful love story between Claudia Procula, intelligent and well-educated daughter of the last of the Oracles of Pythia, and Lucius Pontius Pilate, a Roman soldier and hero.

History has defined the real Lucius Pontius Pilate as being the man who allowed Jesus to be crucified. However, the truth of the matter is that the situation was alarmingly more complex and volatile. Caught between the rock of the Sanhedrin and the hard place of Rome’s authority, Pilate was unable to deal with the festering political and religious issues of the time. Compromise was the only answer. And was that compromise somehow all part of God’s grand plan, even if it entailed the sacrifice of His only son? Such interesting questions are raised here that will intrigue both Christian readers and those of other faiths. Reading this story brings to life a tale well known to many Bible students.

The author cleverly incorporates enough ancient historical detail into the narrative to inform the reader while maintaining the flow of the story. The dramatic unfolding of events is told in short alternating chapters between Claudia and Lucius, and in this way, her maturing and the development of her powers as an oracle, and both of them falling in love with each other come across beautifully. Their emotional love story is set against the backdrop of a tumultuous chain of events which we see as both Claudia and Lucius are affected by the man people called the Messiah. Quotes from Cicero, Seneca, Plato, Socrates and other renowned writers and thinkers of the ancient world add extra food for thought and give insight into the mindset of the characters.

The pace is measured and in line with historical events. The region and the era saw its fair share of political turbulence and I liked how the author conveyed this throughout the narrative. The descriptions also evoke vivid imagery of the past, the setting, and social customs and behavior. This is a well-written and researched story that will satisfy fans of historical fiction as well as romance. The story itself encompasses themes and ideas which go far deeper than a review can adequately portray. Being a fan of ancient and biblical history, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The author includes an afterword and a bibliography, both of which I found enlightening and useful.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Book Review: Before Long

Before Long: Sheer Romance of Finding a Home by Auralee Arkinsly relates the house hunting endeavours by a couple, Ernst and Esme, who find their perfect home with all the characteristics that they have dreamed of (a house with an orchard in the country) only to find their dream becomes a nightmare. Undeterred, they move and find a place in the city, but the gritty reality of city life is off-putting. Again, undeterred, they move… and so the story unfolds with each dream home and location turning into disaster, expenses, and disillusionment… Orchards unfortunately do attract fruit flies and roosters think it is their duty to wake the world up at 4 a.m. Will they ever find their perfect dream home? Does a perfect dream home even exist in the real world?

What an absolutely hilarious and charming story. I loved the format of photos of the various houses and settings and captions. Like many readers, I have bought and sold and moved a few times. I nodded and shook my head reading about the couple’s antics, new decisions, bad decisions, hopes and dreams so easily destroyed. The bills and repairs, the things you only find out after living in a place for a while are so true to life. No one tells you about the winters, the bad parts, the potential problems, and even the neighbourhoods themselves that can seem picture perfect at the start.

The beauty of this deceptively simple book is that at the end of their litany of disastrous choices, Ernst and Esme had learned significant lessons about the kind of home that would be right for them, what they needed (such as a stable internet), the kind of ‘tribe’ they would like to socialize with, how to integrate a balance of work and play, and how to budget for those inevitable home ownership expenses. Plus, they learned – as one hopes readers will – that having dreams is great, but not dreams that only exist in movies. They also learned that although the perfect dream home might not exist, with a bit of creative thinking, they could make a ‘nearly there’ home into something that suited them perfectly! Some lovely and relevant lessons for readers who might just be house hunting right now.