Book Review: Olivia & the Gentleman from Outer Space

Olivia & the Gentleman from Outer Space
by Moses Yuriyvich Mikheyev

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

12-year-old Olivia is surprised when a visitor from outer space lands in the wheat field near her house and even more surprised when she’s told he might be able to heal her father’s cancer. But first he needs Olivia’s help to find a black ruby that will give him the power he needs.

This book has an interesting premise (and a pretty cover), but I’m afraid it falls apart in execution. A lot of the story is kind of muddled, especially in the details. Olivia is called the Princess of Blue Earth, but I never did understand what makes her a princess exactly. Her dad doesn’t seem to be a king of anything, and maybe her rare ability to read the treasure map to the black ruby is what makes her a princess, but it wasn’t really explained. The gentleman from outer space, who might have been about Olivia’s age, but it’s hard to say, tends to glow in different ways depending on mood, physical status, etc. (like the alien in the movie Home), which was an interesting addition to the story. However, somehow his glowing didn’t attract the attention of the bad guys, though Olivia could often see his face, hands, and even chest glowing through/inside his space suit. And they’re in a hurry to bring the black ruby back before Olivia’s dad dies, but somehow they have time to stop on the moon for sightseeing, not once, but twice.

I didn’t realize until after I’d started reading it that it is self-published, though I’m not against self-published books by any means and am a self-published author myself. I think the book needed more editing, someone to ask important questions (like why does the author write as if Olivia would literally float away on the moon? There is some gravity) and notice some of the more nonsensical dialog and narration moments. The author seemed to put a lot more effort into the settings, and while his imagination does come through, and I appreciate the brilliant visuals in some of the locations, I would have preferred a more cohesive plot and more developed characters.

Thank you to the author and Netgalley for providing me a copy of this book to review.
Publication date: April 11, 2023

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Book Review: The Cat Who Went into the Closet

The Cat Who Went into the Closet
Book #15
by Lilian Jackson Braun

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Cozy mystery

Former crime reporter Jim Qwilleran plans to spend the winter in the northern climate of Pickaxe City in an old mansion, rather than in his converted apple barn, where snow drifts make it difficult to come and go. He must battle the elements as he stages a one-man show throughout the area, while the mansion’s former owner’s purported suicide and a seemingly unrelated disappearance provide a mysterious diversion.

Braun had a thing for starting her books with some kind of shocking scene. While some of them don’t work so well (like trying to make us think that Qwilleran—the main character of the series, mind you—was killed in a car accident), this one really got me. And it sets the tone for the rest of the book, which contained quite a bit of action compared to the rest of the series. Those action scenes are a good balance against the scenes in the old, dark mansion, where Koko’s antics-of-the-moment provide Qwilleran with a plethora of clues. All of the elements in this story, from the main mystery to the side plots, came together to be one of the better installments in the series for me.

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Book Review: Saint Patrick the Forgiver

Saint Patrick the Forgiver
by Ned Bustard

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Children’s Christian historical picture book (biographical)

I’m not Catholic, but then St. Patrick was never officially canonized as a saint either. I didn’t know much about St. Patrick, and what I did know was probably false. I appreciate that this book not only sheds light on a legendary figure’s true history, but does it in a way that kids can relate to, with simple, rhyming verse. I’ve never read anything by this author, nor have I seen his art before, but I did like the illustrations in the boo; they’re engaging and detailed. With a focus on Patrick first becoming a slave in Ireland and then later returning to preach the truth of the Gospel to them, it’s a great lesson on forgiveness. Specifically, Bustard explains clearly that true forgiveness, especially of one’s enemies, is only possible with Christ. I will never think of St. Patrick’s Day the same way again.

Thank you to Netgalley and InterVarsity Press for providing me a copy of this book to review.
Publication date: February 21, 2023

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Book Review: On the Banks of Plum Creek

On the Banks of Plum Creek
Little House #4
by Laura Ingalls Wilder
read by Cherry Jones

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

I continue to be amazed that anyone survived life in these conditions, and I continue to be amazed at some of the choices Pa makes. Between the plague of grasshoppers and the dozen blizzards before Christmas, this family defines the “pioneer spirit.” Pa’s decision to borrow against a future wheat crop doesn’t seem wise, but it isn’t even the first questionable thing he’s done in this series. I liked reading about Ma and the two young girls working together to take care of things while Pa was away for months at a time and Laura learning to read. While some aspects of the stories seem to be the same from book to book, the setting and hardships tend to change drastically, keeping the series fresh so far.

As before, my enjoyment of the book was greatly enhanced by the audiobook narrator, Cherry Jones, who does a fantastic job, and being able to hear Pa’s fiddle, thanks to Paul Woodiel. If you’ve ever considered reading this series, or have already read it and have occasion to listen to the audiobooks, I say do it!

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Book Review: The Valley of Fear

The Valley of Fear
Sherlock Holmes
by Arthur Conan Doyle

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Classic mystery

Like A Study in Scarlet, this novella is in two parts—the mystery being solved by Holmes and the backstory of the principle character in the mystery. Each part has a bit of a twist near the end. The mystery section is interesting enough, though doesn’t stand out much from the others I’ve read so far. I was spoiled on the twist (people seem to care a lot less about spoiler tags and warnings when leaving a low rating), so it’s difficult to say how I would have felt about it. It didn’t seem particularly inspired, that’s all I can really say. The backstory portion I found interesting and unnecessarily long in turns. It’s very difficult for me to get into the head of someone who is so brutal and uncaring. The twist, though, was probably one of the most surprising twists I’ve read. I did not see it coming and mentally applauded Doyle for the misdirect. I raised the story at least half a star, maybe a full star, just because of that twist.

I have to say that screen writers over the years have really done a number with Moriarty. I am sure I’m not the only person who has read these stories after seeing and hearing about Holmes over the years and imagining Moriarty as a dastardly foil for the great detective, only to realize that book Moriarty is nothing compared to his on-screen counterparts. This book had even less Moriarty than the short story in which he was introduced (“The Final Problem” in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes), and now that I’ve read both stories with the infamous villain in them, I really can’t believe how big of a deal the character became. We really only know he’s brilliant because we’re told he is. There’s no proof given; Sherlock says he’s a criminal mastermind, so that’s all we need to make up stories about his treachery. Anyway, all of that aside, this was a more memorable Holmes story for me, so that’s something (though it has nothing to do with Moriarty).

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Book Review: Kidnapping Kevin Kowalski

Kidnapping Kevin Kowalski
by Mary Jane Auch

My rating: 4.5 / 5
Genre: Children’s fiction

After an accident, Kevin Kowalski isn’t quite the same anymore. But his best friends, Ryan and Mooch, think he can do more than his mom will let him do, and they plan to prove it to him by kidnapping him.

Another book I remember from childhood, I read this again recently so I could discuss it with my daughter. We both enjoyed the antics that the kids get up to in the book and like the friendship displayed. While it certainly isn’t easy for Ryan and Mooch to know how to act around their friend who has some brain damage from a bike accident, I appreciate the narrator, Ryan, in his attempts to learn how to be the friend Kevin needs. There is a moment in the story when a group of older kids are hanging out in the woods near where our main characters are camping, and it gets a little risque, but not graphic. Still, it gave me pause, as I knew my 12-year-old daughter had read the scene as well, and she did say it got a little uncomfortable for her too. Other than that, though, I enjoyed the book, as did my daughter.

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Book Review: The Mystery of the Candy Box

The Mystery of the Candy Box
Beatitudes Mysteries #2
by Elspeth Campbell Murphy

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

When Sarah-Jane is bequeathed a box full of random items, she and her cousins have a puzzle to solve as they try to decipher the clues in the box.

I’ve had this book since I was young and read it many times back then. Reading it now, I can see that it might have contributed to my love of puzzles. It’s more like a scavenger hunt than an escape room, but would still provide some intrigue for the children the book is meant for (maybe around 8-10 year olds). I like the idea of each book in the series being themed after one of the beatitudes, and that it’s not so obvious that you feel hit over the head with preaching. Sarah-Jane’s kindness for the elderly man who left her the box is carried on as he gives the Three Cousins Detective Club a mystery to solve and does a good deed in the end. This is another series of books that are old enough to be difficult to get your hands on them. I’ve never read any of the other books in the series or the related series with the same three cousins, though I do have a couple on my shelf, but I do recommend this book if you can find it.

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January in Review

I read 12 books last month, thanks to me actually remembering to slip some short children’s books in here and there.

Here are the books I read in January:

The Diamond of Darkhold by Jeanne DuPrau (4.5 / 5)
The Cat Who Wasn’t There by Lilian Jackson Braun (4.5 / 5)
Keep Moving by Dick Van Dyke (4 / 5)
Old Yeller by Fred Gipson (3 / 5)
The Lost World by Michael Crichton (4 / 5)
Rise of the Elgen by Richard Paul Evans (4 / 5)
The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (5 / 5)
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (5 / 5)
Summer Knight by Jim Butcher (4.5 / 5)
The Sound of Light by Sarah Sundin (4.5 / 5)
The Mystery of the Candy Box by Elspeth Campbell Murphy (review pending)
Kidnapping Kevin Kowalski by Mary Jane Auch (review pending)

This list includes 1 ARC and 3 re-reads. My favorite book from January was The Hunger Games. I started 1 series, continued 4 series, and finished 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: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games
Book #1
by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: YA dystopian

I didn’t want to read this book. I never planned to and was content with knowing nothing more about it than the basic premise. (I’ve never seen any of the movies either.) The main reason I stayed away is due to an aversion to heavy violence and death, and of course a book that involves a couple dozen teenagers being forced to kill each other is going to have plenty of that. I finally decided to read it after my son (who has seen the movies, but not read the books) tried to tell me that I might not be giving it a fair assessment, and of course, he was absolutely correct. And I did struggle still early on in the book, considering walking away because I was dreading what was to come. But I stuck it out, and boy, did I not expect to like it this much.

I appreciate the simple writing style—no pretension, no unnecessary words—and that made it easy for me to keep going when I didn’t want to face what was to come (yes, I am as much of a wimp as it sounds). And as the story unfolded, I realized I was empathizing with the tributes so much that my own pulse sped up in certain moments, during action or even just anticipating what was to come. And yet, in the end, I can say that the “violence for the sake of violence” that I anticipated from the book wasn’t there. Instead, we only see what Katniss sees, which is only what’s necessary to advance the plot or show her character.

The characterization and plot are a huge high point for me. Katniss’s attitude and motivation are consistent, and I really felt for Peeta throughout the book. Even the characters that it would be easy to hate end up being well-rounded and sympathetic. I wasn’t thrilled with the love triangle being set up, but at least it was a fairly minor aspect, as was the “romance” in general. While I can’t pretend to appreciate the world Collins has set up in this book, I do like that the book drew me in and made me want badly to see this system dismantled. I have unintentionally managed to avoid much in the way of spoilers for the rest of this series (or maybe I heard plenty of spoilers but just didn’t know what they meant at the time and don’t remember them now), so I am going forward with no idea what to expect, but with hopes for what I’d like to see firmly intact. All I can really say for recommendation, since I’m sure most people who are going to read this have already done so, is that if you’re like me and don’t want to read it because of reasons I mentioned, I suggest you reconsider.

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