1776 by David McCullough


1776

Whenever I read a book about the history of the United States of America, I am impressed with the amazing hand of God. Some may call it what they will (some called the recapture of Boston luck while others called it the hand of Providence), but I see the mighty hand of God interjected into human affairs. And they want me to believe that God doesn’t work today. Hah!

I find it mind blowing to see how God uses little events to change the course of history. In “Flags of Our Fathers,” it was an accidental photograph on top Iwo Jima that inspired the nation to finish the war. In 1776, it was the capture of Trenton New Jersey. I find my reaction to the story that McCullough tells to be simply: Wow. Not sure that there’s anything more to say.

By the way, if you haven’t ever read David McCullough, you must. This is history like you haven’t read it before. He weaves a masterful tale that blends historical quotes, letters, and documents together along with his commentary and overview into a page turner. Mind you, this is history but not boring history. People have told me that McCullough was good, but let me say this: you haven’t read history written this well.

The story of 1776 is a story of an army’s birth. Washington took over the army in the middle of 1775 while the Continental army had the British bottled up in Boston. The Americans sought a resolution with England not independence. On December 31, 1775, most of the army was relieved of their contracts. Then as the army was disbanding before his eyes, Washington received, nay the army received the proclamation of King George. King George had declared that his army was to do whatever was necessary to squelch the rebellion. That proclamation stopped the exodus of the army, inspired the Declaration of Independence and breathed new life into the army.

And they want to say the timing was luck? Hah! God intervened in the history of this nation.
I won’t spoil the story for you, but suffice it to say, the year 1776 was about as bleak as life becomes. In fact, those immortal words, “these are the times that try men’s souls,” were penned during this time. The nation was fast losing faith in Washington for his indecision, bad judgment and inability to strategize. Yet, when it got blackest, the Lord intervened on December 27th, 1776. That was the turning point in the rebellion. If God had not granted a miraculous victory that blackest of nights, the war for independence would have been lost.

McCullough traces the first 18 months of Washington’s command. The war would continue for another six and half years, but after the brutal year of 1776, the rest was uphill.

Do yourself a favor this July. Read this book and appreciate what God has done to birth this nation. What other nation has ever had men willing to struggle and die through such terrible times? What other nation was birthed successfully with such great stress? This is truly a nation founded under the guiding hand of almighty God.

Both Sides of The Border by G. A. Henty


Both Sdes of the Border

Plot: Our hero is an ever-good lad, trying to reach knighthood, and his constant companion is a monk who cannot abide his chosen style of life. Together they live in the fifteenth century, during a war between Wales, Scotland and England. The two do not meet until Oswald, our hero, is accepted in the service of Sir Henry, also known as Hotspur. Oswald meets Roger, our dear bad monk, when he wishes to take some reading and writing lessons, which are taught to him by Roger.

Oswald is recruited as an esquire; his main duty is to run messages to other people for Hotspur. One of his first missions includes taking a secret message to a lord in Scotland, with Roger by his side. Though quite dangerous, Oswald performs it well and escapes when nearly caught. It is soon after this daring mission, that Hotspur obtains leave of monk hood for Roger and sends him to a neighboring lord as a man-at-arms .

Several months later our daring hero is sent to Hotspurs brother-in-law, Mortimer, for short period, in which he may, with the help of twenty men-at-arms and his uncle and Roger, assist Mortimer against Glendower. The Welsh have started an uprising to support Glendowers claim for the Welsh throne; Glendower does have royal blood after all. Only a few weeks after arriving, Mortimer captures Glendowers castle; he soon finds that Glendower escaped upon seeing their approach. Much to his disappointment Mortimer cannot find any of Glendowers daughters; after posting guards around the grounds, Mortimer goes to his home to await the news of whether or not Glendower will try and recapture his castle. Oswald and Roger are on duty together, when they see two figures rise from some bushes and run toward the forest. Catching them quickly Oswald demands they surrender, only to find they are women, daughters of Glendower; they offer the men jewels in return for their freedom. Oswald declines their offer, declaring such a thing would not be honorable; after several moments of discussion with Roger, he decides to let the girls go free. His only reward being a small charm which he could show to any Welshman, should he find himself in need, and they would take him to the girls. Oswald and Roger return to their posts, no one being the wiser for their doings, since he did not want the girls to go to an English prison for many years.

Oswald performs his battles well during the Welsh uprising and highly praised by Mortimer when sent back to Hotspur.

Positive: When one reads a G.A. Henty, it is sometimes difficult to get into the story, not so with this one. In the first chapter he draws you and keeps your nose in until the end. Mr. Henty gives a lot of information about the time period, and does an excellent job in describing the battles and scuffles our good people get into.

Negative: I can’t say much of anything negative about it, no bloody descriptions, no swearing. So this paragraph is rather small, but that’s good!

Overall: I thoroughly enjoyed this Henty book, it kept my nose in the pages after the first paragraph. The history is fun to learn, and completely worth the time spent reading it. I highly recommend it to all ages.

Other Henty reviews.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

While traveling recently, my wife brought along the final installment of the Harry Potter series. Having read all of the books (entirely as audio books) and watched the movies, I finally am ready to write a little bit about them. For a long time, I have heard Christians rail on the stories as being anti-God, demonic etc…. I have heard Christians proclaim that the books can be used to teach people about God (like others have done with the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars). I say they are both wrong.

Before I make comments on the series generally, I’d like to give a few observations about this specific book. For starters, Rowling did an excellent job of wrapping up the series and pulling together threads from the last few books. It would appear that the last half of the series had a much more coherent plot structure than the first couple of books. The ending was satisfying and conclusive. There were no loose ends hanging around that opened the door for a sequel.

On the flip side, there was more profanity in this book than the rest of the series combined. Rowling is no longer writing for children (her original audience is either in college or graduated now). This book has plenty of death and violence but that would fit with the nature of war. Overall, I enjoyed the conclusion to this series.

Some Christians have argued against the use of magic. I hope they also boycott the Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia for the sake of consistency. I don’t really understand that point of view and I probably only have one objection on that front. The Harry Potter books present magic in the hands of normal real-life children unlike other fantasy that sets the magical powers in a far flung world. There is a definite blurring of the edges between reality and fantasy in these books. I have been in the rooms of children and seen the Harry Potter craze; the materials encourage the children to practice “good” magic. Whatever. If children are believing this to be real, then there are other issues.

If I were to object to these books, it is because they encourage children to disobey, use profanity, and encourage general behaviors inconsistent with Christian character (think: revenge, anger, hate, theft, lying etc…). I will probably use them as training tools some day to teach my children about handling objectionable elements. But that’s me and I’ve got time before that becomes an issue so who knows? I could change my mind by then. 🙂 And those who try to use this to teach Christian values? Get your head screwed on straight. There is nothing Christian about these books. As there is nothing Christian about The Lord of the Rings.

One other negative. Rowling can’t write. Sorry. No offense meant, but she can’t. She has created excellent characters, a great plot line and an enjoyable “universe,” but that doesn’t mean she can write. Her books tend to drag along for large sections. In this book, Harry, Hermione, and Ron all sit around in a tent for months. Literally. Then occasionally, dumb luck would wander in and hand them clues to follow. After that, it was back to sitting around for weeks on end. (This goes on for chapters.) Her plots drag as if she were filling in words to make a bigger book that sells for a higher price. My wife and I were talking about Rowling and we’re not certain if she can transition to anything else. It will be interesting to see if she is successful at any new writing ventures.

Overall, I enjoyed the plot lines and would certainly recommend them to teenagers and adults. The creativeness of the stories make them worth reading. Rowling is certainly creative if she is anything. Still, there are plenty of reasons to object to the material included in these books. A parent should read them alongside their children if they choose to allow their kids to read them at all.

Your thoughts? Care to write a dissenting review?

Some earlier thoughts by Tim Taylor:
Magic and Harry Potter/
Harry Potter Continued/
Realism in Harry Potter/
Conclusion of Harry Potter Series/

Point Blank, by Anthony Horowitz


Point Blank

Book two of the Alex Rider series (aka, more normal accidents). I am really enjoying this story line of teenage spy, I’ll tell you right now. I’ve found that when I’m feeling most unsure, I’m about to do something right. Alex is accepts his spy role but with reservations and hesitations (although he generally doesn’t hesitate to do what is right), and, drum roll, he makes mistakes in the process.

Plot: The “accidental” deaths of two important world figures have just one connection: sons who “happen” to be attending the prestigious Point Blanc academy, which “happens” to only admit fourteen year old boys. Guess who old Alex is? His secret agent skills have been emerging at school (the opening scene with drug deals is arguably the most hilarious bust up of all time), and its about time he took a vacation anyway. With that parental argument, the agent handler drops Alex off for a week of luxury training with murderously lazy rich brats. He’s delighted to leave them behind, until he finds the locale of his next mission involves the Swiss Alps, a miniature army, and a classroom that appears to be full of robots. And he is the newest classmate. In a school where classes are optional but only robots attend, no drugs are allowed but he falls right to sleep after one glass of soda pop, and the private bedrooms come equipped with hidden cameras, there are lots of secrets. But then, he’s a secret agent.

Positive: Well written, with good character development given to several supporting persons. Alex is delighted to hang out with kids his own age, until he recognizes how immature they all are. Several interesting themes regarding what a person’s taste in art says about them, how wealth does not bring happiness, and allusions to the effect of peer pressure. Also, did I mention that the obligatory opening action sequence is totally cool? The plot follows the stereotypical action-movie sequence of beginning action, introduction of real plot, development via small action sequences, and ever-bigger sequences of fighting and explosions, with a minor resolution that is an illusion to forestall the final ka-boom, and then the actual resolution (as do most of the Alex Rider series). As usual, that structure is tweaked to involve a more classical character development, and one very inventive opening sequence involving a drug ring, a boat, and a crane.

Negative: The crazy Swiss guy isn’t very realistic. He and his minions are pretty clumsy to have such a well-organized scheme, and the motivations are underdeveloped. I suspect the author was told to have a crazy lunatic in his second book just because it worked so well in the first, but he didn’t actually plan the plot around that point. So it seems incongruous. We forgive the book for its leaps of logic by the time of the last tension-filled scene, but the plot holes resemble, well, Swiss cheese. One of Alex’s escapades in particular is ridiculous beyond words (but since he is thinking “this is ridiculous” the whole time, I forgave it and enjoyed the thrill ride). Lots of action violence, some blood mentioned, adults are irresponsible, pride is used against several main characters with embarrassing frequency, drugs used against kids, and racism/apartheid espoused by bad guys.

Overall; great book for lounging on the beach with. Or in the library, where the next book is within easy reach (I borrowed the first three at the same time, and had to get the next three within a week, so be forewarned, its not a good book to casually pick up for half an hour between studying for other things!).

Stormbreakerby Anthony Horowitz


Stormbreaker

Book one of the Alex Rider series. I have a weakness for mental junkfood, which I prefer to indulge in those deliciously pointless kids books that make you feel like you are in the middle of a movie (instead of stuck in some doctor’s waiting room that smells like bleach and old socks). This one actually made it to the big screen (for the record, I haven’t seen it yet), which poster drew me to the book out of sheer curiosity. The author is British, which may explain why you haven’t heard of the series before. Allow me to introduce you.

Plot: Alex Rider is a fourteen year old orphan whose reticent uncle and guardian dies in a “normal” car crash that involved bullet holes in the car windshield. Naturally, being a “normal” teenager, Alex has been trained in gymnastics, 2 black belts, a nanny who worries but doesn’t discipline, and all the investigative skills of a professional reporter. As is normal for such a teenager, he also investigates into his uncle’s death after seeing some guys in black suits with guns at the funeral, and finds out that a) his uncle was a spy, b) he was killed because he got too close to the truth in a crucial investigation that could save England from utter destruction, and c) (brace yourself) the bad guys are now on alert, and spy agency knows of only one way to get in and find the truth before its too late. Alex Rider, teenage spy. Mission One: find out why a businessman wants to give away his greatest invention to all England’s people, yet is highly secretive about its manufacturing and has a small army protecting his factory.

Positive: Finally, a kid’s book that takes its main plot device seriously! Alex may be extraordinary, but at least the agency admits it (and owns to the liabilities associated with having a child do this kind of dangerous work in the modern world). Also, Alex struggles with the idea of being a spy. He finds the whole idea exciting… before he starts in. Being a secret agent is stressful (you could get killed if you mess up), painful (he actually has a hard time with adult boot camp), and downright dangerous (bumps, bruises, and cuts that add to the growing list of things he has to hide about himself); and Alex is real enough as a character to admit he doesn’t like it. Of course, if Alex was able to cop out, there goes the “Alex Rider, Teenage Spy” series. But his reasons for staying on are realistic. Alex’s reactions to death, fighting, and the tension stay real too, keeping the story grounded. Also, the author manages to breathe life into several of those more predictable parts, twisting the usual narrative structure so that small (and not so small) surprises abound. The book uses enough complex words to form complete pictures in your head, and for me played out like a very exciting movie.

Negative: Say it with me, “cliché”; if you can’t uncover the major plot points ahead of time, you need to get out more. It’s a teenager who suddenly finds their relative was a spy and, oh my, they’ve been trained perfectly to fill in their shoes; a villain who is happy to divulge his plan entirely when, oh my, our hero is on the brink of death; and an invention encased in black plastic with lightening for a logo that, oh my, isn’t actually going to do anything good. See “positive” for why that doesn’t equal a boring story (hint, note the “major plot points” above). Scary situations for little kids, and some slight foreshadowing of disrespect for government, and, a person is dies in an unusual way.

Overall: It’s a very well written book, and I have to admit, pretty cleverly thought out. I could figure out some of the tricks, but more than one came as a surprise even though I knew all the facts beforehand (ye posters requesting a good mystery with accurate clues, take heed. We may be close to a whodunit! I didn’t realize the motivation behind the villain until later, but we DO learn about it beforehand). RECOMMENDED, for fun, not edification.