Book Review: Refugees on the Run

Refugees on the Run
The Imagination Station #27
by Chris Brack & Sheila Seifert

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Historical children’s fiction, Christian

In this final of a 3-part story arc, cousins Beth and Patrick find themselves in Lithuania sometime in the mid 1940s. A crowd of Jewish families are trying to get into the Japanese consulate building, in the hopes that they can find the means of escaping from the approaching Nazis. Beth and Patrick find themselves in the middle of the battle, as Beth tries to help a Lithuanian Jewish family and Patrick does his best to assist the Japanese consul.

I really enjoyed this story and the way it presents a difficult time in history to kids in a way that doesn’t completely gloss over the danger, but doesn’t go into detail either. I really appreciated that it introduced me, and thus will introduce kids, to a man who helped rescue many Jews, but isn’t nearly as well-known as others. It’s incredibly coincidental that I read this directly after reading Schindler’s List (seriously, it was not on purpose) and really liked seeing the parallels there.

I didn’t know much about this book or the series it’s part of when I started reading. I also hadn’t read the previous 2 books in the in-series arc, but the beginning of the story did a good job of telling me what I needed to know (which wasn’t much). The slight mystery/puzzle angle to the story, that the kids were trying to find some kind of liquid needed by the Imagination Station, allowed another layer to be added to the story. And though a couple of times throughout the story I thought about how unrealistic certain things would have been, especially the inclusion of children in consulate matters, it’s not too hard to remind myself that Imagination Station adventures are meant to put kids right into the middle of things, and these are programmed virtual adventures, not a real trip back in time. (I have enough experience with Adventures in Odyssey overall to be familiar with the Imagination Station.)

I do recommend this book for kids up to 12 years old, but AiO overall is fairly timeless, so the age limit is a soft one. I already have recommended it to my 11-year-old daughter, who has decided to start at the beginning of the series. As for me, I was left with a strong desire to read the earlier 2 books in this 3-story arc and then eventually will probably go back to the beginning of the series too.

Thank you to Netgalley and Tyndale House Publishers/Focus on the Family for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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Publication date: June 8, 2021

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Book Review: The Legend of Annie Murphy

The Legend of Annie Murphy
The Cooper Kids Adventure Series book #7
by Frank Peretti
read by the author

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Children’s Christian adventure, mystery (with some sci-fi)

When investigating tales of a ghost sighting, the Cooper family–dad Jacob and teens Jay and Lila–find themselves caught up in a mystery 100 years in the making. A woman who’d been accused of killing her husband out of greed 100 years in the past was killed while escaping her punishment, and now her ghost is being seen around the ruins of the long-abandoned town.

I spent the first third or so of this book completely flabbergasted. The beginning of the story was such a departure from the previous books in the series, I was certain it was going to turn out that something else was going on. But when it became clear that Jacob’s friend Mac’s theory about a gravity vortex causing time and space to go wonky was actually what was going on, I struggled to accept it and move on. Eventually, I reminded myself that it’s not necessarily against the theme of this series of books. Sometimes there’s not much suspension of disbelief to swallow, while other times, God-attributed supernatural events occur.

With that understanding in mind, I can view this book a little differently than I did while listening to a lot of it. The story, then, with the vehicle of time travel in place, becomes about solving the mystery of the legend, finding out what really happened 100 years ago. And that itself is a good story. The kids follow along as the story is told in the past, while their dad and his friend try to sort it out in the present time, and it’s interesting how it all plays out. I won’t say there isn’t some predictability to it, at least to an adult reader, but I think the age group its meant for won’t have read as many mysteries or seen as many TV shows or movies as adults have, making it more fresh for them. I again enjoyed listening to the audiobook and would say that, though it may seem outlandish at first, it’s a good story overall and worth reading if you’re interested.

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Book Review: Crocodile Meatloaf

Crocodile Meatloaf
Alex series books #12
by Nancy Simpson Levene

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Children, Christian

Alex meets the new girl in class, Rachel, who is deaf, and feels protective of her when the obnoxious boys torment her. Alex learns that God has a plan for her life and wonders if that plan could start now, even though she’s a kid, and if it might just be related to Rachel.

Though Alex is a little older now than in the books I remember from my childhood, she’s still learning about all that God has to offer, even to a kid. What I miss, though, from her younger days are the situations she’d get herself into as she tried to correct some kind of mistake she made. This book is more about external problems than internal ones, which doesn’t make it bad. Just different. I still like the way Alex tries her best to help or to fix things (whether her own mistakes or someone else’s). I’m not sure how realistic the turn-around is near the end, but overall, it’s a good book with solid lessons. If you have an opportunity to pick up any of the Alex series books, I recommend them. They’re short, quick reads that children will be able to connect to.

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Book Review: Sarah, Plain and Tall

Sarah, Plain and Tall
by Patricia MacLachlan

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

Anna and Caleb have had no mother for 6 years, as theirs died the day after Caleb was born. When their father decides to place an advertisement for a wife and mother, Sarah Wheaton answers it, coming from her home in Maine to visit the Whittings in Kansas to see if they’re a good fit.

I remember watching the movies with Christopher Walken and Glen Close when I was younger and liking them. I was surprised to see how short the book is, and I wondered how much depth it could really have. When my daughter read it recently and pushed me to read it too, so we could then watch the movie together, I was really glad I did. For being so short, it’s very charming and sweet. Because it’s so short, there is little in the way of character development, but I still felt like I got a good enough feel for them.

As the kids grew more and more attached to Sarah, Anna worried that she wouldn’t stay, and Caleb kept looking for clues that she would. I loved how he’d say things like, “Sarah said ‘later.’ That means she’ll stay.” The worry about her missing the sea too much to stay, and the culmination of that along with Caleb hoping she’d bring the sea with her from Maine, made for a great ending to the book. I loved it and look forward to reading the next book.

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Book Review: The Deadly Curse of Toco-Rey

The Deadly Curse of Toco-Rey
The Cooper Kids Adventure Series book #6
by Frank Peretti
read by the author

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

Dr. Cooper is asked to solve the mystery of some treasure hunters who disappeared in the jungles of Central America, and if he happens to find the treasure himself, all the better for those who brought him in. The stories of a curse on the treasure may seem ridiculous at first, but there’s no denying the fact that the treasure hunters who disappeared all have either died or gone crazy. Soon enough, Dr. Cooper and his two kids are in danger themselves and have precious little time to solve the mystery and save lives.

This book had a lot of excitement and even some moments that could be a little scary for kids (not in a bad way). All 3 of the members of the Cooper family are on their own at some point, and all 3 are in peril at some point, upping stakes from previous books. I like the pure reliance on God, turning so quickly to him for help in desperate situations. The curse and other aspects that went along with it were, in the end, an interesting concoction and pretty scary menace.

Though I didn’t quite enjoy this story as much as I did others in the series that I gave 4 stars, I still think it was a solid addition. I listened again to the audiobook, and I’ve decided that I love hearing Peretti read his own books. There are 2 books left in this series, and I’m looking forward to listening to both of them.

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Book Review: Mr. Lemoncello and the Titanium Ticket

Mr. Lemoncello and the Titanium Ticket
Mr. Lemoncello’s Library book #5
by Chris Grabenstein

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

Mr. Lemoncello’s game-making factory is in Hudson Hills, NY, and recently a new, top-secret building was added to the grounds. Now it’s time for another game, for the first time taking place outside of Ohio, with competitors from Hudson Hills. The playing field is inside that new building, and the prize is a titanium ticket, one of multiple that will eventually be awarded. But the real prize, what the ticket gives its holder a chance at, is the biggest one yet!

Each book after the first in this series got a little less exciting for me. A little less interesting, a little less fresh. In this fifth book, all of the excitement from the first one came rushing back. It’s different and fun again. Not that some of the formula the series has developed isn’t there, but it feels new again. It helps a lot that we step away from the Ohio kids and meet some brand new ones. Kyle makes an appearance, but he’s just a side character. And the new MC, Simon, is different in a lot of ways.

There are several things that happen in the story that caused me to mentally cheer. I so wish I could expand on that at all, but I’ll just say that there were some great moments. I love the friendship that’s formed in the story and the way that whole thing turns out. And I really love how Simon’s personal story came to fruition.

The titanium ticket angle was a little predictable, and it’s a little frustrating to have another Charles Chiltington-type character, though this new one (Jack) is different in many ways too. I suppose some of that might just be the genre and intended age group. But those very minor issues aren’t even worth a partial-point detraction for me, and I am happy to highly recommend this book to kids around 8-12 years old, as well as others who are interested in this type of book. While I did feel the last few books in the series weren’t quite as good, I would suggest reading it all up to this point. And based on the ending, it’s clear that this series isn’t over yet.

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Book Review: Wingfeather Tales

Wingfeather Tales
by multiple authors (see details below)

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Children’s fantasy short stories

For me, last year will forever be known as the year of the Wingfeathers. I read the entire Wingfeather Saga for the 1st time…and the 2nd time, in a way, as the author, Andrew Peterson, read his books live, a few chapters a day, throughout the year. This book is a collection of 7 stories set in that same world, written by 6 different authors. First, let me get some basic info out of the way: Yes, you really should read this only if you’ve read the Wingfeather Saga in its entirety, which I fully recommend that you do either way. No, none of these stories is a continuation of that series in any way. Well, one sort of is, to a very small degree, but more on that in the details below. Let’s just say that it will not answer the burningest questions you’ve most likely been left with after finishing the series. Andrew Peterson has stated on more than one occasion that he would prefer to leave any answers up to the imagination of his readers, which is fair.

My overall book rating is a reflection of the average of individual ratings for each story. I did not love the stories overall as I might have hoped. However, I did go into this uncertain about how I’d enjoy them. I’m not really huge on short stories in general, but I couldn’t help but give this book a go, considering how much I loved the original series. What follows is a list of each story with its author and illustrator, my rating, and a brief (as much as possible) review for each.

“The Prince of Yorsha Doon” by Andrew Peterson (5 / 5) – This was my favorite short story in the collection, with a ragged, loner street urchin getting the chance to be something more, to do something more. It’s charming and contains a wonderful appearance by one of the bigger characters in the original series. (illustrated by Cory Godbey, Nicholas Kole, & Hein Zaayman)

“The Wooing of Sophelia Stupe” by Jennifer Trafton (3 / 5) – The story of the author of the Creaturepedia books on its own was decent, if open-ended. However, I was slowed down and tripped up by the character’s vocabulary. He had a penchant for using very large, at times ridiculous words, both real and made-up (though a lot more made-up than real, I’m pretty sure). I’m sure it’s meant to be whimsical, and that plenty of people will find the fun in it, but it’s not really my preference. (illustrated by John Hendrix)

“Willow Worlds” by N.D. Wilson (4 / 5) – I really liked seeing young Podo, and perhaps the genesis of what made him who he is in the Wingfeather books. The plot to this story, especially coupled with the story before it, paints such a vastly different fabric for this fantasy world than what was in the original books, leaving me a little surprised and confused. The story is particularly short and abrupt, but I liked the general idea of it and wish there was more on this subject. (illustrated by Joe Sutphin)

“ShadowBlade and the Florid Sword” by Andrew Peterson & Jay Myers (4 / 5) – As alluded to in the first paragraph of my review, this is the one tale in the book that is a continuation of the original series. The title tells it all, and it’s actually in comic-book format. I did like having the chance to see the two together, and wish it had been longer. Though several of the stories in this collection end abruptly and with more that could be told, I think this is the one I most want to see more of.

“From the Deeps of the Dragon King” by A.S. Peterson (2 / 5) – This story was tragic and disturbing, and while it was clearly meant to be so, my rating is not due to the theme or mood. Considering how Podo’s story and character arc went in the original series, especially at the end of North! or Be Eaten, I really think I would have preferred not seeing him at this time of his life. It almost felt like undoing everything related to this that happened in the series. Plenty of others, I’m sure, will be happy to read about Podo’s past, but it just made me sad. (illustrated by Doug TenNapel)

“The Ballad of Lanric and Rube” by Jonathan Rogers (4 / 5) – This story was short and silly, maybe a little predictable to me, but overall just fun. (illustrated by Justin Gerard)

“The Places Beyond the Maps” by Douglas Kaine McKelvey (2 / 5) – This is the kind of story that I wish I could rate higher and feel like a rube rating so low, because I’m sure it’s meant to be beautiful and poignant, but it’s just not for me. It’s the story of a man whose daughter was taken away by the Black Carriage, and all that he goes through as he tries first to get her back, then to get justice, and finally just to find some meaning and purpose after the tragedy. It is long (literally as long as all of the other stories put together, since it started at 50% in the e-book) and moves slowly most of the time. There is a lot of introspection, depression, even self-hatred–all things you might expect in the situation, but I felt like it plodded along most of the time. It didn’t help that the author has a tendency toward long, run-on sentences. Entire paragraphs, long in their own right, can be made up of just one or two sentences. It’s a style choice, I’m sure, but not one I care for.

This story is also one that actually caused squeamish me to wince as injuries and the attempt at mending such were described in fairly vivid detail at least once. The man contemplates killing himself or at least giving up on life multiple times. It’s dark, much darker than even the most serious parts of the original series. There were a few bright points for me, like the inclusion of a wonderful character from the original series and the epilogue that added a little hope after the disturbing (and just plain weird) ending. (illustrated by Aedan Peterson)

Final thoughts: I didn’t mention illustrations in the individual reviews, but I enjoyed every one of them. Andrew Peterson has a way of collecting talented people around him (not to mention his own talented children), and I can imagine the honor of having other authors and artists take part in a project like this for his books. I think, though, that some of this collection lost the charm and feel of the original series, and I especially don’t think I’d say this is as great for the age group that the first series was so well suited for. What’s most telling to me is that my daughter (10 years old), who has read/listened to the Wingfeather Saga in some format probably half a dozen times, only read about a story and a half from this collection and walked away. She’ll go back to it eventually, but clearly it didn’t draw her in like the original books. I do think that fans of the original series should read this collection, or at least some of it. I know I’ll re-read some of these stories again in the future, but I was not quite the right audience for some of them.

Thank you to Netgalley and WaterBrook & Multnomah for providing me a copy of this book to review.
**Note: This book has been out since 2016, but a new hardcover edition is being released tomorrow, with a beautiful new cover and new illustrations, and the inclusion of one new tale (the comic one).

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Book Review: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
The Chronicles of Narnia #1 (original order)

by C.S. Lewis

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Children’s classic fantasy

This is my first foray into The Chronicles of Narnia. I’ve seen the movies (or at least some of them), but only once when they first came out, and don’t remember much past the first one. So overall, this will all be very new for me. This is yet another book I wish I’d read when I was younger; I have a feeling I would have liked it more as a kid. Overall, I did enjoy it, but it was a lot shorter and shallower than I would have expected it to be. Be aware, there will likely be spoilers ahead.

I can appreciate the parallel to Christ in Aslan, though I went into the story expecting the entire thing to be an allegory, just from things I’ve heard. So some things really confused me, like Father Christmas showing up and giving everyone gifts. Or the kids needing to fight against the witch and her army, weakening her before Aslan could then defeat her. However, I’m understanding more that the entire book (and series) was not necessarily meant to be an allegory, even while one can certainly draw a Christ-like parallel in Aslan’s actions in this book. That does change my perspective on it after the fact.

Now to Edmund…oh, Edmund…he’s a bit of a brat, even before he betrays his siblings, but I kinda get it. He’s a middle child and struggling to find a place under his big brother. I’m in the same position in my family of 4 kids and definitely remembering struggling sometimes to feel special (though I have all sisters, we did not always get along at all). Of course it seems as though he went too far, though we’re supposed to understand he was under some sort of enchantment. His mental reasoning, though, as he prepared to betray his siblings, sounded less like enthrallment and more like sibling rivalry to me. In the end, though, I did like how the entire thing turned out.

As soon as I finished this book, I recommended it to my 10-year-old daughter. I can see similarities in it to books that she has already read and enjoyed, so I think she’ll love it. I’m looking forward to hearing her thoughts; it’s always fun when we both read and enjoy the same books and then get to talk about them, and I see that being a possibility with this series.

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Book Review: Mr. Lemoncello’s All-Star Breakout Game

Mr. Lemoncello’s All-Star Breakout Game
Mr. Lemoncello’s Library book #4
by Chris Grabenstein

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

If Kyle Keeley and his team thought the previous Lemoncello game was big, they haven’t seen anything yet. The next competition Kyle’s hero has dreamed up will be broadcast live on national television! And the winners will get to choose one from their team to be the host of a new kids’ game show, while the rest of the team are the first contestants. It’s game on as Kyle is up against his nemesis Charles Chiltington and some other competitors that will be tough to beat.

These books are beginning to become a bit formulaic, which is probably not good for this type of book. Kyle almost can’t compete for some reason, and then he can. Kyle/his team stops normal game play to solve some side mystery/issue. Spoiler: Kyle/his team wins almost by default because all or most of the other kids/teams were disqualified or gave up or joined Kyle’s team. Considering how much I loved the first book, I want to continue enjoying this series. But it’s starting to become repetitive and just silly. I did like the game, putting the kids into their own fictional stories in a way like holodecks work in Star Trek shows. Who of us hasn’t wanted to be able to do that? I still miss the more escape room, puzzle-y nature of the first book, though. There was a tiny bit of that again here, with 5 locks to open per team, but the puzzles, riddles, etc. that gave the codes were a lot lighter this time around.

I really appreciated that the game forced the kids (or at least Kyle) to see the “bad guy” in a new light. I only wish a little more had come from that. The thing that bugged me the most as I read this book was the dialog. I don’t know if this is new to this book, or if I simply didn’t notice it before, but all of the kids seem to talk the same way, in a particular format that I began to find grating. I won’t take the time to explain what I mean, because it seems really petty, but it happened enough that it started to bring the rest of the story down for me. And seriously…the TV-star kids were just over-the-top silly and ridiculous in their shticks.

I wonder if maybe they wouldn’t feel so formulaic if I wasn’t reading through them so quickly. It’s hard to know. I also want to stress that this book is meant for kids around 8-12 years old, and the things that bother me may well not be noticeable to them. My 10-year-old daughter loved this book as much as the previous ones, and I think that’s important to remember.

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Book Review: The Secret of The Desert Stone

The Secret of The Desert Stone
The Cooper Kids Adventure Series book #5
by Frank Peretti
read by the author

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

Dr. Cooper is summoned to a country in Africa to investigate a giant stone that appeared overnight, separating the country’s new dictator and his army from other parts of the population. The stone is miles high and wide, so the big question is, who put it there? When Dr. Cooper and his teenage kids, Jay and Lila, end up stranded on the other side of the stone, will the locals be welcoming or try to harm them? Will they discover the secret of the stone before the dictator loses his patience with them?

This installment of the series didn’t have quite the excitement of previous books, but it still had its moments. I think the best thing about the story is that it sort of brings Romans 1:20 to life. (“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”) I may have already said too much, in regards to avoiding spoilers, but I really appreciated the simple faith and thirst for more understanding about God exhibited by “primitive” people in the story.

I think one of the things that bothers readers most about these books is the unrealistic nature of things that happen. I like that Peretti isn’t afraid to explore what could happen, even while we know things like this don’t really happen much in modern times. Still, he paints an interesting and entertaining picture.

One final note–I listened to the audiobook specifically so that I could hear it read by the author. I love how he did roles like Mr. Henry and even his small role in the movie Hangman’s Curse, and I figured the book would be that much better in his own voice. It did not disappoint! I will most likely listen to the rest of the series this way too.

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