Book Review: The Debutante’s Code

The Debutante’s Code
Thorndike & Swann Regency Mysteries #1
by Erica Vetsch

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Christian historical mystery

Returning to London after years away for school and just in time for her debut season, the last thing Lady Juliette Thorndike expected was to learn that her parents had been called away and that she’d have to face her debutante ball alone. On second thought, the absolute last thing she expected was to discover that her parents are spies for the British government, as is her uncle, and all of her family before them. But as she’s thrust right into the middle of a dangerous game of espionage, Bow Street runner Daniel Swann is put on the case of a stolen painting that soon becomes a murder investigation. And the supposedly untouchable aristocracy of England, especially Juliette and her family, are right at the center of it.

Oh, goodness. Coming off a month of mediocre reads, this book really had my heart soaring, and not just because of the connection to Vetsch’s previous series (more on that later). There’s so much I loved about it, like the relationship Juliette had with parents she hadn’t seen in 7 years. Through their letters, she still felt connected to them, and was receiving early spycraft instruction unawares. The way Juliette discovered the big family secret was perfect, especially since I was expecting a simple eavesdrop for her to hear the truth (it’s so much better than that!). The more she gets into the family business, the more she questions the ethics and morals of lying for a “good cause,” echoing my own thoughts exactly. And I appreciate that there are no easy answers, either for her or for the male MC, Daniel Swann.

He doesn’t get much of a mention in the synopsis, but he’s an equal part in this story, and I really enjoyed his character and backstory, his drive to figure out the truth and tenacity despite some fairly crappy odds. His personal life is a bit too much to into in the synopsis and is clearly going to stretch on to the next book in the series, and I’m really glad for that. While most books of this type, even those in a series, tend to be more stand-alone, I’m looking forward to a continuing series with the same characters, diving into the spy world of Regency England, and seeing what develops between Thorndike and Swann.

Now let me talk about how excited I was to realize that this series is taking place in the same world as Vetsch’s previous series, Serendipity & Secrets. I loved that series, and one character in particular was my favorite. Now to find him in this book as well? I can’t even express my joy! I don’t want to say too much, though if you know the other series, you can probably guess what the connection here would be. To be honest, I do believe I should have anticipated this, given the similarity of a certain aspect of both series. But I didn’t, and that made it all the more exciting when he appeared here.

Though the mystery in this book was not super hard to crack (for the reader), that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t completely off in some of my theories. I did guess some things right, but also had a few surprises near the end, one of which actually made me a little giddy (and I’m not normally a particularly emotional reader; me using that word is a testament to how much I loved this book). I confess I was pretty confused about the actual events that led to the spy work Juliette and her uncle were doing, I think due to the way certain terms were used during the explanation, but I had it (mostly) all sorted by the end. And I find myself frustrated by the official synopsis for this book (not the first time this has happened with one of this author’s works), considering that Swann’s suspicion of Juliette doesn’t actually come until more than 3/4 of the way through the book. Still, I highly recommend this book for fans of this genre and time period, whether you like romance or not, because there is some, but it’s not the focus of the book. But I would also really recommend checking out Serendipity & Secrets, and maybe even consider reading that trilogy first. You won’t be sorry.

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Book Review: All-American Adventure

All-American Adventure
Treasure Hunters Book #6
by James Patterson & Chris Grabenstein

My rating: 2.5 / 5
Genre: Children’s adventure

Spoiler notice: The following review may contain some spoilers for the previous books in the series, starting with Treasure Hunters.

The First Amendment is in danger, and it’s up to the Kidd kids to save it! Along with their adventure-seeking uncle, they’ll have to prove a rival treasure hunter’s original Bill of Rights finds to be fake.

Well, at least the kids get to take more of an active role in this story, as their parents are tied down in D.C. getting a museum exhibit ready. The Kidds take off with their uncle, who is one of the more enjoyable characters in the series so far, in my opinion. While I find the idea that someone can unearth a document that proves the First Amendment that was ratified so many years ago is actually a false version, and that the original authors actually meant to remove our rights, and that anyone would believe this was true or think that it meant it would change anything in the laws today completely ridiculous, the adventure overall was more interesting than the last few series installments.

However, some things about the series and its formulaic tendencies are starting to wear on me. Will the Kidds ever manage to keep their treasure hunts a secret so that rival treasure hunters can’t always follow them or, in some cases, beat them places? Will Beck ever stop being such a bully in her drawings of her twin brother? Will Tommy (or anyone else in his family) ever acknowledge that the way he treats women is actually pretty deplorable? The answer to all of these questions is: probably not. I only have 1 book left before I’m caught up to the newest release (of which I have an ARC and is the only reason I’ve persisted thus far), and I’m really hoping to see a change of scenery, so to speak, in those books.

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Book Review: A Seven Letter Word

A Seven Letter Word
by Kim Slater

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Middle grade fiction

When Finlay’s mom disappeared, his mild stutter grew to epic proportions. He speaks as little as he can get away with, but that doesn’t stop him from being bullied by his peers and treated as ignorant by adults. He escapes into the world of Scrabble, where he can communicate with the tiles. Then, when he meets someone in an online Scrabble community, someone who he begins to suspect holds some kind of clue as to his mom’s whereabouts, Finlay latches onto the possibility for all he’s worth.

I took my time getting to this review. The truth is, there’s nothing wrong with the book, but it just didn’t really stand out to me. I felt for Finlay and can’t help but feel my ire raised when reading books where the character is bullied this badly. And I liked the relationship that developed with Maryam; I’m a fan of unlikely friendships. The story that unfolded with the mysterious online entity was only part of the story, but was certainly the driving intrigue. And though I appreciated the end of the book as well, what I was left with is that it’s a decent book, but not a stand-out read. Still, I do think that a lot of fans of realistic, contemporary middle grade fiction will probably enjoy this book.

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Book Review: A Treacherous Tale

A Treacherous Tale
The Cambridge Bookshop Series #2
by Elizabeth Penney

My rating: 2 / 5
Genre: Cozy mystery

American Molly Kimball loves her life in Cambridge, running the family’s old book shop, dating the most eligible bachelor in the area, and meeting the author of one of her favorite books growing up. But when a man dies outside the author’s house, Molly finds herself thrust back into the darker side of the picturesque town, once again trying to prove the innocence of people she cares about.

I wasn’t completely sure how I felt about the first book in the series but felt it was worth pressing on when the second came out. But I think I can better express why I probably won’t continue on after this. To start with, the main character, Molly, is just so weak. Personally, I prefer my mystery detectives to be less papery-thin and more willing to push through disturbing situations. She all but falls apart every time she has a sudden flash of inspiration about the case. Her friends and family are always noticing the unhappy expression on her face and coddling her as she tells them the sudden realization.

And speaking of those realizations, half the time they are pretty obvious things for her to suddenly realize. Like Molly herself, the mystery was also weak, especially to me as the reader, because the narrator practically spoon-fed me every bit of information, even making detailed connections for me (some of them more than once), so I certainly couldn’t help but follow along (or, in some cases, get ahead of her). And including the entire text of the fictional book involved in the story was a good idea in theory, but in the end, I didn’t see how it really added to the story. I kept expecting it to provide some kind of major insight for both Molly and me. I also kept expecting some kind of surprise twist about what was REALLY going on, because it was pretty bland and simple overall. This makes it all the more unrealistic that the police can’t figure out who really did it and need Molly to lead them to the bad guys. Even the brilliant ex-MI-5 agent needs Molly to tell him that they should keep a discovery a secret, so as not to alert the bad guys to the discovery (after which Molly proceeds to tell everyone she knows about it).

In the end, what I did like about the first book didn’t give me as much enjoyment this time. Everyone that Molly likes is almost too perfect (especially her boyfriend), and the few people she doesn’t like are mostly alike in their flaws and are thrown under the bus. The descriptions of every meal or snack eaten and every outfit worn dragged the story down for me. I am confident in saying that there are a lot of people who will enjoy the setting, characters, and mystery in this book/series more than I do, but for me, it’s over.

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

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Publication date: August 23, 2022

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Book Review: The End

The End
A Series of Unfortunate Events #13
by Lemony Snicket
read by Tim Curry

My rating: 2 / 5
Genre: Children’s fiction

Upon reaching the end of The End, I had a lot of thoughts. But my first thought was this: I should have just re-watched Clue if I wanted to hear Tim Curry’s voice, rather than go through this series that never interested me from the beginning and interested me even less as I was listening to it.

It’s clear that there are plenty of people that this type of fiction appeals to, and it’s also clear that I’m not one of those people. What others see as depth in the “moral” that the series brings out, I see as ambiguous and even lazy writing. I came to the realization by the end of the series that what it’s really been about is the loss of innocence and understanding (the hard way and at a young age) how complicated and difficult life is. But I feel like it was all a bit abstract and complex for the target audience; for goodness sake, it was all a bit too abstract for me, especially since I went into it expecting it to be more for kids.

I’m definitely not the right audience for the purposefully dark tone of the series. I like some good things to happen in my fiction. Life is hard enough, and I read fiction (especially children’s fiction) to escape it for a little while; why do I want to read about a world that’s even darker (not to mention ridiculous)? The whole thing reminds me a bit of Charlie Brown and Lucy—I get that it’s tradition and expected and maybe would be a let down if he finally got to kick the football, but dang it, I wanted him to finally get to kick it! And I just wanted something good to happen for the Baudelaires. What I got was a giant, cringe-inducing question mark. If you’ve enjoyed these books, I’m happy for you. I’m also happy to put the whole thing behind me.

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Book Review: Quest for the City of Gold

Quest for the City of Gold
Treasure Hunters Book #5
by James Patterson & Chris Grabenstein

My rating: 2.5 / 5
Genre: Children’s adventure

Spoiler notice: The following review may contain some spoilers for the previous books in the series, starting with Treasure Hunters.

A treasure map may lead to an amazing find, though it won’t be enough on its own. Will the Kidd Family Treasure Hunters be able to decipher the clues, find the extra components, and actually keep any treasure that they find?

The answer to that question is: no, not really. We’ve really gone from Treasure Hunters to Earth Crusaders here, and while I have nothing against taking care of the environment, that isn’t what this series is supposed to be about. Though actually, since they are, indeed, hunting for a treasure in this book (though not to keep), the climate change agenda that popped up suddenly in the previous book isn’t even really a detractor in this book. What is, though, is the Kidd parents again keeping their children in the dark about major happenings, when the kids should really be the stars of the book, considering the audience it’s written for. Instead, all the kids really do is bicker, spout off useless facts, ignore their parents’ instructions, and creepily eyeball every pretty girl (and, what a shock, all girls Tommy’s age just happen to be pretty).

The rehashing of a previous plot point involving one of Tommy’s “girls” is just one of several things that make this series feel formulaic by this point. I mean, seriously, has no one in this family learned from past experience? Storm probably does the most of use in this story, but even that is getting to be the “same old, same old,” as she uses her “photographic” memory to memorize every single thing that she ever sees, smells, or hears, and magically recall it exactly what it’s needed. I continue to appreciate the variety of locations in which the series is set, but I really hope that the authors can shake out of the formula, find some fresh villains, and let the Kidds get back to their treasure-hunting beginning.

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Book Review: Freedom’s Song

Freedom’s Song
by Kim Vogel Sawyer

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Christian historical romance

When an escaped indentured riverboat singer and a widowed homesteader with a young child to care for meet, they seem to have just what each other needs—she a place to stay and earn some money for a trip to her family in New York and he someone to care for his toddler so he can work. But will it be that simple, especially when a sinister force are lurking out there somewhere?

That synopsis doesn’t cover everything going on in this book, but it is the bulk of it. There are also the escaped slaves that Fanny travels with for a time, but since they are gone by around 30% of the way through the story and don’t have much of a conclusion, their part in the story feels a bit like it’s disconnected from the rest. In the end, I can’t help but wonder exactly why Sawyer chose to include them. I guess to add to the theme of “freedom” throughout the story, but it seems a bit heavy-handed at that point. None of that is bad, necessarily, and it does give the reader some early insight into Fanny’s character, so at least there’s that.

As for the main characters, Fanny and Walter, both of them seemed a little too “good.” Neither of them really had any faults that were brought out in the story, aside from the faux faults perceived only by themselves, that anyone with a more objective view would easily tell them they were silly for considering a fault. Walter was a little less confident than he’d once been, and I suppose Fanny doesn’t know how to be a homesteader, but it’s more endearing than anything. Both of them drove me nuts with the periodic mental berating over mistakes and bad choices that they thought must mean that God wouldn’t want to hear from them anymore.

There was also a 3rd perspective in this story, that of the riverboat owner who had indentured Fanny, as he tries to track down a singer to replace her. I don’t think his story really added to the book, and it culminated in a climax that was far too easily resolved. And speaking of Fanny’s indentured state, I think maybe the author should have spent some time going over some of the less-known and less-quoted parts of the Bible, like the book of Philemon.

Kim Vogel Sawyer does write very well, and I really enjoyed the glimpses at different parts of life and parts of the country in 1860 that were presented in this book. However, various parts of this book just didn’t sit right with me, though I’m sure that many other readers of Christian historical romance will be less bothered by what stuck out to me and will enjoy this book.

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

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Book Review: The Horse and His Boy

The Horse and His Boy
The Chronicles of Narnia #5 (original order)
by C.S. Lewis

My rating: 4.5 / 5
Genre: Children’s classic fantasy

The first (and, as far as I can tell, only) book in the series where the main characters are not from our world, this story shows some interesting insight into Narnia and the countries nearby. Bree’s perspective, as a talking horse living amongst non-talking horses, provides some great contrast, and I could imagine how difficult it would be for both him and Shasta to find some kind of understanding. And Hwin, though she’s portrayed as demure and submissive, still speaks her mind when the occasion warrants it.

For me, though, the highlight of the book is Aslan’s contributions, both obvious and subtle (which is still sort of obvious, to be honest), culminating in a conversation near the end of the book. For those who see a parallel between Aslan and God, it’s a reminder that God is working in ways that we can’t see and may never be aware of (as much as I’d like to sit down with Him and learn how His hand was at work after a long, difficult week). I’m not sure how I feel about Aslan’s treatment of Aravis, but overall, this was a fun read.

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July in Review

I read 10 books last month, and I’m slowly getting behind on my Goodreads challenge. Fortunately, there’s still a lot of the year left. I’m struggling to have quiet time to read these days, as for some reason, my family just always seems to be around and wanting to tell me things. That’s probably actually a good problem to have though.

Here are the books I read in July:

The Windy City by Roland Smith & Michael P. Spradlin (4 / 5)
The Grim Grotto by Lemony Snicket (3.5 / 5)
Secret of the Forbidden City by James Patterson & Chris Grabenstein (3.5 / 5)
The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by Maria Augusta von Trapp (4 / 5)
The Penultimate Peril by Lemony Snicket (3 / 5)
Mr. Lemoncello’s Very First Game by Chris Grabenstein (4.5 / 5)
The Pirate Bride by Kathleen Y’Barbo (3 / 5)
Peril at the Top of the World by James Patterson & Chris Grabenstein (2 / 5)
The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis (review pending)
Quest for the City of Gold by James Patterson & Chris Grabenstein (review pending)

This list includes 1 ARC. My favorite book from July was Mr. Lemoncello’s Very First Game. I started 0 series, continued 5 series, and finished (or caught up on) 1 series. 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: Peril at the Top of the World

Peril at the Top of the World
Treasure Hunters Book #4
by James Patterson & Chris Grabenstein
read by Brian Kennedy

My rating: 2 / 5
Genre: Children’s adventure

Spoiler notice: The following review will contain some spoilers for the previous books in the series, starting with Treasure Hunters.

Now that the Kidd parents are back, the family can get back to the business of hunting treasure. When some high-profile paintings are stolen from a prestigious art museum in Russia and it appears to be just the latest in a string of major art crimes, the Kidds jump into action to save the priceless art!

This series has been mostly okay for me so far, but this one was less than that. With the parents back, the kids just get led around in this book. I was glad that the arc of the parents both being missing ended in book #3, rather than being dragged on for a while, but I really expected some kind of (hopefully different) plot device to happen to leave the kids on their own. Because the kids aren’t really the treasure hunters anymore, and in fact, often get told to stay put or stay with the parents. It’s not that I’m wishing for a story where the kids constantly disobey their parents and sneak away, but I feel like, for a story aimed at kids, the kids should really have some way to be the heroes of the books, not just sidekicks.

On top of that, this book takes a decidedly left turn away from the adventurous treasure hunting in the previous books (and in the series name) into a heavy-handed environmentalism, climate change agenda. Yes, there is still some action and adventure, and even some interesting locales. But treasure? Nope. That’s hunted “off screen,” so to speak. Plus, eldest Kidd kid Tommy, who was my favorite in the first book, has started to be a bit much with his girl infatuation, talking about making things “hot” with a girl who has shown no interest in him and doesn’t even speak English. He’s becoming more creepy than amusing.

So here is where I have to decide if this series is worth continuing with or not. For now, I think I’ll stop listening to the audiobooks, because while I appreciated the narrator initially, his tendency to say lines of dialog in a tone that’s contrary to the context is starting to bug me. And his (maybe too good) pre-teen boy voice makes the Twin Tirades (which already annoy me) even more childish. We’ll see how things go from here.

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