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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Book Review: The Pirate Bride

The Pirate Bride
The Daughters of the Mayflower

by Kathleen Y’Barbo

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Historical Christian romance

Twelve-year-old Maribel Cordova, daughter of a Spaniard with a questionable background, is brought by her father on a voyage across the ocean. When their ship is accosted by a privateer ship helmed by the infamous captain Jean Beaumont, Maribel decides she wants to be a privateer too. But Beaumont’s ship is not destined to remain unhindered, and Maribel is left with only her memories of her time on the ship until years later, when a series of events lead to a chance encounter between Maribel and the captain.

There was a lot going on in this book, which proved to be its downfall. I was really into the first part. Maribel reminded me of Anne from Anne of Green Gables, and I appreciated the friendships she so quickly cultivated. Several of the smaller side characters I really liked all the way through the story. However, it was difficult to see the captain in a sort of fatherly capacity to her, knowing that this is a romance story, and that based on the (just utterly terrible and confusing) synopsis of the book, this 12-year-old girl and the 20-something captain are going to end up falling in love by the end of the book.

Still, the captain was interesting, and I was curious to see how it would all play out. But then in part 2, we have developments in the captain’s life and developments in Maribel’s life that sort of coincide, but not really, and that end up bloating the story far too much. I think the book would have been better overall if the captain’s side of things was the focus. Add to that the lackluster development of romantic feelings between the two main characters, and the feeling I was left with at the end of this book was…”meh.” I did like it more than the previous one in the series, but I’m still hoping for better in the books to come.

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Book Review: The Penultimate Peril

The Slippery Slope
A Series of Unfortunate Events #12
by Lemony Snicket
read by Tim Curry

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Children’s fiction

The Baudelaires have reached the Hotel Denouement, where they will take their places as volunteers and try to distinguish friend from foe. Old acquaintances, both friend and foe, appear at the hotel, and the Baudelaires have to make some (hopefully) tough decisions.

I can’t say this is exactly what I would have wanted from the second-to-last book in such a long series, but on the other hand, it’s pretty much what I should have expected from this particular series. The hotel is laid out in a way that is probably supposed to be clever, but I only found it silly. I did appreciate that Sunny kept being the one who figured things out and that it so often went unnoticed by others, or at least unmentioned. It added humor to what otherwise, for me, comes across as the author trying too hard to be funny.

I started listening to this series for only one reason: Tim Curry. Though I had to live with a different narration for 3 books earlier in the series, Tim Curry has been wonderful, even given some of the crazy things he’s had to say or do for the sake of the narration. I’m not particularly excited about the conclusion of the series and, Tim Curry or not, I know I’ll never re-read it.

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Book Review: Mr. Lemoncello’s Very First Game

Mr. Lemoncello’s Very First Game
Mr. Lemoncello’s Library prequel
by Chris Grabenstein

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

Long before Kyle Keeley and his friends played their first Lemoncello game, Luigi Lemoncello was the 6th child in a family of 10 kids, struggling to stand out from the rest in some way. At thirteen, Luigi already loves games and puzzles (maybe a little too much, according to some people), and in this book, we get to read about his “origin story.” From his first and worst idea for a game to the one that started it all, Luigi gets inspiration from his family, his friends, and a unique carnival barker, whom Luigi emulates as he begins to let his own colorful personality shine through.

First of all, it’s strange to think of Mr. Lemoncello as “Luigi.” But that didn’t stop me from thoroughly enjoying this book! It was a lot of fun and a fresh entry into a series that I overall enjoy but does tend to be formulaic. There are puzzles just like the other books in the series have—nothing groundbreaking, but it’s fun to solve them alongside the characters. I particularly enjoyed the puzzle box storyline, though, especially inspiration that the professor/uncle got from Luigi, which I picked up on way faster than the kids, but I think readers of the age group this book is meant for might see it as a twist.

I loved seeing elements of the older Mr. Lemoncello from the rest of the series getting their start in this book, and at least one other character from the series also appears in this book (though I didn’t connect it until I went back and scanned through Mr. Lemoncello’s Great Library Race to remind myself of what was said there about how he got his start). One thing that bothers me a little is that there is a major character in this book who, by all appearances, seems to be connected to a major character in the main series, but I can’t see any hint of that connection in any of the books. But it’s too much of a coincidence for there to not be any connection, so I would have just liked to somehow know the relationship there. Overall, though, solid entry to the series. I wasn’t sold on it when I first saw it announced, but that’s mostly just because I would rather see a continuation of the main series, given how book #5 left off. Hopefully that’s still coming, but in the meantime, I very much recommend this book for kids and those who are kids at heart!

Thank you to Netgalley and Random House Children’s Books for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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Book Review: The Story of the Trapp Family Singers

The Story of the Trapp Family Singers
by Maria Augusta von Trapp

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Memoir

Though many know the story told in the popular musical & movie The Sound of Music, most probably don’t know the true story behind it. This is the book that inspired Rodgers and Hammerstein to write the musical, and there are some similarities, but also some large differences. The book also goes on to cover the Trapp Family’s lives in America after they fled Europe, an event which takes place within the first 40% of the book.

Overall, I found it fascinating to read about the true story behind a movie I watched so very many times all through my childhood, and plenty since then, too, even leading my own daughter to fall in love with it. It is very easy to read and follow what is going on. I enjoyed the times the author tells about her halting English in a way that seems very real, even while the entire book is in English. I love the way the family works together in all things, not just their singing career, each one using their talents where they can be most useful. I also appreciate the author’s instinct to attribute everything to the will of God, doing quite a few things she didn’t really want to do, because she had good reason to believe God wanted her to. I should add that I don’t agree with, and at times even understand the need for, some of the theology the author believes in, but the foundational beliefs of trusting in God for every aspect of one’s life is important.

We can find a word of caution for our own lives in these pages, as the family watched Hitler come to power and take over their country years before WWII started. The children were told at school that their parents were “nice, old-fashioned people who don’t understand the new Party,” and that they shouldn’t tell their parents what they learned at school. This is beginning to happen to some degree today as well, with some areas wanting to cut parents completely out of the decision-making for what goes on at schools. Once they start trying to keep what the kids are learning at school secret from the parents, it should be a huge red flag!

The book did feel like it dragged a bit in the 2nd half, though I can’t quite put my finger on why. It may have simply been that the story of how the family’s concert career grew and they bought their farm wasn’t as interesting to me as the rest. Overall, though, I’m glad I read this book and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys the movie and wants to know the true story or anyone interested in memoirs about life during and after WWII (especially from those who are from countries directly affected by the war).

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Book Review: Secret of the Forbidden City

Secret of the Forbidden City
Treasure Hunters Book #3
by James Patterson & Chris Grabenstein
read by Brian Kennedy

My rating: 3.5 / 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.

The Kidd kids didn’t get the ending they were hoping for after recovering priceless vases in Africa, but their mom’s kidnappers just want a little more, and then they’ll free her…honest. So what can they do but keep going, looking for a mysterious treasure that the smelly German villain wants them to find?

If my synopsis above sounds a bit ridiculous, that’s because the story is a bit ridiculous. The Kidds just get yanked from one country to another, while their parents’ freedom and safety is dangled in front of them. But since they can’t decide from one chapter to the next whether they believe their parents are even alive (all except Bick, the narrator, who has never wavered in his certainty that they’re both alive), I’m not sure what, exactly, they’re really chasing after. This series continues to be both enjoyable and annoying. The Twin Tirades continue to be obnoxious (#488 was the stupidest one yet—utterly pointless). And there continues to be little details that the authors don’t quite get right, like this time attributing the memory of a melody to Storm’s photographic memory.

I really don’t get what’s going on with “Aunt” Bella. Is she good? Is she bad? If “Uncle” Timothy really sent an assassin after her in the previous book, why is it still up in the air whether he is good or bad? Did I miss something, or did the book? Still, there’s something energetic about the book, and I found the treasure being hunted for the most interesting one of the series so far (though I certainly am biased). And it was a fun coincidence that there was a Sound of Music reference, when I happened to be reading The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by Maria August von Trapp at the same time. Considering that the series is now up to 8 books, I’m relieved that this book brought the main plots of the series so far to an end. I assume the series will consist of multiple, shorter arcs and am hopeful that the next book will bring something fresh to the story of the Kidd family.

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