Book Review: Journal 29

Journal 29
created by Dimitris Chassapakis

My rating: 2.5 / 5
Genre: Puzzle book

I was given this book as a Christmas gift by the owners of the escape room company I used to work for. They thought it would be right up my alley, and my husband and I were excited to go through it, thinking it would be like an escape room in a book. It was not, but to be fair, I don’t see anywhere that the book is actually stated to be like an escape room. However, even leaving that aside, there were some issues that made the book less enjoyable than it could have been.

The book starts with the beginning of a story, the same paragraph that is shown in the synopsis. But that story literally never came up again, never came to fruition, was simply forgotten about. There was no reason to include it, though I guess it gave a little starting point for the aesthetic and theming contained throughout the book. And I did like the look of the pages overall; a lot of things that seemed like pointless artwork even ended up being not so pointless by the end. I liked the way not every page was a self-contained puzzle.

The puzzles themselves, though, left a lot to be desired. There were some interesting ones that were fun to solve, some that took a little noodling and led to a thrilling “aha!” moment. However, far too many of them were just huge leaps in logic that you can only get if you happen to think like the puzzle creator. Or get help (more on that later). Many required outside knowledge, a lot of things we had to look up online, and sometimes we didn’t even know what to look up. And there were no official hints. It wouldn’t have been difficult to include at least some starter hints, help to get started, on the website where answers were entered, but instead, we had to find a forum online where other players were giving their own suggestions and hints.

I think, overall, the book needed further testing. As someone who has built a few escape rooms in the past and now builds another type of puzzle game for a living, I know that every puzzle I make needs to be tested and reviewed. I need to hear if it’s way too hard, too confusing, too big of a logic leap, or has mistakes (and yes, there was at least one puzzle in this book that had a mistake that made it harder to solve). And while I don’t want to imply that the rest of the world needs to cater to Americans, if we’d at least known from the start the creator wasn’t from the US, it might have helped us think a little differently for some of the puzzles (if you do decide to go through this book, just know that commas are used where we would put a decimal point in a number; that’s just the simpler one to explain). Again, it would have been simple to have a brief explanation of things like that on the web page for that puzzle.

I think the book was an interesting concept, and if you enjoy straight puzzles, you might want to check it out. If you’re looking for something more like an escape room, I’d suggest one of the many tabletop escape games instead.

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Book Review: The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
read by Sean Astin

My rating: 2 / 5
Genre: Classic literature

I read this book in high school and did not like it. I remember telling my teacher that I was disappointed she would condone the lifestyle presented therein. She was offended. Now that I’ve read it again, I can see that misinterpreted the story. However, I also think that my teacher should have been a little more forgiving of a high schooler’s difficulty in fully understanding this book. Even now, I had to go read a few sections over again, and even look up ideas from other people online, to fully follow along.

Though I can see now that the book is not exactly advocating the way of life of the characters within, I can understand why I thought that way. And I didn’t like the book any more now than I did in high school. I did appreciate the vivid and beautiful writing and the immersion in the 1920s, but the story itself was simply unpleasant overall. Whatever commentary it’s trying to make on greed, power, social mores, etc., there’s nothing here but sad, depraved, depressing, unhappy people and lives. Nothing good comes about at all (which may well be exactly the point, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it).

I’m not sure exactly who, if anyone, I’m meant to feel for along the way. The narrator himself is the only one who seems remotely down to earth, though he has his own issues. Tom is the very definition of a misogynist. Gatsby is controlling and unable to handle being anything other than the primary focus of the affections of the woman he desires. And Daisy made some bad choices, but that doesn’t excuse the men in her life from treating her completely terribly. Whatever merit fans of the book, those who study classics and literature, and high school/college English teachers may see in this book, I personally don’t see it as the Great American Novel, nor would I call it a must-read.

I listened to the audiobook read by Sean Astin, and while he’s a great actor and did some of the dialog really well, he wasn’t so great with the narration at times. And overall, he didn’t vary his voice with the characters, the main ones especially, nearly as much as I would have liked.

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February in Review

I read 12 books last month, the third month in a row with that number, and almost the exact same amount of pages as last month too. I’ve been listening to a lot of audiobooks lately, which is pretty much the only reason I’m sustaining a slightly higher-than-average number of books per month lately.

Here are the books I read in February:

In Search of a Prince by Toni Shiloh (3.5 / 5)
Things We Couldn’t Say by Diet Eman with James Schaap (5 / 5)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (4.5 / 5)
Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne (4.5 / 5)
The Vile Village by Lemony Snicket (3.5 / 5)
The Canyon Quest by Jim Ware (3 / 5)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling (4 / 5)
Already Gone by Ken Ham & Britt Beemer with Todd Hillard (5 / 5)
Swept into the Sea by Chris Brack & Sheila Seifert (3 / 5)
Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters (4.5 / 5)
The Hostile Hospital by Lemony Snicket (3.5 / 5)
The Mayflower Bride by Kimberley Woodhouse (2 / 5)

This list includes 2 ARCs and 4 re-reads. My favorite (fiction, since nonfiction can’t really be compared) book from February was Crocodile on the Sandbank. I started 2 series, continued 3 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: The Mayflower Bride

The Mayflower Bride
by Kimberley Woodhouse

My rating: 2 / 5
Genre: Historical Christian romance

Mary Elizabeth Chapman, along with her father, younger brother, and other Separatists, prepare to sail to the New World aboard the Speedwell, companion ship to the Mayflower. On the latter ship, William Lytton is a carpenter looking for a new life in the New World, but before departure, he’s hired to keep an eye on the colonists and report back to the company that is financing the journey. When the two ships are funneled onto one, Mary Elizabeth and William have a chance to get to know each other, but the trip across the ocean will be long and difficult. And reaching the New World is just the beginning.

There was a lot going on in this book that never quite seemed to mesh into a coherent, interesting story. The main female character got on my nerves right away because even though her dad and brother, as well as her best friend and family, were going on the journey as well, she was unhappy and lonely. She’d somewhat recently lost her mother, which I get would affect her, but it was leaned into a little too much, given what she did have, and she spends a lot of time moping. Plus, later in the story, she made some stupid decisions that I really doubt a woman in her position would have made given the circumstances. Then when we meet the main male character, his story starts off ambiguously. The whole side plot about him “spying” for the Company was weak, and that was clear from the moment it started. I don’t understand the inclusion of that arc at all, nor the fact that the POV switched to a “villain” now and then that was part of that arc. The POV also switched to Mary Elizabeth’s little brother a few times, which also seemed unnecessary to me.

While the historical details of the voyage were interesting, most of the plot involving the trip to the New World and attempts to find a place to start their colony seemed fairly shallow. They were often viewed through the lens of the budding relationship between the two MCs, which I felt was portrayed in a way that was not likely very accurate to how it would have been for two people in their time period, especially with one of them being part of a religious congregation like Mary Elizabeth was. Personally, I don’t need the author to interject unlikely physical contact to add to the romance; for me, the mental aspect of a developing romance is much more important anyway. But their initial attraction was mostly physical, considering they were both instantly drawn to one another after an interaction that involved no real conversation.

As the book that kicks off a series of historical romance novels set in different time periods, I had hoped for a stronger start. This book, unfortunately, did not whet my appetite for the rest of the series. However, since the series has various authors, I still plan to continue on to see what the next one holds.

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Book Review: The Hostile Hospital

The Hostile Hospital
A Series of Unfortunate Events #8
by Lemony Snicket
read by Tim Curry

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Children’s fiction

Spoiler notice: The following review may contain some spoilers for the previous book in the series, The Vile Village.

The three Baudelaire orphans are on their own now, but that doesn’t make them safe. In fact, now they have to be wary of anyone who’s ever read the newspaper, which is just about everyone. Fortunately, they’re able to hide in a group of volunteers who don’t read the paper and whose organization initials happen to be V.F.D. This leads them to a hospital, where they encounter Count Olaf and his associates in full force.

As we continue to progress away from the tired formula that the first half of the series followed, I find the overall story a little more interesting. I still don’t get most of the humor that others seem to like, but I’ll admit I found some of Sunny’s dialog to be funny in this book (I even laughed out loud one time). The V.F.D. mystery is gaining interest for me, and the ending was such a departure that it felt like a breath of fresh air.

In some ways, though, outside of the stand-out things mentioned above, this was still the same old story. Still, I liked it more than most of the previous ones, and Tim Curry singing the V.F.D. song throughout the book was a lot more fun than it probably should have been. (This book is brought to you by the word “spurious.”)

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Book Review: Crocodile on the Sandbank (take 2)

Crocodile on the Sandbank
Amelia Peabody #1
by Elizabeth Peters
read by Barbara Rosenblat

My rating: 4.5 / 5
Genre: Historical cozy mystery

As a female during the Victorian era in England, Amelia Peabody is ahead of her time. Unmarried and independently wealthy, she has no need for a man or most of societal conventions. With a passion for Egyptology and a thirst for adventure, she decides to journey to less-traveled parts of Egypt, taking into her company along the way a young woman whose reputation has been tarnished. Amelia gets the adventure she’s looking for, and more, when a missing mummy begins to terrorize the women.

I listened to this book a year ago with a different narrator and did not care for it (see original review here, which I will refer to as I compare the two versions in this review). My sister, who recommended the book in the first place, convinced me to try again with a different narrator, and it really did make a huge difference. Things that irritated me about the main character weren’t nearly as pronounced, and I think that’s simply due to the sound of the two different narrators’ voices. Yes, Amelia is still arrogant and aggressive, and Rosenblat certainly did put that into her inflection, but it didn’t seem as over the top this time. It might have helped, too, that Rosenblat’s Amelia actually had a British accent. Even Amelia’s companion, Evelyn, I realized while listening this time, felt less breathy and weak in this version. I hadn’t even realized how much that had bothered me with the other version. Emerson was the one character I liked the first time around, and I was more able to enjoy the humor he and his interactions with Amelia bring to the book on this second listen. Also, Rosenblat’s voice for Lucas, Evelyn’s cousin who follows her to Egypt, is perfect.

Overall, I was able to enjoy the story more, and frankly, I think I paid closer attention, as I remember my attention wandering more the first time around. Now that I’ve given it another chance, I’m looking forward to continuing on to the next book with this narrator. I’m also glad to be able to recommend this book to people who like cozy mysteries or Egyptology. But if you’re considering listening to the audiobook, I highly suggest finding Barbara Rosenblat’s version, if you can.

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Book Review: Swept into the Sea

Swept into the Sea
The Imagination Station #26
by Chris Brack & Sheila Seifert

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Biblical children’s fiction

In this second of a 3-part story arc, cousins Beth and Patrick are tasked with finding a mystery liquid for the Imagination Station as they’re thrown onto a ship during a storm at sea. The ship is carrying the apostle Paul, as he’s on his way to stand trial in Rome. Besides the storm, the cousins will have to face angry sailors and Roman soldiers if they hope to get back to their time.

I actually read part 3 of this story arc (which, in turn, is part of a much larger series) first, then decided to go back and read the preceding stories. This is my least favorite of the 3 books in this trilogy of stories. All 3 show some snapshot of history, but this is the only one that is an account from the Bible. While the authors added some fictional characters for the two (also fictional) main characters to interact with, and I assume some of that was meant to provide extra excitement and human connection, overall, I felt like they added little to the story. All of these books are quite short, but this is the only one that felt so light and shallow. I didn’t feel any kind of connection to the story or characters.

On its own, I don’t know that I could recommend this book to readers, though kids 12 and younger, the age group that it’s meant for, might enjoy it more than I did. The other books in the series I’ve read so far were good, but I honestly don’t think much would be missed by skipping this one.

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Book Review: Already Gone

Already Gone
by Ken Ham & Britt Beemer with Todd Hillard

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Christian living

The results of a survey of 1000 20-somethings who attended conservative Christian churches regularly growing up, but have since left the church, are here presented in a way that shed light on the traditions and teachings that are not working like we think they are. With a call to action for parents, Christian educators, youth pastors, and pastors, this book is an important read for anyone who has a heart for seeing young people continue to grow in their faith once they have more say over whether to attend church or not.

Though this book, and the survey it’s based on, is over 10 years old, I can’t imagine the results and impact are any less relevant today. In fact, I can say from my own personal life that the danger of a child growing up and not finding church relevant (and possibly, by extension, God) is still very real. With admonitions like not leaving it up to the church/Sunday school/youth group to teach your kids the fundamental truths of the Bible, this book should be an eye opener for many parents of children and teens. And I have to agree that while one’s individual salvation may not be dependent on whether or not they believe in a literal six days of creation, amongst other ways the the world is trying to undermine the Bible, the impact that an individual’s belief can have on young Christians (meaning young in age or simply new to the faith) can be devastating. Put simply: if you can’t trust the first chapters of Genesis, what makes you think you can trust the gospels? Is it really more believable that a man could be born to a virgin and then rise from the dead than that a supernatural being could create the world in 6 days?

I know that I was one who was really confused about things in this area when I was younger. I don’t remember it leading me to question whether God was real or the Bible was infallible, but I also think I learned the facts about Genesis early enough that I didn’t have the chance to question these things, and I thank God for that. In fact, it was Answers in Genesis that led me to the understanding that the existence of dinosaurs does fit with the Bible (that was the first eye opener for me, as I remember having this vague uncertainty about how what I learned in school about dinosaurs made any sense if Adam and Even in the garden of Eden was also true). But therein lies the issue the book addresses—my family attended church regularly when I was young; why did I not learn about this there?

Though I do wish I’d read it years ago, this book comes at a good time for me, as I’m poised to take over the VBS program at my church in a year or two, along with my husband. Though it’s only a week-long program once a year, we’ll definitely be taking this book and its admonitions to heart. And on that note, if you’re thinking about reading this book, understand that it makes the assumption that the reader believes the Bible 100%, including on matters like creation in 6 literal days, a young earth, the global flood, and…well, find out more about what the authors of this book believe at this link. If you do not believe the Bible is true, or to be taken literally, on all of these points, this may not be the book for you. Sadly, as Ham puts it, it has now become acceptable “to use man’s ideas to re-interpret the Bible, rather than to use the Bible to judge man’s ideas.” To put it bluntly, somewhere along the line, we decided that we knew more than the author of the Bible (God), Who was there when everything was made.

My only issue with the book is that it can be repetitive. I almost rated it 4 stars for that reason, but I think doing so would undermine the truth presented within. If you are interested in reading this book, you don’t have to purchase it, as you can find the entire contents online at this link (it can be purchased there, too, but scroll down the page to find each chapter linked).

Find out more about Already Gone and Ken Ham’s ministry at Answers in Genesis

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Book Review: Canyon Quest

Canyon Quest
Last Chance Detectives prequel
by Jim Ware

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Children’s Christian mystery, adventure

Mike Fowler hates Ambrosia, Arizona. It’s hot and dry, there’s no snow, he has no friends, and worst of all, his dad isn’t there. Even though his dad disappeared while flying a plane in the Gulf War, Mike is certain the answer to his whereabouts is still out there somewhere. And when he makes some new discoveries shortly after his twelfth birthday, he realizes the clues he needs might be out in the desert around Ambrosia.

I really like the Last Chance Detectives. I watched The Mystery Lights of Navajo Mesa so many times when I was younger that when I read that book for the first time recently, several of the lines from the book I could hear perfectly from the actor/actress’s mouth from the movie. This prequel is a chance to see Mike and the others before their detective club formed, even before the four of them became friends. For that, I appreciated the book. And considering how frustrated I was about Winnie’s utter lack of a personality or really any shown contribution to the group in the other 3 books I’d read before this, I really liked her as a character in this one (though it seemed like she had a crush on Mike, something I don’t recall coming up in the books that take place later).

The author made some strange choices with the story, though. From everything I could tell, and I went back to make sure I hadn’t misremembered, Mike’s dad has been considered MIA for 6 years. I don’t know how long he and his mom have lived in Ambrosia at the start of the story, though. It seems like it hasn’t been that long, since the book starts with him counting the money he’s saved up to buy a bus ticket so that he can travel back home and stay with the best friend he left behind. But wording elsewhere makes it sound like they moved to Ambrosia shortly after his dad disappeared. Either way, his dad has been gone for six years after remains of his F-16 had been discovered somewhere in the Middle East, yet Mike is absolutely certain throughout parts of this book that clues to his dad’s current whereabouts can be found in the desert in Arizona. Uh…what? It’s difficult to allow the excuse of “he’s a grieving kid” after this many years have gone by, but even still, it’s an idea with absolutely no merit. Add to that his surly attitude and how he lets his unhappiness lead him to be rude to the kids that are becoming his friends, and it wasn’t as fun to read as the other books in the series.

While I still think the main books in the series are great for kids around age 10-14, I would say there is unfortunately little benefit to reading this prequel. For those interested, though, especially for anyone who’s a big fan of the book series, movies, or radio dramas, by all means, check it out.

*Note: The entire group of 4 kids that make up the Last Chance Detectives come together in this book. This is a departure from the original edition of the first book in the series, The Mystery Lights of Navajo Mesa (which takes place after this prequel), in which Spence was introduced to the other 3 for the first time. However, in the recent re-release of that book, it’s changed to show Spence as already one of the group.

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Book Review: The Vile Village

The Vile Village
A Series of Unfortunate Events #7
by Lemony Snicket
read by Tim Curry

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Children’s fiction

The three Baudelaire orphans have been set up with a new guardian…town? The children choose the village of V.F.D. as their new guardian in the hopes of finding some clue to the whereabouts of their friends the Quagmires, whose cryptic clue upon being snatched away by Count Olaf was “V.F.D.” But Olaf is still after the Baudelaires too.

It’s a relief to be able to say that this book was much more interesting than most of the previous ones. Several breaks in formula happened, especially at the end of the book. There was a puzzle to solve, and while it was a simple one, I think it’s appropriately solvable for the intended age group. I finished this book with an actual interest in seeing what happens next, which I don’t really think I’ve had since the first book or two.

I wish by this point in the series there would be more to the siblings’ individual identities than inventing, reading, and biting. The kids aren’t really growing or changing as individuals (okay, that’s not really true about Sunny, at least). And though I also wish that it hadn’t taken this long in the series to start to get interesting, at least now I have more than Tim Curry’s voice to keep me going. (This book was brought to you by the word “skittish.”)

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