Book Review: John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress

John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress
as retold by Gary D. Schmidt

My rating: 2 / 5
Genre: Christian allegory

I have long felt that I should read The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. I even started to once, but only made it a page before putting it down. So when I found this retelling, putting the story into contemporary language, I knew it was my chance to at least see what the book was all about. So understand going into my review that this is in no way a comparison of this retelling to the original. And my comments are specific to this version, because I can’t say what might be different from the original. With that being said, I do think that some of what I didn’t like about this story would extend back to the original source.

After I finished reading this, as I tried to analyze what I’d read and did some research to understand others’ views on the allegory, I flashed right back to high school. After reading The Great Gatsby, I wrote that I didn’t understand why my teacher would have us read a book that so glorified the drinking and partying in the book. She wrote back about her disappointment that I thought she’d promote those things, and that perhaps I didn’t really understand the book. That it’s the type of book one might have to read multiple times to grasp. That’s kind of how I feel about this book.

My first apparent misunderstanding is that it seemed to me that Christian had to essentially earn his salvation. He struggled with his burden on the way to the cross, after coming to an understanding that he had this burden and needed external help to release it. Others say that he was actually saved when entering through the gate that started this journey, and releasing his burden at the cross was simply an illustration about how we don’t often let go of our guilt upon salvation and have to still come to that understanding that Jesus wants to relieve us of that guilt. However, it was at the cross, after losing his burden, that Christian was handed the Roll, which seemed to be needed in order to enter the Celestial City. I took this as a symbol of his salvation, but then, when he was audacious enough to rest a little too long, he lost the Roll and later had to go back and look for it.

I won’t go into any other details, but for whatever this book might mean to some people, at least the people who “get it,” to me it looks like a book that could send the wrong message to new Christians or curious unbelievers, especially those who, like me, aren’t so great at understanding allegory. From start to finish, it makes me feel like a Christian walk is nothing but trial and tribulation. Constant struggling to stay on the right path, to stay good. Yes, some of that is true to a degree, because it can feel like a constant struggle to avoid temptation to sin, but where’s the other side? Why do we not see much of the joy and peace that can come, in this life, from following Christ? For that matter, why is God so completely absent until Christian reaches the Celestial City? If I were to write an allegory about a Christian journey, it would include God interacting with the pilgrim in a much more tangible way (or at all…).

I seem to be pretty hit-or-miss in my enjoyment of much-loved older books and classics, and this is another for my pile of misses. I’m glad I read it, though. Originally I thought it might end up being a stepping stone to going on and reading the original. I’ve decided to leave it right here, at this simplified version, and just be one of the few who’ve never read the original.

Find out more about this Pilgrim’s Progress retelling and its source material, The Pilgrim’s Progress

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Book Review: From This Moment

From This Moment
by Kim Vogel Sawyer

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Christian fiction

Jase is a new youth minister at a small church in an even smaller town in Kansas. Recently moved from San Antonio after his fiancee died, he’s struggling with anger and doubt in his Christian walk. Kenzie is ten years removed from her Amish heritage, leaving the community when she learned how the grace of Christ could free her from the rules and regulations of her family’s religion. She’s been thinking more and more about her family, though, and the darkness they’re still lost in. Lori is a young woman who was emotionally and verbally abused by her father as a teenager. She uses food as a coping mechanism when she feels lonely or inadequate, despite knowing that it’s pointless and wishing she could stop. Jase, Kenzie, and Lori are each searching for answers from God, and when Jase moves to Kansas, he’s welcomed into the friendship that Kenzi and Lori already have. With each other’s help, the three just might find their answers.

Through the first half of this book, I didn’t really understand what it was meant to be about. Part of that is because the official synopsis is atrociously inaccurate and misleading. But it’s also because it really took a while for things to get going. And actually, in the end, it turns out the book really was about what I saw in that first half– these characters each struggling with their doubts, uncertainties, and questions about God and their faith. There were parts of the story that I liked, that I thought came together well in the end, and parts that fell flat for me, or that I questioned why they were included. Overall, it was a decent read, but not a stand-out for me.

The storyline I related to the most was Lori’s over-indulging in times of extreme emotion, good or bad. I haven’t had an abusive past like hers, but over-indulgence is an issue I have struggled with in the past, though not to the degree that she does it. I really liked the way Kenzie’s story shaped up too, after wondering what it had to do with anything for a while near the beginning. Jase’s storyline is the one that I was least connected to, partly because I’ve not experienced loss like that, but also partly because the decisions he made really bugged me. There is a 4th perspective in this story too, which I felt was wholly unnecessary. I couldn’t help but compare it to the previous book I read by this author, which also included 4 perspectives. But where it worked in that one, it just seemed pointless in this one. I’m not sure what the pastor’s perspective added, nor did I feel like it was particularly resolved.

If there was one cohesive lesson this story seemed to bring out, it was the benefit of allowing others to share your burdens. Each of these four people was originally struggling alone and seemed to only see a turning point when they opened up to a fellow Christian about their trouble. Actually, that’s not really true for one of them (I won’t say who), but perhaps it’s just that I wished he/she had let others help him/her along the way. And on a related note, Kenzie really drove me crazy at some points. How can you say “God will provide” and then refuse all of God’s ways of providing? If a really specific incident hadn’t happened, she absolutely would have stayed in the same place, spinning her wheels, still waiting and hoping for God’s providence. (You ever heard the one about the guy sitting on the roof of his flooded house, refusing to get in the boat or helicopter because he knew God would save him? Yeah, she’s kind of like that.)

So in the end, this is not a book I would choose to read again. However, I think that my issues with it will likely not be shared by most others. If you are looking for a Christian book where romance isn’t the main plot and where the author ties multiple storylines together into one story where God’s hand can be seen, this might be a good book for you.

Thank you to Netgalley and WaterBrook & Multnomah for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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Book Review: The Hiding Place

The Hiding Place
by Corrie ten Boom with John & Elizabeth Sherrill

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Memoir

At 50 years old, Corrie ten Boom lived a simple life with her older sister, both of them unmarried, and their elderly father in a small house in Holland. When the Nazis invaded and occupied their country, Corrie quickly saw the need around her as Jews began to be shipped out. The ten Boom house and watchmaker shop became part of the Dutch Underground, helping those who were persecuted find a safe place, even to the point of building a small hiding place in their own house. In this book, Corrie shares much of her life before the occupation, including the faith that led her and her family to help those in needs, culminating in the arrest and imprisonment of many members of her family, and later to her time in a concentration camp alongside her sister Betsie.

This book is incredible in so many ways. It’s inspirational, and not only because of what the ten Booms did to help others. It’s the reason behind their desire to help, the way that it really wasn’t even a question about whether or not they would help, and the way that they affected everyone around them, even in the darkest of places. The strong faith in God that Corrie’s parents had, exhibited, and passed on to their children shows through every page of this book. Corrie herself struggled the most in this area, constantly learning from her other family members and being surprised by their heart for the oppressors. Yet she never questioned whether or not she should help the Jews around her at the risk of her own well-being.

Not many Holocaust-related accounts that I have read are from a Christian perspective, and I really appreciated seeing the little and big ways that Corrie and Betsie could see God involved in their plight. Though they never demanded that He help them, they trusted Him (again, Betsie more than Corrie) and gave Him credit when they saw Him work. I can only hope that in my everyday life, and even moreso when times of difficulty come, I can have the wisdom of Mr. ten Boom, the love of Mrs. ten Boom, the hope of Betsie ten Boom, the courage of Corrie ten Boom, and the faith exhibited by all of them.

Below are some quotes from the book that I marked to remember.

Casper ten Boom (Corrie’s father) upon the realization that Holland would soon be invaded:

“…I am sorry for all Dutchmen now who do not know the power of God. For we will be beaten. But He will not.”

Corrie discovered that a large piece of sharp debris had landed on her pillow while she was out of bed:

“Betsie, if I hadn’t heard you in the kitchen–“

But Betsie put her finger on my mouth. “Don’t say it, Corrie! There are no ‘if’s’ in God’s world. And no places that are safer than other places. The center of His will is our only safety…”

And the one that stuck out to me the most, from an elderly member of Corrie’s family who spent much of her life running clubs, writing tracts, always trying to further God’s kingdom. When she learned she didn’t have long to live, her family members told her she was going to the Father with hands full, due to all of her work. She replied:

“Empty, empty! How can we bring anything to God? What does He care for our little tricks and trinkets?”

And then as we listened in disbelief she lowered her hands and with tears still coursing down her face whispered, “Dear Jesus, I thank You that You have done all–all–on the cross, and that all we need in life or death is to be sure of this.”

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Book Review: The Secret of The Desert Stone

The Secret of The Desert Stone
The Cooper Kids Adventure Series book #5
by Frank Peretti
read by the author

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Children’s Christian adventure

Dr. Cooper is summoned to a country in Africa to investigate a giant stone that appeared overnight, separating the country’s new dictator and his army from other parts of the population. The stone is miles high and wide, so the big question is, who put it there? When Dr. Cooper and his teenage kids, Jay and Lila, end up stranded on the other side of the stone, will the locals be welcoming or try to harm them? Will they discover the secret of the stone before the dictator loses his patience with them?

This installment of the series didn’t have quite the excitement of previous books, but it still had its moments. I think the best thing about the story is that it sort of brings Romans 1:20 to life. (“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”) I may have already said too much, in regards to avoiding spoilers, but I really appreciated the simple faith and thirst for more understanding about God exhibited by “primitive” people in the story.

I think one of the things that bothers readers most about these books is the unrealistic nature of things that happen. I like that Peretti isn’t afraid to explore what could happen, even while we know things like this don’t really happen much in modern times. Still, he paints an interesting and entertaining picture.

One final note–I listened to the audiobook specifically so that I could hear it read by the author. I love how he did roles like Mr. Henry and even his small role in the movie Hangman’s Curse, and I figured the book would be that much better in his own voice. It did not disappoint! I will most likely listen to the rest of the series this way too.

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Book Review: Trapped at the Bottom of the Sea

Trapped at the Bottom of the Sea
The Cooper Kids Adventure Series book #4
by Frank Peretti

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Children’s Christian adventure

Frustrated by her father’s lack of willingness to discuss her late mother, teenager Lila insists on leaving Japan, where Dr. Cooper is teaching about his work, and going back to the States. But on the way, her plane is hijacked and crashes over the ocean. While she is trapped at the bottom of the sea in an air-tight weapons pod, Lila’s dad and brother try to find her before it’s too late.

This book was quite a departure from what the series has been up to this point. Instead of uncovering secrets in Dr. Cooper’s capacity as biblical archaeologist, it’s more a straight race against time to find and save Lila. I liked it, though, maybe more than the one before it that had been my favorite so far. I liked the adventure and excitement, the ways that Lila tried to keep herself from panicking in the pod and tried to save herself, and the descriptions of the tiny islands in the South Pacific.

Though the heavier supernatural elements that came about in the previous books weren’t here so much, it was still clear God was involved in the story from start to finish. This book has led me to realize that the series is basically a modern-day parallel to certain biblical accounts and truths. It’s as if Peretti started each of these books by asking himself, “How would these certain verses of the Bible look if they happened today?” This one, for example, has shades of the story of Jonah (not subtly so either). It’s a solid addition to this middle-grade series.

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Book Review: Crocodile on the Sandbank

Crocodile on the Sandbank
Amelia Peabody #1
by Elizabeth Peters
read by Susan O’Malley

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Historical cozy mystery

As a female during the Victorian era in England, Amelia Peabody is ahead of her time. Unmarried and independently wealthy, she has no need for a man or most of societal conventions. With a passion for Egyptology and a thirst for adventure, she decides to travel to Cairo, taking into her company along the way a young woman whose reputation has been tarnished. Amelia gets the adventure she’s looking for, and more, when a missing mummy begins to terrorize the women.

I was not a huge fan of this book for the most part. Amelia’s attitude, which is the main thing that most other readers seem to love, just irritated me most of the time. Her haughtiness and aggressiveness was just too much. I listened to the audiobook, and the reader did such a good job infusing the 1st-person narration with arrogance and disdain that it only added to my dislike for Amelia. Add to that the mystery being a bit light–took a long time to get going and was mostly easy to solve–and Amelia’s disdain for Christianity, and it wasn’t a particularly enjoyable read for me.

There were parts of the book that I found interesting–the descriptions of excavation and archaeology in those days, as well as travel by the dahabiyas (luxury boats) on the Nile. However, by the time I was halfway through, I’d decided I wouldn’t continue the series after the first book. Now that it’s been a few days since I finished it, I think I may give it another try. The next book is set somewhere around 6 years after the first one, and it looks like many things will be different. As for this first book, though, I do think others might appreciate it more than I did, so if it sounds interesting, be sure to check out other reviews and consider giving this book a try.

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Book Review: Mr. Lemoncello’s Great Library Race

Mr. Lemoncello’s Great Library Race
Mr. Lemoncello’s Library book #3
by Chris Grabenstein

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Children’s adventure, mystery

After a grand escape game and a library-fied version of the Olympics, Mr. Lemoncello brings his favorite 12-year-olds (though I’d guess some are probably 13 by now) a game that sends teams on a much grander adventure–across town in bookmobiles and across states in his banana jet. But trouble is afoot when Kyle’s team uncovers evidence that Mr. Lemoncello plagiarized his very first game. Will his newly honed research skills be enough to clear his hero’s name?

After loving the first book in the series and enjoying the second one as well, this one didn’t seem quite as good in the end. The required suspension of disbelief is much higher in this one, both because these kids are allowed to take private jets to other states and even NYC without any real adult supervision, and because my past observation of most of the kids just being over-the-top knowledgeable was ramped up in this one. Not only do some of these kids know just about every juvenile book ever written, plus have an extensive knowledge of the Dewey decimal system that they can mentally search whenever needed, but now some of those same kids know vast amounts of information about historical events and figures like the Wright brothers’ first flight. It’s all just a bit too much to swallow.

I did still like the puzzles and riddles along the way, though. I enjoy being able to solve some of the clues along with the kids, though that was certainly lighter in this one. The more of these grand-scale games Mr. Lemoncello dreams up, the bigger they seem to have to be, which is somewhat understandable from a fiction stand-point, but seems like it’ll be difficult to sustain. And strangely, while the game itself is grander, the prize is…considerably less so, though that might just be from an adult’s perspective.

The mystery that came up in the latter half of the book and stalled the great game was interesting, as it was quite the reflection of the way the general public will believe nearly anything if they’re given a convincing enough presentation, no matter if the facts back it up or not. Parts of the mystery were predictable, parts not so much, and in the end, while I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I did the first two, I know that the things that brought it down the most for me are going to be more noticeable to an adult than the age group the book is meant for. My 10-year-old daughter loved this book as much as the previous two, and I think it’s safe to recommend it for kids around 8-12.

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Book Review: The Cat Who Saw Red

The Cat Who Saw Red
Book #4
by Lilian Jackson Braun

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Cozy mystery

Former crime reporter Jim Qwilleran starts a new diet just before he’s made the newspaper’s first ever gourmet reporter. In typical Qwill fashion, he immerses himself in the culture by moving into a boarding house where the owner is a gourmet chef and requires all boarders to have some sort of connection to food. Part of the reason for moving there (okay, maybe most of the reason) is that Qwill’s old flame lives there, and when she disappears, he starts to question if foul play is involved. Still, she’s always been flighty, as Qwill knows well enough. Then a houseboy vanishes, and Qwill kicks his investigation into high gear.

My experience with this book is probably a bit tainted by the fact that I’ve read it before, many years ago. It’s actually one I remember most from whichever ones of this series I read when I was younger. So that being said, I really liked the story and the mystery, even though I was pretty sure I knew what was going on the entire time. Because even with that past experience, I couldn’t quite decide for sure if my theory was correct or not. In the end, the mystery was interesting and maybe even a bit more sensational than normal for this series.

I always enjoy the antics that the cats get up to, and this book was no exception for me. Qwill even has a bit of a scare involving them, and it’s very touching to see his reaction. One particular side character amused me quite a bit too, even down to a comical description of the car that he drives. I only wish there would have been more of him. Overall, this was an entertaining read that I do believe beat out the previous to be my favorite in the series so far. I would recommend this book for fans of the classic whodunit & cozy mystery genres.

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Book Review: Awake & Alive to Truth

Awake & Alive to Truth
by John L. Cooper

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Christian nonfiction

Skillet lead singer John Cooper presents a thoughtful look at today’s culture, both from Christian and secular mindsets. The main focus is on truth–where does truth come from, how do we distort it, and what happens when we let each individual decide what’s true for them? With relativism pervading the society around us, is it any wonder so many are unhappy? Broken? Searching? This book provides some insight.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect with the book. It wasn’t published traditionally, though presumably Skillet’s John Cooper could have gotten a publishing deal if he wanted one. As he put it, “I decided to release this book myself so that I would have the freedom to write something that I believe in and know to be true. I didn’t want to be pressured to write the book that someone else wanted me to write, or to write things that I don’t believe in.” I respect that a lot; he didn’t want to compromise. It seems to be a common theme for him. As a result, it does have typos and errors throughout, but even for someone like me who really picks up on that kind of thing, it isn’t enough to distort the message.

I think that what is within this book could ruffle some feathers, but he doesn’t pull punches or water down what the Bible says. His lays out some hard truths about today’s culture making “love” a god, ignoring parts of the Bible we don’t like, and shying away from God as judge. Depending on where you are in your life, you may find this book unnecessary or too shallow. But if you’re unhappy with the noise and chaos around you and aren’t sure what voices to listen to, this is a great book to pick up. It also has a great message to unbelievers or those undecided about God. The only downside is that this book is not widely available. The only place I know of to buy it is here, and I believe it’s currently out of stock. If you’re interested, though, it’s really worth the wait.

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Book Review: The Orchard House

The Orchard House
by Heidi Chiavaroli

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Christian drama

After a difficult childhood, Taylor is adopted by her best friend’s parents. But sisterhood is not all it’s cracked up to be, and Taylor ends up leaving home at 21 with the determination to never see her family again. However, when informed 18 years later that her adopted mother is going through treatment for cancer, she returns home. But what starts as a brief visit turns into something more as old wounds are re-opened and this make-shift family struggles to make sense of present struggles. That’s when Taylor and her sister stumble across a story that captivates them and helps distract from real life. In the 1860s, the death of a soldier sparked a friendship between the soldier’s sister, Johanna, and Little Women author Louisa May Alcott. This friendship, and the life and marriage of Johanna, were hidden away for 150 years, to be discovered by Taylor and Victoria just when the story could most affect their lives.

I spent the first half of this book uncertain about a lot of it. Two different storylines had to be established–both the past and the present–and the present one covered several years in a few chapters. Even when the story slowed down and started unfolding in the present day, I struggled to get into it. Taylor’s adolescence had turned her into a confused, broken woman, and she essentially second-guessed her decisions, thoughts, emotions, and reactions every step of the way. And I questioned often what the past storyline had to do with the present one. It was a slow build, to be sure. It did pick up in the second half, but for a while, all I could think about was how terrible each of the characters seemed to be, in one way or the other.

The main thing that I really liked about the story was the way the Christian message was presented. While some reviewers found it “too religious,” I spent at least half the book wondering how on earth this had been labeled as Christian. But the slow build I mentioned earlier can also be applied to the way the main characters learned to first believe in and then trust in Someone bigger than themselves. Though in the end, I felt the “conversions” and overall Christian message were a little light, I still liked the way they shaped up.

There were some things in the book that confused me, and I re-read some passages more than once trying to understand. As an example, Louisa was said to have 2 sisters, but over the course of time 3 were mentioned–Anna, Nan, and Amy. However, Anna and Nan were the same person, and while the author did seem to realize we needed that explanation (I certainly did), it didn’t come until after the sister was referred to by both names at least once. There are other things that confused me too, but fortunately there was less of this in the second half too.

I think that people who love Louisa May Alcott’s books, or at least have read one or more of them, might enjoy this book. Though Louisa herself is only a small part of the story, her books and lasting effect on future fans are prevalent themes. I’ll admit to having a different view of a particular aspect of Little Women than the author (or at least than the main character), but as fiction, it’s certainly open to interpretation. If you’re looking for a light Christian read, this is not it. It’s full of drama and covers some dark topics such as abandonment, abuse (both physical and emotional), and betrayal. If you like time-split novels and stories about finding “home” or families trying to piece themselves back together, you might enjoy this book.

Thank you to Netgalley and Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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