Book Review: Nightmare Academy

Nightmare Academy
Veritas Project #2

by Frank Peretti

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: YA Christian thriller

The Springfields are a family of investigators—Dad, Mom, and twin siblings Elijah and Elisha—for the Veritas Project, which seeks to find the truth behind strange mysteries and crimes when others are unable or unwilling to see past the surface. When a teenage boy shows up on a highway in Idaho with no idea who he is or why he’s there and can only answer questions with “I don’t know,” the Springfields are brought in to investigate. Elijah and Elisha go undercover and are soon enough caught up in a world with no absolutes and no way to escape.

For as much as I liked the previous book in this series, I like this one even more. I always have, I’m pretty sure, since I read these several times soon after they came out in the early 2000s. While the warning presented within this book might seem extreme to some, I think it’s an insightful look at what happens to society when truth is left up to the individual. When one rejects God and the Bible, upon what foundations can “right” and “wrong” be based? Only one’s own feelings, beliefs, assumptions, desires, etc. And when that person’s version of right and wrong clashes with someone else’s, who wins? That is what this book examines in a somewhat true-to-life setting. Though some of the mechanics involved in the book are certainly beyond what technology can do these days, the study of “what if” is again the focus in this book, like it was in the previous.

If you read this book and don’t see any parallels to what is going on in real life, you might not be paying very close attention. I know this approach isn’t for everyone, but I do truly believe that the only truth that can really be known is found in the Bible, and the more we get away from that, the more dangerous it can be. Peretti has a way of cutting to the heart of things that I have always loved, and I really wish he had written more in this series. I highly recommend this book to all fans of Christian thrillers, whether you’re a teenager or adult.

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Book Review: Once Upon a Wardrobe

Once Upon a Wardrobe
by Patti Callahan

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Historical fiction

The year is 1950 and 8-year-old George Devonshire has just read a book that captivated his imagination entirely: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. He’s terminally ill and doesn’t leave his house except for trips to the hospital, but he longs to know where Narnia came from. Fortunately, his sister Megs is a student at Oxford, where author C.S. Lewis works. Unable to refuse the request of the little brother she loves so much, Megs attempts to find the answer to his question, even if Mr. Lewis isn’t keen to give a simple answer.

Normally I save recommendations for a book for the end, but I think it’s appropriate this time to start with that. I think that people who are great fans of C.S. Lewis, especially, but not necessarily limited to, the Narnia books, will appreciate this book more than I did. I didn’t dislike it, but I don’t think I’m quite the right audience for this book about how stories and myths affect our lives. Patti Callahan writes beautifully, but that is also lost on me, frankly. I do know that there are many out there who will get caught up in the prose though.

The book mostly revolves around George and Megs, but dips into fictionalized biographical vignettes of C.S. Lewis’s life (or Jack, as he preferred to be called and as he is most often referred to in this book). It made sense to me that he shares with George, through Megs, shows how inspiration for a story can be found all through one’s life, though it takes Megs the entire book to come to that understanding. This is apparently because she is a numbers person—math and physics are her life. She is too caught up in logic and a desire to turn everything into an equation to let imagination have a part. I’m a numbers and logic person too—not quite to the degree that she is, but enough that it was strange to me that she was so against imagination. I thought there was going to be a much deeper reason for why she was confused and questioning things so much, but it didn’t come to that like I expected it to. The story on its own is sweet, but a bit more drama-filled and with a bit less of a clear conflict than I apparently prefer in my stories. There was a moment near the end, though, that was emotional and made me mentally cheer, and I love moments like that.

Overall, I think I just didn’t really connect with Megs, who is the main character in the story. She’s also the main narrator, which leads me to bring up my frustration with the format the author used throughout this book. Megs’s POV was first person, present tense (I don’t generally care for present tense books, but that’s just personal preference). When Megs tells George stories from Jack’s life, it switches to George’s POV for a few paragraphs as he slips into the story. Those sections are third person, present tense. And then the actual stories about Jack’s life are third person, past tense. All of this gets to be a bit jarring/muddling and sometimes just weird. I think these differences in perspectives could have been handled a lot more smoothly.

Since I’ve already mentioned my recommendations for this book above, I’ll close by explaining that I have read very little of C.S. Lewis’s works. My experience extends to my very first reading of, so far, the first 2 Chronicles of Narnia books earlier this year. I can’t honestly say for sure that how much Lewis one has read would make a difference in enjoying this book, but I do believe it would.

Thank you to Netgalley and Harper Muse for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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Book Review: Night Song

Night Song
World War II Liberator series #1 or 2
by Tricia Goyer

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Christian historical fiction

Almost-engaged American Nick and Austrian Evie are separated when Evie’s family has to go back to Austria. Then Nick receives his draft notice and only hopes that he’ll find himself somewhere near Evie when he is sent overseas. Meanwhile, Jakub’s family is torn apart when German mistreatment of Jews in Czechoslovakia ramps up. Taken to a ghetto, then to a work camp, Jakub watches those he loves die or get shipped off somewhere worse. Goyer weaves a tale of survival and compassion as seemingly unrelated storylines join together for the final scenes.

This book was an interesting take on historical fiction set during the Holocaust. Only a little of the focus is on a Jewish family, though what Jakub, his brother, and his mother go through is bad enough. Evie provides a different point of view, and (along with Nick) there’s even a 4th perspective, that being of an SS soldier who’s certain there’s some kind of supernatural power involved in the Nazi party, and he wants some of it for himself. (This is not the first time I’ve read a book with a character like that in it.) The 4 stories mostly advance separately, with Nick’s and Evie’s being the most connected for obvious reasons. Overall, the individual stories were interesting in their own ways, though the SS soldier’s was the one where I most wished to know why I should care about what was going on with him.

It was fairly obvious throughout the book, and because of the series name, how the storylines would all come together. Most of it felt pretty natural, though Nick being there seemed the most randomly coincidental. The official synopsis focuses a lot on the prisoners’ orchestra at Mauthausen that played while fellow prisoners walked to and from their work for the day. It’s a little strange, because this doesn’t come into the story until pretty far into it. There’s a whole lot more to it than that, but the overall theme of music being important even during really tough times does come through. Depending on where you look, this book is first or second in a series focusing on camp liberations during WWII, most likely each a stand alone. As far as this book goes, I think many people who appreciate historical fiction centered around this time period, especially with a Christian angle, would enjoy this book.

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Book Review: Fan Fiction

Fan Fiction
by Brent Spiner

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Autobiographical fiction, thriller

After a few seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Brent Spiner (Data on the show) and his fellow cast members are enjoying the success of a hit series. However, being a celebrity poses its own set of challenges, and Spiner finds himself the target of a deranged fan or two who don’t seem to be able to separate reality from fiction.

The inability to separate reality from fiction is exactly what this book does to its readers, as it’s not always clear what is autobiographical and what is invented. I tend to think that details about Spiner’s own life, from his childhood to his time on TNG, are real, whereas the plot about the crazed fan is mostly fiction. Again, this is just my guess. Unfortunately, as a mystery or thriller story, the plot about the crazed fan is only okay. In fact, I think it’s a stretch calling it a thriller. Multiple suspects are dangled in front of us, but in the end, there’s no real surprise about who the stalker turns out to be. I take that back—I was surprised, but only in that the reveal was pretty anticlimactic. I kept expecting a twist that never came. I take that back too—there was a little twist at the end of the climax. It was bizarre, though, and really never explained satisfactorily.

As for the rest of the book, which is a good amount in itself, the possibly fictionalized view of Spiner’s past and present life was a lot more interesting to me. The book is meant to be funny, but I think it’s a kind of humor I don’t really get (and not the first time that’s been the case). Not that I never got a chuckle, but mostly I felt fascinated and sometimes even sad at the author/narrator’s reminiscences. I actually think I wouldn’t mind giving this book another try, but the audiobook this time. I think that knowing how the mystery part of the story is going to go might give me more of a chance to enjoy the rest of it, especially when read by Spiner himself and including contributions by most of the main cast of TNG at the time that the story takes place.

As for whether or not you will like the story, I would say that if it sounds like something you’d be interested in, give it a try! If you’re a fan of TNG, you might enjoy it for that reason alone. As for me, it mostly gave me the urge to watch the whole series again.

Thank you to Netgalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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Book Review: Library of Souls

Library of Souls
Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children #3
by Ransom Riggs

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: YA fantasy

Spoiler notice: The following review will contain some spoilers for the previous books in the trilogy, starting with Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.

Jacob may have a shiny newfound ability, but it’s not as easy to control as he would have hoped, especially when most of the other peculiar children, as well Miss Peregrine herself, need rescuing, and it’s up to Jacob and Emma, along with the peculiar dog Addison, to save them. It’s time to navigate the seedy underbelly of peculiardom, and it definitely won’t be easy.

This book nicely ties up the 3-book story encompassing the first half of the overall series as it exists right now. I was sad that most of the other children were barely in it and that there weren’t many new characters involved either. The story is still inventive and full of action, though. The setting(s) for this book isn’t quite as interesting as those in the previous books—so much time is spent in one dark loop. The inclusion of “drugs” and addicts in peculiardom makes total sense, though it’s certainly sad and pretty appalling when the truth is revealed.

The ending was way too easy, but even as I say that, I’m okay with it. The books up to this point were intense and the characters went through a lot. They deserve something good happening. Overall, the book is even darker than the previous ones, which, coupled with the fact that it has more of an ending than the others that tended to leave on cliffhangers, left me feeling a little less overall excited about the book. I don’t think that’s the book’s fault, though. I’ll sum up by saying that I’m really glad I read these books, but I’m a little uncertain about continuing from here.

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Book Review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
by Roald Dahl

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Children’s fantasy

I grew up with the Gene Wilder movie by the same name, still love it to this day. I remember reading Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator when I was young, but do not recall whether I’d read this first, or read it as a follow-up to the movie. I’ve seen the re-make, and was really interested to discover that many of the things that were different in that movie, compared to the original, were actually in the book.

Anyway, about the book—I really enjoyed reading it. My eleven-year-old daughter read it before me, and she liked it a lot too. The characters and situations are often over the top, which certainly adds to the fantastic feel that the factory and Wonka’s inventions provide. It makes me sad to see how many people claim that Wonks is a slaver, considering that if you actually read the book, it’s clear that the Oompa Loompas were living terrible lives when he found them. They are fed and housed and seem to be genuinely happy. Anything past that is something we read into the story, as we have no way of knowing if they even want to leave this massive factory complex, nor what would happen if they did.

That’s my take on it, at least—I prefer to enjoy the story for what it is, not think about what kind of OSHA violations Wonka would have to deal with if the story took place in real life. I recommend it to kids who are up for a dark-yet-fun read.

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September in Review

I read 10 books last month, though half of them were children’s books. Overall, a slightly less than average amount of reading for the month, which makes sense, because I’ve been busier with work than normal recently.

Here are the books I read in September:

The Innkeeper of Ivy Hill by Julie Klassen (4 / 5)
The Face of the Earth by Deborah Raney (3 / 5)
Independence Hall by Roland Smith (4 / 5)
Socks by Beverly Cleary (5 / 5)
All That Is Secret by Patricia Raybon (2 / 5)
Mystery Lights of Navajo Mesa by Jake & Luke Thoene (5 / 5)
The Princess Bride by William Goldman (4 / 5)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (review pending)
Escape from Fire Lake by Robert Vernon (5 / 5)
Terror from Outer Space by Robert Vernon (4 / 5)

This list includes 4 ARCs. My favorite book from September was Escape from Fire Lake. I started 3 series, continued 1 series, and finished 0 series. (Note to self: you have way too many ongoing series right now. It’s time to finish some before starting more.) My ever-changing short list of to-be-reads, as well as a flag for the book I’m currently reading and an ongoing list of those I’ve read and posted about can be found here.

I’m also keeping my Goodreads page updated with a more extensive list of to-be-reads. Despite my almost too-long TBR list, I’m always looking for more to add. Feel free to offer suggestions of your favorites or just recent reads you enjoyed.

Book Review: The Princess Bride

The Princess Bride
by William Goldman

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Fantasy adventure, romance, humor

This was my first reading of Goldman’s “good parts version” of the S. Morgenstern classic. I’ve seen the movie, of course, enough times to appreciate how similar it is to the book, and the following review will include some comparisons. Overall, I liked the book, though it did have some downsides for me. In fact, I almost called it quits in the first chapter. Fortunately, I stuck with it, and really enjoyed the book once it took off.

I’ll start with what I liked. Both Inigo and Fezzik had full backstories that I thought at first would be dry to read about, but I was wrong! They gave those characters so much more depth. In fact, there’s more information giving in a lot of areas (not surprising when a book is turned into a movie, even when done well). Humperdinck is even more villainous than he is in the movie, the Zoo of Death being quite dark and a great setting for The Machine. To be honest, I don’t know what I would have thought about the book if I had read it before seeing the movie, since I’m sure some of what made it more enjoyable was having the well-chosen actors in mind when reading.

The story-within-a-story framework for this book is quite inventive. I’m sure Goldman fooled (and possibly still fools) many people into believing that there really was an original book written by S. Morgenstern that he then abridged. The fictional version of himself that he puts into the story, though, is pretty terrible. I struggled through the intro section in which he explains how he tried to track down the original book for his son, due mostly to the fact that during that part, he calls his son fat, blames his wife for his son being fat, and wants us to know how much he wants to cheat on his wife. Boy, am I glad the framework in the movie is just a kid and his grandpa. Then we get into the book and there’s so much focus on physical looks regarding Buttercup and other women for so many pages, after how disheartening the intro was…I put the book down and told my husband (who strongly wanted me to read it, whose favorite movie is The Princess Bride, and who also really liked the book when he read it some time ago) that I didn’t think I could go on. But I did. And I’m really glad I did. The book is really fun overall, but when I go back and read it again someday, I may start at chapter 2.

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Book Review: Terror from Outer Space

Terror from Outer Space
Last Chance Detectives #4
by Robert Vernon

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

Have aliens landed in the desert? Though the report may be unbelievable, Sheriff Smitty can’t deny that something strange is going on, especially when he has his own frightening encounter. It’s up to Mike, Winnie, Spence, and Ben, the Last Chance Detectives, to investigate, but they won’t like what they find.

Overall, this was another solid addition to the series, with some exciting scenes and a hard, but important, lesson of faith learned by Mike. The mystery was predictable to me, but younger readers will be much less likely to guess what’s going on. If I’d been in Winnie’s shoes in this story, I probably would have passed out, or at least been found curled up on the floor crying.

Speaking of Winnie, it’s much more obvious in this book that she’s not as well developed as her three friends. The other three have a line or two explaining what they bring to the group at the beginning of the story. Mike’s confidence makes him a natural leader, Spence is clever and inventive, even Ben is said to provide fun and out-of-the-box thinking. There’s literally nothing, not even a minor attempt, made to show Winnie’s contribution to the group, and thinking about the 3 books in this series I’ve read in the last few days, I couldn’t tell you what it was either. She’s just…there.

This is the first new story to come out in a series from the 90s, and while I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the 2 originals that I recently read, I do still recommend this book for those around age 10-14.

Thank you to Netgalley and Tyndale House Publishers/Focus on the Family for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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Publication date: October 5, 2021

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