Review of “The Weka-Feather Cloak”

The Weka-Feather Cloak: A New Zealand Fantasy is a fairly recent young adult fantasy set in New Zealand. Author Leo Madigan attempted to produce an engaging fantasy story which stretches the limits of time and space, while also writing a book deeply imbued with a Catholic vision. Catholic parents can rejoice that Madigan succeeded in his mission. Here is a young adult novel that parents can happily hand to their teens without fear of excessive violence, inappropriate content, or a secular agenda. On the contrary, teens will glean a wealth of positive lessons  and experience a deeply Catholic worldview.

The Weka-Feather Cloak is the story of Danny Mago, a Maori boy coming of age in New Zealand. Quiet, artistic Danny’s life is forever changed when he meets the mysterious new student at school, Zelia, and begins to work for a strong-willed nun, Mother Madeleine. Danny finds himself suddenly involved in an angelic mission, experiencing time travel, and helping Zelia recover a precious relic lost for centuries.

EXCITING ADVENTURE AND FANTASY WITH A CATHOLIC FLAVOR

This book is not a fantasy in the common sense of taking place in an imaginary world such as Middle Earth or Narnia. Instead, it takes place in New Zealand; the fantasy element comes from an elevator which can bridge time and space. Instead of elves or wizards, this book’s nonhuman characters are angels and demons. I loved the uber-rational angel who helps Danny understand his mission, and shuddered at the demon who attempts to thwart it.

Sometimes, The Weka-Feather Cloak is reminiscent of Indiana Jones adventures. Danny and Zelia are racing to save a precious relic of Christ from the villain William Kydd. The exotic New Zealand locale, quest for a precious historical artifact, and other-worldly elements of angels and demons impacting human events are sure to intrigue teenagers as much as Raiders of the Lost Ark.

But unlike an Indiana Jones film, in The Weka-Feather Cloak Danny must turn to spiritual weapons to defeat the demon. He finds strength in saying the rosary, protection in wearing a crucifix, and eventually defeats the demons through a liberal use of holy water. Because Danny is a small, shy teenager, he must learn to turn to God for help. He is a great example of what St. Paul means in 2 Corinthians 12:9 when he talks about God’s power being made perfect through human weakness. If Danny had been less frail, he might not have realized how much he needed God’s help.

A final particularly Catholic flair to this book comes from the intriguing glimpses Danny gets into eternity. Danny gets to see what angels may be like. He gets to experience some of the attributes of a glorified body. Most of all, he gets to see history from a perspective outside of time.

APPRECIATING GOD’S CREATION

New Zealand is breathtakingly beautiful: a fitting setting for this story which has major themes dealing with art and beauty. The book contains some truly beautiful descriptions of nature and what it reveals about our Creator:

“These vast continents with their mountains, deserts and rain forests, were a letter written by the Creator to mankind, a letter which told of his tender good-will, of his greatness and of his capacity to be little, of all his infinite variety of shade and color and light and impenetrability, it said everything mankind needed to know about him until he was ready to tell more.”

Little gems like this paragraph are tucked into this exciting adventure, making the reader pause and revel in the beauty of creation.

Another theme about beauty is that spiritual beauty is more important than mere physical beauty. Danny has a certain clarity of vision which allows him to see the beauty in a humongous, elderly nun, or in his disabled sister.

SEEING SPECIAL NEEDS ADULTS THROUGH GOD’S EYES

Danny’s older sister Angela has a neurological disability which renders her mute and confined to a wheel chair. From the beginning of the book, Danny’s attitude towards Angela is truly beautiful. He says that having a sister like her is a “strange, mysterious gift.” Danny and Angela have their own private sign language to communicate. Danny confides his deepest secrets to Angela, who sometimes gives him amazingly wise advice. Yet it is not until Danny experiences a miraculous journey outside of the normal time-space continuum that he sees Angela in all her beauty and potential as she will be in heaven.

ENCOUNTER INTERESTING SAINTS AND RELIGIOUS

Both while traveling through time and at home in New Zealand, Danny meets fascinating saints and religious who are friendly, fascinating people. He meets Lady Juliana of Norwich in 1399 and learns about the Eucharistic and God’s will while enjoying her hospitality and kindness. He also gets to meet Fra Angelico and the Silvestrine monks, learning how to create a fresco and participating in a snowball fight.

Back in current-century New Zealand, Danny becomes acquainted with the redoubtable Mother Madeleine and her eclectic order of nuns. Sister Eileen is admired and respected  even by bullies. Sister Paula has a dry sense of humor and a practical bent. Mother Madeline herself is wise and simple, extroverted and shy all at once. From all of them, Danny learns that the path to sainthood is for everyone.

CAVEATS AND CONCLUSION

This wonderful novel is great for teens and even mature tweens. One aspect for parents to consider is that it features some truly disturbing demons, clawed, hooded, and fire-breathing that terrorize Danny on several occasions. Beware these descriptions if you have an extremely sensitive tween or young teen. The only other potentially problematic point is that there is a decent amount of bullying described. Danny is called a “maggot” and threatened by the bigger kids at his high school on multiple occasions. However, on the positive side, these same bullies do eventually cooperate with Danny to save the day so there is some redemption here. Other than these two areas, the The Weka-Feather Cloak is a joy to read! And it’s on a steep discount at Amazon right now: half off!

Review of “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society”

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows came highly recommended from no no less than three reliable sources, so I had to read it as soon as possible. As soon as possible turned out to be after 16 other library card holders saw fit to read and return it. But better late than never, I come to add my approval to that of the many fans of this charming historical fiction novel.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is written as a collection of letters, mostly to and from Juliet Ashton, a young woman finding her path in life immediately after World War II. Juliet is a writer, a successful newspaper columnist and authoress, and altogether a sweet and spunky heroine. She learns of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands which was occupied during the war from Dawsey. Dawsey is a shy, intelligent islander who reaches out to Juliet by letter after finding her address in his favorite used book. A correspondence leads to friendship between Juliet and Dawsey, and a book idea for Juliet. Juliet visits Guernsey and ends up falling in love with the island, its inhabits, and most of all Dawsey.

Literature Lovers Delight

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is rife with references to classic literature. Juliet shares fascinating details about Charles Lamb’s life with Dawsey as the basis for their early correspondence. Various members of the Society share in their letters to Juliet how the works of famous authors from Seneca to Emily Bronte impacted their lives and brought them hope and respite during the war. A drunk, a lady, a pig farmer, a carpenter, a rag man, an aristocratic impostor are all saved on a soul-deep level by great literature. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is at root a celebration of books’ magical ability to bridge gaps in class, education, race, language.

Enjoyable Historical Fiction

Through reading Juliet’s correspondence, the reader learns a great deal about how World War II affected the Channel Islands, and particularly Guernsey. By focusing on one small island, the authors paint a painful, even heart-breaking picture of life for inhabitants of an occupied country, albeit a tiny one. The islanders spend five years cut off from all news of the outside world, separated from most of their children (who were evacuated), facing severe food, clothing, and firewood shortages. Their pain is captured in glittering shards of memory scattered throughout their letters. But well interspersed with the pain is the balm of friendship and loyalty and hope for a better future. I found The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society to be historical fiction at its best: a captivating story which also managed to impart a great deal of information about its historical setting.

Friendship and Love

Although undeniably having a love interest as a subplot, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is more focused on friendship. Of course one reads of Juliet’s many friendships, both old ones from girlhood and new ones with the Islanders. However, I found the most fascinating themes about friendship to center around the friendships between the Islanders. People who might otherwise have barely nodded in acquaintance became co-conspirators due to the war. Even some of the German soldier become friends with the Islanders as occupied and occupiers both face starvation. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society shows the truth of hard times leading to friendship.

I also appreciated the slow, gradual evolution of Juliet and Dawsey’s romance. This is no “love at first sight” affair. Their relationship begins with months of letters which forge a friendship. After they meet, the friendship slowly blossoms into love. This is an unusual portrayal of an unfolding relationship in a historical fiction novel, but one I found utterly refreshing and applaud.

A Few Notes for Parents

I think many older teens would enjoy The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It was exceptionally clean, so I have just a few caveats for Catholic parents. One, there is a a neutral to somewhat positive reference of an affair between an unmarried German soldier and an Islander, both deceased. Their illegitimate child is a major character and I found the Islanders’ attitude of support and material help quite pro-life.

The only other quibble I have is that Syndey, one of Juliet’s best friends, and her most frequent correspondent, is a secret homosexual. This is again presented as basically a simple fact without much slant positive or negative. It is really a minor detail and there is no mention of his having homosexual relationships. I honestly think the authors made him a homosexual so Juliet wouldn’t be in a love triangle.

To be enjoyed by…

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a joy to read for women, will be lapped up high school girls, and probably leave most men bored senseless. So don’t try to make this your next couples read! But do read it and savor the simple goodness of a sweet story of friendship and love and hope. Then pass it on to your teenage daughters, since this would be a fine book for a high schooler to write any of a variety of essays on: a character analysis of Juliet or Dawsey; an exploration of how friendships are forged through letters; a contrast of post-war life in London versus Guernsey. I think the title is creative enough that teenagers will want to read it just to find out what The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is. I know I did!

Review of “A School for Unusual Girls”


A School for Unusual Girls: A Stranje House Novel by Kathleen Baldwin is a fast-paced alternative historical fiction novel that offers the reader a captivating blend of adventure, romance, and mystery. This first installment in the Stranje House novels is told by Miss Georgiana Fitzwilliam, a young lady of noble birth and many talents. Unfortunately for her, being a brilliant mathematician with a scientist’s curiosity is not an asset to a young lady in 1814. Exiled to Stranje House by her exasperated parents, Georgiana finds herself swept up in a world rife with mystery, romance, and most importantly opportunities for a girl with unusual abilities.

THE GOOD

In contrast to many teen novels I read (like my recent experience with “The Selection”), I actually enjoyed Kathleen Baldwin’s writing style and plot. She writes a swift moving story without sacrificing descriptive language and character development. One of the parts I most appreciated was that while Georgiana was clearly the heroine of this book, the other girls at the school also receive character development and seem to be fascinating people too. This harmonizes with one of the major themes in A School for Unusual Girls: acceptance, both of your own gifts and those of others. Each of the girls at the school is highly gifted in their own unique way, but has been rejected by society for not fitting the accepted mold for young ladies. At first Georgiana envies her schoolmates their beauty or talent in other areas, but in the end comes to peace with accepting the gifts she has been given and appreciating what her friends have without jealousy.

THE BAD

The main problem in A School for Unusual Girls is a typical one in secular teen novels: God and religion are left completely out of the world of Stranje House. Personally, I do not see this as a reason to utterly discount a well-written book, as long as your teenagers are noticing the void. In the area of sex, parents need to know that the “romance” in this novel borders on sensual at times, with some passionate kisses. There is also a point in the plot where one of the girls dresses seductively to distract some soldiers. For these latter reasons, I would suggest parents use their judgment in determining the appropriate age for their teens to read this. I would not this book recommend for a  girl younger than fourteen.

THE BOTTOM LINE
A School for Unusual Girls may not be great literature on par with Leave It to Psmith, but it a thoroughly enjoyable novel with some encouraging themes for teenage girls. I do not see boys enjoying this book at all, but it will resonate with teenage girls who may not quite fit in easily for some reason, whether that be introversion, unusual interests, high intelligence, or something else entirely. I hope this book will encourage girls to explore and develop their individual, God-given gifts.

 

Review of “The Prisoner of Zenda”

Anthony Hope penned the The Prisoner of Zenda nearly 125 years ago. Hope’s book was so popular it sparked an entire genre known as “Ruritarian Romance,” which are adventure novels set in fictional countries in Eastern Europe. The Prisoner of Zenda was received with eclat by Hope’s generation, who were delighted with the adventure and romance, political intrigue and sword fights, humor and tragedy. I confess to thoroughly enjoying this fast-paced, clever adventure myself, with a few reservations. This is a story for adults or older, mature teens.

THE STORY

Rudolf Rassendyll, both the hero and the narrator, is a dashing young Englishman who decides on a whim to journey to Ruritania for the coronation of the new king, also named Rudolf. Without giving away too much of the plot, a scandal is Rassendyll’s family’s past resulted in his bearing a close resemblance to the king or Ruritania, a fortunate coincidence when King Rudolf’s treacherous half brother makes a play for the throne. Rudolf Rassendyll acts decisively and honorably to save the King’s throne and life, but at the cost of a broken heart.

HONOR OR LOVE

This is simply an adventure story at heart, but what I found fascinating were the themes about honor and love, which were handled so differently a century and a half ago. Anthony Hope creates a story where Rudolf chooses honor over romantic love and passion. One overwhelming message about love in our culture is, “If it feels good, do it.” Heaven forbid in the twenty first century that anyone deny the impulses of passion. The Prisoner of Zenda offers a strikingly different approach to a conflict between honor and the dictates of our heart. Throughout the book, Rudolf wrestles with his love for the Princess Flavia, but mostly restrains himself from acting on it. Even when, in the final chapters, Rudolf falters in his determination to act honorably and leave the Princess to marry the King as she should for the good of her country, Flavia stands firm. She delivers a heroic refusal to compromise honor for love.

“Is love the only thing? … If love were the only thing, I would follow you—in rags, if need be—to the world’s end; for you hold my heart in the hollow of your hand! But is love the only thing? … I know people write and talk as if it were. Perhaps, for some, Fate lets it be. Ah, if I were one of them! But if love had been the only thing, you would have let the King die in his cell. … Honour binds a woman too, Rudolf. My honour lies in being true to my country and my House. I don’t know why God has let me love you; but I know that I must stay.”

A LITTLE PHILOSOPHY 

Rudolf struggles throughout The Prisoner of Zenda with his desire for the Princess and temptations to allow the King to die so he could seize the throne and princess for his own. I appreciated his distinctions between thinking and doing. He recognizes the crucial moral distinction between feeling a temptation and acting on it. In fact, his approach to confronting temptation is very close to St. Alphonsus di Liguori’s: do not focus unduly on temptation, but rather be grateful for grace to resist it. Rudolf explains:

“A man cannot be held to write down in cold blood the wild and black thoughts that storm his brain when an uncontrolled passion has battered a breach for them. Yet, unless he sets up as a saint, he need not hate himself for them He is better employed, as it humbly seems to me, in giving thanks that power to resist was vouchsafed to him, than in fretting over wicked impulses which come unsought and extort an unwilling hospitality from the weakness of our nature.”

What an awesome little explanation of human nature, grace, and temptation to find in an adventure story!

THE NEGATIVE

Although I appreciated the overall refreshing themes about honor and chivalry in The Prisoner of Zenda, this book is not without flaw morally speaking. There is a decent amount of violence, some of it committed by the hero himself. One of the most disturbing moments of violence is when Rudolf stabs a sleeping guard to death, an action that does not seem necessary in the context of the story. However, at least Rudolf later feels compunction about this decision to cold bloodedly kill the guard: “Of all the deeds of my life, I love the least to think of this.” The other motif I did not appreciate was a slight tendency towards misogyny in the hero. He comments at one point that “Women are careless, forgetful creatures.” However, to balance that comment, as I noted above, Princess Flavia is ultimately portrayed as the most honorable and principled person in the book.

IN CONCLUSION

If you or your older teens enjoy a good adventure, I find The Prisoner of Zenda to be an overall worthwhile read which provides a thought-provoking snapshot of a very different moral culture. I suggest it only for older teens and adults due to some moral dilemmas involving the proper use of violence, and some mentions of illegitimate situations and rape (in a negative light). I personally much prefer reading physical copies of books, but if you don’t mind Ebooks, this book is available for download free of charge on Project Gutenberg.