Book Review: To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird
by Harper Lee

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Literary classic

Like so many people, I read this book in high school. Unlike most of the other books I read for assignments then, I liked this one and remember being able to understand the symbolism and themes better than I could in most of the others. This is the first time I’ve read it since then and the first time reading it for fun, rather than for an assignment, and I doubt that, as a teenager, I was as frustrated by the society presented in this book as I was when reading it this time.

Atticus Finch is shown to be a man who bucks society, making it clear to his children and community that he will do the right thing, no matter what others say, and that he does his best to love everyone, no matter the color of their skin. It’s clear that he doesn’t like things the way that they are and would change them if he could. But why he doesn’t stand up to his sister more, I don’t understand. Why it’s never addressed that she is the one who gave her grandson terrible things to say about Atticus, which were then repeated to Scout, causing Scout to react, I don’t know. I understand that Atticus is a single parent just trying to do the best he can to raise two kids and work a difficult job, and that might be enough reason to still allow is sister to move into his house and help with the kids. Perhaps he never fully understands that any of that is happening, since the kids try to protect him by not telling him everything, but on the other hand, it’s also clear that he knows more than they think he does.

That’s the extent of my rant for this book, and it’s not really a complaint about the book (much). It’s frustration at how slowly things change in a society. The book itself is beautifully written, though, and really immerses the reader in the 1930s south. While some of part 1 seems unnecessary at the time, it all goes into building the characters and the town (which is like a character itself), and much of it comes back up again in some way in part 2. I do wish that both Boo Radley’s arc and the aftermath of Tom Robinson’s outcome had been expanded on a bit more by the end, though.

If you haven’t read this book and aren’t sure if you should, I suggest you check it out. If you haven’t read it since high school, consider reading it again some time, without the assignments to go along with it.

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Book Review: The Smartest Kid in the Universe

The Smartest Kid in the Universe
Book #1
by Chris Grabenstein

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

When 12-year-old Jake eats some jelly beans left sitting on a table, he never expected there to be consequences. Before long, though, he’s become the smartest kid in the universe, because the jelly beans were actually indigestible knowledge! Not only does he know a lot of things he hasn’t studied, he also learns faster when he does study new things. But will this newfound intelligence be enough to help him and his friends save their middle school from destruction, not to mention solve an old pirate legend?

This is an adventurous book that pushes the boundaries of modern technology in a fun way. Jake starts out as a kid who is too lazy to do much of anything, including learn new things. The jelly beans certainly give him a new outlook on life, and even though they do give him information without him having to learn, they don’t give him all information. Some things he needs to know he still has to study like the rest of us. Well, not quite like the rest of us, because his brain learns a lot faster than normal, but I do like that he’s not just handed everything he needs to save the day. I also like that he’s not the only smart one when he joins the quiz team with his friends. He may be the smartest kid in the universe, but he still needs some backup.

Jake’s best friend, Kojo, has recently become obsessed with old detective shows, which leads him to use the catchphrase of one of those old detectives a lot throughout the story. I grew up on Matlock, Columbo, and Murder, She Wrote, but Kojo was hung up on Kojak, which was a little before my time. I was just hoping for one, “Oh, just one more thing,” when Kojo was about to leave a room. Still, the way Kojo’s obsession plays out later in the book is pretty great.

I wish that this super-smart kid would have had some opponents that were a little smarter themselves; the villains were pretty stupid, especially Mrs. Malvolio. But maybe Grabenstein will step that up in the 2nd book in the series. There are also still parts of the author’s writing style (especially in dialog) that rub me the wrong way, but I did my best to ignore it. Like the Lemoncello series before it, my 11-year-old daughter strongly recommended this book to me, because she loved it! That’s the strongest endorsement I can ever give for a middle grade book, so make sure to check it out for your kids (or you)!

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Book Review: Winnie-the-Pooh

by A.A. Milne
narrated by Joel Froomkin

My rating (for this version): 4.5 / 5
Genre: Children’s classic

It can be difficult to review a beloved classic, and that is the case for this book, even though I haven’t read it before myself. I’ve read parts, but never the whole thing. Of course, I’ve seen many of the different cartoons, especially the older ones that were more based on this book. So it was nice to read it all the way through and see the source material for the first time. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

My rating is specific to the audiobook version releasing from Dreamscape Media in 2022. The story itself was wonderful, and the narrator did an overall great job. Of course, it can be difficult to let go of the voices we’re used to after so many viewings of the movies and television show, but I did my best not to compare it to that, as that really wouldn’t be fair. For most of the characters, and for the narrator voice itself, I thought it was done well. My only issue was with his voice for Piglet, which was a little unpleasant.

Thank you to Netgalley and Dreamscape Media for providing me a copy of this book to review.
Publication date for this version: January 4, 2022

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Book Review: The Twelve Dogs of Christmas

The Twelve Dogs of Christmas
Andy Carpenter
by David Rosenfelt

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Mystery

When Martha “Pups” Boyer, long-time dog rescuer, is accused of murdering a man she threatened after he complained about her dogs, Andy Carpenter takes her case. Even as he pulls on threads and begins to find the truth behind who really killed Pups’ neighbor, he can’t put his finger on what motive the murderer would have. But that won’t stop him from digging.

This book sort of fell into my lap when I was looking for more Christmas reads. I haven’t read any of this series before, but saw someone say that wouldn’t be a problem, and it really wasn’t. It also wasn’t exactly a Christmas story—it just happened to take place at Christmas time. All of that being said, I really liked the book. It felt a lot like an old detective show, like the kind I watched when I was younger—Matlock springs to mind. I enjoyed the main character’s wit and snark and the colorful cast he gathers around himself to help him do his work, both long-term and short-term. The way the case unfolded made for a good story, and even the courtroom scenes, where we get to see into the mind of the defense attorney using his tricks to get the jury to see things a certain way, were interesting.

Though I’m sure that some of what was shown in this book is a spoiler for past books in the series, and while author pushes dog love way too much for my taste (I’m a cat person through and through), I do believe I’ve found myself a new series to read after plunging in at book 15.

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Book Review: Merry Humbug Christmas

Merry Humbug Christmas
by Sandra D. Bricker

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Christmas romance

Joss Snow has had enough of Christmas pageantry, so for the last few years, she and her best friend Reese Pendergrass have skipped the holiday together. But this year, Reese is newly engaged and spending a traditional Christmas with her future in-laws. Joss, left to go on her Bah! Humbug cruise alone, ends up on a 12 Days of Christmas cruise instead and Reese’s trip seems to take every bad turn possible. Will these two friends survive the holiday?

Technically this is written as 2 separate novellas, “Once Upon a Jingle Bell” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Deer,” each following one of the two friends through their holidays. The story is mostly cohesive, though; it simply tells the 2 main characters’ escapades one at a time. Each chapter starts with a line from a “12 Days of Christmas” parody invoking Murphy’s Law, which I liked. And Murphy’s Law comes in heavily, especially in the 2nd story. While normally the “everything that can go wrong will go wrong” trope annoys me, I enjoyed the book and even liked the 2nd novella more than the first.

One great thing about this book is that, even though it’s a Christmas book, it’s not as sappy as Christmas books so often are. On the other hand, it’s billed as a Christian book, but the Christian content is incredibly light. And there’s a lot of emphasis on physical looks in both relationships. If you’re not looking for a faith-filled story, though, this is a nice light-on-the-syrup Christmas read with some romance and fun.

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Book Review: Remembering Christmas

Remembering Christmas
by Dan Walsh

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Christian, Christmas fiction

Rick Denton likes his life as a high-powered accountant, living how he wants, with very few responsibilities. But when his step-father, who he never much cared for, has a stroke on Thanksgiving weekend, his mother asks him to come to Florida and help out at the bookstore the couple own and run together. Rick agrees out of obligation, not expecting to stay more than a few days…which stretches on past what he expected. Rick isn’t sure he can handle much more of the people who frequent the store, and worse yet, they always seem to have great things to say about his step-father, who Rick always saw as an interloper. Is it possible there’s more going on here than he would have thought?

I kicked off my Christmas-season reading a little late this year, but this was a great book to start it off. The story was a little predictable, as Christmas stories tend to be (especially those that involve romance, which this one does), but it was still sweet. I teared up during a particularly emotional scene with Rick’s mom (Leanne) and step-dad (Art) at the hospital, because it reminded me of being in my dad’s hospital room after his heart attack, while we were waiting for them to be able to do surgery on him. And at other times, I couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like if I were in Leanne’s place, where my husband was the one in the bed. It was well written, with Leanne’s perspective showing what a loving, long-term relationship can look like.

By the end of the book, I had a few issues, the most glaring being the incredible amount of typos and grammatical errors. I can’t believe this book was ever published by a traditional publishing house, as it seems to need a lot of polishing. There was also one moment that made me cringe a little, and later, I was surprised that no one in the story seemed to feel that Rick was trying to buy some of the characters’ love. But those things aside, I enjoyed reading this book; it’s a sweet, warm Christmas read.

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Book Review: Chapter and Curse

Chapter and Curse
The Cambridge Bookshop Series #1
by Elizabeth Penney

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Cozy mystery

When American Molly Kimball and her recently widowed British mother move to Cambridge to take over the running of a bookstore that’s been in their family for generations, the last thing they expect is to get caught up in a murder investigation. But within days of their arrival, someone dies near the bookstore, and Molly’s great aunt, who invited them to England, is the prime suspect. Now, amidst trying to help the bookstore get back on its feet, learning about and meeting members of her previously estranged family, and getting to know the good-looking guy who works next door, Molly is determined to clear her aunt’s name.

Overall, the book was decent. The plot drags in some places, and the mystery seems a little watered-down to me, which is certainly not what you want in a book from this genre. I liked most of the characters, though Molly herself is sort of “meh,” in my opinion. The bookstore and the community around it were a lot of fun to read about. Aunt Violet’s friends are a little on the bizarre side, and I had a difficult time pinning down what age anyone was supposed to be. I can figure it out with some math, but a lot of the characters act similarly to each other, so it was difficult to imagine age differences between some who I assume should have been in different generations.

I don’t go into a cozy mystery expecting to figure out whodunit by the end, though that doesn’t stop me from speculating. I have a tendency to take things at face value and get too caught up in the red herrings. The resolution to this mystery wasn’t a total surprise to me, though, even while I didn’t expect it to go that way simply because it felt so bland. The resolution to the mystery and motivation behind it seemed weak, like much more effort went into setting up this location and cast of characters for future stories than into making the mystery interesting. That’s my opinion, however, and it’s not enough to keep me from being interested in the continuation of this new series, due to how much I liked the setting and characters.

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: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The Chronicles of Narnia #3 (original order)
by C.S. Lewis

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

This is my favorite of the series so far. There’s so much adventure to get caught up in, even if one doesn’t look past the surface, and it’s full of magic and fun. It was nice to be able to see characters from the previous book this time (besides the Pevensies and Aslan), namely Caspian and Reepicheep, and the search for the seven Narnian lords who’d been sent off into the east was a good backdrop to the story.

The end to the story was emotional, and I really felt for the Pevensies in their loss. I wonder if it’s similar to what the disciples must have felt when Jesus left them on Earth. My favorite part of the book, though, was Eustace’s arc. It was brilliant, a true redemption story, and even realistic in that he certainly wasn’t perfect afterward, but he certainly was changed. While I’m sure I’ll need to go back through the series again to catch things I didn’t pick up on this first time through, I loved this book and am curious to see how things will change with the four Pevensies all “retired.”

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Book Review: Shadows of Swanford Abbey

Shadows of Swanford Abbey
by Julie Klassen

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Historical Christian mystery, romance

Tasked by her brother to present his manuscript to a well-known author, Rebecca Lane takes a room in the monastery-turned-hotel Swanford Abbey, where the author is also staying. And so is Frederick Wilford, an older man Rebecca once had a huge crush on. When the famous writer is murdered, Frederick, as local magistrate, is determined to find the guilty party, even if the investigation shines a light on secrets Rebecca is hiding.

As a Regency-era romance, the story here is pretty good. As a mystery, it’s only okay. My biggest issue is that it takes quite a while to really get going; so much of the first half is spent describing the abbey, hinting at things from the past that affect the present (which we won’t know more about until much later), and setting up the mystery around the murder, which doesn’t even occur until over halfway through the book. I don’t mind a mystery taking so long to get started if I spend that time trying to figure out who the victim might end up being, along with who the murderer will be, but in this case, the synopsis tells us who the victim will be. All of this led the book to feel slow for a while.

I mostly liked the characters. Rebecca had her issues in the story, mostly stemming from the task her brother insists she help him with, but this seems to lead her to not care at all about the societal conventions of her time or about her reputation. That leaves Frederick to be the most understanding man ever. He ends up having to help her in a lot of different ways, more times than I might normally prefer in a story like this, but it didn’t bother me this time, I think because it didn’t seem as contrived as it could have.

I raised my eyebrows during part of a scene that seemed to be straight out of North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, and found out while reading the author’s note at the end of the book that I was correct. She also mentioned other classics that she took some direct inspiration from, though those others I either haven’t read or don’t know well enough to have recognized the way she used that inspiration. Overall, I enjoyed the book and the characters and recommend it to fans of historical romance. Fans of mystery books may like it, too, if they’re not bothered by what I described above.

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

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Book Review: Lead Me

Lead Me
by Matt Hammitt

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Christian living, memoir

Former Sanctus Real lead singer Matt Hammitt talks about the difficulties he faced for many years trying to balance life on the road with life at home. With a wife and eventually 4 kids, he wanted to be the husband and father they needed while also following God’s calling on his life and providing for his family. In this book, he lays bare the doubts, anxieties, even depression he went through while his wife was at home simply wanting him to lead the family the way he was meant to.

This book really hit home to me in so many ways. My husband and I are at a good point in our 21-year marriage right now, but it hasn’t always been so, and I know it won’t always be so. When Sanctus Real’s song “Lead Me” came out, it spoke to me every time I heard it, and I used the lyrics to explain to my husband where I felt our relationship was lacking at the time. I’m sure the song spoke to countless others as well, just as I’m sure this book will speak to many hearts. Hammitt’s insights into what it means to be present in a marriage, even if you can’t be physically present (though that certainly helps) come from a place of experience, all of which he shares in this book. That his marriage survived some of what he describes is a testament to what can happen if two people refuse to take the easy way out and instead determine to do life together, even when it gets rough (really rough, from the sound of it).

I also found some insight into an issue my extended family is dealing with right now, and highlighted some quotes that apply to that situation. Though we all have our own stories that we’re writing as we go through life, we can certainly learn from each other along the way, even if circumstances don’t match up perfectly. And though I can’t fully connect with what Hammitt and his wife went through during and after the birth of their first son, my heart broke to read about the pain and uncertainty they went through.

My favorite thing about the book is that he points back to the Bible with every uncertainty he has, with every lesson he learns. It’s all right there for us to discover, and Hammitt lays some of it out in a way that could be beneficial to so many people who are struggling with their own families, marriages, or other relationships, whether their issue is trying to balance work and home or a plethora of other possible things that can cause a divide. Also, fans of Matt Hammitt and/or Sanctus Real might appreciate this peek into his life and why he left the band in 2015. I highly recommend this book to anyone who has interest for any reason. (Plus, any book that mentions Psalty the Singing Songbook, not once but twice, is a winner in my book!)

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

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