Book Review: The Bad Beginning

The Bad Beginning
A Series of Unfortunate Events #1
by Lemony Snicket
read by Tim Curry

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Children’s fiction

When the Baudelaire children are orphaned and sent to live with a very odd relative they’ve never heard of, their misfortune is only beginning. Their new guardian, Count Olaf, has designs on the fortune their parents left behind, and will stop at nothing to get his hands on it.

I’ve never read any of these books, nor have I seen any of the adaptations. It always seemed a little dark and strange for my tastes. And I would have continued in ignorance without any qualms had I not discovered that Tim Curry narrated the audiobooks for the series. I love Tim Curry, and I especially love his voice. And yes, he brought my rating up an entire star all by himself. Because overall, the book was only okay, maybe even less than okay. I wasn’t even entirely sure what genre (other than children’s fiction) to put this in, because it seems like it’s supposed to be funny, but I didn’t find it all that humorous. And I guess there’s supposed to be a mystery, and I was actually looking forward to seeing what clever way the kids got out of Count Olaf’s snare, only for it to be a really simple, boring solution. Really, it was a little dark for children’s fiction, and Count Olaf’s and his friends were ridiculously and unnecessarily over-the-top mean.

I did like the way the kids stuck together and didn’t give up when things were bleak. I didn’t even mind the way the narrator inserted definitions for some possibly difficult words for kids, though to be honest, I don’t know that it wouldn’t have annoyed me if it wasn’t Tim Curry giving me those definitions. I’ve seen some reviews that say it gets better after the first book, so for Tim Curry’s sake, I’ll keep going for now.

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Book Review: A Basket of Roses

A Basket of Roses
Cassie Perkins

by Angela Elwell Hunt

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: YA Christian drama

Spoiler notice: The following review may contain some spoilers for the previous book in the series, which starts with No More Broken Promises.

Soon after Cassie starts at a new, high-pressure school, her newly divorced mom announces that she’s getting re-married. But Cassie can’t stand her mom’s fiance and certainly doesn’t want to have Nick Harris as a step-brother or to move out of her house to live with her new family. So she sets to work trying to break the couple up, and if she can get her parents back together too, so much the better. But Cassie has a lot to learn about trusting in the God she’s just getting to know.

This book was a small step down from the previous ones in the series. Though Cassie’s childish feelings and actions might have been completely realistic, she got to a point of really making me cringe. Maybe it just went on a little too long. Even as she’s given good advice about praying for God’s will to be done, rather than for what we want to be done, she goes on assuming that it must be God’s will that her mom’s wedding not happen. Her mom is mostly sensitive to the issues her daughter is having, though of course she has her limits too. However, I certainly did wish that her mom wasn’t so caught up in and distracted by the pending nuptials that she didn’t notice what was going on with both of her kids, especially the one that didn’t live at home. Max broke my heart.

The ending to the story was tragic, yet nice in a way too. And one thing I want to mention now that I’m 3 books into the series is the way each book starts—Cassie lists all of the important people in her life with a brief description and a star rating. Both the list and the descriptions about the people listed change from book to book as things change in her life, and it serves as a nice recap of the previous book if one needs a refresher going forward in the series (the first book has this list too, so is more of an intro at that point than a refresher). Though I’m not sure this book was quite as good as the previous ones were in regards to being able to glean some truth from them, Cassie still grew and changed in the book, and it was still a good read.

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Book Review: The Compass

The Compass
The Adventures of Niko Monroe
by Tyler Scott Hess

My rating: 2.5 / 5
Genre: Christian fantasy/sci-fi

It’s been a year since Jack’s unexpected adventure in the mind of Niko Monroe some time in the future, with no new rumblings from the map and letters that sucked him in. When new markings appear on the papers, he’s not prepared for what happens next to Niko and his friends, for whom a year has also passed.

Though I enjoyed the book that preceded this one, I had some difficulties with both storylines of book 2. There are basically two different stories being told—that of Jack in present time, hoping to complete a group social studies project in time for Christmas Eve and that of Niko dealing with a future where a specific group of people are heavily persecuted for their beliefs. In the present time, Jack and his friends are 11 years old working on a project where they’re supposed to create a people group complete with culture, language, etc. While it makes some sense for Jack’s glimpses into Niko’s life and the future world to influence his work on this project, it doesn’t influence him in ways that make much of sense to me. In fact, the kids’ discussion of the project doesn’t always make sense to me in general, and they seem to go around in circles a lot. These kids also talk and act far older than 11, and one of them is way too quick to resort to violence in response to even mild joking. Along with some other issues I had, it all led to me feeling really disconnected from this side of the story.

Unfortunately, I also felt pretty disconnected from the other side of the story too. Niko spends all of his time either in prison (sometimes the prison is plush, but it’s still prison) or on the run. But his counterparts spend a lot of time learning, doing, and acting. Then Niko hears about it after the fact in very vague snippets, as they are always hesitant to give him any real information. So the reader doesn’t really know anything either, until things are revealed near the end, which are too little, too late. It all felt a little too contrived to provide suspense, but mostly I just felt left out. And on that note, I was really hoping that the Maiden would not turn out to be who she ended up turning out to be, because it seems too cliche and I don’t really get it.

I think what I was really missing, though, was the “why.” I mentioned in my review of the first book that the beliefs the persecuted people are following is probably meant to be Christianity, but it’s not stated all that clearly. They reference the “King” a lot, but there weren’t even any references to God in this book, while the previous book had at least a few. In fact, the one thing from the previous book that had seemed to be God intervening turns out to have been an act of man! Essentially, the people in this book are being persecuted for not falling in line with the government more than anything else. They even state themselves that what they most want is just to be left alone, to be free. It’s usually a secondary statement that they would also want to share their beliefs with others. But what beliefs? Because I really don’t know what they believe other than that “the King” will guide their paths, even though it seems more like it’s the Maiden who’s been guiding their paths.

As is the case with so many reviews I write, it’s clear that there are plenty of other people who really enjoyed this book, so please be sure to check out their reviews at the link below if the book is of interest to you.

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Book Review: Mr. Monk and the Blue Flu

Mr. Monk and the Blue Flu
Mr. Monk #3
by Lee Goldberg
read by Angela Brazil

My rating: 2 / 5
Genre: Mystery

When much of the police force calls in sick as part of a contract dispute, Monk is asked to take on the role of a captain in the department. Though this means he’ll be betraying his friends in the department, Monk can’t resist the allure of getting his badge back. Unfortunately, San Francisco suddenly seems to be in the midst of a crime spree, and the squad Monk is given command of make him look almost normal by comparison. Almost.

Well, 3 books into this series, and I’m calling it quits. For now. Maybe I’ll try again later when I’m looking for something else to listen to. I love the show and have watched it several times through. Unfortunately, that means that I’ve also seen this story done before. At least part of it. The main part. There are two mysteries that happen in this book, one being the serial killings that kick the story off. And the way it played out was the same as an episode in which Monk has his badge back for a little while (the episode came after the book was published, so it’s not a rip-off…maybe the other way around though). So that does tend to bring the enjoyment down some, considering that I easily guessed at what was going on.

The three detectives Monk is saddled with as captain, though, brought the enjoyment down even more. I guess they’re supposed to provide humor, them all being so outlandish, but seriously…it just smacks of ineptitude on the part of whoever hired them. One of them has a radio taped to her head when we first see her, for goodness sake, a full-blown paranoid conspiracy theorist. One is so old he can’t even remember his own name half the time (and that’s not hyperbole), and the other is trigger-happy. Each of them comes with their own assistant, à la Monk’s Natalie, and frankly, I can’t find the humor in any of it. It’s just too over-the-top ridiculous, the kind of thing I might cringe at but live with when watching the show, but when hearing it described by pseudo-Natalie, I just can’t.

It’s too bad, too, because there were some really funny moments early in the story. Things that remind me of why I love Monk so much. But they didn’t occur much after that, definitely not enough to elevate the rest of the book. If you’re a fan of the show and think you’ll enjoy the book, though, don’t let me stop you from giving the series a try. I don’t think you even need to start at the beginning, since I haven’t seen any real correlation between the books so far.

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Book Review: A Forever Friend

A Forever Friend
Cassie Perkins

by Angela Elwell Hunt

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: YA Christian drama

Spoiler notice: The following review may contain some spoilers for the first book in the series, No More Broken Promises.

The summer before Cassie’s first year of high school isn’t starting out as carefree as most teenagers hope for. Her parents are going through a divorce, her little brother is taken away to live with their dad, and Cassie has a crush on the son of her mom’s new boyfriend, whom Cassie strongly dislikes. To top it off, Cassie has to try to convince her parents to let her try out for a spot at a performing arts school her teacher recommended to her. Through all of this upheaval and difficulty, Cassie learns a little more about God and what it means to let Him be in control of her life.

This book was great in so many ways. A short and easy read, it contained some common tropes of teen books while subverting them at the same time. For example, a love triangle (more like rectangle, really) began to form, but wasn’t super angsty and fortunately didn’t last too long. And the way it began, at least on Cassie’s side, really made sense for her age. I wasn’t completely sure in the first book whether or not Cassie and her family were Christians, but from this book I think they’re more the type who believe in God, but don’t necessarily follow him. I realize what I’m about to say is a spoiler, but I think it’s good to know for anyone who might be considering this series for their teenage kids—Cassie’s real conversion comes in this book, and though it’s maybe a little easy or shallow, it’s also very realistic for her age. I really appreciated Hunt’s way of explaining that becoming a Christian isn’t necessarily about a feeling or about praying the exact right words, but it’s about making a decision to follow Christ (this explanation was given by one of Cassie’s friends).

I think one of the reasons I loved this book is because it reminds me so much of my own teenage years. There’s one scene at a youth group event where the boy Cassie kind of likes sits on the floor next to where she was seated on a footstool. That is almost exactly the same thing that happened when my now-husband first expressed interest in me at a mutual friend’s party. I certainly didn’t have the same struggles as Cassie does in this book when I was a teenager, and I know that today’s teens face vastly different types of challenges. I don’t truly know if the series will be relatable to today’s generation of teens, but I think the lessons are timeless. And for me, at least, the nostalgia factor is high, so I can’t wait to continue the series.

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Book Review: Welcome to Vietnam

Welcome to Vietnam
Echo Company

by Ellen Emerson White (as Zack Emerson)

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: YA historical fiction

I read this book about an 18-year-old drafted to fight in the Vietnam War when I was a teenager, which was many years ago. I recently remembered the series and recalled being surprised by how much I liked it, so I tracked it down to read again. It really was far outside of the type of books I read back then and is still quite different from my normal preference today. And just like when I was younger, I really liked this book.

The story opens with the MC, Michael Jennings, newly arrived in Vietnam after basic training in the States. He’s shuttled through various bases until he ends up with the people with whom he’ll be spending most of his time. That’s where the story, and series, really begins, as he meets those who have already been near the DMZ for some time and have developed different ways to cope. Michael earns the nickname “Meat” (as in Fresh Meat), which sticks through the rest of the book. I kinda rolled my eyes, though, because it’s a trope that annoys me a little that this one new guy out of all the new guys they have gotten happens to keep the new-guy nickname.

Early in the book, I wasn’t sure I’d want to continue the series. The narration is often choppy, but it’s purposely so. Now and then the author will write a sentence or paragraph as Michael’s train of thought, including stopping mid-thought to switch to another one, sometimes several times. It feels very real and is how I think and even talk sometimes, but reading it can be a little frustrating. However, by halfway or so, Michael had really grown on me. Though the book is dark (what book about war, particularly this war, isn’t?), it’s also a poignant glimpse at a war that isn’t written about as much, fought by teenagers who didn’t really understand why they were there, and written for teenagers. For those who are wondering, though there is some language in it, it’s not nearly as much as I’d imagine adult books about the same subject would have. I don’t remember being bothered by that when I was a teenager, even though I was never one to use that kind of language myself. I’m not sure how much of the series I read as a teen, but I’m looking forward to continuing it now.

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Book Review: The Widows of Champagne

The Widows of Champagne
by Renee Ryan

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Historical Christian drama

With the German army on France’s doorstep, the 3 widows who live at Chateau Fouche-Leblanc, a premier champagne house, are not prepared for what the Nazis will bring to their home. Gabrielle, who does most of the running of the vineyard these days, hides some of the most valuable champagne in the hopes of rebuilding the family’s wealth after the war. Her mother Hélène is more interested in fashion than wine, but she will have her own part to play in the coming days. And finally Josephine, Gabrielle’s grandmother, though she struggles to keep her thoughts focused on the present, manages her own quiet resistance to the invading forces.

I’m sad to say that I didn’t love this book like I’d hoped. It was only okay. The characters are all very…not shallow, necessarily, but I’m not sure how to explain it. They are just so separate. So alone. It made the story slow and depressing, which may very well have been the point. But the way these women related to each other, and the way each of their late husbands hung over them like a dark cloud, despite each of them having died no less than 5 years in the past, made me sad, and the story became boring. I also didn’t connect with any of the characters at all.

As far as the plot goes, it was interesting to see the way each of these women, again, individually, did what they could or what they had to in order to keep the rest of the family safe. But I often felt like I was missing something, because so much seemed to happen “off screen” and was hinted at in the narration. Josephine, in particular, seemed to be involved in various things, but we only hear about her writing these things down. On the other hand, I could have been misunderstanding a lot of that, because every section from her POV was a little confusing. This was definitely intentional, because she was suffering from early dementia. I think the author did well in showing that, but maybe she should have gone back to Josephine less often.

The book is listed as Christian, and it does have some Christian tones to it. However, I would have liked to see more resolution for the two women who didn’t really believe God cared about them at the beginning of the story. It seems like mentions of God and faith were just thrown in to be able to publish it as Christian. It is a basically clean read, though, with only allusions to a physical relationship with two of the characters that was more out of necessity than desire (at least for one of them). I can already tell from other reviews I’m seeing about this book that I’ll likely be in the minority of thinking the book is only okay. It’s more pure drama than I generally prefer, but I will say I was really interested in the details about champagne and wine making and, though less involved, the information about France’s capitulation and later liberation. I do think fans of historical drama and complex family dynamics will like this book.

Thank you to Netgalley and HARLEQUIN – Romance (U.S. & Canada) for providing me a copy of this book to review.
Publication date: July 27, 2021

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Book Review: No More Broken Promises

No More Broken Promises
Cassie Perkins

by Angela Elwell Hunt

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: YA Christian drama

When Cassie wins the lead role in her school’s musical showcase, she keeps it a secret from her parents so she can surprise them when they see how well she sings. Unfortunately, they’re a bit distracted by the rift that seems to have formed between them that Cassie sees as starting with a tragedy that affected her dad’s job. While she’s stepping out of her comfort zone and trying new things at school, her family is falling apart at home.

I read this book, and at least some of the series following it, some time around middle school. Some of the plots and characters had stuck with me enough that I took great pains to track down the series recently so I could read through it again. And so far, I’m really glad I did. The book was simple enough, but had a lot of heart and emotion. It starts with a bang, with the tragedy that had Cassie’s dad working a whole lot extra, and already I was hooked. That tragedy, and the way the kids and teachers reacted to it, all felt very realistic. And I felt the same way with the family drama that ensues and the way it affected Cassie and her younger brother.

Speaking of Cassie’s younger brother, he’s incredibly endearing. His and Cassie’s relationship, her feeling protective of him and trying to explain what she doesn’t fully understand herself, was the heart of the story, in my opinion. Meanwhile, their parents really annoyed me. I am not saying whatsoever that their situation was unrealistic or uncommon, but really that just makes me sad for so many real kids in the world. There was one character that I felt was a bit too wise beyond his years; that part was a little unrealistic, but that didn’t detract much from the book as a whole. There were some incredibly insightful and poignant points made by a few of the characters, and honestly, I think the book could be quite instructive for teens or young adults who are considering marriage (soon or someday). Overall, I really enjoyed reading it and have high hopes for continuing the series.

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Book Review: Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice
by Jane Austen

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Classic romance

My first exposure to Pride and Prejudice was from an episode of Wishbone when I was a teenager, but since then, I’ve not seen or read anything related to it. So overall, I went into the story not knowing a whole lot. Overall, I enjoyed the story, though the language certainly did slow me down at times. While there are some things about life back in those days I almost wish we still did today, I’m really glad that some things are different. Not that a family’s reputation can’t be soured at all by one person in the family, but it’s definitely not nearly as big of a deal these days.

The characters are what stand out to me the most about the story. The plot is a bit slow, especially in the first half, but I really liked getting to know the characters. Mr. Bennett hits the ground running with his snarky jokes in the first chapter. I don’t really understand why so many people love Mr. Darcy from the moment he first appears, but by the end, I certainly saw the strength of his character. Both of the Darcy siblings are so shy and introverted, I really connected with them. And Elizabeth may jump to some unfair conclusions about Mr. Darcy, but I don’t know that I can say I wouldn’t have done the same.

In the end, I think I would have been better off listening to an audiobook, and may do so in the future. I didn’t think it was bad, by any means (I gave it 4 stars, after all), but I wonder if I’d enjoy it more if I wasn’t slowing down so often to stumble over the old-fashioned language.

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Book Review: Project Hail Mary

Project Hail Mary
by Andy Weir

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Sci-fi suspense

When Ryland Grace wakes up and finds himself on a spaceship with 2 dead roommates and no memory of who he is, why he’s there, or how he got there, he certainly never expected to find out he’s on a mission to save the earth. As his memory falteringly returns and he discovers he may not be as alone as he thought, he will tax his abilities—both physical and mental—and his ship to give humanity a fighting chance.

I haven’t been as captivated by a book as I was by this one in a long time. I read it in 2 days, which is at least half the time I’d normally read a book of this length, because I was so enthralled and just kept wanting to come back to it. The story was creative, the characters were engaging, and the math and science were…well, they were math and science. I zoned out a few times when it got a little over my head and scanned the text for the spot where the point would be made. Those moments didn’t bother me, thoughI just nodded and moved on.

The story tends to go back and forth between the present time on the ship and the recent past back on Earth. The past scenes serve to show both us and Grace why he’s way out in space. Even when the reader thinks they know everything necessary from that time (or at least thinks they can infer it), there’s a little more to know. Personally, I liked the past scenes as much as the present. It was interesting to see Weir’s take on what could happen if catastrophe were looming and humanity was forced to work together or be wiped out.

Understandably, there are not a whole lot of characters in this book, especially those that are given much “screen” time. There’s Grace, of course, who may know more than seems reasonable for his past, but I enjoyed the book enough to not be bothered by it. He’s got a cheesy sense of humor and a determination that doesn’t preclude him from having moments of doubt. Fortunately, he has a counterpart through much of the book who spurs him on when he’s ready to give up, and vice versa. Rocky, along with the friendship that develops between Rocky and Grace, is certainly a highlight of the book. There’s not a whole lot more I can say without giving at least minor spoilers (though odds are pretty good if you read other reviews you’ll be spoiled anyway, as many people don’t see the explanation of Rocky as a spoiler…and maybe it’s not, but I’d rather be cautious). There are so many times when the interactions between Grace and Rocky made me laugh out loud. It’s so great! Also, the endingnever saw it coming!

The question that seems to be on most people’s minds is whether or not this book is too similar to Weir’s first book, The Martian. There are certainly some similarities, but the plot is very different. Whatney’s main conflict is simply survival, then if possible a return to Earth. Grace’s main conflict is to do the science to figure out how to save Earth, and…well, for a while, at least, that’s pretty much it. They’re really only similar in that they’re both one man working alone in space. Some will say that Grace is a copy of Whatney. I have read The Martian once and seen the movie twice, so I don’t think I know it enough to speak to that. They approach problems and science the same way, so I guess there’s that. I also want to mention, for those who are curious, that there is way less language in this book than there was in The Martian. Grace himself only uses “fake” swear words, so the only real language comes from the past scenes, and it’s considerably light. Some might be interested to know, however, that this book takes an evolution-as-fact approach to the universe, evolution being a very heavy topic in the latter half or so of the book. It’s very common for sci-fi to be written with that worldview, but it is pushed pretty heavily. Overall, though, I highly recommend this book to anyone who even remotely enjoys sci-fi books.

Thank you to Netgalley and Random House Publishing Group for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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